CEQA Reform Bill Falls Short of Expectations

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Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) introduced Senate Bill 731 (SB 731) on Friday, February 22, outlining relatively modest changes to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) on the last day to introduce new bills. Although sweeping CEQA reform had been expected during the current legislative session, the champion of that significant reform, Senator Michael Rubio (D-Shafter), abruptly resigned from the State Senate on Friday, just hours before Senator Steinberg's bill was introduced. Without Senator Rubio leading the charge, it is perhaps not surprising that SB 731 proposes only a limited range of changes to CEQA. Although the bill contains no detail yet, it outlines the following intended amendments:

  • Adopt regulations to provide greater certainty for "smart infill development" and, specifically, infill development in the Central Valley.
  • Streamline environmental review for renewable energy projects, transit projects, and renewable energy transmission projects.
  • Establish statewide thresholds of significance for certain impacts, including noise, aesthetics, parking, and traffic levels of service.
  • Increase certainty regarding the exemption for projects that comply with a specific plan, and consider whether to define other types of plans and whether similar treatment could be applied to other such plans that are consistent with sustainable-communities strategies.
  • Clarify procedures under which trial courts remand CEQA documents to local agencies to correct any defects identified and to better ensure that certain approved project actions can remain in place.
  • Establish clear rules regarding eleventh-hour "document dumps" on a lead agency just before certification of an environmental impact report (EIR).
  • Provide $30 million in annual funding to the Strategic Growth Council for grants to local and regional agencies to incentivize planning efforts, including general plans, sustainable-communities strategies, and smart growth plans.

The bill also makes clear that its intent is not to replace CEQA review with existing state and local environmental protection standards. This statement of non-intent is most striking in that it specifically rejects the approach that Senator Rubio had suggested. At the end of the last legislative session, Senator Rubio proposed a bill that would have apparently made CEQA review inapplicable to any environmental impact area already addressed by an existing state or local environmental regulation; the proposed bill included an exhaustive list of dozens of laws that protect multiple facets of the environment. The bill also would have allowed projects to avoid CEQA review altogether if those projects were consistent with existing local land-use plans that had already undergone CEQA review. That effort was quickly tabled when Senator Steinberg committed to convene a special working group with Senator Rubio to develop a bill for this session. Several months and multiple working group meetings later, Senator Rubio has left the Senate, and the resulting CEQA bill falls short of the "sweeping" reform anticipated. At this point, the most significant practical changes that could be worked by SB 731 involve the proposed procedural and litigation modifications pertaining to agency hearing "document dumps" and judicial remand, respectively. While these changes would not broadly affect CEQA practice, they do address certain troublesome issues that have plagued public agencies and CEQA litigants for many years. SB 731 will undoubtedly take many turns as the detailed language is developed over the course of this legislative session. Stoel Rives Environment, Land Use, and Natural Resources attorneys will be closely watching and reporting on developments as they occur. Stay informed via our Blog at www.californiaenvironmentallawblog.com.

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