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At Stockton City Limits, I often discuss the need for local governments to prioritize infill development and rein in sprawl. While decisions at the local level undoubtedly drive where growth occurs, policies at higher levels of government can also influence the way in which we build our communities. At the moment, there is a handful of proposals at both the state and federal levels that could shape development patterns here in the Central Valley. While these bills still have a long way to go, it’s never too early to examine how new laws can drive growth at the local level.
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is sometimes cited as an impediment to development, especially infill development. Smaller developers may have trouble navigating the complexities of the law, while outside parties may use CEQA to tie up projects in litigation for years. While new legislation is being considered that would reform CEQA, the proposed changes are fairly modest and will leave proponents of CEQA reform wanting.
Known as SB 731, Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s (D- Sacramento) CEQA reform bill overwhelmingly passed the state Senate in a 39-0 vote last month. While popular, SB 731 avoids many of the law’s contentious issues in favor of modest reform. Among the changes, aesthetics would no longer be considered for CEQA litigation, which makes sense as aesthetics have nothing to do with the environment. Also, the bill calls for the establishment of thresholds for parking, transportation, and noise, though local governments may impose stricter standards as they see fit.
Once the bill passes in the Assembly, Gov. Jerry Brown will most likely sign it into law. Overall, the impact these changes may have on local development will most likely be minor.
In addition to CEQA reform, Steinberg is also pushing to resurrect municipal redevelopment agencies.
In 2011, Gov. Brown shuttered California’s redevelopment agencies to help balance the budget, redirecting Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds from cities into state coffers. While these agencies were rife with problems— some agencies used redevelopment funds for projects of questionable merit, to say the least—Brown’s decision to eliminate the agencies left cities without a mechanism to fund redevelopment in blighted areas.
Despite Brown’s decision, there have been several attempts to revive these agencies, and Steinberg’s new legislation could do just that. SB 1 allows cities to set up Sustainable Communities Investment Authorities that can once again leverage TIF funds for redevelopment purposes. However, the new legislation includes more accountability for what qualifies for TIF funding. Specifically, SB 1 was crafted to align with the state’s environmental goals, putting an emphasis on walkable communities and transit-oriented development. The establishment of these authorities could be a boon for infill development to Central Valley cities looking to jump start projects in neglected areas, particularly downtown.
SB 1 passed the senate with ease in May and will most likely garner similar support in the Assembly. However, the bill is by no means a certainty; Brown vetoed similar legislation last year, saying that it was too soon to bring back redevelopment agencies.
The BUILD Act
At the federal level, the U.S. Senate is pushing ahead with a bill to revamp the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Brownfields program, a key program that helps cities clean up hazardous waste sites to make way for development. The BUILD Act— Brownfields Utilization, Investment, and Local Development— grants more flexibility in the use of federal dollars by raising funding amounts, easing eligibility requirements and allowing funds to be used for administrative purposes. Moreover, the BUILD Act requires EPA to give special consideration to brownfield sites adjacent to waterfront areas. This could be an important provision for Stockton which has large amounts of empty waterfront property that may require extensive environmental cleanup before development can take place. Stockton has leveraged brownfield funds in the past, most notably for the creation of Dean DeCarli Square downtown. The BUILD Act is supported by members of both parties in the Senate, with two Republican co-sponsors.
Hopefully, this bipartisan support will help the BUILD Act pass in the Senate and House.