Steinberg seeks CEQA changes to boost Sacto arena

Steinberg seeks CEQA changes to boost Sacto arena

SACRAMENTO — The task of reforming the California Environmental Quality Act is being mingled with local Sacramento politics. At a hearing in the Assembly Local Government committee last week, State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, passionately defended SB 731, his  CEQA Modernization Act of 2013.

Reform certainly is needed. When mayor of Oakland a decade ago, Gov. Jerry Brown called CEQA reform “the Lord’s work.”

Illustration of proposed downtown Sacramento sports arena

But SB 731 is not just a CEQA reform bill. It’s intertwined with Steinberg’s involvement in developing a new sports arena in downtown Sacramento, including meetings with National Basketball Association brass. It addresses the impacts in urban infill areas and transit priority areas immediately surrounding the areas. The bill was heard in the Assembly Local Government Committee last week.

SB 731 would “accelerate the pace at which a Downtown Sacramento sports and entertainment complex would proceed through the environmental planning process,” Steinberg said in a statement in March.

Also in March, I first predicted Steinberg would author some kind of CEQA exemption for the new arena.

CEQA is often called “the tort lawyer full employment act.” So SB 731 could be called the “Sacramento Kings full employment act.”

CEQA reform

Steinberg claimed he was pursuing CEQA reform before the Sacramento city council approved the arena deal in March. But city officials have spent 13 years trying to build a publicly funded sports arena. And Steinberg, a former Sacramento city councilman before becoming the state senator for the city, has been involved every step of the way.

Originating in February, SB 731 was amended just after Steinberg traveled to New York City in April to meet with the NBA Board of Governors about the arena deal. He was accompanied by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star

The bill analysis explains:

“According to the author, SB 731 is a comprehensive reform measure to strengthen CEQA’s protection of the state’s environment and residents while modernizing the law to aid California’s economic growth. The author states, ‘today’s bill is the result of months of discussion and negotiation with key representatives from the business, environmental, and organized labor communities.’  These changes were key issues identified by a CEQA working group of experts brought together by Senator Steinberg this past fall.  Steinberg said, ‘Taken together they will help reduce litigation and delays from CEQA while protecting the legitimate uses of the statute.’”

The April amendment said:

“This bill would provide that aesthetic impacts of a residential, mixed-use residential, or employment center project, as defined, within a transit priority area, as defined, shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment.”

Sustaining sustainability projects

In order for Steinberg’s bill to have heft, and not appear not to be just about the Sacramento arena deal, SB 731 also advances implementing SB 375, the Sustainable Communities Act, passed in 2008 under his sponsorship. It was the companion bill to AB 32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. Combined, the bills aim to reduce Californians’ energy use and encourage them to live in high-tensity dwellings, not suburbs.

SB 375 included CEQA streamlining. And it was supposed to have inspired a flurry of smart planning among local city planners. However, the sustainable communities strategies required by SB 375 has been too expensive for local governments to implement.

SB 731, the new bill, is a twofer: it’s another environmental law, and it’s designed to pay for a previous environmental law, SB 375.

Administrative costs

SB 731 contains language to appropriate $30 million in funding for the CEQA Modernization Act of 2013, but comes up short on addressing the source of the funding.

In earlier versions of SB 731, Steinberg attempted to raid the Air Pollution Control funds, but the environmentalists objected. The original version of the bill, introduced in February, explained:

“This bill would state the intent of the Legislature to provide $30,000,000 annually to the council for the purposes of providing planning incentive grants to local and regional agencies to update and implement general plans, sustainable communities strategies, and smart growth plans.”

“This bill would  state the intent of the Legislature to provide  authorize, upon appropriation by the Legislature, the use of  $30,000,000 annually  to from the Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Fund by  the council for the purposes of providing planning incentive competitive  grants to local  and regional  agencies  to update and implement general plans, sustainable communities strategies, and smart growth plans, for planning activities for the implementation of the sustainable communities strategy.”

Grind it out

“You have a Pro Tem of the Senate willing to grind this out to make SB 375 work,” Steinberg said at the hearing last week. “When in doubt, do good policy.”

But a San Francisco Chronicle editorial rightly charged:

“The version of Steinberg’s SB731 that advanced out of the Assembly Local Government Committee last week falls measurably short of what should be the ultimate goal of any CEQA reform: to reduce the duplication of project reviews and to stop the exploitation of an environmental law to achieve objectives (such as unions using lawsuit threats to coerce labor agreements) that have nothing to do with the environment.”

The bill still is being worked on. But in its current reform, it looks like it includes little reform, but a lot of help for the arena.

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