Senate Bill 226 was enacted in 2011 to streamline review of infill development projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), directing the Natural Resources Agency to adopt standards for eligible projects by January 1, 2013. On July 27, 2012, the agency issued proposed S.B. 226 guidelines for public comment, due September 10, 2012. If adopted, the proposed guidelines promise substantially faster and simpler approval of infill projects, eliminating repetitive review of issues already addressed in planning-level evaluations. However, it remains to be seen whether local governments will conduct the detailed planning-level reviews and adopt “uniformly applicable development policies or standards” as needed to realize the benefits of streamlining.
CEQA is a cornerstone of environmental protection in California, requiring public agencies to evaluate the impacts of projects they undertake or approve, consider alternatives, and adopt mitigation measures if feasible. However, developers and local governments have long complained that the CEQA process is expensive, time-consuming, and allows NIMBY opponents to wield environmental issues as a weapon, even against environmentally desirable infill development projects. In response to such concerns and to promote construction jobs in a struggling economy, the Legislature enacted S.B. 226.1
The bill’s CEQA streamlining provisions apply to eligible infill projects that fall within the scope of a prior planning-level decision (such as a General Plan or Specific Plan) for which a city or county previously prepared an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). For such projects, S.B. 226 limits CEQA review to project-specific impacts not addressed in the prior EIR, or adverse impacts shown by substantial new information to be “more significant” than described in the prior EIR. If no such impacts exist, S.B. 226 constitutes a de facto exemption from further CEQA review. Moreover, if a city, county or CEQA lead agency has adopted uniformly applicable development policies or standards (referred to herein as “local policies”) and finds that those policies will “substantially mitigate” a project-specific or more significant impact, that impact does not trigger further CEQA review. Conversely, where project-specific or more significant adverse impacts do exist, the EIR need not consider alternative locations, densities or building intensities or growth inducing impacts, thus substantially speeding the review process.
S.B. 226 streamlining applies to infill projects, defined as residential, retail, commercial or mixed-use development, transit stations, schools and public office buildings, on previously developed urban sites or vacant land at least 75% surrounded by urban uses. The project must be consistent with the regional strategy for land use and transportation planning developed pursuant to S.B. 375.2 In addition, the project must satisfy statewide performance standards, as contained in the proposed guidelines.3