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On April 21, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal in Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma (2017) __ Cal.App.5th __ (Case No. SCV-255465), affirmed the trial court and ruled that Sonoma County’s ordinance, issuing an erosion-control permit to establish a vineyard was a ministerial act, not subject to CEQA.

Sonoma County allows for the development or replanting of commercial vineyards, subject to issuance of an erosion-control permit from the County Agricultural Commissioner. In December 2013, the commissioner issued a permit to the Ohlson Ranch to establish a 108-acre vineyard. Several months later, the commissioner issued a notice of exemption indicating that issuance of the permit was ministerial and therefore did not require environmental review. The Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity filed suit challenging the commissioner’s determination and the trial court denied the petition.

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision that the county’s determination was ministerial and the approval was exempt from CEQA. In determining whether granting the permit was ministerial, the court applied the “functional distinction” test from Friends of Westwood, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 259. Under Friends of Westwood, an action is ministerial when the agency does not have the power to deny or condition the permit, or otherwise modify the project, in ways which can mitigate the environmental impacts identified in an EIR.

The court was unpersuaded by the petitioners’ key argument—that the ordinance’s terms were broad and vague, and therefore the entire permit process conferred discretion on the county. In reaching this decision, the court emphasized that CEQA analysis is project-specific. That discretion could conceivably be exercised in one project does not mean that the particular project at issue was discretionary. Here, many of the terms and conditions in the ordinance that may have conferred discretion to the county did not apply to the Ohlson Ranch permit application, because they were factually inapplicable; expressly excluded from consideration by the commissioner with regard to this project; or there was no evidence in the record to suggest that they played any role in issuing the permit.

Second, even where some of the applicable provisions could have conferred discretion on the commissioner, under the functional distinction test, the county could not have modified the project or denied the permit to mitigate the environmental impacts. Rather, county decision-making was guided by nearly 50 pages of technical guidance documents. A required wetland setback conferred discretion only to the extent that the distance of the setback would be determined by the biologist’s report, but did not confer discretion on the agency to modify the biologist’s recommendations. A requirement to divert storm water to the nearest “practicable” disposal location was similarly ministerial, in that the permit application provided a means of water diversion, and petitioner failed to establish that other diversion methods were even available. If other methods had been available, it may have granted discretion to the commissioner to select an option or otherwise mitigate impacts.  The petitioners’ reliance on a provision to incorporate natural drainage features “whenever possible” was flawed for the same reasons, as petitioners failed to identify the types of features present on the site and the commissioner’s ability to choose the least environmentally significant option.

Third, the court declined to hold that issuing a permit, an otherwise ministerial act, becomes discretionary because the applicant “offers” to mitigate potential impacts. The ordinance does not require mitigation measures and the commissioner has no authority to condition granting the permit application on them.

Similarly, the commissioner’s request for corrections and clarifications on the permit application did not demonstrate discretion, but rather was a simple request for information in order to complete an otherwise non-discretionary act. These corrections and clarifications were not significant enough to have alleviated any adverse environmental consequences.

In POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2017) ___Cal.App.5th___ (Case No. F073340) (“POET II”), the Fifth District Court of Appeal held that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) failed to comply with the terms of the writ of mandate issued by the same court in POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 681 (“POET I”). The court invalidated the trial court’s discharge of the writ, modified the existing writ, and ordered CARB to correct its defective CEQA Environmental Analysis (EA).

Legal and Factual Background
CARB promulgated low carbon fuel standards (LCFS) in 2009 as required by the 2006 California Global Warming Solutions Act (“AB 32”). In promulgating the LCFS, CARB adopted an EA, the regulatory equivalent to an Environmental Impact Report, pursuant to CEQA. Those original regulations and the associated EA were the subject of litigation in POET I, where the Fifth District found that the EA violated CEQA by impermissibly deferring analysis of nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions from biodiesel fuel. The appellate court took the acknowledged “unusual” step of allowing the regulations to remain in effect, pending satisfaction of a writ of mandate (“2014 writ”).

In 2015, in response to the court’s ruling in POET I, CARB produced an updated EA, updated LCFS regulations (2015 regulations), and alternative diesel fuel regulations (ADF regulations). The EA analyzed the project using a 2014 baseline and determined that the regulations would not have significant impacts related to NOx emissions. On the return to the writ, the trial court sided with CARB and discharged the 2014 writ. This appeal followed.

Court’s Analysis
The Court of Appeal applied the abuse of discretion standard to its analysis of whether the lower court’s discharge of the 2014 writ was proper. The court concluded that CARB continued to violate CEQA and the 2014 writ by selecting a 2014 project baseline. The court explained that a normal existing-conditions baseline begins when the project commences and must include all related project activities. In addition, a regulatory scheme is a “project” under CEQA and includes all enactment, implementation, and enforcement activities. Here, the original regulations, 2015 regulations, and ADF regulations were related activities because they concerned the same subject matter, had a shared objective, covered the same geographic area, and were temporally connected.

Thus, by selecting 2014 as the baseline, the court found that the EA failed to consider how the original regulations, which remained in effect during and after POET I, encouraged and increased the use of biodiesel fuel and its effect on NOx emissions. According to the court, selecting such a limited baseline was not even “objectively reasonable” from the point of view of an attorney familiar with CEQA and the Guidelines. In addition, the court found that the flawed CEQA analysis was prejudicial because it deprived the public of a meaningful opportunity to review the effect of the agency’s actions on the environment.

Remedy
On remand, the court ordered that CARB review its project baseline. While declining to require a specific baseline date, CARB was instructed to select a “normal” baseline consistent with the court’s analysis and in any event, to not select a baseline date of 2010 or after. The court implied that the baseline could even have begun in calendar year 2006, consistent with then-Governor Schwarzenegger’s 2007 mandate to the agency to review fuel emissions.

The parties agreed that the ADF regulations were both severable and independently enforceable from the 2015 regulations. The court found that the 2015 regulations were also severable from the remainder of the LCFS regulations because, though more effective in their entirety, the remaining regulations would be complete and retain utility. Ultimately though, like in POET I, the court concluded that, on balance, suspending the regulations would cause more environmental harm than allowing them to remain.

Thus, the court reversed the order discharging the writ and ordered the superior court to modify the writ to compel CARB to amend its analysis of NOx emissions and freeze the existing regulations as they relate to diesel and its substitutes. In addition, the court ordered the superior court to retain jurisdiction, and to require CARB to “proceed diligently, reasonably and in subjective good faith.” Finally, the court ordered that if CARB fails to proceed in this manner, the superior court shall immediately vacate the portion of the writ preserving the existing regulations, and may impose additional sanctions.

 

On March 15, 2017 the Fourth District certified for publication its February 4, 2017 decision in Residents Against Specific Plan 380 v. County of Riverside (___ Cal.App.5th___, Case No. E063292), upholding the EIR for a master- planned community (project). A citizens group challenged the sufficiency of the EIR and the county’s approval process on six grounds. The court found for the county and real party in interest, Hanna Marital Trust (applicant), on every count.

The project proposes a master-planned community with seven planning areas containing medium-density residential housing, mixed uses, commercial retail, and dedicated open space on 200 acres of undeveloped land in Riverside County. Planning area 6, the mixed use area, was analyzed as potentially providing for the development of a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) for seniors.

On July 28, 2011, the County Planning Department released a Draft EIR (DEIR). The DEIR stated that mitigation measures would reduce the environmental impacts to a below significant level, except for air quality and noise. During the public comment period, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) and the City of Temecula raised concerns about the project’s air quality impacts. The final EIR (FEIR) was released in January 2012 and included responses to SCAQMD’s and Temecula’s comments. The FEIR reflected changes in the location of some project elements, but was “in its basics identical” with the project as described in the DEIR.

The Planning Commission reviewed the FEIR in April 2012 and suggested revisions, which were subsequently presented to the Commission in October 2012. The Commission recommended approval of the FEIR and the Project to the Board of Supervisors. The Board reviewed the FEIR at its December 11, 2012 meeting, where it considered some modifications to the project and Residents Against Specific Plan 380 (petitioners) suggested additional noise mitigation measures. At its December 18, 2012 meeting, the Board tentatively approved the FEIR, contingent on finalization of the modifications. On November 5, 2013, the Board approved the finalized FEIR, general plan amendment, zone change, and Specific Plan 380. The EIR resolution included findings of fact, a mitigation monitoring and reporting plan, and a statement of overriding considerations. The same day, the county clerk posted a Notice of Determination (NOD) that erroneously used an out-of-date project description.

On November 18, 2013, petitioners filed a petition for a writ of mandate, which was denied by the trial court. This appeal followed.

First, the Fourth District concluded that the Board did not substantially modify the EIR after approving it. Because the Board only tentatively approved the project in December 2012, the final approval in November 2013 reflected the Plan’s modifications. Similarly, the court disagreed with the petitioners’ argument that the findings, statement of overriding considerations, and mitigation plan were not timely and concurrently approved.

Second, the court concluded that the NOD substantially complied with the informational requirements of CEQA, despite its project description errors. The court also noted that the petitioners could not show that the errors were prejudicial because they filed the suit well before the statute of limitations had run.

Third, the court held that the changes made by the Commission and Board were not significant enough to require recirculation of the EIR. In reaching its determination, the court relied on CEQA Guidelines § 15088.5, subd. (a), stating that a lead agency must recirculate an EIR when significant new information is added that reveals a substantially new or increased impact. The court rejected the petitioners’ argument of increased traffic impacts, holding that only traffic patterns would be affected, not intensity. The court also rejected the petitioners’ contention that increased biological impacts would result from moving the mixed-use area further north, as the open space region was already adjacent to it. Petitioners’ argument of increased noise impacts was contradicted by the county’s expert. Finally, the petitioners failed to substantiate their claim of potential land use inconsistencies. Therefore, the County had an adequate basis for not recirculating the EIR. Petitioners’ reliance on Vineyard Area Citizens for Responsible Growth v. City of Rancho Cordova (2007) 40 Cal.4th 412 and Save our Peninsula Committee v. Monterey County Board of Supervisors (2001) 87 Cal.App.4th 99 were inapposite, as the EIR did not reveal facially significant new impacts nor areas necessitating further factual development.

Fourth, the court concluded that the EIR adequately analyzed the impacts of the mixed-use area under the rubric of a proposed CCRC. Petitioners alleged that by analyzing only a CCRC, and not other potentially higher impact uses, the EIR’s analysis of the mixed-use planning area was improperly narrow in scope. The court rejected this argument because substantial evidence supported the County’s decision to limit the scope of the analysis to a CCRC. Even if the applicant did not build a CCRC, the project plan restricted the applicant to other permitted uses in the planning area, and only if they would not incur additional environmental impacts. Nor, the court stated, does CEQA require the county to analyze what are merely possible development schemes.

Finally, the court ruled that the EIR adequately considered the specific suggestions for mitigating the project’s air quality and noise impacts from SCAQMD, Temecula, and the petitioners. Regarding mitigation for air emission impacts proposed by SCAQMD and Temecula, the county could justify why the measures were not adopted, why they were infeasible given the project’s timeline and parameters, or why they were duplicative with measures already adopted. SCAQMD’s proposal to utilize lower emission vehicles did not reflect the construction equipment anticipated to be reasonably available. Temecula’s suggestion of applying the 2010 Energy Code was duplicative of the requirement to exceed the 2008 Code emission standards by 15%, and the code in force at the time of construction would control in any event. Furthermore, the county was not required to adopt the specific prescriptive emission reduction measures in the Green Building Standards Code, but could opt for performance-based standards that are less likely to incur enforcement and enforceability issues. With respect to the additional noise mitigation measures proposed by the petitioners, these were found to be untimely raised more than a year after the comment period had closed. Therefore, the county was not obligated to respond. Moreover, the county was justified in not adopting these noise mitigation measures because they require electric construction equipment that may not be available or may duplicate existing requirements.

(author: Sara Dudley)