2011-09-10 "Lawmakers OK bill to soften environmental reviews" by Marisa Lagos and Peter Fimrite from "San Francisco Chronicle"
California lawmakers on Friday approved a bill that would soften parts of a landmark, 4-decade-old environmental law and could pave the way for the quick approval of large developments across the state.
In the final hours of the year's legislative session, Democrats pushed through a measure that would give the governor the power to speed up the environmental review process on some large construction projects, including sports stadiums and green manufacturing plants. It was sent to the governor late Friday.
Some environmental groups immediately denounced the bill, which was introduced late Thursday in the Assembly. But it could be of political help to Democrats, who have been under pressure in California and across the country to counter charges they are antibusiness and contribute to higher unemployment rates.
"There are too many people in California who are hurting and too many people who are unemployed, and people are expecting us to do everything we can to remedy that," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who championed the bill. "We are not doing anything to weaken key environmental laws, but if we can resolve disputes faster than not, good projects will be done sooner."
Other politics appeared to be at play as well: The bill came on the heels of a similar measure by Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, authorizing expedited review of an NFL stadium and convention center in downtown Los Angeles, where local officials are hoping to woo the San Diego Chargers. The statewide measure could help Sacramento keep the Kings basketball team from fleeing town - a priority of Steinberg's.
It was not immediately clear how the law might impact the proposed 49ers stadium in Santa Clara.
Streamlined review -
If signed by the governor, AB900 would allow projects costing $100 million or more to request streamlined judicial review under the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA. That law, passed in 1970, requires public agencies to identify the environmental impacts of construction and other projects and mitigate them.
While CEQA is credited by supporters as helping to keep communities healthy and California's natural resources intact, it has long been a target of Republicans and developers, who say it kills jobs by allowing litigation to tie up important projects.
Environmental groups, however, said they were shocked and angered by the bill - both its substance and how quickly it was rushed through. They said it could ultimately backfire. While AB900 was written only to apply to projects that are economically and environmentally beneficial, it would also allow CEQA challenges to bypass local courts and go directly to the state Court of Appeal, which would have to make a decision within 175 days.
The bill would sunset in 2015 - when Brown's term is over.
"I don't think the authors are fully aware of what the bill is going to do," said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. "They've taken a level of appeal out of this. ... It would reduce the opportunity to make sure there is a full review of what the project proponent has done."
Argument a fallacy -
Phillips said the argument that environmental litigation hurts the economy by delaying development is a fallacy.
"You've got to understand that it's a very small number of projects that actually get to court," she said. "Environmental review doesn't stop jobs. What's stopping jobs is that developers are having difficulty getting financing. Attacking California's environmental laws is not the way to create jobs. That will just make California's environmental quality worse."
But a San Francisco lawyer who represents developers, including those working on the city's Treasure Island and Parkmerced projects, said she welcomes any change to the environmental act.
Gibson Dunn partner Mary Murphy said CEQA lawsuits are often used as a delay tactic by people who object to the project itself, not the details of the environmental review. Those suits can result in another year of litigation, on top of the four to five years it can take just to do a full environmental impact report.
Environmental reviews, she said, "cost amazing amounts of money, well north of a million dollars for large projects. And it is a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of analysis and you end up getting appealed and sued anyways, and it has nothing to do with whether or not the analysis is sufficient."
Vetting questioned -
Some environmental groups were more concerned with the process than the substance of the bill, noting that it was rushed through in the final hours of the Legislature's session and did not get the vetting most measures do.
Jeremy Madsen, the executive director of Greenbelt Alliance, said he was torn because, on the surface, the legislation encourages exactly the kind of transit-oriented infill development that his group would like to see in California.
The problem, Phillips said, is that "infill means different things to different people, and that's why it is important to have review. We need to determine what kind of impact it is going to have on the community, traffic, air pollution and noise."
Steinberg, however, said that AB900 relied on the "template" established by the Los Angeles project. That measure also was introduced in the final weeks of the legislative session, but was the result of work by a group of Assembly lawmakers.
"I respect their concerns, but the choice would have been to wait," he said. "Sometimes you have to seize the moment, even if it's messy."