Day at the Capitol 2023

Good afternoon AEP Members,

The Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP) held its annual lobby day in Sacramento on March 14, followed by our annual CEQA Hot Topics presentation to Legislative staff on March 15.  These Days in the Capitol are a great opportunity for the AEP Legislative Review Committee and our members to develop relationships with legislators and their staff, as well as discuss the many CEQA-related policies being discussed in the halls of the Capitol.  As always, the priority is to develop AEP as a resource for policymakers and to emphasize that our goal is to ensure new laws are implementable by practitioners and will achieve the goals of the legislature.

Unlike last year's Zoom Capitol Day, the lobby day this time was held in the new "Swing Space" where the Legislature and Governor's offices are housed while the main Capitol annex is under construction.  Unlike last year, when many offices were closed due to COVID and the building had very few visitors, the Swing Space is now bustling with visitors, lobbyists, and members of the public there to advocate for their interests.  The Capitol Day included meetings with the chairs and staff of our most important committees, as well as a lunch meeting with Direct Assefa and staff from the Office of Planning and Research.  In addition to the in-person meetings in the Capitol, several AEP Legislative Review Committee members also gave a presentation via Zoom to staff about how CEQA works.  Specifically this year, we focused on how CEQA impacts housing projects.

Like last year, our lobby day was shaped by a recent high profile CEQA case with UC Berkeley losing before the courts.  In 2022, UC Berkeley had just lost a CEQA case that was going to result in thousands of prospective students potentially losing their placements.  Dozens of news articles and outraged statements from policymakers resulted.  That issue was quickly resolved by the legislature.  In a case of deja vu, UC Berkeley again lost a high profile CEQA case just before AEP's 2023 lobby day.  This time, their planned student housing project at People's Park was tossed out by the court, who stated the university hadn't properly analyzed the increased noise that would come from students.  This immediately led to criticisms from policymakers that the decision could mean that CEQA must analyze the "types" of people that would live in a new residential development.  As expected, most of the legislators and staff we met with wanted to talk about this case and hear AEP's thoughts.  Asm. Wicks has already introduced AB 1307 to address the issue by stating that unamplified sounds from residences shall not be considered a significant impact.

Additionally, AEP was asked a lot about SB 35 and where and how the law has been a success.  The law, which was passed in 2017, sunsets soon.  Senator Wiener is hoping to extend the law and make additional improvements via his new bill SB 423.  However, like AB 2011 (Wicks) from 2022, the bill has become a pitched battle by labor unions over what the appropriate labor standards requirements should be.  This debate over labor standards threatens to upend the bill and potentially lead to the sunsetting of SB 35. 

However, SB 35 will not be the only bill in 2023 to allow infill housing projects to avoid CEQA review in certain situations.  AB 68 (Ward) aims to allow streamlining of urban residential developments while making it more difficult to build greenfield residential developments and housing is climate-risk areas like flood plains, fire threat areas, etc.  AB 1318 (Rivas) would expand the infill exemption size limit from 4 acres to 5 acres.  AB 1449 (Alvarez) would exempt from CEQA certain affordable housing projects.  SB 4 (Wiener) would allow residential developments by faith based entities and universities on their own property to be considered a "by right" use, thus avoiding CEQA review. 

The above bills are just a slice of the CEQA-related bills introduced in 2023.  As is well understood at this point, all of this attention stems from the housing affordability and homelessness crisis expanding throughout the state.  To attempt to address this, a growing number of legislators, including many progressive Democrats, are increasingly more interested in making changes to CEQA as it relates to housing.  This can obviously put them at odds with environmental groups and labor unions.  It will be very interesting what bills make it across the finish line in 2023, but the AEP Legislative Committee has never had so many legislators interested in our ideas for CEQA reforms and streamlining opportunities.