California Considers Bill to Shorten Construction Red Tape
Proposed bill gives environmental lawsuits just 9 months to complete
Lengthy environmental litigation in California isn’t a new speedbump for contractors to overcome but the LA Times reports a special California Senate bill passed in 2011 giving a building project special fast-track benefits may be the model for current and future builds.
If approved, SB 734 will affect any project in California that costs more than $100 million to build, and provides for higher wages for construction workers. The bill does not shield projects from the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. Instead, it allows any CEQA lawsuits against the developments to move through the courts more quickly.
Four projects currently under construction are the immediate beneficiaries and supporters of SB 734 believe the bill will substantially lessen the time it takes to complete mega-projects in California.
Environmental groups say the proposed bill isn’t strict enough and the state’s Judicial Council is against the bill because it would give some cases preference in the legal system.
California’s environmental good intentions have grown into job creation delays, making SB 734 important to watch. Read the text of SB 734 here. The bill must pass before the end of the legislative session in August.
Under the bill, both projects — a $1-billion redevelopment of the Crossroads of the World complex and a $200-million hotel and residential development at the corner of Yucca Street and Argyle Avenue — would receive a new defense against potential lengthy litigation under the state’s main environmental law governing development.
The bill aims to force any environmental lawsuit against the projects to wrap up within nine months, a perk that proponents believe would allow the developments to be built three years sooner than would otherwise be possible without such a law in place.
“It’s a substantial benefit,” said Jerry Neuman, a spokesman for the Crossroads of the World project.
The bill isn’t just for the two developments. It affects any project in California that costs more than $100 million to build, provides for higher wages for construction workers and meets strict targets for greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy. The bill does not shield projects from the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. Instead, it allows any CEQA lawsuits against the developments to move through the courts more quickly.
A legislative analysis suggests developers of two other Los Angeles projects also hope to qualify for CEQA relief if the bill is signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown: the redevelopment of Barlow Respiratory Hospital near Dodger Stadium that would add 400 single-family homes to the property, and a $1-billion park created by capping 38 acres of U.S. Highway 101 between Hollywood and Santa Monica boulevards.
This idea isn’t new. The bill, SB 734, extends by two years a measure first passed in 2011 with Brown’s support, and modeled after special legislation from the same year to benefit the proposed Farmers Field football stadium in downtown Los Angeles. The goal was to fast-track environmentally friendly mega-projects in an effort to boost the state’s economy.
Since the first measure passed, only a half-dozen projects qualified for the streamlined review, including the expansion of Apple’s corporate headquarters in Cupertino and a proposed San Francisco arena for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. Some of these projects have been built or are under construction and have avoided legal challenges, but none of the six have needed to use the fast-track provisions to navigate the legal process.
The existing law’s spotty record highlights the difficulties Brown and the Legislature have faced in meaningfully easing what critics say are the burdens of CEQA, a 1970 law credited with preserving the state’s environment, but also leading to numerous unintended consequences, such as blocking the installation of bike lanes. At the same time, the new effort raises concerns about why even a small amount of relief from CEQA is only available to large developments such as sports arenas and condominium towers.
“Big projects can easily absorb the costs of going through CEQA,” said Osha Meserve, an attorney representing the Mission Bay Alliance, a group suing under the environmental law to block the Warriors’ arena. “These projects can withstand the regular process.”
The Warriors case might be the first to test the fast-track measure’s time limits. Last week, a trial court ruled in favor of the team, but the decision has already been appealed. Meserve said the fast-tracking measure has sped up the legal process, but also that there’s no penalty if the entire case ends up exceeding the nine-month deadline.
Nevertheless, P.J. Johnston, a spokesman for the Warriors arena project, said the measure has given the team’s effort a leg up against its opponents.
“They made clear that they intended to abuse CEQA and strangle the project to death by tying it up in court,” Johnston said. Because of the judicial fast-tracking, he said, “they haven’t been able to do that.”
The specter of a lawsuit also hangs over another Los Angeles project that qualified under the existing law: a Frank Gehry-designed, mixed-use development at 8150 Sunset Blvd. The Los Angeles City Planning Commission approved the project this week, but that decision could be appealed to the full City Council.
Laura Lake, a board member of Fix the City, a nonprofit that has sued multiple projects in Los Angeles under the environmental law, said her group believes the development’s current scale isn’t compatible with its surrounding neighborhood.
“Litigation is always an option,” Lake said.
Legislative advocates of the new bill believe the state cannot afford for these big projects to face legal holdups.
“California is continually recovering from and preparing for future economic devastation,” said state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton), the bill’s author, at a committee hearing last month. “SB 734 will help large, job-producing, green projects avoid delay and keep Californians working.”
Galgiani is aiming for a super-majority bipartisan vote in both houses, which would allow the bill to become law immediately. Projects including the four from Los Angeles would have to apply to the governor to certify that they meet the bill’s investment, wage and environmental rules. The bill must pass before the end of the legislative session in August.
Formal opposition to the measure has come from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups that argue the bill’s standards aren’t strict enough to give the projects special treatment. Similarly, the state’s Judicial Council, the policymaking body of California’s courts, is against the measure because it would give these cases further preference in the legal system, and push others, including those that might have been filed sooner, behind them.
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