Dan Walters: Big reform of CEQA bogs down

dwalters@sacbee.comAugust 23, 2013 

Substantially overhauling the 40-year-old California Environmental Quality Act may still happen, but with just two weeks remaining in the legislative session, it probably won't happen this year.

Gov. Jerry Brown wants it to happen. He once criticized CEQA, signed by Ronald Reagan a couple of years before Brown succeeded him as governor, as "a blob," and in calling for reform, said, "I've never seen a CEQA exemption I don't like." However, environmental groups that wield great power in the Legislature are very resistant to change, as are labor unions that have used the environmental law to thwart non-union development, such as big-box retail stores.

That's a potent coalition of interests that have generally supported Brown and his agenda but are arrayed against him on this issue.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is carrying the major CEQA reform bill, but it doesn't go nearly as far as Brown wants in streamlining project approvals and minimizing litigation. And if anything, the latest version of Steinberg's bill appears to be moving even further away from the governor's major points.

In the main, Steinberg's measure, Senate Bill 731, would streamline CEQA's procedures for certain kinds of "green" projects such as high-density housing, but would continue its processes for traditional projects. Steinberg has said he's looking for a "sweet spot." Brown is much closer to the business/local government coalition on the other side of the issue, and is demanding more fundamental changes in CEQA processes, such as giving local authorities more control and streamlining commercial projects.

This week, after Brown's aides submitted a draft of proposed changes to legislators, an environmental coalition fired off a letter strenuously opposing them, saying they would "do a tremendous amount of damage to the important environmental protections …"

But the business coalition is as equally disdainful of SB 731, saying in some respects it would be more onerous than the present law.

It's difficult to see how the wide gap on the CEQA issue can be bridged before the Legislature adjourns on Sept. 13. Brown himself has expressed doubt that it can be done this year.

Indeed, it's difficult to see how significant changes in CEQA can be achieved in any time frame, given the law's iconic status to its supporters as a powerful governmental and legal tool, and the scorn it engenders among private and public project developers, who say it's being misused for purposes that have nothing to do, truly, with environmental protection.

There's virtually no impetus for CEQA supporters to accept anything more than a superficial reform-to-say-they-did-it, and without their agreement, there's virtually no way to move big change through the Legislature.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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