A bill that would have required cities and counties to prepare economic impact reports for proposed big box stores that sell groceries received a veto from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

During a flurry of activity in September, the governor also rejected a bill that would have created a pilot brownfield cleanup program and a measure making minor amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act. Schwarzenegger signed two other brownfield bills, as well as a number of measures endorsed by environmental groups, including a bill creating the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.

Schwarzenegger’s rejection of the big box bill was expected. Organized labor supported the measure, SB 1056 by Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Los Angeles). The bill would have required economic studies of stores that were proposed to have at least 130,000 square feet, with at least 10% of sales space devoted to nontaxable items. Alarcon and union allies directed the bill at Wal-Mart supercenters, which are stores of at least 200,000 square feet. Wal-Mart workers are not unionized, while most large grocery store chains have unions. Both labor and management at grocery store chains fear that supercenters will force existing supermarkets out of business.

In his veto message, however, Schwarzenegger said the bill would “stifle market competition and expansion of employment.”

“Local communities are already free to decide between rejecting or embracing any retail development,” Schwarzenegger said. “By requiring the approval of an economic impact report prior to approval of a development project that includes a ‘superstore retailer,’ this bill would create a system of costly hurdles that these retailers would need to overcome before opening a new facility in a city or county.”

The Legislature passed three relatively significant brownfield bills this year, and the governor signed two of them. The measure that he rejected was SB 559 (Ortiz), which would have created a pilot project to streamline and coordinate the activities of local agencies, the Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Water Resources Control Board.

Schwarzenegger said that while he appreciated the bill’s goal of better coordination among agencies, “this pilot project would create an unnecessary and redundant oversight program with significant costs. The California Environmental Protection Agency Site Designation Committee has already established much of what the author wants to demonstrate with her proposed pilot program.”

The brownfield bills that Schwarzenegger did sign were AB 389 (Montañez) and SB 805 (Escutia). The Montañez bill was a compromise between developers and environmentalists. For developers, the bill reduces liability for landowners who had nothing to do with a site’s contamination. For environmentalists, the bill sets new rules in cases where additional contamination is found, and it requires regional water quality control boards to make their review processes more open to the public. Both the California Building Industry Association, and the Planning and Conservation League backed AB 389, although some environmental groups expressed doubts about the measure.

The Escutia bill expands a provision in state law that permits a city to force cleanup of a contaminated site. The program was limited to infill sites of less than 5 acres with one owner. The new legislation eliminates the 5-acre restriction.

The CEQA bill that the governor rejected was AB 3090 (Jerome Horton). The bill would have required the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research to amend CEQA Guidelines to reflect a 2001 state Supreme Court decision that said a city-sponsored ballot measure is not exempt from environmental review. Schwarzenegger said the most recent update of the Guidelines mentions the court case, Friends of Sierra Madre v. City of Sierra Madre, (2001) 25 Cal.4th 165.

The governor signed two CEQA bills with greater implications. One measure, AB 2922 (Laird) permits the broader use of master environmental impact reports, and allows lead agencies to adopt mitigated negative declarations that tier off of a master EIR. The later provision is important because a 2002 court decision regarding the CEQA Guidelines suggested that only an EIR — and not a negative declaration — could tier off of a master EIR(see CP&DR, January 2003).

The other CEQA bill that Schwarzenegger signed was SB 1334 (Kuehl). It requires counties that determine that a project would result in the loss of oak woodlands to consider certain alternatives or mitigation measures.

Probably the most significant piece of environmental legislation approved by the governor was AB 2600 by Assemblymen Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) and John Laird (D-Santa Cruz). The bill creates the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that will have jurisdiction over about one-quarter of the territory in California, from just outside the City of Mojave to the Oregon border.

During a signing ceremony on the banks of the Bear River, Schwarzenegger called AB 2600 “common sense legislation to preserve and protect our environment.” The new entity will not have authority to purchase land or easements, but it can provide funds to local agencies or nonprofit organizations for acquisitions. Goals for the new Conservancy include preserving “working landscapes” and boosting tourism.

Sierra Nevada Alliance Executive Director Joan Clayburgh said, “For too long the region has not received adequate attention from the State of California … The new Conservancy would serve as a central roundtable for coordination and planning of conservation efforts throughout the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains, and would fund grants and projects across the region.”

Two bills backed by advocates of housing element reform received Schwarzenegger’s signature. AB 2158 (Lowenthal) gives councils of government, cities and counties more say in determining regional housing needs allocations. Meanwhile, AB 2348 (Mullin) revises the criteria for potential development sites that can be counted toward meeting a local government’s fair share.