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Kings’ local CEQA bill felt statewide

Sacramento, K Street

(Ed’s Note: The following story also appeared in California City News, a content partner of Capitol Weekly,  and can be viewed here. )

At the 11th hour in the 2013 legislative session, a bill was hastily written to expedite the construction of a sports arena in Sacramento by easing requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act.

The measure, SB 743, was offered as a district bill sought by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, for a local project to make the city attractive to the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. Gov. Brown later signed the measure.

But SB 743 actually has statewide implications and the exemptions could affect cities seeking to build projects – sports related or otherwise — in transit priority areas on so-called “infill development” sites.

“It definitely is not limited to Sacramento,” said attorney Kenneth Kecskes, an attorney and land-use expert with the Fox Rothschild law firm.

“Sometimes the path is a little tortured, not exactly what you planned, but you also take advantage of the moment,” Steinberg told reporters last month following a meeting with other legislative leaders in the governor’s office, according to the Sacramento Bee. “We (combined) a great opportunity for Sacramento with the imperative to modernize the environmental statute statewide.”

The broader implications of SB 743 beyond the proposed sports complex for Sacramento followed talks with the governor, said Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund. An earlier exemption bill also authored by Steinberg, SB 731, which was considered the major CEQA-linked bill of the year, failed to emerge from the Legislature but may be brought up again in 2014.

Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg

Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg

But important pieces of SB 731 were shifted to the related bill. “In negotiations with the governor, there was a determination … to take the meat off the plate of SB 731 and put it in SB 743,” Hedlund said. It was Steinberg’s view that about 75 percent of the key pieces of SB 731 were moved over to the newer bill, he added.

“Sometimes the path is a little tortured, not exactly what you planned, but you also take advantage of the moment,” Steinberg told reporters last month following a meeting with other legislative leaders in the governor’s office, according to the Sacramento Bee. “We (combined) a great opportunity for Sacramento with the imperative to modernize the environmental statute statewide.”

The governor’s Office of Planning and Research agreed about the statewide implications, noting that it “identified over 100 specific plans throughout California that might enable use of this exemption. Other potentially-eligible specific plans are under development.”

The changes in this bill specifically impact projects that are in a “transit priority area,” which means that they have some type of public transit available within one-half mile from the project location. They also affect the infill site projects, meaning a zone that is surrounded by urban areas on at least three sides.”

The OPR did not name the communities, although specific “environmental leadership” language in the bill likely applies to big projects in Riverside and Cupertino. Major transportation priority areas are located throughout the state, and many have projects pending – such as in the metropolitan Sacramento where several projects were listed, including one in West Sacramento and one in Rancho Cordova.

The regional councils of government and the metropolitan transportation organizations are involved in planning the SB 743 projects. A statewide list of these organizations can be viewed here. Projects also may be eligible for federal dollars under an earlier Steinberg bill, SB 375.

“During our local government hearing, two provisions were added (to SB 743) that came out of or were similar to provisions that were in in SB 731, which was Senator Steinberg’s CEQA modernization reform bill,” said Debbie Michel, chief consultant for the Assembly Local Government Committee.

The changes in this bill specifically impact projects that are in a “transit priority area,” which means that they have some type of public transit available within one-half mile from the project location. They also affect the infill site projects, meaning a zone that is surrounded by urban areas on at least three sides. CEQA requirements on those types of projects would be eased, although a project must still comply with other existing (or future) laws that apply to aesthetic or parking impacts.

There is also a back door for a CEQA challenge based upon “impacts on historic or cultural resources” that result in a significant impact.

According to the governor’s OPR staff, studies by the California Department of Transportation, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission have found that focusing development in areas served by transit can result in local, regional and statewide benefits, including greater public safety, ridership and increased household income.

Steinberg’s SB 743 “creates a new exemption from CEQA for certain projects that are consistent with a Specific Plan…. a local plan that contains specific policies and development regulations for a defined area such as a downtown core or along a transit corridor,” OPR said. The exemption applies if a project is a residential, employment center, or mixed use project; is located within a transit priority area; is consistent with a specific plan for which an environmental impact report was certified; and is consistent with an adopted sustainable communities strategy or alternative planning strategy.

This status of “environmental leadership development project” already has been granted and implemented for Apple’s new Cupertino campus, and for a billion-dollar solar facility in Riverside County. Including the “environmental leadership” language in Steinberg’s Kings’ bill helped the Cupertino and Riverside projects.

The most significant changes appear to be provisions that garage parking and traffic issues are no longer considered significant environmental concerns, according to one analysis. Both could be considered significant issues for Sacramento’s downtown arena.

On the job. (Photo: Eddie Harrison, U.S. Navy)

On the job. (Photo: Eddie Harrison, U.S. Navy)

The bill also addressed the “environmental leadership development project,” which qualifies any approved infill projects for the streamlined CEQA approval, which means that they are not required to file certain environmental analysis paperwork as long as they are in line with certain environmental guidelines and have already done the required environmental analysis.

It goes on to state that these cases and appeals must, “be resolved within 270 days of the certification of the record of proceedings.”

This status of “environmental leadership development project” already has been granted and implemented for Apple’s new Cupertino campus, and for a billion-dollar solar facility in Riverside County. Including the “environmental leadership” language in Steinberg’s Kings’ bill helped the Cupertino and Riverside projects.

“The bill prior to that dealt only with the Sacramento arena, but when we heard SB 743 in local government, Senator Steinberg did ask the committee to allow him to amend the bill to include two provisions that would affect CEQA reform outright,” Michel added.

The measure also blocks lawsuits against the proposed downtown arena during development and construction, unless is it a public safety or health concern, a matter of Native American burial grounds, or other historical significance.

Ed’s Note: Summer ParkerPerry is a Capitol Weekly intern from the University of California Sacramento Center. She attends classes at UC Santa Cruz.

 

 


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