CEQA Bill is Law – Let’s Get to Work

by Autumn Bernstein, ClimatePlan Director
October 1, 2013

On Friday the Governor signed SB 743, a CEQA bill that blends home court politics (go Kings!) with game-changing reforms for the rest of California.  While some observers – including me – were exasperated with the process, the final product is an important step forward for sustainable communities in California.

But there’s work to be done, if we want the best aspects of SB 743 to be successful – and that work must begin immediately.  SB 743 eliminates traffic congestion and its proxy, Level of Service (LOS), as the focus of CEQA’s transportation analysis. That’s great news for bike lanes, bus rapid transit, and infill projects that are essential strategies for healthier, greener communities.

But this provision won’t take effect immediately. First, we need a new methodology to replace traffic and LOS.  That new methodology will be developed by the Office of Planning and Research (OPR), and it must “promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the development of multimodal transportation networks, and a diversity of land uses.” But here’s the kicker: OPR must develop a first draft by July 2014.

The million-dollar question OPR has to answer is: what comes next, after LOS?  Should the new methodology focus on vehicle miles traveled (VMT), as SB 375 does? Or should it focus on trip generation (the number of car trips a particular building is likely to produce)?  Should it only focus on an individual project, or look at the neighborhood and the region as a whole?  How will it impact traffic impact fees, a tool many communities rely upon to fund transportation improvements? These are the types of questions that OPR must answer in the next 9 months.  It’s an exciting and daunting task, and one that demands the attention of advocates and CEQA experts.  We have to get this right.

Another place we need to get it right is around displacement.  For a brief moment, the primary CEQA bill included our recommendations that OPR produce a study on the phenomenon of economic displacement, where low-income residents are displaced from their neighborhoods by escalating rents and property values. Our modest language provoked a firestorm of response.  Normally cooler heads such as Bill Fulton and Don Perata slammed the provision and attacked environmental justice advocates and the “meddling” foundations that fund them.

These misguided over-reactions demonstrate the work ahead.  No one can deny that rents are escalating in desirable transit-rich neighborhoods, and these changes are driving unprecedented demographic shifts.  But there is clearly disagreement about how to address it – or whether we even should address it. This issue is not going away. We desperately need to have a conversation about displacement and what to do about it.  We intend to keep this issue on the table, and we hope the next round will be more civil and constructive.

ClimatePlan, along with Greenbelt Alliance and the Planning and Conservation League Foundation, was proud to convene a dialogue of diverse interests who came together in support of ending LOS and addressing displacement.  Our July 19 letter, signed by ten diverse organizations, was the first to call on Senator Steinberg to make these needed reforms.  Now that SB 743 has become law, we’re committed to ensuring its successful implementation.

(Note: SB 743 is a wide-ranging bill with many provisions, most of which weren’t covered here.  Ascent Environmental has produced a good summary. )

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