Steinberg’s CEQA Modernization Bill Gains Bipartisan Support from Senate Committee

May 01, 2013

Senate Environmental Quality Committee Approves SB 731

(Sacramento) – With bipartisan approval, the Senate Environmental Quality Committee has passed Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg’s measure for modernization of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), SB 731. The vote followed testimony by a long list of supporters representing California business, environmental and labor groups.

“I think this shows that CEQA reform is alive and well. We’re moving forward and we’re going to get this job done in a smart way, updating this 42-year-old statute to bring real incentives to streamline the very clean and green projects we want to see done,” said Steinberg (D-Sacramento). “We can promote infill development, and set standards for elements like traffic, noise and aesthetics to limit them from CEQA litigation and bring more certainty to the process.”

Those testifying in support of SB 731 included the California Chamber of Commerce, the Infill Builders Association, the California Building Industry Association, the League of California Cities, Business Roundtable, the California League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the State Building and Construction Trades Council, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the International Union of Operating Engineers.

“It’s noteworthy that organizations usually at great odds with each other on these issues are all coming forward to say that while there’s more work to be done, they want to engage in the process and are willing to work with the elements of this measure,” said Steinberg. “Through months of discussion and give-and-take, we have set the table for the parameters of negotiation and debate, and I think we’ve set it effectively.“

SB 731 achieves the following:

  1. Statewide standardized environmental thresholds for the environmental impacts of traffic and noise for infill projects.  Projects meeting these thresholds would not be subject to lawsuits for those impacts under CEQA and would not be required to do more for those thresholds in environmental documents unless required by a local government.  Also excludes project aesthetics from CEQA consideration.

    These aspects of a project impacts are currently common elements for CEQA litigation and typically are most complicated for lead agencies and project proponents to analyze and mitigate.

  2. Better state-level planning to reduce CEQA legal challenges and incentivize smart planning by amending the Government Code Specific Plan section to exclude unsubstantiated opinion for “new information” that would trigger additional revisions to the Environmental Impact Review. Also appropriates $30 million for SB 375 (of 2010) planning grants based on competitive process.

    This expands the current CEQA exemption for specific planning so that projects undertaken pursuant to that local plan and EIR are not subject to further review or CEQA lawsuits.  Further, local governments typically prioritize investment in smart growth plans.

  3. CEQA streamlining for clean energy projects and formalizes a Renewable Energy Ombudsman position to expedite renewable siting.

    This would cut red tape on large renewable energy projects and establish a position in the Office of the Governor to champion renewable energy projects within the State Government.

  4. CEQA lawsuit reforms to speed up disposition of legal challenges. Specifically:
  • Allows the lead agency to comply with notices and findings on EIR’s through the Internet;

  • Allows the 30-day statute of limitations to bring actions under CEQA to be tolled by mutual agreement of parties in order to facilitate settlements;

  • Authorizes project proponents to request and pay for concurrent internet-based preparation of the administrative record for all projects to reduce litigation delays, saving months if not a year off project delays;

  • Allows courts to issue partial remands of environmental documents to reduce re-notice/recirculation/litigation delays where lead agencies have been found to be in violation of the law;

  • Directs the Attorney General to track lawsuits and report to the Legislature in order to provide lawmakers and the public with accurate information on whether or not CEQA is being abused by vexatious litigants.

SB 731 will now be sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee for fiscal review.