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Don't Hold Your Breath
California Environmental Quality Act is up for reform.
Los Angeles through a haze of smog.
Ben Amstutz / Flickr

Since California approved the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in 1970, its development and business communities have complained that the law has been more effective as an obstacle to economic development than as an instrument of environmental protection. Now, a new bill, SB 731, is before the legislature, proposing significant changes to the law.

Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, is among a chorus of business advocates who claim that CEQA has had the unintended consequence of obstructing urban infill projects while making peripheral development, with fewer neighbors to oppose projects, the only viable option for developers. “This law is more important to urban areas like Los Angeles than any other parts of the state,” he noted.

In response to growing evidence of CEQA abuse and a sluggish building industry, California State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg took the helm of the CEQA reform process by proposing Senate Bill 731 in February. The details of the bill have been slow to materialize, although the Senate Environmental Quality Committee approved an early version on May 1. The State Senate has since voted 39-0 to approve SB 731, but the bill still needs many of its details hammered out and requires approval from the State Assembly and Governor Jerry Brown to become law.

Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, a statewide environmental lobbying organization, is cautious to predict how the bill might eventually take form. But he did describe its language requiring lead agencies to prepare administrative records together with administrative proceedings as a win-win because it would “cut delays and give the public more information.” Reznik is also encouraged by the bill’s language that would increase the monitoring of mitigation measures (such as grading or runoff) and the allotment of $30 million annually to the Strategic Growth Council in support of smart growth planning efforts.

Far more common, however, are issues like local versus state control. For example, in its current form SB 731 would allow adjustments to thresholds of significance for noise, transportation, and parking for residential, mixed use, and commercial uses within a half-mile of transit stops. Toebben called CEQA’s current methods for measuring these thresholds too subjective, and a source of unnecessary litigation. Reznik agreed, but insisted on the need for discretion at the local level. Similar concerns about local control have killed bills like last year’s AB 904, which would have reduced parking requirements near transit stops. Even SB 375, California’s famous smart growth legislation designed to curb sprawl, took several passes through the legislature to appease local governments concerned about ceding power to the state.

The state’s unions are also split on the issue of CEQA reform. On the one hand, easing the development approval process means increased construction. On the other hand, unions have in the past used the threat of CEQA legislation to leverage project labor agreements.

The only thing that’s clear is that SB 710 still has a long way to go to gain approval.

James Brasuell