Senate President ProTem Darrell Steinberg today released details of his effort to overhaul California's environmental law, including provisions that reduce the likelihood that urban infill projects like Sacramento's proposed downtown arena would be subject to lawsuits that could stall construction.
A statement from Steinberg's office said SB 731 would "accelerate the pace at which a Downtown Sacramento sports and entertainment complex would proceed through the environmental planning process."
Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, Gov. Jerry Brown and a coalition of business and government groups have been pushing the idea of re-writing the 43-year-old California Environmental Quality Act for months. Environmental groups have been doubtful.
But Steinberg's revised bill, Senate Bill 731, was received warmly by at least one environmental group that took a strong stand against earlier attempts to overhaul the law.
Planning and Conservation League Executive Director Bruce Reznik said while the CEQA Works coalition he helps head is still going over the details of the bill, he's "feeling pretty good about where it's heading" based on what he's seen so far.
"I think there's actually quite a bit that we can get behind," he said.
Reznik was especially complimentary of some of the proposed procedural fixes contained in Steinberg's bill, saying they could do "a lot to improve things and modernize" the process for developers while maintaining strong environmental protections.
"Those are frankly from our point very important provisions that will actually do a lot to do what developers say they want, which is more efficiencies, make things quicker... without undermining the core principles (of CEQA)," he said.
Business leaders promoting the overhaul were hopeful, but less enthusiastic. Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and one of the leaders of the business coalition, said Steinberg's bill was "a step forward in what will inevitably be a long and thorough vetting of the issues and negotiations over final language."
Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, similarly said the bill has "a long way to go to achieve what can be called meaningful reform."
The bill is scheduled to be heard for the first time next week.
Steinberg's bill comes just weeks after an Alameda County Superior Court Judge indicated he plans to strike down portions of an existing state law, authored by Steinberg last year, which speeds up legal review in lawsuits involving certain infill projects.
According to Steinberg, SB 731 will prohibit lawsuits from being filed against projects that meet state thresholds on noise and traffic impacts.
Notably, however, Gov. Jerry Brown said last week he will not push this year to reform the state environmental quality act, although he has said the law is cumbersome and needs retooling at some point.
Steinberg, a supporter of Sacramento's proposed downtown arena project, issued a press statement indicating he has been working on statewide environmental reform for some time, but that his bill is applicable specifically to the Sacramento arena.
"I introduced these concepts in this bill before the question of the Sacramento Kings' future returned to news headlines," said Steinberg. "Nonetheless, the story of economic development, planning laws and the Sacramento Kings are inseparable because a Downtown Sacramento Arena meets the very definition of an 'urban infill' project, which California has historically been very serious about promoting. It is my intent to continue that tradition with these far-reaching reforms to California's environmental planning laws."
The possibility of an arena lawsuit has become a front-burner issue in recent weeks as NBA officials review competing arena proposals from Sacramento and Seattle as part of their attempt to determine whether the team should be sold and moved to Seattle. That decision is expected to come in the next few weeks. NBA officials have expressed concerns about whether lawsuits in each city could slow or derail arena projects.
Sacramento attorneys Patrick Soluri and Jeffrey Anderson have already served the city with notice that they believe an arena "term sheet" the city approved last month violated state environmental law. Soluri said today he expects to sue over the issue.
The city of Sacramento has scheduled a public meeting in the City Hall rotunda today at 6 p.m. to discuss what it should analyze as part of its upcoming environmental review for a downtown arena.