EDITORIAL: Depending on amendments, CEQA 'fix' could help cities

Three camps dominate the debate over the California Environmental Quality Act. There's the "CEQA is totally broken" camp, the "CEQA needs to be stronger" camp and the "CEQA isn't broken but needs to be updated" camp.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, is in the third group, which is why he's getting brickbats from the other sides. Yet Steinberg's Senate Bill 731 is the only game in town for resolving some of the CEQA fights.

Depending on how it is amended, this bill could become a vehicle for reinvigorating cities and encouraging development that supports transit and protects open space.

The bill would create incentives for infill by eliminating parking and aesthetics as aspects of a project that could be subject to litigation. This would be a step forward. Although you can debate how frequently this occurs, there have been lawsuits in which NIMBYs held up or blocked a project because they wanted it to have more parking, or have a different design. California's landmark environmental law shouldn't be a lever for forcing infill developers to make their projects more accommodating to cars. That just jacks up the cost of housing and creates more dead zones of surface parking in central cities. As for the appearance of individual projects, those issues should be handled through local government design review, not litigation.

Critics of Steinberg's bill say it doesn't go far enough in curtailing CEQA abuse commonly known as "greenmailing." An example is the environmental litigation that some unions have threatened in obvious bids to obtain project labor agreements for, say, a new power plant.

It is true Steinberg's bill offers weak tea for critics of greenmailing, but it's a difficult legal issue to resolve. How do you write a law that uses motivation as a criterion for limiting or allowing litigation? And who would be the special master assigned to divining a group's motivation?

While all sides will want to keep an eye on last-minute amendments, SB731 offers a framework to advance the state's land-use goals.

We guarantee you that it won't be the last word on the California Environmental Quality Act.