The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is now 50 years old, and remains one of the most rigorous and comprehensive environmental regulatory schemes in the nation. CEQA requires all state and local agencies to seriously consider the environmental effects of public and private activities before approving them, and to disapprove projects for which feasible and environmentally superior mitigation measures or alternatives exist. Almost every year since its enactment in 1970, the California Legislature has considered proposals to amend, expand, or restrict CEQA’s reach. To date, calls for major reform have failed, but minor changes to CEQA occur annually.

In 2020, the Legislature enacted eight CEQA bills, and the Governor issued two Executive Orders directly applicable to CEQA practice. The bills and orders are summarized below.

Senate Bill 288 (Stats. 2020, ch. 200) enacted a two-year exemption covering a variety of actions to promote transit, including approval of pedestrian and bicycle facilities, transit prioritization projects, converting lanes to transit, and new transit within existing rights of way, provided the action meets a variety of environmental, procedural, and workforce requirements. The new exemption is in Public Resources Code section 21080.25. The bill also extended the statutory exemption for bicycle lane restriping through January 1, 2030. See Public Resources Code section 21080.20.

Senate Bill 869 (Stats. 2020, ch. 171) enacted Government Code section 12012.101, which ratified compacts with six Native American tribes and enacted CEQA exemptions related to such compacts, agreements under such compacts, and on-reservation impacts of compliance with such compacts.

Senate Bill 974 (Stats. 2020, ch. 234) enacted Public Resources Code section 21080.47, establishing a CEQA exemption for various infrastructure improvements to disadvantaged community water systems and small water systems, provided the project in question meets a variety of environmental and workforce requirements. The statute includes a sunset date of January 1, 2028.

Assembly Bill 2421 (Stats. 2020, ch. 255) enacted Government Code section 65850.75, making the approval of emergency standby generators for existing macro cell tower sites ministerial through January 1, 2024. The text of the bill does not reference CEQA, but the Legislative Counsel’s Digest describes the bill as expanding the exemption for ministerial actions.

Assembly Bill 2731 (Stats. 2020, ch. 291) added Public Resources Code sections 21189.70–21189.70.10, enacting streamlined approval and litigation provisions for the San Diego Old Town Center project.

Assembly Bill 168 (Stats. 2020, ch. 166) amended Government Code section 65913.4 to add provisions protecting tribal cultural resources to the ministerial approval process set forth in that statute. Applicants for such an approval must submit a preliminary notice to the local government, and the local government must notify Native American tribes of the application. This ministerial approval process may not be used if the project would affect a tribal cultural resource listed on a federal, state, local, or tribal historic register.

Assembly Bill 1561 (Stats. 2020, ch. 195) amended Government Code section 65583 to generally extend some permits for housing. The bill also extended the time for Native American tribes to respond to lead agency notices regarding possible consultation on tribal cultural resources. See Public Resources Code §21080.3.1.

Under Executive Order N-54-20, regarding the coronavirus, the CEQA requirement to post notices of intent to adopt a negative declaration was suspended between April 23 and June 21, 2020, and was replaced by requirements for website and electronic posting by the lead agency, unless the applicable clerk’s office was open during that time. Under Executive Order N-80-20, effective on September 23, 2020, these substitute noticing provisions were extended until the Order is modified or until the coronavirus emergency is terminated, whichever occurs first.

For further discussion of these new laws and Executive Orders, see the March 2021 update of CEB’s Practice Under the California Environmental Quality Act.

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