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CEQA reform movement falters 

Gov. Jerry Brown set out this year to overhaul the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to prevent what he called systemic abuses of the 43-year-old law. That cause now appears virtually lost with no major CEQA reform proposals on the table and only two weeks remaining in the legislative session.

CEQA establishes a planning review process for development projects in California. Some current bills propose to make changes to the act that business groups calling for reform find unsatisfactory. The most noteworthy, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s (D-Sacramento) Senate Bill 731, would streamline the review process for some kinds of infill projects.

The CEQA Working Group—a single-issue alliance of local governments and business groups—opposes SB 731 as amended. The lobby recently criticized Steinberg’s bill as milquetoast reform and claimed provisions of it would increase the threat of litigation.

Gov. Brown’s staff recently proposed several amendments to beef up SB 731. Brown aimed to bring the bill more in line with what he and the CEQA Working Group want, but the efforts have gone nowhere after a strong pushback by environmental and labor groups.

The CEQA reform movement went looking for a late-session host after it failed to advance its own bills earlier in the year. Sen. Michael Rubio (D-Bakersfield) introduced a CEQA overhaul measure in January, but it died when Rubio took a lobbying job with Chevron the following month.

Steinberg made it clear during an Aug. 14 committee meeting the CEQA Working Group’s overhaul plans wouldn’t find new life in SB 731.

“If there is any expectation that my bill is going to include the lengthy and ever-changing list that the CEQA coalition seems to want,” Steinberg said, “you’re going to have to find another author, another year, another time, and another way to do this, because there isn’t the political desire to do that.”

Reform advocates claim CEQA lawsuits frequently stall popularly supported projects, an assertion contested by the Sierra Club and other groups involved in environmental litigation.

Andrew Christie, director of the local Sierra Club chapter, said the organization supports SB 731 as written.

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