Posts Tagged ‘California Supreme Court’


In Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority (2017) ___Cal.5th ___ (No. S222472) [http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S222472.PDF] the California Supreme Court held that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA) does not preempt CEQA when a California public agency decides to undertake a new railroad project, even if the state agency later authorizes a private entity to operate the new rail line. The Court therefore concluded that the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) was required to comply with CEQA prior to taking steps to reinitiate rail service on a segment of an interstate rail line that had gone out of operation for many years. The Court declined, however, to enjoin the ongoing operations of the railroad by NWPCo, the private operator. Because these operations had been occurring during the course of the litigation against NCRA, any such injunction would intrude into an area of activity that is preempted by the ICCTA, namely, private railroad operations.

The NCRA is a state agency created in 1989 for the purpose of resuming railroad freight service along a previously-abandoned route through Napa and Humboldt Counties. The northern portion of the line runs along the Eel River, while the southern portion, at issue in the case, runs along the Russian River.  In 2000, the Legislature authorized funding for NCRA’s program, with the express condition of CEQA compliance. NCRA subsequently contracted with NWPCo, a private company, to run the railroad. As part of the lease agreement between the two entities, NWPCo agreed that CEQA compliance by NCRA was a precondition to resumed operation. Accordingly, in 2007, NCRA issued a notice of preparation, and in June 2011, it certified a Final EIR. In July 2011, petitioners sued, challenging the adequacy of the EIR on a number of grounds. Concurrently, NWPCo commenced limited freight service along the Russian River. In 2013, NCRA took the unusual step of rescinding its certification of the Final EIR, asserting in explanation as follows: that ICCTA preempted California environmental laws; that the reinitiation of rail service was not a “project” under CEQA; and that the EIR NCRA had prepared had not been legally required. Although NCRA successfully removed the case to federal court, the case subsequently sent back to state court for a resolution of both the state CEQA claims and NCRA’s ICCTA preemption defense. The Court of Appeal sided with NCRA, finding that ICCTA was broadly preemptive of CEQA. The Supreme Court granted review.

Federal preemption is based on the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, which provides that federal law is the supreme law of the land. Preemption can occur expressly, through the plain words of a federal statute, or can be implied, as when a court discerns that Congress intends to occupy an entire field of regulation, or when a court concludes that a state law conflicts with a federal purpose or the means of achieving that purpose. A federal statute can be preemptive on its face or as applied. There is a presumption against preemption, particularly in areas traditionally regulated by the states, which can only be overcome by a clear expression of intent (the Nixon/Gregory rule). The market participant doctrine is a related concept and holds that a public agency has all the freedoms and restrictions of a private party when it engages in the market (provided that the state does not use tools that are unavailable to private actors). The courts presume that Congress did not intend to reach into and preempt such proprietary marketplace arrangements, absent clear evidence of such expansive intent.

The Court began by recognizing that ICCTA does preempt state environmental laws, including CEQA, that interfere with private railroad operations authorized by the federal government. ICCTA contains an express preemption clause giving the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) jurisdiction over railroad transportation (including operation, construction, acquisition, and abandonment). ICCTA’s purpose was both unifying (to create national standards) and deregulatory (to minimize state and federal barriers). Although ICCTA is a form of economic regulation, state environmental laws are also economic in nature when they facially, or as applied, dictate where or how a railroad can operate in light of environmental concerns. Such state laws act impermissibly as “environmental preclearance statutes.” These legal principles, however, did not extend to the actions of NCRA in this case. Just as a private railroad company may make operational decisions based on internal policies and procedures, and may even modify its operations voluntarily in order to reduce environmental risks and effects, so too may a state, in determining whether to create a new railroad line, subject itself to its own internal requirements aimed at environmental concerns. In the latter context, though, a state operates through laws and regulations, as opposed to purely private policies. When a state acts in such a manner, its laws and regulations are a form of self-governance, and are not regulatory in character. CEQA is an example of such an internal guideline that governs the process by which a state, through its subdivisions, may develop and approve projects that affect the environment. Viewed in this context, CEQA is part of state self-governance, and is not a regulation of private activity.

Although the market participant doctrine does not directly apply, being mainly applicable in Commerce Clause jurisprudence, the doctrine supports by analogy the view that that California was not acting in a regulatory capacity in this case. CEQA is analogous to private company bylaws and guidance to which corporations voluntarily subject themselves. By imposing CEQA requirements on the NCRA, the state was not “regulating” any private entity, but rather was simply requiring that NCRA, as one of its subdivisions, conduct environmental review prior to making a policy decision to recommence the operation of an abandoned rail line. If Congress had intended to preempt the ability of states to govern themselves in such a fashion, any such intention should have been clear and unequivocal. The Court found no such intent in the ICCTA.

The Court’s remedy, however, was cognizant of the narrowness of its holding. The Court concluded that, because NWPCo is currently operating the line, the California Judiciary could not enjoin that private entity’s operations even if, on remand, the lower state courts found problems with NCRA’s CEQA documentation. An injunction under CEQA against NWPCo would act as a regulation, by having the state dictate the actions to private railroad operator. Such action would go beyond the state controlling its own operations.

Sara Dudley

Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918

The California Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Impact Report prepared for the proposed “Banning Ranch” project was inadequate because the EIR did not identify “environmentally sensitive habitat areas” (ESHA) under the Coastal Act that might be present on the property, and therefore did not consider mitigation measures and alternatives designed to reduce impacts on those areas. Although the project required a coastal development permit, and the Coastal Commission would make a determination regarding ESHA as part of that permit, the Court held the EIR had to include a prediction of where ESHA would likely be found in order to serve its information purposes under CEQA. Whit Manley argued the case for the City of Newport Beach.

In Orange Citizens for Parks and Recreation et al. v. Superior Court of Orange County, the City of Orange approved a proposed 39-unit residential development on a former golf course. The project was controversial because the private development would replace open space. Nevertheless, the city approved the project’s proposed general plan amendment to allow residential development on the property. In response, petitioners Orange Citizens for Parks and Recreation et al. challenged the city’s amendment to the general plan by referendum. The city then changed its position, claiming that there was no need to amend its general plan for the development project in the first place, since a resolution from 1973 allowed residential development on the property. The city thus concluded that whatever the outcome of the referendum, it would have no effect on the development. In November 2012, a majority of voters rejected the project’s general plan amendment. The Supreme Court’s decision honored the voters’ intent, holding that the city abused its discretion in determining that the project was consistent with the city’s general plan.

Background

The case has a complicated—and, it is hoped, unique—factual background. Orange Park Acres, the property at issue in the case, is located in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. In 1973, the city established an Orange Park Acres development committee to resolve disputes about what to do with the land. After several weeks of outreach, the development committee adopted the Orange Park Acres Specific Plan (OPA Plan). The OPA Plan designated the property at issue for use as a golf course, or should that prove economically infeasible, for recreation and open space.

The city planning commission considered the OPA Plan, and after hearing, in November 1973, adopted a resolution recommending the city council to adopt the OPA Plan, but with a significant amendment: the OPA Plan should designate the property for open space and low density (1 acre) instead of open space. The City Council adopted the OPA Plan on December 26, 1973. Curiously, however, neither the city council resolution approving the OPA Plan, nor the OPA Plan itself, described the planning commission’s proposed amendments to the OPA Plan.

In 1977, the city council passed a resolution that would allow low-density development in Oak Park Acres, and to update the land use map to reflect this change. Again, for reasons that are unclear, the city never made these changes. Neither the text of the OPA Plan, nor its attached land use policy map, were updated to designate the property low-density residential.

The city again revised its general plan in 1989. The intent of the 1989 General Plan was to establish “definitive land use and development policy to guide the City into the next century.” The 1989 land use policy map, which the general plan described as the “most important” feature of the land use element, designated the property for open space/golf. The 1989 General Plan also incorporated the OPA Plan under the heading “Area Plans”— but the version of the OPA Plan that was publically available designated the property as open space.

In view of these facts, in 2007, when the developer for the residential project at issue submitted its development application, the developer requested a general plan amendment to change the property’s land use designation from “open space” to “estate residential.” In 2009, while the city was still processing the application, the developer’s counsel discovered the 1973 resolution that recommended the OPA Plan designate the property for open space and low-density residential. The developer’s counsel promptly conveyed the resolution to the city attorney, prompting the city to conduct a comprehensive review of its planning documents concerning the property. Based on this investigation, the city attorney concluded: (1) 1973 OPA Plan is part of the general plan; and (2) the OPA Plan designates the property as “Other Open Space and Low Density (1 acre).”

Around that same time, the city was again in the process of revising its general plan. A final version of the general plan was approved in March 2010. The 2010 General Plan identifies the project site as “open space.” But it also references the OPA Plan and states that development must be consistent with the OPA Plan.

On June 14, 2011, the city council certified a final EIR for the project. The final EIR explained that the OPA Plan was part of the general plan, and that at the time the OPA Plan was adopted, the city council intended the project site to be designated for one-acre residential development. Due to a clerical oversight, however, this designation did not make it into the plan itself. The final EIR further reported that the project’s proposed general plan amendment would remove any uncertainty pertaining to the project site’s land use designation and honor the city council’s original intent for the project site.

The city council approved the project, including the project’s proposed general plan amendment. A few days later, the petitioners circulated a referendum petition challenging the city’s general plan amendment. The city council thereafter approved the project’s proposed zone change, concluding that the zone change was consistent with the 2010 General Plan.

Around that same time, the developer’s counsel wrote the city attorney with an “elegant solution” to the referendum: to take the position that the 1973 Planning Commission resolution designated the property for low-density residential, and the clerical error of not recording the designation did not alter the site’s true designation. The city attorney adopted this position, and prepared a report explaining that the project would remain consistent with the general plan regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

In November 2012, the voters rejected the project’s general plan amendment.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

The trial court and the Court of Appeal sided with the city and the developer, holding that the project was consistent with the 2010 General Plan because the 1973 designations applied to the project site, and the clerical failing to record the designations did not alter this fact. The Supreme Court reversed.

In the opinion, authored by Justice Liu, the court first explained that a local agency’s determination of whether a project is consistent with a general plan is a quasi-adjudicative, rather than a quasi-legislative determination. As such, the question before the court was whether the city abused its discretion in finding the project consistent with the 2010 General Plan. The court explained that reviewing courts “must defer to a procedurally proper consistency finding unless no reasonable person could have reached the same conclusion.” (Italics added.) The court determined that under the facts before it, no reasonable person could conclude the residential project was consistent with the city’s 2010 General Plan.

In reaching this conclusion, the court was especially swayed by the fact that members of the public, seeking to review the General Plan, would have no way of knowing that General Plan designated the project site for low-density residential. To the contrary, based on the publically available 2010 General Plan, members of the public would have thought the OPA Plan was consistent with the general plan map designating the property as open space. Indeed, even the city and the developer believed this to be the case—as evidence by the fact that the project proposed a general plan amendment.

The developer argued that the city should not be bound by a clerical error because doing so, in the developer’s view, would give greater power to staff than to the city council. But, explained the court, a city official cannot exercise a “power” that is by definition inadvertently exercised. Nor was there any evidence that staff purposely failed to carry out the intent of the 1973 resolution. And, in any event, the city council could have made it clear that the site was designated for low-density residential when it adopted the 2010 General Plan, but it did not.

Adding to the unreasonableness of the city’s conclusion that the project was consistent with the 2010 general plan was the fact that voters had rejected the project’s general amendment via referendum. As eloquently stated by Justice Liu:

The open space designation for the Property in the 2010 General Plan did not inform the public that the Property would be subject to residential development. The City’s proposed general plan amendment puts its citizenry on notice that such development would be possible. In response, Orange Citizens successfully conducted a referendum campaign against the amendment. If “legislative bodies cannot nullify [the referendum] power by voting to enact a law identical to a recently rejected referendum measure,” then the City cannot now do the same by means of an unreasonable “administrative correction” to its general plan undertaken “’with the intent to evade the effect of the referendum petition.’” [Citation.]

Conclusion

Although there is no specific format a general plan must take, a general plan must still comprise an integrated, internally consistent, and compatible statement of policies for future development. In this case, anyone reviewing the city’s general plan would have concluded that the project site was designated to remain in open space. While one can easily imagine the glee the developer and its attorney must have felt upon discovering the 1973 resolution designating the property low-density residential, in the view of the court, it was too little, too late. If the site was designated low-density residential, the planning documents should have reflected this. After voters expressed their intent not to have the site designated low-density residential, the city should have respected that intent, rather than attempting to re-write 35 years of planning documents. The opinion seems to affirm, however, that in general, the courts must defer to a city or county’s conclusion that a project is consistent with the general plan. Only where—as in this case—no reasonable person could conclude that the project is consistent with the general plan should the courts interfere with the city or county’s determination of general plan consistency.

Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937

In a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court emphatically rejected the notion that public agencies should get no deference in deciding whether to treat proposed projects as changes to previously reviewed projects or as new projects under CEQA. In doing so, the court strongly disagreed with the reasoning presented in the Third District’s decision in Save Our Neighborhood v. Lishman (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 1288, which first articulated the “new project” threshold question as a de novo question of law for the courts. The Supreme Court concluded that Division One of the First District Court of Appeal erred in applying Lishman’s “new” project standard to the case at hand, which involved a community college district’s proposed changes to the disposition of a small building complex and landscaped area on a campus for which a campus-wide renovation plan was previously reviewed in an unchallenged mitigated negative declaration (MND). The district considered the subsequent changes in an addendum to the MND and approved the demolition of an existing complex of outdated buildings and their replacement with a new parking lot, concluding that the changes posed no new or more severe environmental impacts than were previously described in the adopted MND.

The Supreme Court granted review to resolve the question of whether Lishman’s “new project” test was the correct approach for courts reviewing subsequent review documents, or whether courts should follow the more deferential, substantial evidence standard explained in Mani Brothers Real Estate Group v. City of Los Angeles (2007) 153 Cal.App.4th 1385. Few appellate courts had followed the Lishman approach after the court in Mani Brothers rejected it. Division One of the First District applied it to the college district’s case in an unpublished decision, but oddly declined to apply it again a few weeks later in its published decision, Latinos Unidos de Napa v. City of Napa (2013) 221 Cal.App.4th 192, 201-202, thereby highlighting the conflict in the law.

The Supreme Court noted that the Lishman court’s focus on the similarities or lack thereof in the features associated with an originally-reviewed project and subsequent proposal as lacking any basis or standards in CEQA. The court further noted that because of the lack of any standards or framework for measuring the “newness” of a given project, a “new project” test applied by the courts “would inevitably invite arbitrary results.” Moreover, the court emphasized that, given the purpose of CEQA to ensure agencies consider the environmental effects of proposed actions, focusing on the characterization of a proposed project as a new project or a modified project misses the point of subsequent review. Rather, the court concluded, the fundamental determination an agency must make is whether an original environmental document retains some informational value, or whether the proposed changes have rendered it wholly irrelevant.

The court affirmed the college district’s view (shared by the Regents of the University of California, League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties, Association of California Water Agencies, California Building Industry Association, Building Industry Association of the Bay Area, and California Business Properties Association, who participated as amicus parties at the Supreme Court) that the question of whether an initial environmental document remains relevant in light of changed plans or circumstances is inherently a factual question for the agency to answer in the first instance and is reviewable under the deferential substantial evidence standard of review.

Following oral argument, the court ordered supplemental briefing on two issues: (1) the standard of review that applies to an agency’s determination not to prepare an EIR for modifications to a project that was previously reviewed by a negative declaration; and (2) whether CEQA Guidelines section 15162, as applied to projects initially approved by negative declarations rather than EIRs, was a valid interpretation of the governing statute, Public Resources Code section 21166, which does not mention negative declarations. Guidelines section 15162, subdivision (a) prohibits agencies from requiring a subsequent or supplemental EIR unless the agency determines “on the basis of substantial evidence in the light of the whole record,” that “substantial changes . . . will require major revisions of the previous EIR or negative declaration due to the involvement of new significant environmental effects or a substantial increase in the severity of previously identified significant effects.” The court rejected the petitioner’s argument that application of this substantial evidence standard in section 15162(a) to projects initially analyzed in negative declarations creates a CEQA loophole that permits agencies to evade their obligation to prepare an EIR under the less deferential fair argument standard. As the court explained, “the substantial evidence test referred to in the Guidelines does not, as plaintiff supposes, refer to substantial evidence that the project, as modified, will necessarily have significant environmental effects. It instead refers to substantial evidence that the proposed modifications will involve ‘[s]ubstantial changes’ that ‘require major revisions of the previous EIR or negative declaration due to the involvement’ of new or significantly more severe environmental effects.” The court held that section 15162 constitutes a valid gap-filling measure as applied to projects initially approved via negative declaration, including the college district’s project at hand.

Lastly, the court rejected the petitioner’s contention that the subsequent review schemes in the statute and Guidelines were inapplicable to the district’s project because the originally-approved campus renovation project was more akin to a plan or program than a specific project. Both the Court of Appeal below and petitioner relied on Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma (1992) 6 Cal.App.4th 1307 to conclude that when an agency initially adopts a broad, large-scale environmental document (such as the college district’s original MND) that addresses the environmental effects of a complex long-term management plan, a court can find that a material alteration to the plan regarding a particular site or activity may be a new project triggering environmental review under Public Resources Code section 21151. The Supreme Court rejected the attempt to frame the original campus renovation plan and subsequent changes to the disputed area in this manner, holding that the tiering provisions, and therefore the Sierra Club decision, had no applicability here. The court noted that unlike the program EIR at issue in Sierra Club, the MND previously adopted by the college district was a project-specific review that could not be characterized as a first-tier document.

The Supreme Court remanded to the Court of Appeal’s consideration the merits of the district’s addendum and approval of the building demolition and parking lot project. The Court of Appeal had not previously reached the merits because of its conclusion that the subsequent project was “new.”

RMM partners Sabrina V. Teller and James G. Moose represented the respondent San Mateo County Community College District in the litigation from the trial court through the Supreme Court.

The California High-Speed Rail project achieved another victory on October 15 when the state Supreme Court declined to hear a suit challenging the issuance of bonds for the rail system’s construction. The Court did not offer explanation for its decision.

A Sacramento Superior Court judge had ruled that the rail’s funding plan was inconsistent with Proposition 1A, the 2008 voter-approved initiative for the project that laid out initial funding, because the plan relied on uncertain future revenue sources. The Third District Court of Appeal disagreed in California High Speed Rail Authority v. Superior Court, and ordered the trial court to enter judgment validating the authorization of the bond issuance for purposes of the proposition.

The project is currently estimated to cost $68 billion. Earlier this year, the project secured future funding whereby it will receive a portion of the state’s cap-and-trade proceeds. Construction of the first rail segment is already underway in Fresno, where crews are demolishing buildings and relocating utilities to make way for the tracks. Opponents continue to challenge the project, but for now, the High-Speed Rail project is chugging ahead.

The California Supreme Court held that CEQA review is not a prerequisite to directly adopting a voter initiative under Elections Code section 9214, subdivision (a), when it decided Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. Superior Court (Wal-Mart Stores), Case No. S207173, on August 7, 2014. The Court reversed the Fifth District Court of Appeal’s opinion in Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. Superior Court (2012) (previously reported at 210 Cal.App.4th 1006).

A Wal-Mart store in the City of Sonora sought to expand into a Supercenter. Before the City Council voted on the project, voters circulated the “Wal-Mart Initiative,” which proposed to adopt a specific plan for the contemplated expansion in order to streamline approval of the Supercenter’s construction and operation. The petition was signed by over 20 percent of the City’s registered voters. The City then prepared a report on the initiative examining its consistency with previous approvals for the expansion pursuant to Election Code sections 9212, and 9214, subdivision (c), and adopted the ordinance. The Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance sued. The Court of Appeal held in favor of the Alliance, expressly disagreeing with the only published authority on point, Native American Sacred Site & Environmental Protection Assn. v. City of Juan Capistrano.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether a legislative body must obtain full CEQA review before directly adopting a voter initiative under Elections Code section 9214, subdivision (a). Case law has established that CEQA compliance is not required before a legislative body submits an initiative to voters under section 9214, subdivision (b), and the Court held that the result should be the same where the legislative body adopts an ordinance put forth by voters. In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that the statutory language of section 9214 makes no mention of CEQA. Furthermore, requiring CEQA compliance would effectively nullify the condensed deadlines in the Elections Code, and the abbreviated report provided for in the Code would be superfluous. CEQA would impliedly repeal contrary Elections Code procedures, and the Court emphasized the strong presumption against repeal by implication. The Court also found that application of CEQA to voter initiatives is contrary to Legislative intent, as Legislative history supported the conclusion that CEQA does not apply to any ordinances enacted by initiative, whether through an election or direct adoption.

Finally, the Court noted that direct adoption without CEQA review would not offend public policy. The possibility that interested parties may attempt to use initiatives to advance their own aims, it stated, is part of the democratic process. If direct adoption of an initiative were to result in the enactment of an undesirable law, voters have statutory remedies available to them.

Governor Jerry Brown has asked the California Supreme Court to step in and prevent two recent lower court rulings from derailing construction of the state’s bullet train. The state sent a direct request to the California Supreme Court because the normal appeals process, it claims, would take too long given the time-sensitive nature of the project and its funding. The request took the form of a petition for extraordinary writ of mandate and application for temporary stay.

In the first Superior Court case, Tos, et al. v. California High-Speed Rail Authority, et al., Sacramento Superior Court Case No. 34-2011-00113919, the trial court refused to validate approximately $8.6 billion in bonds because it found no evidence that issuing the bonds was “necessary and desirable.” This ruling, the state argues in its petition, will disrupt the state’s ability to finance the high-speed rail system as well as other projects funded with general obligation bonds. Furthermore, the ruling will destroy the state’s ability to use the bond validation statutes to obtain speedy and final determinations of validity.

In the second Superior Court Case, High Speed Rail Authority, et al. v. All Persons Interested, Sacramento Superior Court Case No. 34-2013-00140689, the trial court directed the High Speed Rail Authority to rescind and re-adopt a preliminary funding plan intended for the Legislature’s consideration in deciding whether to appropriate bond proceeds to build the project. The state argues that this ruling “compels an idle act” by requiring the Authority to re-do an appropriation plan that has already been enacted.

The trial court’s approach to these issues, the state argues, “cripples government’s ability to function.” The rulings also “thwart the intent of the voters and the Legislature to finance the construction of a high-speed rail.” The petition notes that both decisions are “effectively unreviewable on appeal” given the timeframe; the Authority is faced with either pursuing appeals that will exacerbate delays and increase costs, or else attempt to move the project forward on the trial court’s terms. The state termed this a Hobson’s choice – i.e., not a real choice.

Despite these complaints, state officials assured Washington lawmakers that the project will stick to its planned timetable, with construction in the Central Valley slated to begin later this year. But if the trial court’s rulings are not overturned, officials warned, the project would take longer to build than voters and the Legislature intended, and future funding would be jeopardized.

 

On January 15, 2014, the California Supreme Court granted review of Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District (Case No. S214061). The case was previously heard in Division One of the First Appellate District, which issued an unpublished opinion in favor of the petitioner group on September 26, 2013.

The action arose when petitioner Friends challenged the San Mateo County Community College District’s decision to demolish a building complex on the district’s College of San Mateo campus to make room for a new parking lot. The District’s decision was supported by an addendum to a six-year-old previously adopted negative declaration covering campus-wide renovation plans. Friends argued the demolition project violated CEQA and sought to compel the district to prepare an EIR for the demolition and parking lot project as a “new project”, rather than a change to the previously adopted campus renovation plans under CEQA. The trial court granted Friends’ petition. The Court of Appeal affirmed, opining that, as a matter of law, the demolition project was a “new” project, thereby requiring environmental review beyond an addendum.

In its petition for review, the District requested the Supreme Court clarify the appropriate level of judicial deference due to agencies in subsequent environmental review situations. The District presented the following issue to the court: “[i]f a lead agency approves modifications to a previously reviewed and approved project through an addendum, may a court disregard the substantial evidence underlying the agency’s decision to treat the proposed action as a change to a project rather than a new project, and go on to decide as a matter of law that the agency in fact approved a ‘new’ project rather than a modification to a previously approved project, even though this ‘new project’ test is nowhere described in CEQA or the Guidelines?”

Although CEQA sets a relatively low threshold for requiring the preparation of an EIR for a project of first impression, the District noted, Public Resources Code section 21166 establishes a presumption against subsequent review; a later EIR is not required unless new or substantially worse environmental impacts would occur as a result of the changes to the previously-reviewed project. The inquiry was thus whether the District’s project changes would require major revisions of the previous negative declaration “due to the involvement of new significant environmental effects or a substantial increase in the severity of previously identified significant effects.” The District argued that the project changes were appropriately presented in the addendum, which showed there would be no more severe environmental impacts due to these changes—in fact, less total building area would be demolished than was originally planned in 2007, due to the District’s interim decisions to renovate, rather than demolish as originally planned, a couple of other buildings on the campus.

The District argued that the Court of Appeal had relied on a heavily criticized outlier case, Save Our Neighborhood v. Lishman, in reaching its decision, furthering a split among the appellate districts regarding the appropriate standard of review to apply to an agency’s conclusions under section 21166. In Lishman, the Third Appellate District announced a new standard whereby it could decide for itself as a threshold matter of law whether a challenged action constituted a change to a previously reviewed and approved project or a new project altogether. The District, in its petition, discouraged the use of Lishman’s “new project” standard, which affords no deference to agencies, does not derive from CEQA or the Guidelines, and does not provide workable guidance to agencies in understanding what factors should be taken into consideration in the “changed project” versus “new project” determination. Instead, the District urged that courts should follow case law holding substantial evidence applies to review of an agency’s determination that section 21166 applies to proposed actions, including a decision to prepare an addendum to a previously reviewed document.

The District also noted that the Court of Appeal failed to identify any flaws in the analysis presented in the addendum and thus no prejudicial error committed by the District. In doing so, the District argued, the appellate court had prioritized form over substance and created needless expense for the district and state taxpayers in requiring that a new initial study be prepared.

RMM attorneys, James G. Moose and Sabrina V. Teller, partners in the firm, and John T. Wheat, associate, represent the San Mateo County Community College District in the litigation.

The docket for the case is available here.