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August 27, 2013
Editorial: Steinberg CEQA bill a small step forward


(Aug. 27: By the Editorial Board)

Three camps tend to dominate the debate over the California Environmental Quality Act. There's the "CEQA is totally broken" camp, the "CEQA needs to be stronger" camp and the "CEQA isn't broken but needs to be updated" camp.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, is clearly in the third group, which is why he's getting brickbats from the other two sides. Yet as this session concludes with a final flurry of sausage making, Steinberg's Senate Bill 731 is the only game in town for resolving, or at attempting to resolve, some of the fights over CEQA. And depending on how it is amended over the next week, this bill could become a worthy vehicle for advancing the state's goals of reinvigorating cities and encouraging development that supports transit and protects open space.

Steinberg says his intent is to brief some partial CEQA relief to the kind of smart growth projects he sought to encourage through a previous law, SB 375. His new bill would create incentives for infill by eliminating parking and aesthetics as aspects of a project that could be subject to litigation.

This would be a step forward. Although you can debate how frequently this occurs, there have lawsuits in which NIMBYs held up or blocked a project because they wanted it to have more parking, or have a different design. California's landmark environmental law shouldn't be a lever for forcing infill developers to make their projects more accommodating to cars. That just jacks up the cost of housing and creates more dead zones of surface parking in central cities. As for the appearance of individual projects, those issues should be handled through a local government's design review process, not litigation.

Critics of Steinberg's bill say it doesn't go far enough in curtailing the kind of CEQA abuse commonly known as "greenmailing." An example is the environmental litigation that some unions have threatened in obvious bids to obtain project labor agreements for, say, a new power plant.

It is true Steinberg's bill offers weak tea for critics of greenmailing, but it's a difficult legal issue to resolve. How do you write a law that uses motivation as a criterion for limiting or allowing litigation? And who would be the special master assigned to determining a group's motivation?

Another challenge for Steinberg is environmental groups who resist compromise on multiple fronts. For understandable reasons, they believe they are losing the fight to protect the state's environment as its population grows and as climate change wrecks havoc with natural habitats. If anything, they want CEQA to serve as a stronger hammer on projects they oppose.

Like the "CEQA is totally broken camp," the "CEQA needs to be stronger" camp must face reality. If environmentalists cling to the status quo, they will surely face more last-minute legislation that exempts individual projects from CEQA, further undermining the credibility of their beloved law. While all sides will want to keep an eye on last-minute amendments, SB 731 offers a framework to advance the state's land-use goals. And it probably won't be the last word on the California Environmental Quality Act.

The Bee's past stands

Ever the chameleon, Gov. Jerry Brown has been a CEQA suitor and snubber. As attorney general, he used the law to pressure local governments into changing their long-term development and transportation plans to reduce greenhouse gases. But before that, as Oakland mayor, he clashed with CEQA litigants who objected to his plans for accelerating the construction of infill housing in downtown Oakland.

- Aug. 5, 2012

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