A bill that would bring limited changes to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has been sent to Gov. Jerry Brown for signature or veto.
The bill, SB 743, was approved overwhelmingly on Sept. 12, one day before the end of the Legislature's session.
The bill cleared the Senate and Assembly by large bipartisan majorities. The Valley's two state senators, Majority Leader Ellen Corbett and Mark DeSaulnier, voted for the bill, as did Assemblymember Joan Buchanan.
Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, wrote the bill. There were several co-authors from the Sacramento area.
Originally SB 743 applied only to one project, a new arena for the Sacramento Kings of the NBA, to be located in downtown Sacramento. However, at Brown's urging, Steinberg blended in some of the points in another of his bills, SB 731. Those provisions will apply to certain infill projects throughout the state, as designated by local governments in qualified areas.
For example, the bill would mandate that parking and aesthetics standards not be considered as significant impacts on the environment in urban areas, which are places with at least 50,000 population. Those projects must be on an infill site and within a transit priority area, as defined in the bill.
Steinberg said that suits over aesthetics and parking "are most commonly used as CEQA litigation hooks to slow or terminate a new development project."
Another aim of the bill is to modernize the statewide measurements against which traffic impacts are assessed and resolved, said Steinberg.
Currently, new traffic lanes and additional parking are methods used by communities and developers to deal with traffic that will be generated by more development that generates more air pollution, said Steinberg.
Steinberg wants to see traffic planners use a new metric for congestion relief, by looking at the role of "mass transit stations, which won't be subject to CEQA litigation." Traffic planners may also develop metrics for development outside of the transit areas, says the bill, in an apparent suggestion, not a mandate.
Residential development in a transit priority area is already exempt from CEQA suits, provided that a full EIR has been completed, and the project does not deviate from the local specific plan. SB 743 expands this exemption to include mixed residential and commercial uses.
The changes that would result from the bill would occur only in areas that are designated by local governments for smart growth infill, not for all development in California. The bill calls these designated areas "infill opportunity zones."
A designated project would have to be located within one-half mile of a major transit stop, as defined in state code. It would have to be in a "high-quality transit corridor," which is one with service no more than (transit arriving) 15 minutes apart during commute hours.
An example of an eventual infill zone in the Valley could be Dublin, which prides itself on transit-oriented development. The city built high density housing near two BART stations. Wheels' Rapid buses, which run every 15 minutes along Dublin Boulevard, run on weekdays, and connect to Livermore.
However, Dublin has not yet reached 50,000 population, which would qualify it as an urban area. However, at 46,000 in the 2010 census, and continued rapid growth, that time may come soon.
JUDICIAL COUNCIL OBJECTS
The bill also sets out a 270-day period for the courts to hear CEQA suits on projects. This provision drew strong objection in a letter to Brown on Sept. 17 from the California Judicial Council.
The 270-day clock begins running even before a lawsuit is filed, at the time that begins a process known as certification of the record.
The 270-day schedule is impossible for the courts to fulfill, said the letter's author, Daniel Pone, senior attorney with the council. The courts are underfunded, and have other calendar-mandated cases to hear, such as juvenile and criminal cases, and civil cases in which a party is at risk of dying.
All such calendar-mandated cases would take longer to adjudicate, if the courts also have to make way for the SB 743 mandate. This "undermines equal access to justice," said Pone.
Among environmentalists, Sierra Club California opposes SB 743 as special legislation for the Kings arena.
Kathryn Phillips is director of Sierra Club California, which is the lobbying arm for the Sierra Club. Phillips said that there have been other bills aimed at change in CEQA regulations for sports stadiums, specifically for one in Los Angeles, and another elsewhere in Southern California.
"Proponents (of the Kings arena) said they'll have an environmentally friendly project, and mitigate all kinds of things. If that's the case, there is no reason to receive special treatment, because they are doing the right thing," said Phillips.
Sierra Club California also did not like the 11th hour timing of the bill's changes. The vote came on Sept 12. The amendments came out on the previous Friday, Sept. 6. "There was was no opportunity for adequate public review," said Phillips. The organization is lobbying Brown to veto the bill.
Jeremy Madsen, executive director of Greenbelt Alliance, also commented on the last-minute adoption.
"In general, last minute changes mean that you and I and 99 percent of Californians have no idea what's going into this legislation," said Madsen.
Greenbelt Alliance was tracking SB 731 before it was merged in part with SB 743. However, the organization never endorsed either bill.
Madsen did like the fact that the bill recognizes that traffic congestion is not an environmental violation of CEQA in itself, and that people can sue if there were an air pollution violation resulting from congestion resulting from a project.