Clearing CEQA: Study vindicates California environmental law as having less impact on development than previously claimed

Golden 1 Center benefited from recent Steinberg CEQA tweak

Environmental regulations may not strike most developers as a harmonious complement to their industry, but a new study indicates that stubborn criticism of the California Environmental Quality Act may be wrongheaded.

The study, “CEQA in the 21st Century,” concludes that the act does not significantly impede business—and ties projects up in litigation far less than its critics believe.

“I think it’s bringing a little more proportionality into the discussion,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the Climate Change and Business Program at the UCLA and UC Berkeley schools of law, who helped review the report. “CEQA isn’t just about litigation; it’s also about having to do … reviews on projects that have a significant impact on the environment.

“It’s really the state’s bedrock environmental law.”

CEQA, enacted by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970, requires that state and local agencies assess the potential significant environmental impacts of proposed development projects and work to minimize such impacts when practical.

It was most recently in the local spotlight regarding the recently opened Golden 1 Center, when then-Senate leader Darrell Steinberg muscled through legislation to help the Sacramento Kings and city leaders speed their downtown arena project through an accelerated CEQA review process.

For Steinberg, now the city’s mayor-elect, Senate Bill 743 was one of his final legislative acts as a state lawmaker. On its passage back in 2013, the bill drew the ire of Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, who decried it as part of a pattern of last-minute cave-ins favoring sports arenas in California.

Two years earlier, Steinberg helped advance Assembly Bill 900, which allows the governor to exempt certain multimillion-dollar projects from lower court CEQA reviews if they pass muster as job-creators. Reznik implied amendments like these were motivated by the popularity of sports arenas and the influence wielded by their proponents, and had little to do with the large-scale projects’ actual environmental impacts.

But CEQA tweaks are nothing new.

The Secretary of Resources must consider proposed amendments every two years, to make sure CEQA keeps pace with changing environmental and economic conditions. CEQA is even described as “an ongoing process” on the state’s website.

Elkind admits that CEQA updates are necessary for its successful implementation, and credited Steinberg’s SB 743 as a potentially positive reform for infill projects, defined by the state government as “building within unused and underutilized lands within existing development patterns.”

The pro-CEQA study was released in August by BAE Urban Economics and the Rose Foundation for Communities & the Environment, a grant-making public charity that supports state and local grassroots environmental initiatives.

The study specifically downplayed claims made in a 2015 report from the law firm Holland & Knight, titled “In the Name of the Environment,” which contended that CEQA lawsuits are common for large-scale projects and tend to go after environmentally-friendly developments, like infill housing and transit-conscious projects.

Contradicting that claim, the Rose Foundation study places the litigation rate at only 0.7 percent.

“What the Rose Foundation study did was look at the percentage of those projects that end up in litigation, and it’s a very small percentage,” said Elkind, who praised the study for bringing context to a much-misunderstood law.

“It provides for much smarter decision-making,” he said of CEQA. “Rather than just sort of recklessly approving a new project, it really requires some advance study and gives the public an opportunity to see what the potential impacts of these projects might be.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better reflect conclusions made in the study titled “In the Name of the Environment.”