Posts Tagged ‘Attorney Fees and Costs’


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.

Coalition for a Sustainable Future in Yucaipa v. City of Yucaipa (July 6, 2015) __ Cal.App.4th __, Case No. E57589.

A petitioner group challenged the City of Yucaipa’s certification of an EIR and approval of land use entitlements for a Target shopping center project. The project was to be developed on land owned by Palmer General Corporation. The trial court denied the petition and petitioner appealed. That appeal became moot when both Target and the landowner abandoned the project due to a contract dispute, which caused the city to revoke the entitlements. The Court of Appeal directed that the order below be reversed with directions to dismiss the action with prejudice due to mootness. After the trial court dismissed the action as directed, petitioner brought a motion for attorneys’ fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, asserting the petition was the catalyst for the city’s action to revoke the entitlements—the relief petitioner had sought at trial. The trial court denied the motion and petitioner appealed again. The Court of Appeal affirmed, finding petitioner’s action was not the catalyst for the city’s actions.

A party seeking attorneys’ fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 must first show it is a “successful party.” It is not necessary to achieve a favorable final judgment so long as the petitioner’s actions were the “catalyst” for the defendant’s actions. More specifically, the catalyst theory permits an award of fees absent judicial resolution if the defendant changes its behavior substantially because of, and in the manner sought by, the litigation. To obtain attorneys’ fees under this theory, a plaintiff must establish that (1) the lawsuit was a catalyst motivating the defendants to provide the primary relief sought; (2) the lawsuit had merit and achieved its catalytic effect by threat of victory, not by dint of nuisance and threat of expense; and (3) the plaintiffs reasonably attempted to settle the litigation prior to filing the lawsuit. To satisfy the first prong, a petitioner need not show that litigation was the only cause of respondent’s acquiescence, only that it was a substantial factor.

Here, the court found that evidence supported the trial court’s finding that petitioner’s action was not a substantial factor contributing to the entitlement revocation.

First, before the land use entitlements were revoked, the trial court had denied the petition, which was a win for the city. Petitioner did not prevail, but instead appealed the judgment. Filing an appeal from the adverse judgment did not convert the unsuccessful action into a meritorious one. And the court’s direction to dismiss the action with prejudice on remand was not a favorable outcome. The court noted that none of the cases applying the catalyst theory involved situations in which an adverse judgment had already been rendered against the party seeking attorneys’ fees. Thus, having lost twice, petitioner could not show that it had prevailed by “threat of victory.”

Second, the city did not change its behavior substantially because of, and in the manner sought by,the litigation. The city had been successful in defending the CEQA action and did not revoke the entitlements for any reason related to the EIR or the CEQA violations alleged by petitioner. Rather, the city revoked the entitlements because the developer and the landowner had both abandoned the project due to a contract dispute. Petitioner could not demonstrate a nexus between the merits of its action and the city’s revocation of the entitlements. Therefore, the action was not the catalyst for the revocation and petitioner was not entitled to attorneys’ fees.

In this case, the Fourth Appellate District allowed the County of San Diego to recover over $37,000 in costs for preparing an administrative record, including costs for reasonably necessary paralegal and attorney labor. Otay Ranch, L.P. et al., v. County of San Diego (Sept. 29, 2014), Case No. D064809.

The controversy in this case originates with the County of San Diego’s approval of a mitigated negative declaration for a remediation project at the former Otay Skeet and Trap Shooting Range (the project). Former owners of the shooting range, Otay Ranch, Sky Communities, and Sky Vista, filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the county’s remediation project. The plaintiffs argued that an EIR was necessary and that the county’s remediation plan did not comply with the Health and Safety Code.

Petitioners elected to prepare the administrative record in this case. After a number of delays, petitioners and the County met to discuss the proposed CEQA record. The County indicated that the record, in its current state, was woefully inadequate. The record improperly included numerous files not related to the project while omitting many necessary, project-specific files. After this conference, the petitioners voluntarily dismissed their CEQA cause of action. They then filed an amended petition and continued to pursue their Health and Safety Code cause of action. But petitioners never filed an administrative record, so the County reclaimed responsibility for preparing the administrative record.

The County did not have the resources available to prepare the administrative record in the limited time available. It therefore employed the help of the outside law firm representing it in the litigation to prepare the record. County’s outside counsel and paralegals worked extended hours to prepare the record in time to file with the County’s opposition briefing. This work included 74 hours of attorney time and 67 hours of paralegal time. The final record included over 300 documents and 18,000 pages, spanning many years of project history—all for a challenged MND. Surprisingly, the day after the county filed and served the administrative record, petitioners dismissed their entire action.

The County subsequently filed a memorandum of costs seeking recovery of approximately $66,000 for preparation of the administrative record. Petitioners moved to tax the majority of these costs. They argued that attorney and paralegal hours could not be included in the cost award for preparation of the administrative record. The County responded that the costs represented the reasonably necessary labor costs of “persons with specialized knowledge,” which is a recoverable record cost. Both the trial court and appellate court agreed.

The County submitted compelling declarations that it was necessary for the attorney and paralegal to be actively involved in reviewing and organizing the record. The documents proposed to be included in the record were technically complex and resulted from a complicated and long procedural history. Specific knowledge and understanding of the project was necessary for the individuals recreating the record. Therefore, the hours spent by the attorney and paralegal were reasonably necessary to the preparation of an adequate administrative record. The trial court awarded $37,528 for record preparation costs, representing the County’s costs incurred after the date the County decided to prepare the administrative record itself. The appellate court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when reaching this outcome, so the trial court’s award stood.

Of note in this case, the appellate court dismissed two petitioners from the appeal. The court determined Otay Ranch lacked capacity to appeal because it was a cancelled limited partnership. The court was not convinced that the appeal was part of Otay Ranch’s “winding up” process since the partnership had been cancelled and had completed winding up its affairs well before the appeal. Likewise, Sky Communities lacked capacity to appeal because it was a suspended corporation. A suspended corporation may not prosecute or defend an action, nor appeal from an adverse judgment. Sky Communities insisted the defect was not fatal because the Franchise Tax Board could always revive the corporation, retroactively validating the earlier notice of appeal. But the court noted the Board had not yet issued a certificate of revivor and Sky Communities remained a suspended company lacking the capacity to appeal.

Analysis and Conclusion

The size and complexity of administrative records continues to grow, straining the resources of local governments. However, this case offers hope that at least some courts appreciate the burden of record costs in CEQA litigation. The Fourth Appellate District’s opinion recognizes that, for projects with lengthy procedural history or other technical aspects, specialized knowledge and the expertise of paralegals and attorneys may be required to produce a record sufficient for certification. This characterization is likely applicable to numerous CEQA records, which commonly span tens of thousands of pages as a result of increasingly strict rules created by the courts for CEQA records. Based on this case, local governments should carefully document time reasonably spent by staff and any necessary outside assistance on record preparation in the event these costs are recoverable.

This case also serves as an important reminder for both potential CEQA petitioners and real parties to maintain active partnership or corporate standing. Dissolved partnerships and inactive corporations cannot pursue CEQA litigation.

In an unpublished decision, in LandValue 77 v. Board of Trustees of California State University, the Fifth District Court of Appeal upheld a lower court’s denial of attorneys’ fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, which codified the “private attorney general” doctrine. The doctrine allows plaintiffs to bring suits in the public interest and recover fees when they are successful, but only where plaintiffs show it was not in their economic interest to bring the suit. The court held that the plaintiffs failed to make that showing here.

In the underlying action, a movie theater company and its manager challenged the CEQA review and approval of a new theater. Although the trial court held in plaintiffs’ favor, plaintiffs contended that the remedies were insufficient. The Court of Appeal rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments, but remanded the case for resolution of certain issues. After remand, plaintiffs filed a motion for attorneys’ fees under section 1021.5.

The private attorney general doctrine is an exception to the usual rule that each party bears its own attorneys’ fees. The purpose of section 1021.5 is to compensate litigation brought in the public interest when there are insufficient financial incentives to otherwise justify the litigation—that is, where the financial burden on the plaintiff is much greater than the plaintiff’s stake in the matter. The claimant has the burden of proof to show legal entitlement to the fees under the multi-factor test laid out in Conservatorship of Whitley (2010) 50 Cal.4th 1206. The disputed factor in this case was whether plaintiffs had established a “financial burden of private enforcement,” i.e., that the costs to plaintiffs far outweighed any benefits of prevailing in the litigation. The trial court found plaintiffs failed to satisfy this burden, making a fee award inappropriate. The Court of Appeal agreed.

The court found that the record clearly showed plaintiffs had a financial incentive to stop or delay the opening of the proposed theater, given that plaintiffs had ownership interest in a competing theater only two miles away. Even without proof of an incentive, plaintiffs’ failure to identify with particularity their financial interests in the existing theater and failure to present sufficient evidence to estimate the monetary value of the delay in the opening of the competing theater meant the court could not conduct the proper cost-benefit analysis. Thus, plaintiffs failed to carry their burden of showing that their litigation expenses in fact transcended the monetary value of the benefits obtained. The court noted that a claimant’s declaration of altruistic motives—here, a desire to protect the environment—is not a substitute for presenting the information necessary for the court to perform a cost-benefit analysis.

The Fourth District recently ordered publication of its decision in San Diego Citizenry Group v. County of San Diego (July 30, 2013, Case No. D059962) __Cal.App.4th__. The Fourth District upheld the trial court’s decision rejecting a challenge to the adequacy of the county’s EIR, which analyzed a zoning ordinance intended to encourage the development of boutique wineries. But the appellate court determined the trial court had erred in awarding the county the costs of preparing planning commission transcripts for the administrative record because these transcripts were not in existence at the time of the board of supervisors’ approval of the ordinance.

Facts and Procedural Background

This case arises from the County of San Diego’s efforts to promote the growth of grapes and the expansion of the wine industry. In 2006, the board of supervisors began exploring ways to allow boutique wineries to expand and operate by right within the county. The county received public comments revealing concerns about traffic and related traffic safety impacts, especially on privately owned rural roads. Nonetheless, in 2008, the board directed its staff to develop a “tiered winery ordinance” that would allow boutique wineries by-right.

In 2009, the county prepared and circulated for public review a Draft EIR analyzing the potential environmental impacts of adopting the winery ordinance. The DEIR concluded that the project would cause 22 significant and unmitigated environmental impacts as a result of approving an unlimited number of future wineries by-right. Despite these impacts, the board adopted a Final EIR and a statement of overriding considerations in 2010. San Diego Citizenry Group filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging certification of the EIR. The Group requested that the county prepare the administrative record.

The trial court denied the petition and ordered the petitioner to reimburse the county for the costs of preparing the record. San Diego Citizenry Group appealed.

The Appellate Court’s Decision

The project objectives were proper.

On appeal, the petitioner argued that the county did not properly make a “preliminary policy determination” regarding the objectives for the project, and in particular, that the EIR improperly relied on these objectives when analyzing the feasibility of mitigation measures. But the court quickly dispensed with this argument, noting that the county included within the EIR a “statement of the objectives sought by the proposed project” in compliance with CEQA Guidelines section 15124. In fact, the county defined nine objectives for adopting its proposed ordinance amendment.

Adequacy of discussion and mitigation of impacts to private roads

Next, the petitioner argued the EIR was inadequate because it did not discuss “any ‘additional’ mitigation measures in ‘meaningful detail.’” But the court noted that the petitioner failed to identify any potentially feasible mitigation measures that the EIR omitted. The county was not required to engage in an extensive discussion of infeasible mitigation measures, including mitigation measures that are incompatible with the project’s “core” objectives. Requiring the county to analyze the incorporation of mitigation measures or alternatives that would defeat a project’s primary objectives would run contrary to CEQA’s definition of “feasible.”

The petitioner also attacked the adequacy of the EIR’s discussion of impacts to private roads caused by the ordinance because the EIR rejected a mitigating traffic measure previously adopted in 2008. But the court determined that the county was not required to adopt the 2008 traffic measure simply because it was suggested and addressed impacts identified in the EIR. An agency may delete previously adopted mitigation during review of a project so long as it states a legitimate reason for doing so. The court determined the county had a legitimate reason for not adopting the 2008 measure because it was developed for a completely different project involving private landowner agreements, rather than by-right uses. Furthermore, the FEIR included mitigation measures, such as limitations on the size of vehicles allowed to enter boutique wineries and various restrictions on operations at the wineries, which specifically addressed these impacts to private roads.

The EIR adequately discussed potential environmental impacts

The petitioner argued that the EIR did not sufficiently analyze the project’s potential significant environmental impacts for a variety of reasons.

Focusing on potential future impacts to traffic, appellants first argued that the EIR analysis was insufficient because the county did not use its “best efforts” to predict how many by-right wineries could be developed under the ordinance. But the court noted that the EIR did not “simply state that the level of development is unknown and then label each impact as significant without meaningful analysis or discussion.” The county based a prediction of future boutique winery development on the pattern of development of existing grape growers and wineries. The county had surveyed 26 existing wineries, eleven of which responded, with eight indicating an intention to convert to boutique wineries under the proposed ordinance. The FEIR analyzed the amount of traffic each new boutique winery would generate and determined the maximum concentration of wineries that could be developed. Therefore, the court found the FEIR adequately analyzed the project’s traffic impacts based on existing and anticipated development.

Second, the petitioner argued that the EIR did not sufficiently identify project impacts to water supplies. But the court disagreed, noting that the FEIR met the standard under Vineyard Area Citizens for Responsible Growth v. City of Rancho Cordova (2007) 40 Cal.4th 412, that “a conceptual plan EIR, such as one for a general plan amendment to allow proposed development,” must identify “the likely source of water for new development, noting the uncertainties involved, and discussing measures being taken to address the situation in the foreseeable future.” The county also collected survey data from wineries located in San Diego and Riverside counties to better estimate impacts on water supplies. This was sufficient.

Third, the petitioner argued the FEIR’s discussion of grading permits was “materially misleading” because it suggested grading permits could mitigate for “every type of environmental impact associated with the winery.” Determining that the FEIR actually acknowledged the exact opposite, the court rejected this argument.

Fourth, the petitioner argued that the board of supervisors’ statement of overriding considerations was invalid because the FEIR was deficient and did not provide a basis for the findings. But the court determined the EIR actually relied on conservative assumptions and disclosed potential environmental impacts in an informative matter. Thus, the board was within its discretion to rely on the EIR when it adopted the statement of overriding considerations.

Fifth, the petitioner argued that the ordinance was inconsistent with the county’s general plan. Specifically, the petitioner argued the ordinance allowed by-right wineries in environmentally constrained areas for which the general plan requires environmental review of development projects. The court found, however, that an EIR is not required to be consistent with a general plan; instead, the EIR must identify and discuss any such inconsistencies. The EIR in this case sufficiently discussed the alleged inconstancy, and the petitioner could not show that the county’s decision to exclude wineries from the environmentally constrained area provisions of the general plan was “unreasonable.”

Reimbursement for transcript costs

Finally, the Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court had erred when it ordered the petitioner to reimburse the county for the cost of preparing certain transcripts for the record since the transcripts were not created until after the approval of the winery ordinance. Section 21167.6, subdivision (e)(4) requires the party preparing the record to include transcripts or minutes “that were presented to the decisionmaking body prior to action on environmental documents or on the project.” The trial court had ordered appellants to pay approximately $6,000 for the costs of creating transcripts of planning commission hearings, but appellants successfully argued that they should not have to pay these costs because it was undisputed that the planning commission transcripts were not before the board when it made its decision to approve the winery ordinance.

In California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (August 13, 2013, Case No. A136212) ___ Cal.App.4th ___, the First District Court of Appeal reversed a trial court’s decision striking down the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s (BAAQMD’s) CEQA thresholds of significance for greenhouse gas emissions. The appellate court held that CEQA does not require BAAQMD to prepare an environment impact report (EIR) before adopting “thresholds of significance” to assist in the determination of whether air emissions of proposed projects might be deemed “significant.”

On June 2, 2010, BAAQMD adopted CEQA thresholds of significance for greenhouse gas emissions. The thresholds also set standards for impacts related to toxic air contaminants (TACs) and very small particulate matter (PM2.5). The thresholds were adopted pursuant to CEQA Guidelines section 15064.7, which encourages agencies to “develop and publish thresholds of significance” for “general use as part of the lead agency’s environmental review process.” The section further mandates that the thresholds be “adopted by ordinance, resolution, rule, or regulation, and developed through a public review process and be supported by substantial evidence.”

The California Building Industry Association (CBIA) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging BAAQMD’s adoption of the thresholds. CBIA argued the issuance of the thresholds was a “project” under CEQA, and that BAAQMD had violated CEQA by not preparing an EIR before adopting the guidelines. CBIA claimed the thresholds were too stringent and would discourage developers from building desirable urban infill projects close to public transportation by making the CEQA review process more burdensome and expensive. This, in turn, would result in more housing being built in the suburbs, causing more commuter traffic and more traffic-related emissions. This increased pollution, CBIA argued, was an adverse impact mandating preparation of an EIR.

The Alameda County Superior Court agreed, ruling that the adoption of the thresholds was a project under CEQA and entered an order awarding the CBIA substantial attorney fees under Code Civil Procedure section 1021.5.

The First District Court of Appeal reversed, reasoning that (1) the district’s adoption of thresholds was not a “project” within the meaning of CEQA and (2) there were no reasonably foreseeable impacts associated with this action.

CEQA defines a project as any activity “which may cause either a direct physical change in the environment, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment.” (Pub. Res. Code, § 21065.) The appellate court concluded that the adoption of thresholds was not a project. BAAQMD relied on CEQA Guidelines section 15064.7 in promulgating the thresholds. The court explained that section 15064.7 establishes the procedures for adopting thresholds in some detail, and CEQA review is not part of that procedure. Section 15064.7, subdivision (b), provides that thresholds of significance must be formally adopted through a public review process and supported by substantial evidence if, as in this case, they are to be placed in general use. The agency accepted public comments and responded to comments. Striking an uncommon tone, the court concluded that this process was substantially similar to the EIR process and that requiring more would be a duplicative effort and a waste of tax dollars.

The court noted in any event, the action was not a “project” because the activity would not cause a direct physical change in the environment or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change. (Pub. Res. Code, § 21065; CEQA Guidelines, § 15378, subd. (a).) CBIA argued that impacts were reasonably foreseeable because the thresholds were more stringent than earlier thresholds and would require a more thorough environmental analysis; as a result, the CEQA process would become more burdensome, making urban development less desirable and leading to more suburban development with all its attendant impacts including traffic and air quality impacts.

The court was not persuaded, instead reasoning that the analysis posited by CBIA included many assumptions and a great deal of speculation because “the extent to which land development projects might be relocated to a more suburban location would require a prescience we cannot reasonably demand of the [BAAQMD].” The court, therefore, concluded that no CEQA review was required before BAAQMD promulgated the thresholds.

In its petition for writ of mandate, CBIA raised several challenges to the substance of the thresholds that were not decided by the trial court. Though CBIA failed to cross-appeal, the appellate court agreed to consider the other two issues. First, CBIA argued that the standards were inappropriate in any event because they evaluated the effects of the environment on sensitive receptors as part of the project; this is contrary, it argued to the purpose of CEQA, which is to protect the environment from proposed projects, not protect the proposed projects from the existing environment. The court cited a long line of cases for this proposition, including the recent Ballona Wetlands Land Trust v. City of Los Angeles (2011) 201 Cal.App.4th 455. The court did not address whether Ballona, et al., were correctly decided, or whether, as a general rule, an EIR may be required solely because the existing environment may adversely affect future occupants of a project. Instead, finding CBIA’s claim that the receptor thresholds were unauthorized by CEQA analogous to a claim a statute or regulation is unconstitutional on its face, the court held that the regulations were not facially invalid because they were relevant for purposes other than determining the effects of the environment on the project. The court also suggested that continuing vitality of Ballona, et al., was better reserved for a case in which the receptor thresholds were actually applied to a project.

As to the second CBIA challenge not ruled on by the trial court, the First District concluded that BAAQMD’s TAC Single-Source and Cumulative Thresholds were supported by substantial evidence and upheld them.

In reversing the trial court’s judgment in CBIA’s favor and declining to grant the relief CBIA sought on the issues not resolved by the trial court, the court of appeal also reversed the substantial attorney’s fees award, concluding the industry association was no longer the successful party under Code of Civil Procedure Section 1021.5.

On July 18, 2012, the Second District Court of Appeal certified its ruling for partial publication in City of Maywood v. Los Angeles Unified School District (2012) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. B233739). In this case, the City of Maywood sought to overturn the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) certification of an FEIR analyzing the environmental consequences of constructing a high school. The trial court rejected most of the city’s claims, but found the FEIR deficient in four ways, including inadequate analysis of pedestrian safety. The trial court entered a peremptory writ and awarded attorneys’ fees to Maywood. The LAUSD appealed. The appellate court rejected most claims against the FEIR, but agreed, in an unpublished section, that further analysis of pedestrian safety impacts was required. In the only published section of its decision, the Second District clarified the proper test for determining whether the prevailing party was entitled to attorneys’ fees.

The trial court awarded Maywood approximately $670,000 in attorney’s fees pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5. On appeal, LAUSD argued that Maywood could not recover fees because the “primary purpose” of the lawsuit was to benefit Maywood “whether for financial or other reasons.” To obtain attorneys’ fees under § 1021.5, the party seeking the fees must show that the litigation (1) served to vindicate an important public right; (2) conferred a significant benefit on the general public or a large class of persons; and (3) was necessary and imposed a financial burden on plaintiffs which was out of proportion to their individual stake in the matter. Each of these elements must be satisfied for an award to issue.

The appellate court relied on the California Supreme Court’s decision in Conservatorship of Whitley (2010) 50 Cal.4th 1214 to clarify the method for evaluating the necessity and financial burden element of § 1021.5. The Supreme Court determined “the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement” requirement is actually comprised of two distinct elements: a necessity prong and a financial burden prong. The court held “a strong nonfinancial motivation does not change or alleviate the ‘financial burden’ that a litigant bears. Only offsetting pecuniary gains can do that.” Further, the Supreme Court noted that the legislative history for §1021.5 did not focus on the litigants’ initial subjective motivation, but rather, was intended to alleviate the financial burdens associated with public interest litigation. Lastly, the Supreme Court explained that determining whether a particular non-pecuniary interest was sufficient to preclude recovery of attorneys’ fees would require speculative inquiry lacking in objective criteria.

While the holding in Whitley focused on private enforcement actions, the Second District Court of Appeal determined that all of the factors the Supreme Court discussed in Whitley apply equally to public entity litigants. The legislative history for § 1021.5 indicated that the Legislature intended the same requirements to apply to private and public litigants. The appellate court also rejected a substantial portion of LAUSD’s argument for relying on cases preceding Whitley. Whitley has made it clear that a litigant’s non-pecuniary interests are not relevant in evaluating § 1021.5’s financial burden criterion.

The appellate court indicated that, due to reversing significant portions of the trial court’s order, it also had to reverse the order granting attorneys’ fees because any grant or denial of attorneys’ fees under § 1021.5 must follow remand and be based on the results obtained in the new judgment. The trial court was directed to reassess whether fees were appropriate after the outcome of the appeal, and if so, the appropriate amount of any such fees, applying the standards in Whitley. (By John Wheat)

Madera Oversight Coalition, Inc. v. County of Madera
(2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 48

The Fifth District Court of Appeal held the trial court did not err in applying section 21167.6, subdivision (e) and determining which documents to include and exclude from the administrative record.  The Court also held a mitigation measure that proposed to verify that certain archaeological sites are historical resources for purposes of CEQA constituted an unlawful deferral of environmental analysis; that the EIR’s traffic analysis lacked clarity regarding the baseline used to determine the project’s potential impacts; and that the trial court correctly determined that the analysis of the project’s proposed water supply was inadequate.

Real Parties in Interest Tesoro Viejo, Inc., Rio Mesa Holdings, LLC and Tesoro Viejo Master Mutual Water Company proposed the Tesoro Viejo mixed-use development project, a 1,579-acre development located in southeastern Madera County. The project proposed a mix of residential, commercial, and light industrial uses plus areas for open space, recreation, and other public uses. The project would contain up to 5,190 dwelling units and about three million square feet for commercial, retail, office, public institutional, and light industrial uses.

In February 2006, Tesoro Viejo requested that Madera County initiate the project’s environmental review process.  The county circulated the EIR, received comment and provided responses.  In December 2008, the County certified the EIR and approved the project.  Petitioners Madera Oversight Coalition, Inc., Revive the San Joaquin, Inc., and the Dumna Tribal filed a petition for writ of mandamus and complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief challenging the County’s approval of the project.  They alleged violations of CEQA, the Planning and Zoning Law and the Water Code.

In May 2009, the County lodged and certified the administrative record.  Along with their briefing, Petitioners thrice requested augmentation of the administrative record.  After a hearing, the trial court granted the petition.  The parties appealed and cross-appealed.  The dispute focused in part on various questions concerning the scope of the administrative record and the admission of extra-record evidence.

First, the court addressed questions regarding the scope of the record, which involved both rulings made by the trial court and motions filed on appeal.  The court found that legislative intent and case law indicate that, after an administrative record is certified, the trial court has authority to decide issues relating to whether an omitted document should have been included in the administrative record pursuant to the provisions of subdivision (e) of Public Resources Code section 21167.6.  On appeal, the court noted, its role was to review the trial court’s decisions, giving deference to the trial court’s factual determinations, rather than make an independent decision regarding the scope of the record.  The court found such a role was appropriate in light of the non-discretionary nature of the determinations made by the agency in preparing and certifying the administrative record and the independent judicial scrutiny of trial court to in applying section 21167.6, subdivision (e) to the disputes before it.  Furthermore, the court found that petitioners’ motion to augment the record, filed in the appellate court concerning documents on which the trial court had already ruled, was not a proper way to present the court with issues concerning the inclusion of the documents in the administrative record.  Although the court ultimately construed the motion to augment as a direct challenge to the trial court’s decision to deny the request to include four documents in the administrative record, it rejected petitioners’ challenge because they failed to establish the trial court erred in excluding the documents.  The court also rejected respondents’ claims regarding certain documents the trial court excluded from the record and certain documents the trial court included in the record, finding that respondents did not affirmatively demonstrate that the trial court erred.  The court did find that the trial court failed to include one EIR comment letter requested by petitioners, but that no prejudice occurred by its exclusion because the letter raised no issues not raised in the EIR.

The court then reviewed the adequacy of the EIR’s cultural resources analysis.  The court noted that the EIR included analysis of certain archaeological sites at the development site that had the potential to be a “historical resource” for the purposes of CEQA.  The EIR also acknowledged a potentially significant adverse impact on each of the sites.  While the EIR included mitigation which purported to reduce the impacts to a less than significant level, the court found the mitigation constituted improper deferral because it required a “verification” of whether the site was a historical resource before preservation and recovery actions would be required.  The court noted that the verification process described in the mitigation measure is not expressly authorized by CEQA or the Guidelines.  Nor could such a process be harmonized with CEQA and the Guidelines, as Guidelines §15064.5(c)(1) states: “When a project will impact an archaeological site, a lead agency shall first determine whether the site is an historical resource …” The court found use of the word “shall” in CEQA Guidelines, section15064.5, subdivision (c)(1) indicated that the determination whether an archaeological site is an historical resource is mandatory.  Moreover, that provision’s use of the word “first” indicates that the determination must be made before the final EIR is certified and it cannot be undone thereafter.  The court concluded that the mitigation measure set forth a course of action that was contrary to law.

The court also found that, while an EIR’s discussion of mitigation measures for an impact to historical resources of an archeological nature must include preservation in place pursuant to CEQA Guidelines, section 15126.4, subdivision (b)(3), preservation in place is not always mandatory, even when feasible.  The court noted that, preservation in place is the preferred manner of mitigating impacts to archeological sites pursuant to the language CEQA Guidelines, section 15126.4, subdivision (b)(3)(A), unless another type of mitigation better serves the interests protected by CEQA.  The court interpreted “preferred manner” to mean that feasible preservation in place must be adopted to mitigate impacts to historical resources of an archaeological nature unless the lead agency determines that another form of mitigation is available and provides superior mitigation of the impacts.

With respect to the EIR’s traffic analysis, the court found the EIR was inadequate because it used predicted future conditions as a baseline.  Citing CEQA Guidelines section 15125, subdivision (a) and following the court’s interpretation of the guideline in Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 1351, the court concluded: (a) a baseline used in an EIR must reflect existing physical conditions; (b) lead agencies do not have the discretion to adopt a baseline that uses conditions predicted to occur on a date subsequent to the certification of the EIR; and (c) lead agencies do have the discretion to select a period or point in time for determining existing physical conditions other than the two points specified in subdivision (a) of Guidelines section 15125 [“as they exist at the time the notice of preparation is published, or if no notice of preparation is published, at the time environmental analysis is commenced”], so long as the period or point selected predates the certification of the EIR. Furthermore, while the respondents asserted the EIR did analyze traffic impacts employing existing conditions as the primary baseline, based on its review of the EIR’s traffic analysis, the traffic impact analysis study attached to the EIR, and the county’s responses to public comments, the court found the EIR lacked clarity regarding which baseline or baselines were used, which contributed to its inadequacy as an informational document.

The court also found that the Water Supply Assessment (WSA) and the EIR did not provide full disclosure of relevant information related to water supply because the analyses ignored contrary information and failed to discuss whether a recent legal decision would affect the availability and reliability of proposed water supplies.  According to the WSA and the EIR, the water demands of the project would be met with surface water delivered from the San Joaquin River under a contract with the United States Bureau of Reclamation. Interpreting the Supreme Court’s decision in Vineyard Area Citizens for Responsible Growth, Inc. v. City of Rancho Cordova (2007) 40 Cal.4th 412, 432 the court concluded that the legal adequacy of the EIR’s discussion of the water supply for the Project depends upon whether the discussion included a reasoned analysis (i.e., a “full discussion,” a “good faith effort at full disclosure,” or an “analytically complete and coherent explanation”) of the circumstances affecting the likelihood of the availability of the proposed water supply. While the WSA included an opinion letter of a water expert which concluded the legal issues concerning water supply would not affect the availability of the contractual water supply, neither the opinion letter nor the WSA acknowledged the existence of the a letter from the Bureau of Reclamation stating it would object to the use of the water supply for a municipal supply or for commercial uses.  Nor did the WSA or EIR address a recent legal decision invalidating the water supply analysis for a nearby project which was also proposing to rely on reclamation contracts for water supply.  On these bases, the court concluded the public was not provided a full disclosure of the uncertainties related to the project’s water supply and that the trial court did not err in concluding that the EIR’s discussion of the water supply was inadequate under CEQA.

Finally, the court concluded that the trial court correctly determined it had the discretionary authority under Code of Civil Procedure section 1032, subdivision (a)(4) to apportion costs.  Although the petitioners obtained a writ of mandate in a CEQA proceeding, that nonmonetary relief alone does not entitle the plaintiff to costs as a matter of right under Code of Civil Procedure section 1032, subdivision (b).