On September 27, 2013, Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 743, bringing to a close a legislative session full of surprises when it comes to CEQA reform.  SB 743 paves the way for streamlined judicial review of the proposed new Sacramento Kings downtown arena and sets forth a few additional streamlining provisions under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).  In the end, however, SB 743 was the bill that closed out the oft-changing CEQA reform discussions this session. 

The legislative session began with high hopes for significant CEQA reform, but those hopes were dashed early when Senator Rubio resigned from the Senate and Senator Steinberg introduced SB 731.  Still, CEQA enthusiasts rallied around SB 731 and worked to obtain revisions that streamline the State’s environmental review process for certain projects.  In the last days of the session, SB 731 was shelved as Senator Steinberg pursued amendments to SB 743, a special bill focused primarily on expediting development of the Sacramento Kings downtown arena.  SB 743 also includes provisions unrelated to the Kings, modifying the expedited judicial review provisions for environmental leadership projects, and adopting some streamlining provisions for infill projects in transit priority areas.

Sacramento Kings Arena: SB 743 defines the arena project subject to the law as an arena that achieves LEED Gold certification and operates in a carbon neutral manner, among other requirements. If the arena can meet the requirements in the bill, any CEQA challenge to the arena will be subject to new rules of court that must be adopted by July 1, 2014. Those rules will prescribe the procedures for the litigation, requiring resolution of the case within 270 days of certification of the record of proceedings. It is unclear what will occur if the rules of court are not timely adopted, or if litigation were to precede adoption.

Environmental Leadership Projects: SB 743 modifies the expedited judicial review provisions for environmental leadership projects. Under prior law, environmental leadership projects approved by the Governor were subject to specified judicial review procedures, including direct review by the Court of Appeal. Under SB 743, qualified projects will be subject to expedited judicial review in accordance with rules of court to be developed by July 1, 2014. Like the rules for the Kings arena, judicial challenges are to be resolved within 270 days of certification of the record. In addition, the deadline to obtain certification of an environmental leadership project was extended from June 30, 2014 to December 30, 2015, which may enable additional projects to qualify for certification.

Infill Project Streamlining: SB 743 includes some of the provisions that were proposed in SB 731, governing CEQA review of infill projects within transit priority areas. For projects that meet the definitions, aesthetic and parking impacts may not be considered significant. In addition, by July 1, 2014 the Office of Planning and Research is directed to develop guidelines setting criteria to determine transportation impacts within transit priority areas. The bill also provides an exemption for projects within transit priority areas that are consistent with a specific plan that has been approved in accordance with a certified environmental impact report, and meets certain other requirements.  These provisions have the potential to provide significant streamlining benefits for certain infill projects, but it is unclear how many projects can meet the definitional requirements to trigger these provisions.

It became clear early in the session that real CEQA reform would not materialize this year.  The CEQA changes that came about through SB 743 will most likely benefit only a small class of projects, and broader reform will have to wait until another year yet again.  For more information, contact Kristen Castaños, Tim Taylor or Ryan Waterman.