As the legislative session ended late Thursday night in Sacramento, the assembled pols found themselves at yet another crossroads regarding CEQA. They were getting ready to prove another project’s sidestepping of existing CEQA law, all in the name of making the state more competitive, or jobs, or keeping a team from moving to another state. While Democrats were generally in lockstep about the prospects of the project, Republicans complained about how granting exceptions like this one doesn’t fix the core problem.
Just about everyone including Governor Brown agrees that CEQA makes the procedural environment too difficult to get things built. It’s all too easy to create year-plus delays because of often frivolous CEQA challenges. Don’t get me wrong, many CEQA challenges have real merit. If a contaminated site needs to be cleaned and an applicant isn’t thorough about mitigation steps, CEQA provides the method to keep such abuse in check. But uses of CEQA can themselves be abusive, such when homeowners object to a project simply because it will affect their property values.
CEQA was designed to protect the environment. While it needs to be overhauled to prevent abuse, whatever programmatic changes need to be made must keep the spirit of the law intact. Judging from the debate on the Assembly floor on Thursday, it’s not clear exactly how that will happen.
State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) did a victory lap Thursday afternoon as SB 743, the bill designed to help streamline CEQA for the Kings’ downtown Sacramento arena, was easily approved in both houses. Previous bills provided similar exemptions for other big projects. Farmers Field received an exemption because it was thought that streamlining CEQA would help bring a NFL franchise to LA. It didn’t. SF Assemblyman drafted similar legislation for the Warriors’ arena (AB 1273). And if Howard Terminal got off the ground for any kind of major project including a ballpark, it’s likely that another bill would be written to benefit that project. Given the amount of cleanup that would be required, bypass legislation is practically a given.
During the debate over AB 852, a last minute gut-and-redraft meant to impose union-backed CEQA protections over certain projects, Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) asked the bill’s author, Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento), if the bill and AB 743 could help a project Fong champions in his backyard, Apple’s spaceship campus headquarters. Dickinson indicated that this was the case.
The problem with providing exceptions for big, high profile projects like stadia and convention centers (or corporate headquarters) is that they chiefly benefit the big money team owners and associated businesses who run such facilities. If we’re going to be serious about real, substantial CEQA reform, we need real legislation to get to the core problems regarding abuse and delay. That way every kind of applicant can benefit, not just incredibly wealthy business interests. Steinberg made some headway by reshaping how some areas of concern are measured, but only after he shelved SB 731, the bill he wrote as a broader approach towards real CEQA reform. Chief among the issues addressed in SB 743 are parking and traffic, both of which will now have a potentially more flexible way to define mitigations. Aesthetics are also deemphasized for certain projects. All in all, these are small but necessary steps that should modernize CEQA. Steinberg did what he needed to do to help the Kings arena, just as he promised to David Stern and the NBA’s Board of Governors. As for properly reforming CEQA? That’s for the next legislative session, I suppose.