Citing the state's historically high unemployment rate and claiming that "there are too damn many regulations," Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed into law three bills aimed at streamlining the environmental review process for certain projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The new laws, described in more detail below, provide for streamlined review of infill development projects and expedited judicial review of CEQA challenges to other specified projects.
SB 226 expands the statutory definition of an urban infill project and directs the relevant state agencies to amend the CEQA Guidelines to create statewide standards for infill projects. The changes to the CEQA Guidelines, which can only take effect after a formal rule-making process with opportunity for public review and comment has occurred, are supposed to be adopted by January 1, 2013. Although the bill focuses on a streamlined review process for infill projects and does not explicitly require the guideline amendments to create exemptions for infill projects, some commentators believe that this is the clear implication of the law. The bill also provides that a project's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions shall not, in and of themselves, cause a categorical exemption to be inapplicable if the project complies with a plan to reduce GHG emissions adopted pursuant to CEQA Guidelines section 15183.5.
AB 900 provides for expedited judicial review of any CEQA challenges to a project certified by the governor as an "environmental leadership development project." Such projects include residential, commercial and recreational infill projects certified as LEED Silver or better by the U.S. Green Building Council; wind and solar-powered electricity-generating facilities; and clean-energy manufacturing projects. To qualify, a project must result in an investment of at least $100 million in the state's economy; create high-wage, high-skill jobs; not result in any net new GHG emissions; and incorporate binding and enforceable measures to mitigate adverse environmental impacts. Any lawsuit challenging an environmental leadership development project on CEQA or related grounds must be filed in the Court of Appeal (instead of a trial court) and must generally be decided within 175 days from the filing of the lawsuit. In exchange, the project applicant must agree to pay for the costs of preparing the administrative record as well as the costs of the Court of Appeal in hearing and deciding the case.
SB 292 is the narrowest of the three bills and provides for expedited judicial review of any CEQA-based challenges to a proposal to develop a new convention center and sports-stadium complex in downtown Los Angeles. In order to qualify, the project must minimize traffic congestion and air quality impacts by reducing to zero the net GHG emissions resulting from private automobile trips to the stadium and maintaining a trip ratio that is no more than 90 percent of the trip ratio at the lowest trip-generating stadium serving a National Football League team. CEQA challenges to such projects must be filed in the Second District Court of Appeal and are subject to a fast-track briefing and hearing schedule. Further, with certain exceptions, the lead agency need not consider written comments submitted after the close of the public comment period on a draft environmental impact report prepared for such a project.
While these reforms are a good first step, much more can and should be done to encourage development, especially infill development, in the state.