Posts Tagged ‘Ministerial’


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 Communities For A Better Environment v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (2016) ___Cal.App.4th___ (Case No. A143634), the First District Court of Appeal held a petition for writ of mandate as time-barred under Public Resources Code § 21167, subdivision (d). Petitioners argued that the ”discovery rule” should apply because the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (“District”) failed to provide public notice of the ministerial approval and the project itself (a change in operation at a transloading facility from ethanol to crude oil) was “hidden from the public eye.” The court held that the statute governed when the public was deemed to have constructive notice of a project, and the discovery rule postpones the accrual of an action beyond the date of the injury, not beyond the date when the plaintiff is deemed to have constructive notice.

The District issued a ministerial permit for the project in July 2013, which was not subject to CEQA. But the District did not file the optional notice of exemption (“NOE”) and the applicant began transloading crude oil at its facility in October 2013. The conditions of the permit were modified in October and December of 2013, and the District issued a second permit incorporating these modifications in February 2014. On March 27, 2014 petitioners filed a petition for a writ of mandate. The District argued that the petition was time-barred because it should have been brought within 180 days of July 2013, when the permit was issued. Petitioners argued that they only became aware of the project on July 31, 2014, and that the facility is completely enclosed making the change in operation “invisible.” The trial court dismissed the petition without leave to amend as time-barred under 21167.

The First District Court of Appeal distinguished Concerned Citizens of Costa Mesa, Inc. v. 32nd Dist. Agricultural Assn. (1986) 42 Cal.3d 929 (“Concerned Citizens”). In Concerned Citizens, the Court interpreted “the date of commencement of the project” to mean “commencement” of the project approved by the lead agency and analyzed in the EIR. Because the project had changed significantly, the petitioners could bring an action within 180 days of when they knew or reasonably should have known that the project commenced was substantially different from the approved project. Here, petitioners did not argue that there was a substantial change in the project, and instead argued that the discovery rule should postpone the accrual of the action until they had actual notice of the project. The First District found this argument to have been rejected in Concerned Citizens, as contrary to legislative intent.

The Court of Appeal also distinguished Ventura Foothill Neighbors v. County of Ventura (2014) 232 Cal.App.4th 429 (“Ventura Foothills”). In that case, the height of a planned building was changed from 75 feet to 90 feet, and while a notice of determination (“NOD”) was filed because of the change, the NOD did not disclose the change in height. The court in Ventura Foothills determined that the 30-day statute of limitations for NODs only applied to the determinations announced in the NOD. Since the change in height was not disclosed, the 30-day statute had not run. Here, the petitioners could not point to any deficiencies in a required notice.

The court stated that in both cases the court interpreted the statute so that the triggering date for barring an action did not occur. Because petitioners could not argue for such an interpretation in this case, their claim was time-barred. Similarly, they could not amend their pleadings to show that the dates of constructive notice in 21167 had not occurred more than 180 days prior to their filing suit.

On December 10, 2012, the California Second District Court of Appeal, in Central Basin Municipal Water District v. Water Replenishment District of Southern California (2012) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. B235039) upheld the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s order sustaining a demurrer to the Central Basin Municipal Water District’s (CBMWD’s) petition for writ of mandate, which alleged that defendant Water Replacement District of Southern California (WRD) improperly failed to conduct CEQA review before declaring a “water emergency” in the Central Basin.

Background

Groundwater management in the Central Basin groundwater basin is governed by a court ordered judgment. The judgment provides a comprehensive framework for water use in the Central Basin and imposes a “physical solution” described as “an equitable remedy designed to alleviate overdrafts and the consequential depletion of water resources in a particular area, consistent with the constitutional mandate to prevent waste and unreasonable water use and to maximize the beneficial use of water, with recognition that it is a limited resource.” (Hillside Memorial Park & Mortuary v. Golden State Water Co. (2011) 205 Cal.App.4th 534, 538, fn. 2.)

The judgment empowers WRD to declare a “water emergency” when the Central Basin resources risk degradation.  Declaring a water emergency alters the portions of a pumper’s allocation of water that the pumper may “carryover” to another year, meaning the entity retains the right to that water longer than it otherwise would. It also permits a longer period to replace a pumper’s over-extraction of groundwater (i.e., an extraction of an amount greater than the pumper’s annual allotment). The judgment imposes a limit of one year on a declared water emergency, though the term may be less than one year. The judgment also reserves continuing jurisdiction to the court.   

In November 2010, WRD declared a water emergency, which by later resolution expired on June 30, 2011. On December 29, 2010, CBMWD challenged the declared water emergency in a petition for writ of mandate, contending that WRD was required to follow CEQA prior to declaring a water emergency. WRD demurred, and the trial court sustained the demurrer, finding that CBMWD could not state a cause of action under CEQA. The trial court court explained that WRD’s declaration was under the authority granted by the judgment and that although WRD was a public agency in most respects, it was acting as an agent of the court in this situation, and was therefore not subject to CEQA. CBMWD appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The court of appeal concluded that the trial court properly sustained WRD’s demurrer to CBMWD’s petition for writ of mandate because CEQA does not apply, and even if it did, it would be trumped by the physical solution governing the Central Basin.

The court explained that CEQA is inapplicable to WRD’s declaration of a water emergency for two separate reasons. First, the declaration of a water emergency by itself has no environmental impact and therefore is not a project within the meaning of CEQA. Instead, the court found the declaration is “a mere statement” that the resources of the Central Basin risk declaration. CBMWD argued that other provisions of the Judgment may trigger significant environmental effects, but the court found that this argument is irrelevant because WRD’s only role was to declare the water emergency. Second, WRD had no discretion to alter the terms of the judgment even if it prepared an EIR and determined that the carryover and delayed replacement would have significant environmental effects. Thus, even if the declaration of the water emergency should be viewed together with its consequences, WRD’s decision was a ministerial act, rather than a discretionary approval triggering CEQA review.  

The court then explained that even if CEQA were applicable, it is trumped by the physical solution imposed in the basin. The court explained that where a court-imposed judgment is in place establishing a physical solution to a groundwater issue, the public agency has no judgmental controls to exercise, i.e. the power to act is reserved to the court. Here, the appellate court explained, the trail court properly denied CBMWD’s petition to mandate compliance with CEQA as it sought to “frustrate the physical solution in the Central Basin.” In particular, through its petition for writ of mandate, CBMWD sought to have WRD exercise its authority in contravention of the judgment by requesting WRD study consequences of the carryover and five-year replenishment, which are terms of the judgment establishing a physical solution (and not subject to WRD’s modification).   

The court declined to consider CBMWD’s remaining arguments because they were not properly raised in the appeal. (Laura Harris)

Sierra Club v. Napa County Bd. of Supervisors (1st Dist. April 20, 2012) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. A130980)

Sierra Club challenged an ordinance adopted by the Napa County Board of Supervisors clarifying lot line adjustments. Sierra Club argued the ordinance violated the Subdivision Map Act (Map Act) and CEQA. The appellate court disagreed, rejecting Sierra Club’s facial attack on the ordinance and upholding the county’s interpretation that lot line adjustments could be ministerial approvals and therefore exempt from CEQA.

Background and Procedure

In 1976, amendments to section 66412 of the Map Act exempted from the act any lot line adjustment between two or more adjacent parcels. Thus, land could be taken from one parcel and added to an adjacent parcel, but no additional parcels could be created. This exemption was later restricted to four or fewer existing adjoining parcels. This amendment also required lot line adjustments to be approved by the local agency or advisory agency. Further, the agency’s review was limited to a determination of whether the parcels resulting from an adjustment conformed with the local general plan, any applicable specific or coastal plan, and any zoning or building ordinances.

In 2002, Napa County revised its local ordinance governing lot line adjustments to reflect the amendments limiting the scope of section 66412. The revised ordinance also prohibited lot line adjustments that transformed non-building parcels into buildable ones. The ordinance did not comment on whether sequential adjustments affecting four or fewer parcels would be permitted.

Around 2007, Napa County addressed this issue, as it had pending applications from one owner for lot line adjustments affecting 16 contiguous parcels. Each application affected only four parcels, but were sequential in that a lot adjusted under one application was further adjusted under a following application. Napa County determined some counties prohibited this approach to lot line adjustments while others required a waiting period between each application.  A final option would be to allow all of the application to be processed without a waiting period. The Board directed that an ordinance be prepared addressing sequential applications for lot line adjustments.

In 2009, a draft ordinance was presented to the Board that distinguished between major and minor lot line adjustments. Major adjustments depended on discretionary approval subject to CEQA, while minor adjustments were considered ministerial and outside CEQA’s purview. The final ordinance adopted by the county continued the existing administrative practice of allowing lot line adjustments impacting four or fewer parcels to re-adjust lots included in a prior application if the prior adjustments had been completed and recorded. Approval of these adjustments remained characterized as ministerial acts not subject to CEQA. The Board determined approval of the ordinance itself was exempt from CEQA based on a class 5 categorical exemption and the “general rule” exempting actions with no possibility of adverse impact to the environment (CEQA Guidelines, § 15061(b)(3)).

Sierra Club challenged the approval of the ordinance, claiming it violated the Map Act’s lot line adjustment exemption and violated the Map Act and CEQA by classifying adjustments as ministerial. Sierra Club requested that the county stipulate to a court order extending the time to prepare the administrative record. The county agreed and the court ordered the deadline extended. The county later argued that Sierra Club failed to effect summons within 90 days as required by section 66499.37 of the Map Act. The trial court held that the county’s stipulation to extend time to prepare the administrative record was a general appearance, and therefore, the county waived any irregularities in the service of summons. The trial court rejected Sierra Club’s other challenges to the ordinance, and Sierra Club appealed.

Sierra Club’s Action Not Time-Barred

The appellate court agreed with the trial court that Sierra Club’s action was not time-barred.  The appellate court determined that the county made a general appearance when it agreed to the stipulation extending the time to prepare the administrative record. California Code of Civil Procedure section 1014 lists acts that constitute an appearance, but the appellate court noted this list is not exclusive. The determining factor is whether the defendant takes a part in the action and in some manner recognizes the authority of the court to proceed. In this case, the county clearly acknowledged the trial court’s authority to proceed when it stipulated to the order granting Sierra Club an extension. As a result of this appearance, the county waived all irregularities in service.

Compliance with the Map Act

Sierra Club argued the county’s ordinance violated the Map Act by circumventing its limited exemption for lot line adjustments. The appellate court interpreted this as an argument that section 66412 preempted the local ordinance, or that the local ordinance facially conflicted with this section.

The appellate court noted the difficult burden Sierra Club faced in making its facial challenge to legislation. Local land use regulations conflict with general laws and are void if the local legislation duplicates, contradicts, or enters an area fully occupied by the general law. The court determined Napa County’s ordinance did not conflict with section 66412, as the ordinance did not conflict with any of the criteria established by the Map Act for procedural exclusions of lot line adjustments.

Further, the court rejected Sierra Club’s argument that the county’s ordinance would reopen the loopholes closed by the amendments to section 66412. Specifically, the ordinance did not allow an unlimited number of lot lines to be adjusted at the same time. The ordinance required landowners to obtain approval of adjustments of no more than four adjoining lots at one time and record the deeds reflecting those adjustments before another application could be processed. The court determined that if the legislature had intended to remove all sequential lot line adjustments from the section 66412 exemption, it could have used language to make this intention clear.

Application of CEQA to Sequential Lot Line Adjustments Under County Ordinance

Sierra Club argued that approval of sequential lot line adjustments is a discretionary action subject to CEQA. Approval of discretionary projects requires the exercise of judgment or deliberation, while ministerial projects involve little or no personal judgment by the relevant public official. The public official merely applies the law to the facts presented.

The ordinance classified lot line adjustments as ministerial and not subject to CEQA except where such adjustments required approval of a variance or were processed concurrently with a related application for a use permit or other discretionary approval. Otherwise, if an application complies with 12 specific standards under the ordinance, a public official must accept the application. The court held fixed approval standards left officials with no ability to exercise discretion to reject or shape the project in any way. Therefore, approvals of lot line adjustments under the ordinance that met these criteria were appropriately classified as ministerial.

Conclusion

This case offers an important civil procedure reminder that if a party makes a general appearance before a court, it waives the ability to later challenge sufficiency of service. Stipulating to a court order extending the deadline for filing the administrative record in a CEQA action was characterized as a general appearance in this case. In addition, the case demonstrates the heavy burden petitioners face when attempting to argue a local land use regulation conflicts with a general law. Finally, the case reiterates past precedent distinguishing discretionary acts subject to CEQA and ministerial acts falling outside the jurisdiction of the act.