Updated SB 731, CEQA Modernization Act of 2013, released by Steinberg

A revised version of SB 731, the CEQA Modernization Act of 2013, has been released by California pro tem Darrell Steinberg. This bill includes numerous but limited revisions to CEQA, with a focus on streamlining the approval process for what the bill considers to be environmentally beneficial projects. Various revisions address transportation issues and infill development to further facilitate the Sustainable Communities Strategy previously adopted by SB 375. The most substantive revisions to CEQA in SB 731 are described below.

One provision addressed in SB 731 revises Government Code section 65457, which exempts residential development projects from CEQA within specific plan areas for which an EIR has been certified. Under the current law, this exemption cannot be applied if an event specified in CEQA (Pub. Resources Code) section 21166 occurs. The revision states, that for the purposes of Government Code section 65457, an event specified in CEQA section 21166 does not include “any new information consisting solely of argument, speculation, unsubstantiated opinion or narrative, evidence that is clearly inaccurate or erroneous, or evidence of social or economic impacts that do not contribute to, or are caused by, physical impacts on the environment.” This provision could reduce redundancy in EIR preparation by making the use of tiering under these circumstances more defensible.

SB 731 also proposes standardized thresholds of significance for environmentally beneficial projects. This revision directs the Office of Planning and Research to propose revisions to the CEQA Guidelines establishing thresholds of significance for noise and for transportation and parking impacts of qualifying projects within “transit priority areas.” In addition, this revision declares that aesthetic impacts of qualifying projects within transit priority areas shall not be considered significant impacts on the environments. The bill does not prevent local jurisdictions from considering aesthetic impacts pursuant to local ordinances or other discretionary powers.

Another substantive revision addresses preparation of the administrative record in CEQA cases. The bill would add section 21167.6.2 to CEQA, which describes a process by which the administrative record is prepared concurrently with the administrative process, and documents must be made available electronically to the public shortly after receipt by the lead agency. This process will be applied to projects of statewide, regional, or areawide environmental significance, or if requested by the project applicant.

SB 731 would also amend Section 21091 of the Public Resources Code and related provisions of law to establish clear statutory rules under which “late hits” and “document dumps” are prohibited or restricted prior to certification of an EIR, if a project proponent or lead agency has not substantively changed the draft EIR or substantively modified the project.

The bill would also revise CEQA section 21081.5 to require agencies to make findings described in section 21081 available in draft form for public review at least fifteen days prior to approval of the proposed project.

The revised SB 731 also adds a provision to section 44273 of the Health and Safety Code to provide funding of up to $30 million annually to the Strategic Growth Council in order to fund planning activities for transit priority projects by local agencies.

Finally, SB 731 revises CEQA section 21168.9, which describes how courts should proceed when issuing a writ of mandate in a CEQA action. Section 21168.9 already encourages courts to issue detailed writs which are no more broad than necessary to address defects in the CEQA process. The revised section 21168.9 requires even further specificity in a writ of mandate. The bill can be viewed at: http://ct3k1.capitoltrack.com/Bills/13Bills/sen/sb_0701-0750/sb_731_bill_20130423_amended_sen_v98.pdf  [John Wheat]