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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, October 28, 2013, 6:00 am

Efforts to reform CEQA environmental law fizzle

Final bill only manages to carve out preferences for Kings stadium, infill

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    NORTH BAY, CALIFORNIA — Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed into law a much-scaled back version of a bill that was aimed at reforming the California Environmental Quality Act, eliciting disappointment from much of the business community across the North Bay.

    Cynthia Murray, Phillip Kalsched, Timothy Cremin, Leslie Perry

    Despite significant momentum from a number of interests across the state, comprehensive reform of CEQA — perhaps one of the most polarizing laws in the state — fizzled at the close of the last Legislative session, resulting in a much narrower bill that proponents of reform say fails  to address systematic abuse and slowed economic development.

    Instead, the bill signed by the governor, SB 743, sponsored by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, only dealt with an expedited environmental review process for the Sacramento Kings proposed basketball arena, including immunity from injunctive relief unless construction of the arena is found to be hazardous to public health or safety.

    That’s a one-off special provision that may bode well for similar urban, transit-oriented infill development in the near future, but it does little to allay the concerns of more rural or suburban development, such as in the North Bay, according to Timothy Cremin, a principal attorney with Meyers Nave, which has offices in Santa Rosa, Oakland, San Francisco, Fresno, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

    “From where you sit, I’m not sure the provisions of transit-oriented and infill development helps the area a great deal,” Mr. Cremin said.  ”The bill that got passed was much more limited than what was anticipated.”

    Proponents of reform were hoping for much more comprehensive changes, including measures to restrict how late in the development process an opposing group could file suit under CEQA, tightening the public comment period and avoiding a so-called “document dump” of legal files and case studies late in the process, prompting pricey litigation or consulting fees, attorneys said.

    “There were some changes, but it’s not CEQA reform,” said Leslie Perry, a partner at Santa Rosa-based Perry, Johnson, Anderson, Miller & Moskowitz. “I don’t think it’s going to have much impact on the nature of CEQA litigation.”

    A few projects in the North Bay could possibly fall within the purview of transit-oriented, infill projects, such as the proposed redevelopment of Railroad Square in Santa Rosa, which will eventually have a Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit station. Other developments with the forthcoming SMART rail might count as well.

    But, ultimately, the small changes in the law will have little effect in the North Bay and similar regions, particularly agricultural and wine-related businesses across the North Coast, according to Phillip Kalsched in the wine law practice of Santa Rosa-based Carle Mackie Power & Ross.

    The year “2013 started with sort of bang of hope there would be major changes in streamlining of the process,” Mr. Kalsched said.

    Agricultural businesses were hoping for “a lot of relief from what is a rather arduous process,” he said. What ended up getting Gov. Brown’s signature related more to transit priority areas and “infill” projects, which are surrounded on three sides by urban development.

    Cynthia Murray, president and CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council, an advocacy group for business and the economy that has made CEQA reform a centerpiece of its efforts, went so far as to say the recent changes actually made matters worse.

    “We were very disappointed when we saw what happened to the CEQA modernization bill,” Ms. Murray said. “It made it worse. One of the big things that we were trying to do was to make it have less redundancy with a lot of the laws that weren’t in place when CEQA started. It now requires more studies.”

    The one-off fix for the Sacramento Kings, Ms. Murray said, “was really another way that (the Assembly) used CEQA to fix one problem, without really addressing some of the concern that the rest of the state would like to see done.”

    Ms. Murray, Mr. Perry and Mr. Cremin all said the intent of CEQA is valued, but said it has become a tool of any opposition, not simply environmental opposition, to a wide range of projects.

    “It would not have undermined the implementation of CEQA as it intended,” Mr. Perry said of a more thorough version of SB 743, which started as SB 731 but was morphed into the more scaled back version. “In my view, I’m a big believer in CEQA. It’s the most effective and most important law in California, bar none. It’s really important and clearly we’re living in a better environment because of CEQA. However, it is also the most abused. It’s abused badly by opponents of some projects.”

    Opposing groups to thorough reform have traditionally included some, though not all, environmentalist groups and organized labor. Earlier this year, a coalition named CEQA Works was formed to oppose significant changes in the law.  Groups included were: California League of Conservation Voters, Planning and Conservation League, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club California, the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council, State Building and Construction Trades Council, United Food & Commercial Workers and the League of Women Voters of California.

    Such groups argue that the law is effective in maintaining public input regarding land-use planning, protect public health, and that significant changes could result in weakened environmental protections.

    While proponents of reform didn’t score a victory with the passage of SB 743, they will have another opportunity to expand on the bill during the next legislative session, although it will be difficult to re-capture the momentum, sources said.

    Still, Ms. Murray of the leadership council, while disappointed, said she was not discouraged.

    “I have to say, it’s so important to fix this. I have to be optimistic that we will have cooler heads prevail and get this done,” she said.

    Jeff Quackenbush contributed to this report.

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