Responding to the public outrage, California lawmakers took unusually swift action in passing CEQA reform legislation this week.
Senate Bill 118 responds to a CEQA lawsuit filed by a neighborhood group challenging a housing and classroom project under construction on the UC Berkeley campus. Earlier this month, the California Supreme Court declined to stay a lower court’s order in the case siding with the neighbors. The ruling effectively froze this fall’s enrollment levels at the 2020-2021 levels.
Over 3,000 students faced the prospect of not being able to attend Cal because of what PRI has called “The CEQA Gauntlet” – the maze of rules and regulations that make it very difficult and expensive to build anything. CEQA is often weaponized by opponents to block projects they don’t like, as was the case here. They cited environmental concerns to try and block a project they opposed based on their own self interests.
To avoid this nightmare, lawmakers rushed to enact SB 118 to reform CEQA “so that student enrollment, or changes in enrollment, by itself does not constitute a project that is subject to the law” and apply the law retroactively to cover the Berkeley case, according to the Sacramento Bee. Gov. Newsom signed the measure into law immediately after the Legislature enacted it.
While policy insiders often speak of the need to reform CEQA, comprehensive reform has proven elusive to date.
Last week’s action begs the question – is 2022 the year to pass comprehensive CEQA reforms?
Chris Carr, partner with Paul Hastings LLP and co-author of PRI’s “CEQA Gauntlet” study, has argued that passing measures like SB 118 actually takes pressure off the Legislature to pass long-overdue reforms.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal that these types of measures don’t “address the underlying problems with CEQA,” Carr argues that “these exemptions take enough pressure off the politicians to prevent comprehensive reform.”
But reform is possible and the iceberg blocking reform is thawing. As the appendix to PRI’s “CEQA Gauntlet” study shows, lawmakers have enacted several proposals over the past decade to reform the law’s worst excesses with bipartisan support.
It is a positive sign that more Democrats are connecting “The CEQA Gauntlet” to roadblocks holding up schools, student housing projects, and other priorities.
Sen. Scott Wiener, one of the Legislature’s top CEQA reform advocates, told the Bee that, “in many ways, tragically, CEQA is the law that swallowed California.”
But while more lawmakers “get it” on CEQA, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon threw cold water on the potential for comprehensive CEQA reform being enacted this session.
“I am not at all a supporter of creating CEQA exemptions,” Rendon said on the Assembly floor, as reported by Politico. “I am not a proponent of gutting an act that has made California a leader in environmental protections and environmental innovation.”
Ironically, had Speaker Rendon read “The CEQA Gauntlet,” he would have learned that CEQA is also hindering California’s environmental progress.
A project to add bike lines in San Francisco, which would have gotten more people out of polluting automobiles, was subjected to additional time and expense with demands that a complete environmental impact report be prepared. Even renewable energy projects that are racing to be completed in advance of the state’s ambitious climate change goals are facing shakedown CEQA lawsuits by opponents hoping to leverage financial settlements.
Given Rendon’s cold water, comprehensive CEQA reform measures face an uphill battle again this year. But the momentum gained by the UC Berkeley case may pave the way for more incremental reforms. While not ideal, this would be a step in the right direction of what must be done to ensure “The CEQA Gauntlet” does not hinder California’s top priorities.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.