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In Save our Heritage Organisation v. City of San Diego (2017) ___Cal App.5th___ (Case No. D070006), the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld a trial court’s denial of a Code of Civil Procedure section 1025.1 attorneys’ fee award to the prevailing real party in interest.

On the merits, the court of appeal found that the City of San Diego had not abused its discretion when it approved a revitalization project for Balboa Park. Real party then filed a motion in superior court for an award of attorney fees, which the court denied.

The Fourth District concluded that a real party’s status as a project proponent did not categorically bar it from obtaining a section 1025.1 attorney fees award where it otherwise satisfied the award’s requirements. Nevertheless, the court upheld the denial of the fee award to real party holding that petitioner was not the type of party on whom attorney fees were intended to be imposed. The court stated that attorney fees were typically only imposed on parties who had engaged in conduct that had adversely affected the public interest. The court found that the petitioner initiated litigation to correct what it perceived to be a violation by the city of state and local environmental, historic preservation, and land use laws, which did not compromise any important public rights. Rather, it was the type of enforcement action section 1021.5 was designed to promote. Thus, the court held that imposing a fee award on the petitioner would be inappropriate.

In The Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (2017) ___Cal App.5th___ (Case No. B271350), the Second District Court of Appeal held that the mandatory relief provisions of Code of Civil Procedure section 473, subdivision (b), do not apply where counsel fails to lodge the administrative record in a CEQA proceeding and receives a judgment denying the petition for writ of mandate.

Despite agreeing by stipulation, counsel for the petitioner did not lodge the record with the court prior to trial. After a hearing on the merits of the matter, the trial court ruled that because the petitioner had failed to lodge the administrative record, it could not support its arguments. Subsequently, the petitioner filed a motion for discretionary and mandatory relief pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 473, subdivision (b). The trial court denied petitioner’s counsel’s motion for discretionary relief, ruling that counsel’s failure to lodge the administrative record did not rise to the level of excusable neglect. Nevertheless, the lower court granted petitioner mandatory relief, finding that counsel’s error had deprived the petitioner of its day in court.

The appellate court disagreed. The court held that Code of Civil Procedure section 473, subdivision (b), does not apply where, as here, there has been a trial on the merits. Thus, the court found, counsel’s error had not served to deny the petitioner its day in court. Rather, the error resulted in a failure to present sufficient evidence and therefore the mandatory relief provisions were inapplicable. The Court of Appeal reinstated the lower court’s original judgment denying the petition and complaint, and allowed the City of Los Angeles recovery of appellate costs from the petitioner.

In City of San Jose v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County (2017) (Case No. S218066), the City of San Jose argued that messages communicated through personal accounts of city employees were not public records subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”). The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that a city employee’s emails about public business are not excluded from disclosure simply because they have been sent, received, or stored in a personal email account.

The Supreme Court rejected the City’s narrow interpretation that the statutory definition of “local agency” does not specifically include individual government officials or staff members—finding that nothing in the statutory language indicates the Legislature meant to exclude local agency employees from CPRA obligations.

The court similarly rejected the City’s argument that “public records” include only materials in the agency’s possession or directly accessible to the agency. Taking its cue from federal courts interpreting the Freedom of Information Act, it concluded that documents retained in an employee’s personal account are considered “retained by” the agency within the meaning of the CPRA.

The content of the specific records at issue was not a question before the court in this matter. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court did acknowledge that resolving whether a writing relates in a substantive way to the conduct of the public’s business, particularly when writings are kept in personal accounts, may involve examination of several factors, including the content of the writing; the context and purpose for which it was written; the intended audience; and whether the employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment.

Finally, the Supreme Court agreed with petitioner that potential intrusion of personal privacy resulting from a records search in personal accounts can be minimized through procedural safeguards. The court provided guidance for reasonable searches—such as relying on their employees to complete their own searches or adopting policies to reduce the likelihood of public records being held in employees’ private accounts.

Notably, the court did not, however, foreclose the opportunity for an agency to claim that the burden of obtaining records from personal accounts is too onerous.

In January 2017, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) released the Draft 2017 Climate Change Scoping Plan Update. The Proposed Scoping Plan identifies the overall strategy to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030—the target codified in SB 32. The strategy requires contributions from all economic sectors and includes a combination of extending key reduction programs and new actions that would prioritize direct emissions reductions.

The Proposed Scoping Plan continues the cap-and-trade program through 2030. The analysis in the plan finds that cap-and-trade is the lowest cost, most efficient policy approach to meeting the 2030 goal. According to the analysis, even if other measures fall short, cap-and-trade provides certainty that California will meet the 2030 target emissions reduction. The agency is also evaluating potential changes to the cap-and-trade program to “support greater direct GHG emissions reductions.” Under evaluation are measures which include reducing the offset usage limit, redesigning the allocation strategy to support increased technology and energy investments to reduce GHG emissions, and reducing allocation for entities with criteria or toxic emissions that exceed a predetermined baseline.

Other key components of the overall approach include: a 20 percent reduction in GHG emissions from the refinery sector; continued investment in renewable energy; efforts to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants; and increased focus on zero- and near-zero emission vehicle technologies.

CARB is currently seeking comments on the Proposed Scoping Plan. The comment period was recently extended until April 10, 2017. A public board meeting on the Final Proposed Scoping Plan is scheduled for June 22-23, 2017.

Governor Brown recently signed Senate Bill 32 and Assembly Bill 197 continuing California’s leadership on climate change. SB 32 and AB 197 were inextricably linked—each bill requiring the passage of the other.

SB 32 significantly increases the state’s targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. It calls for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 40 percent below the statewide limit by 2030.

AB 197 requires CARB to prioritize direct emission reductions and consider social costs when adopting regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a means to protect the state’s “most impacted and disadvantaged communities.” Social costs are defined as “an estimate of the economic damages, including, but not limited to, changes in net agricultural productivity; impacts to public health; climate adaptation impacts, such as property damages from increased flood risk; and changes in energy system costs, per metric ton of greenhouse gas emission per year.” The legislation requires CARB to prioritize those rules and regulations that would result in direct emissions reductions at large stationary and mobile sources. AB 197 also creates oversight of future CARB greenhouse gas emissions reductions strategies by adding two legislators to the state board as ex-officio nonvoting members and creating a joint legislative committee that will make recommendations to the legislature concerning the state’s programs, policies, and investments related to climate change.

 

In California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (2016) ___Cal.App.4th___ (Case No. A135335 & A136212), on remand from the California Supreme Court (California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Quality Management District (2015) 62 Cal.4th 369), the First District found BAAQMD’s CEQA thresholds of significance for “new receptors” valid for specific purposes.

The First District was directed to re-analyze BAAQMD’s thresholds of significance for “new receptors” consisting of residents and workers who will be brought to an area of existing emissions as a result of a proposed project, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision. The Supreme Court held that CEQA generally does not require an analysis of how existing environmental conditions will impact future residents or users of a proposed project. In applying this principle, the Court of Appeal held that the receptor thresholds may be valid in the following instances—when voluntarily used on BAAQMD’s own projects; in analyzing whether a project exacerbates an existing environmental conditions; during CEQA review of school projects; and when analyzing housing development projects under CEQA exemption statutes. The court did not rule specifically on the propriety of the receptor thresholds with respect to determining a project’s consistency with general plans because it was not presented with a concrete example of their use in this context—but ruled that the receptor thresholds were not invalid on their face. While not facially invalid, the court held—consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling—that the receptor thresholds could not be used for their primary purpose, which was to assess the effect of existing environmental conditions to future users of a project.

In Friends of the Willow Glen Trestle v. City of San Jose, the Sixth District Court of Appeal held that the fair argument standard does not apply to a lead agency’s decision that a resource is not a historical resource—abandoning its previous holding to the contrary in Architectural Heritage Assn v. County of Monterey (2004) 122 Cal.App.4th 1095.

The resource at issue—a wooden railroad bridge, referred to as the Trestle—was built in 1922 as part of a spur line to provide rail freight access to canning districts near downtown San Jose. It was not listed or eligible for listing in the California Register of Historical Resources, nor was it included in a local register of historical resources. As part of its trail system, the City of San Jose proposed to demolish the Trestle and replace it with a new steel truss pedestrian bridge. The city adopted a mitigated negative declaration based on an initial study that concluded the Trestle was not a historical resource. Project opponents filed a writ petition asserting that there was substantial evidence to support a fair argument that the Trestle was a historical resource and therefore an EIR was required. Applying the fair argument standard, the trial court found in favor of petitioners.

The Sixth District disagreed. In rejecting the fair argument standard employed by the trial court, the court focused on the statutory language of Public Resources Code section 21084.1, which defines historical resources for purposes of CEQA. It provides, in part, that a resource may be presumed historical, if it meets certain criteria, unless a preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that it is not historical. Where a resource is not presumptively historical, an agency has the discretion to decide whether it is or is not historical. The court stated that by allowing an agency to overcome a presumption with a preponderance of the evidence, the standard of review logically must be whether substantial evidence supports the lead agency’s decision, not whether a fair argument can be made to the contrary. Based on this determination, the court found that the Legislature could not have intended that a lead agency’s discretionary decision to identify a resource as historical would be subject to a less-deferential review—i.e., fair argument—than a decision regarding a resource presumed to be historical.

The Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) released final guidance providing a framework for federal agencies to quantify greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions for projects subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). When addressing climate change, agencies should consider both the potential effects of a proposed action on climate change as well as the effects of climate change on a proposed action and its environmental impacts.

CEQ recommends using projected GHG emissions as a proxy to quantify impacts—along with providing a qualitative discussion of the relationship between GHG emissions and climate change—to assist federal agencies in making “a reasoned choice among alternatives and mitigation actions.” Both direct and indirect effects should be analyzed in comparison to the no-action alternative—amounting to cumulative effects analysis. The guidance expressly provides that a separate cumulative effects analysis for GHG emissions is not necessary. The preference is for a quantitative analysis of GHG emissions based on available tools and information. Where agencies do not quantify projected GHG emissions, a qualitative analysis should be included along with an explanation of why quantification was not reasonably available. Simply stating that the proposed project represents only a small fraction of GHG emissions globally is insufficient. Finally, proposed mitigation of GHG emissions should be evaluated to ensure they are “verifiable, durable, enforceable, and will be implemented.”

In analyzing how climate change will affect a proposed project, CEQ does not expect agencies to undertake original research or analysis; rather the expectation is that agencies will rely on existing, relevant scientific literature, incorporating such research by reference into an environmental document. Accounting for climate change during the planning process allows agencies to consider a project’s vulnerability to climate change, in addition to particular impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities, allowing agencies to explore opportunities to increase a project’s resilience to climate change as part of the initial design.

Overall, CEQ would have agencies treat the analysis of GHG emissions and climate change like any other environmental impact under NEPA. The guidance acknowledges that the “rule of reason” and proportionality play a role in determining the extent of analysis, which should be commensurate with the quantity of projected GHG emissions “as it would not be consistent with the rule of reason to require the preparation of an EIS for every federal action that may cause GHG emissions regardless of the magnitude of those emissions.”

This guidance does not carry the force and effect of law. Nevertheless, it does provide a common approach to be used by federal agencies in analyzing climate change, and is bound to be persuasive in determining whether an EIS adequately addresses climate change impacts.

In Spring Valley Lake Association v. City of Victorville (May 25, 2016) __ Cal.App.4th __, Case No. D069442, Division One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the San Bernardino County Superior Court’s decision in part, agreeing with the petitioner that revisions to impact analyses after the Draft EIR had been circulated for review constituted significant new information triggering recirculation, and that the Subdivision Map Act required the respondent city to adopt affirmative findings prior to approving a parcel map. The court also held that the project—a commercial retail development anchored by a Wal-Mart—was inconsistent with the city’s general plan.

Subdivision Map Act

The Court of Appeal held that the City of Victorville violated the Subdivision Map Act by failing, in approving the proposed parcel map associated with the project, to make the findings addressing the issues enumerated in Government Code section 66474, subdivisions (a) through (g). On its face, this section seems only to require that a local agency deny approval of a proposal parcel map if it makes any one of the specified findings. The section does not explicitly address what findings must be made in approving a proposed parcel map. The court held, however, that section 66474 does apply in the latter situation, and requires city and county legislative bodies, in approving parcel maps, to make affirmative findings on each matter addressed in subdivisions (a) through (g) of that section. In reaching this conclusion, the court relied on the following: (i) a related provision of the Subdivision Map Act (Government section 66473.5), which requires local legislative bodies, in approving parcel maps, to affirmatively find that such maps are consistent with the governing general plan and any applicable specific plan; (ii) a 1975 opinion from the Attorney General concluding that section 66474 requires affirmative findings for parcel map approvals as well as parcel map denials; and (iii) case law and secondary sources supporting the Attorney General’s broad interpretation of section 66474.

Consistency with General Plan

The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court’s decision that the city’s finding that the project was consistent with the general plan’s requirement for on-site generation of electricity was not supported by substantial evidence. The general plan requires that all new commercial projects generate on-site electricity to the maximum extent feasible. As part of the project approvals, however, the city did not require the project to generate on-site electricity. In doing so, the city effectively found that generation of on-site electricity was infeasible. In support of this outcome, the EIR stated that there were many factors considered in determining whether the use of solar panels is cost effective, and described the project as being “solar ready.” But the EIR provided no discussion of those factors or how they applied to the project. Nor did the EIR discuss the feasibility of other alternatives such as wind power. The appellate court therefore held that the city’s finding that the project complied with the general plan requirement that commercial projects generate electricity on-site to the maximum extent feasible was not supported by substantial evidence. It is not clear why the court applied the substantial evidence standard to petitioner’s general plan consistency claims, rather than the traditional arbitrary and capricious standard.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision that the EIR failed to adequately address the project’s impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In concluding the project would have no significant impacts on GHG emissions, the city relied on the project’s compliance with the general plan policy to exceed the Title 24 Building Energy Efficiency Standards for Residential and Nonresidential Buildings by 15 percent. The appellate court determined that this conclusion was not supported by the record. First, the court pointed out inconsistencies in the EIR. In one place, the EIR stated that the project would achieve a minimum of 14 percent increased efficiency over Title 24 Standards. In other places, including the technical reports, the EIR stated the project would only be a minimum of ten percent more efficient than Title 24 Standards. Second, in responding to comments, the city acknowledged that the EIR was “currently not in conformity” with the general plan policy that the project would comply with the new energy efficiency standards at the time of construction, and stated that “several of the project’s current energy efficient measures likely meet the 15 percent requirement.” The court found that, at most, the record showed that the project may comply, but not that it would comply with the general plan policy. Therefore, the city’s conclusion that the project would have no significant air quality impacts from GHG emissions was not supported by substantial evidence.

Recirculation under CEQA

Finally, the appellate court also held that the city’s revisions to analyses of certain impact topics constituted “significant new information” triggering recirculation of portions of the Draft EIR. First, the city added to the Final EIR information analyzing the project’s consistency with general plan air quality policies that had inadvertently been omitted from the Draft EIR. Noting that the public did not have a meaningful opportunity to comment on this information, the court found this information disclosed a substantial adverse effect, and therefore triggered the obligation to recirculate the draft EIR. Second, after the city circulated the draft EIR, the applicant substantially revised the project’s storm water management plan. Although no new impacts were identified, the final EIR included 350-pages of new water quality and hydrology analysis. The court held the new information triggered the duty to recirculate. As the court reasoned: “Given their breadth, complexity, and purpose, the revisions to the hydrology and water quality analysis deprived the public of a meaningful opportunity to comment on an ostensibly feasible way to mitigate a substantial adverse environmental effect.” Notably, the court reached these conclusions without attempting to relate its reasoning to the four examples within CEQA Guidelines section 15088.5, subdivision (a), of situations requiring recirculation.