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September 2, 2013
Editorial: Fix CEQA and end carve-outs for special projects

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(Sept. 2 -- By the Editorial Board)

If Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg wants to do an end run around the California Environmental Quality Act to expedite the proposed new arena in downtown Sacramento, why shouldn't those changes apply statewide to similar urban projects? As The Sacramento Bee's Tony Bizjak reported last week and Steinberg confirmed to The Bee's editorial board, a bill is being drafted that would change CEQA rules specifically to benefit development of the new arena.

Although precise language was not available, Steinberg says that at least one of the bill's key provisions will apply statewide. That part of the bill responds to a recent trial court ruling that struck down a provision of a 2011 CEQA reform law that allowed certain major construction projects to proceed straight to appellate court when faced with litigation.

In April, an Alameda Superior Court judge ruled that stripping trial courts of jurisdiction on CEQA cases was unconstitutional. Steinberg says his bill would create an expedited trial court proceeding lasting no longer than 90 days for certain eligible projects. Those projects would have to meet a certain minimum investment threshold, create new jobs and have net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. While Sacramento's downtown arena would be eligible for the expedited trial court review, so would other projects across the state.

However, there are two key provisions in the bill being drafted that are unique to the new Kings arena project. One would allow eminent domain proceedings to run concurrently with CEQA review. The other would make it more difficult for arena opponents - "whether Seattle interests," Steinberg pointedly mentioned, or any others - to sue to stop or delay the Kings project.

Steinberg says the tight deadline to keep the Kings in Sacramento makes his legislation necessary. The NBA wants the arena built in three years - 2017 at the latest. Meeting that deadline requires a 2014 start date. Any opponents seeking to block what Steinberg rightly calls a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" could easily delay the project, possibly leading to the loss of the Kings and a chance to revitalize downtown.

While Steinberg's motives are laudable, he once again is pushing a late-in-session law change that gives the public little or no chance to vet the proposal.

No doubt, the proposed Sacramento arena could be crucial catalyst for a more vibrant region and central city. But cities up and down California also have important developments on the drawing boards. Like the proposed arena, many are infill projects that create jobs, reduce sprawl and have few negative environmental impacts. Too often CEQA is exploited to stop good projects. Opponents who care nothing about the environment use the threat of CEQA lawsuits to leverage better labor deals or thwart a competitor.

If Steinberg's end run around CEQA is good for Sacramento - and it may well be - it should be good for the entire state. But then the question remains: Why do an end run around CEQA at all? Why not update the law and make those tweaks as part of Senate Bill 371, Steinberg's CEQA reform measure that is likely to get amended this week? Why not make a more permanent fix to CEQA - so we don't have to keep debating this laudable but easily abused law, year after year?

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