Third District Court of Appeal Upholds Trial Court’s Conclusion that Petition for Writ of Mandate Challenging Placer County’s Approval of a Development Project is Time-Barred under CEQA
April 4th, 2013 by Laura Harris
On April 4, 2013, the Third District Court of Appeal ordered published its decision in Alliance for the Protection of the Auburn Community Environment et al. v. County of Placer (2013) ___Cal.App.4th___ (Case No. C067961). Real party in interest, Bohemia Properties, LLC (Bohemia), was represented by James Moose and Howard Wilkins of Remy Moose Manley, LLP. The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s sustainment of a demurrer filed by Bohemia and joined by Placer County. The court found that petitioner’s petition for writ of mandate was time barred under the statute of limitations set forth in Public Resources Code section 21167. Further, Code of Civil Procedure section 473, subdivision (b), which provides relief from an otherwise applicable statute of limitations for excusable mistakes, did not apply.
On July 8, 2010, the County of Placer certified an EIR prepared by Bohemia for the development of a 155,000-square-foot building. Alliance for the Protection of the Auburn Community Environment (Alliance) filed an appeal of the certification on Jul 16, 2010. On September 28, 2010, the County held a public hearing on Alliance’s appeal and again certified the final EIR. The county filed its notice of determination (NOD) for the project on September 29, 2010, triggering the 30-day statute of limitations set forth in Public Resources Code section 21167. Under this limitations period, the deadline to bring a challenge to the County’s approval of Bohemia’s EIR expired on October 29, 2010. Alliance did not file its petition until three days later, on November 1, 2010.
In January 2011, Bohemia filed a demurrer to Alliance’s petition, alleging that it was not filed within the limitations period. Alliance filed a motion for relief under Code of Civil Procedure 473. The trial court determined that Alliance’s petition was time barred and entered an order sustaining Bohemia’s demurrer without leave to amend and denying Alliance’s motion seeking relief under Code of Civil Procedure section 473.
On appeal, Alliance argued that the trial court erred in sustaining Bohemia’s demurrer, because, according to Bohemia, Code of Civil Procedure section 473 provides relief from its excusable mistake that resulted in the late filing of the CEQA petition. Code of Civil Procedure section 473, subdivision (b), states that a “‘court may, upon any terms as may be just, relieve a party of his or her legal representative from a judgment, dismissal, order, or other proceeding taken against him or her through his or her mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect,’” provided that the relief is sought within a reasonable time. The provisions of section 473 are to be liberally construed.
Alliance argued that the late filing was the result from a miscommunication from its filing service as to the deadline for receipt of the writ at the superior court. Alliance submitted the petition to the filing service prior to the statute of limitation’s deadline, in order to ensure its timely filing. Although Alliance’s counsel requested the petition be filed on October 29, 2010, the filing service arrived too late and did not file the petition until three days later. Based on these facts, Alliance argued that Code of Civil Procedure section 473 applies and the trial court should have overruled the demurrer.
The court of appeal, however, found Alliance’s argument unpersuasive under the Supreme Court’s decision in Maynard v. Brandon (2005) 36 Cal.4th 364 (Maynard). In Maynard, the Supreme Court found that section 473, subdivision (b) does not generally apply to dismissals attributable to a party’s failure to comply with the applicable limitations period in which to initiate a lawsuit. Rather, that section only provides relief from the consequences of many procedural errors committed during the course of a proceeding. Because the trial court in this case sustained the demurrer based on Alliance’s failure to file its initial petition within the applicable limitations period, the Court of Appeal found that relief was not available under section 473, subdivision (b).
Finally, citing a series of cases in which courts have provided relief from CEQA’s short limitations period, Alliance argued that the court should provide similar relief here. The court disagreed, finding each of the cases relied upon by Alliance distinguishable in that they did not address a petitioner’s failure to timely file a petition for writ of mandate in the first instance.
Instead, the court found persuasive the Second District Court of Appeal’s decision in Nacimiento Regional Water Management Advisory Committee v. Monterey County Water Resources Agency (2004) 122 Cal.App.4th 961. In that case, the court noted that nearly every dismissal for failing to comply with CEQA’s timelines is “due to mistake, inadvertence or neglect on the plaintiff’s attorney, and thus few dismissals would be final if mandatory relief under section 473 were applied to such dismissals.’” As such, the dismissal statute would be “‘effectively nullified, and the legislative intent that CEQA challenges be promptly resolved and diligently prosecuted would be defeated.’” Based on this reasoning, the Court of Appeal found that the trial court did not err in sustaining Bohemia’s demurrer without leave to amend.
Third District Court of Appeal Finds Plaintiff’s Claims Time-Barred under Government Code Section 65009 Because the Suit was not Commenced Within 90 Days After Project Approval
November 16th, 2012 by Jeannie Lee
On November 13, 2012, the Third District Court of Appeal in Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton (2012) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. C067164) affirmed a trial court’s judgment that claims brought under the State Planning and Zoning Law were time-barred because the suit was not commenced within 90 days after the City of Stockton approved the project at issue.
On February 17, 2004, the City filed a Notice of Exemption (NOE) regarding the City’s approval of a shopping center project. The NOE identified the project location and indicated that it fell within a fully entitled master planned development adopted on January 9, 2002. The City determined the site plan, grading plan, landscaping plan, and building elevations and design conformed to standards set forth in the master development plan. The City took the position that these determinations of compliance constituted ministerial actions not subject to CEQA review.
On July 22, 2004, the plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging that the City violated CEQA and planning and zoning laws. The Supreme Court ultimately held that the CEQA claims were untimely under the 35-day limitations period set forth in Public Resources Code, section 21167, subdivision (d). The Supreme Court declined to address the timeliness of the remaining causes of action, as neither the trial court nor the Court of Appeal had ruled on the issue. The remaining claims were remanded, and the trial court granted the City’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, holding the non-CEQA claims were barred by Government Code, section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(E) because they were not brought within 90 days after the City’s approval of the project. The plaintiffs appealed.
On appeal, plaintiffs argued a letter of approval issued for the project did not trigger the 90-day statute of limitations because it was not a permit issued after a decision by a legislative body of the City. The appellate court found that plaintiffs’ argument ignored the express language of Government Code, section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(E). This subdivision states that the 90-day limitations period applies to actions or proceedings “[t]o attack, review, set aside, void, or annul any decision on the matters listed in Sections 65901 and 65903…” Section 65901 enumerates the powers of the board of zoning adjustment or zoning administrator and states. In part, “The board of zoning adjustment or the zoning administrator may also exercise any other powers granted by local ordinance.”
The court determined the Stockton City Council, by local ordinance, created the office of Community Development Department Director and vested with this office the authority to review development projects “in compliance with” section 65901. The letter of approval was issued by the City’s Director, who the court found clearly qualified as the City’s “zoning administrator.”
The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ assertion that the Director’s letter or approval did not trigger the limitation period because section 65009 is only applicable to the decision of a legislative body. The appellate court found, when considered as a whole, the language of section 65009 supports a finding that the Legislature intended to include decisions by zoning administrators in the 90-day limitations period.
Finally, the plaintiffs argued the application of Government Code section 65009 requires a public procedure and an opportunity for hearing. Plaintiffs asserted this requirement was implied in the section. Real Parties pointed out that this assertion is refuted by the statute’s express language. Section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(e), specifically applies to matters listed in section 65901. Section 65901 distinguishes cases involving the authority to hear and decide applications for conditional uses or other permits from the exercise of other powers granted by local ordinance. Additionally, section 65901 expressly authorizes local jurisdictions to allow the grant of certain variances without a public hearing. The appellate court agreed. After finding the plaintiffs’ planning and zoning claims time-barred, the court dismissed the remaining derivative claims.
Second District Court of Appeal Holds that Challenge to Project is Time-Barred, Since Statute of Limitations Starts Running with Initial Lease Approval, Not Subsequent Execution of Lease
June 14th, 2012 by Amanda Berlin
Van De Kamps Coalition v. Board of Trustees of Los Angeles Comm. College District (2d Dist. May 8, 2012) ___ Cal.App.4th ___ (Case No. BS129238)
The Second District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s ruling sustaining a demurrer without leave to amend on the ground that a petition for writ of mandate challenging a community college district’s leasing of a campus site was time barred.
The project at issue involved the two-acre Van de Kamps Bakery building site (Building) in Los Angeles which the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) purchased in 2001 to construct a community college. An EIR had previously been prepared for the site when a real estate developer had proposed to demolish the Bakery building and build a Home Base store. An EIR update and to addenda were prepared to analyze the environmental impacts of the community college.
In 2008, the LACCD realized that due to state budget cuts, it would be unable to operate the campus. In 2009, in order to use the site for educational purposes, the LACCD Board adopted resolutions approving an interim use of the property and authorized a five-year lease of the Building to an outside tenant (Resolutions). The LACCD Board, however, decided that the lease agreement did not warrant additional environmental review, since the site would be used for the same educational functions contemplated in the EIR update and addenda. The same year, the Board furthered its Resolutions through various actions, such as approving a $40,000 building redesign expenditure and approving the purchase of a neighboring property (Purchase Agreement).
In 2010, appellant Van De Kamps filed suit against the Board, challenging the adequacy of CEQA review for the Resolutions and subsequent 2009 actions (CEQA I). Following the filing of CEQA I, in 2010, LACCD undertook additional actions furthering its Resolutions. These actions included leasing a portion of one building for employment training, adding indemnification provisions to the Purchase Agreement, and amending a contract to allow for additional architectural services. Appellant moved to amend its CEQA I petition to include claims based on the Board’s 2010 actions. When the trial court denied appellant’s motion, appellant filed a second petition (CEQA II) challenging the 2010 actions. LACCD filed a demurrer to the CEQA I petition, which was unopposed and sustained without leave to amend. LACCD thereafter filed a demurrer to the CEQA II petition claiming it was time-barred, since the 180-day statute of limitations had started running with the 2009 Resolutions, not the subsequent 2010 actions. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend and the appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision.
The court based its holding on the fact that the 2010 actions were not separate “projects” under CEQA, but were instead mere modifications to the 2009 Resolutions. The court analogized this case to City of Chula Vista v. County of San Diego (1994) 23 Cal.App.4th 1713, where the court found that the executed agreement did not differ substantially from the original agreement, and was thus not a separate project for purposes of triggering a new statute of limitations. As in Chula Vista, the execution of the lease was not different enough from the lease formation to warrant independent CEQA review.
In reaching its conclusion, the court looked to when projects take legal effect, i.e., are approved, and thus trigger their statutes of limitation. Citing Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116, 134, the Court stated that approval occurs “when the agency first exercises its discretion to execute a contract or grant financial assistance, not when the last such discretionary decision is made.” Under this definition, LAACD “approved” the project in 2009 when it committed itself to the lease and the Purchase Agreement, and approved the $40,000 expenditure. The subsequent approvals in 2010 did not substantially change the project or its environmental effects. The court reiterated Save Tara’s policy objection to the notion that “any development agreement, no matter how definite and detailed, even if accompanied by substantial financial assistance from the agency and other strong indications of agency commitment to the project, falls short of approval so long as it leaves final CEQA decisions to the agency’s future discretion.”
In conclusion, the court found that the 2010 actions were merely mechanisms for implementing the 2009 Resolutions. As such, they did not re-trigger the 180-day statute of limitations. That statute had run, and appellant’s action was therefore time-barred.
First District Determines Local Land Use Ordinance Does Not Violate Map Act and Properly Characterized Certain Approvals as Ministerial Acts Exempt from CEQA.
May 4th, 2012 by John Wheat
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.
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.
Third District Upholds Dismissal of CEQA Petition Where Petitioner Corporation Had Been Suspended Until After Statute of Limitations Had Run
January 15th, 2012 by admin
Friends of Shingle Springs Interchange v. County of El Dorado
2011 200 Cal.App.4th 1470
The Third District Court of Appeal held that dismissal of a CEQA petition by demurrer was proper where the petitioner corporation had been suspended and did not obtain revival within the statute of limitations. The Friends of Shingle Springs Interchange, Inc. (FSSI) filed a verified petition for writ of mandate challenging the certification and approval of a Circle K mini-mart and gas station complex off Highway 50 in Shingle Springs. FSSI challenged approval of the project asserting three causes of action in its petition: violations of the CEQA, violations of the Planning and Zoning Law, and “violating the traffic safety provisions” of a County Regulation.
At the time FSSI filed its petition, its corporate powers had been suspended for two and a half years. The Real Party in Interest and the County demurred to the petition, asserting that FFSI did not have the legal capacity to file the petition and that FFSI’s corporate powers were not revived until after the applicable statute of limitations had run. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend.
The appellate court first determined that dismissal of the petition by demurrer was proper. The court then considered whether the petition could be saved by the “substantial compliance” doctrine. The court held that a suit filed by a corporation while its powers were suspended does not toll the statute of limitations. The suit is ineffective because of the suspension, so that statute continues to run. The court invited supplemental briefing on the issue of whether the doctrine of substantial compliance with corporate suspension and reviver statutes apply in CEQA and Planning and Zoning Law challenges to avoid the statute of limitations for such actions. The court held that the substantial compliance doctrine cannot be used by a suspended corporation to defeat the short statutes of limitation in actions involving CEQA or the Planning and Zoning Law.