Senate Unanimously Approves Steinberg’s CEQA Modernization Act

May 30, 2013

(Sacramento) – A measure to help create jobs and reduce delays for smart infill development projects through streamlining elements of the California Environmental Quality Act has gained bipartisan support in passing the full Senate. The vote on Senate President pro Tempore Darrel Steinberg’s SB 731, the CEQA Modernization Act of 2013, was 39 – 0.

SB 731 updates this important state law by bringing more efficiency to project reviews. At the same time, it preserves CEQA’s underlying purposes to provide public information and protect California’s environment.

“CEQA modernization can mean different things to people on different sides of the issue, and the challenge is to eliminate needless and costly project delays while protecting California’s environmental quality for all of us. This bill is a ‘middle of the road’ approach to that challenge,” said Steinberg (D-Sacramento). “Business, labor and environmental groups have all had a seat at the table. This bill will promote infill projects, limit CEQA lawsuits and set standards for issues like traffic and noise to bring more certainty to the process.”

The measure allows projects to move forward without additional and duplicative evaluation if they are consistent with local specific plans that have already undergone environmental review. It reduces delays by streamlining litigation while preserving project opponents’’ access to the courts.

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 move to the State Assembly for consideration.