Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton (2010) 48 Cal.4th 481.
Committee for Green Foothills v. Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors (2010) 48 Cal.4th 32.
In two recent decisions, the California Supreme Court has found actions brought pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) barred by expiration of the applicable statute of limitations. Most recently, on April 1, 2010, the Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeal decision in Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton (2010) 48 Cal.4th 481 (Stockton Citizens), holding that, despite alleged flaws in the decision-making process, a facially valid and properly filed notice of exemption (NOE) triggered the 35-day statute of limitation period for filing a lawsuit to challenge the city’s determination that it had approved a project exempt from CEQA. Prior to the Stockton Citizens decision, on February 11, 2010, the Court also reversed a court of appeal decision in Committee for Green Foothills v. Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors (2010) 48 Cal.4th 32 (Committee for Green Foothills), holding that the filing of a notice of determination (NOD) triggers the 30-day statute of limitations for all CEQA challenges to the decision announced in the notice, regardless of the nature of the CEQA violation alleged.
In Stockton Citizens, the Supreme Court held that a petition filed nearly six months after the City of Stockton had filed an NOE for approval of a Wal-Mart retail center that was consistent with a previously approved master development plan was untimely. The Court held that the posting of the NOE triggered the 35-day statute of limitations period under Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (d), regardless of whether the exemption determination was properly made.
The petitioners argued that the filing of an NOE could only have force or effect to trigger the 35-day limitations period if the underlying project approval were valid. The Court found that the petitioners’ argument ran contrary to the principle that limitations periods apply regardless of the merits of the claims asserted. Section 21167, subdivision (d), clearly requires suits claiming that an agency has “improperly determined” a project to be exempt from CEQA to be brought within 35 days after the filing of an NOE that complies with CEQA requirements. The Court also looked to the legislative intent of the statutory limitations periods and found that the approach argued for by the petitioners would circumvent CEQA’s unusually shortened statute of limitations for challenges where the agency has given public notice.
The Court also rejected petitioners’ argument that the NOE itself was defective, concluding that it demonstrated minimal compliance with CEQA in that it described the project in question, including its location, set forth the action taken, and detailed the reasons for the exemption finding. The NOE thus alerted the public that the statute of limitations for bringing a CEQA challenge to the noticed action had begun to run. Because petitioners had not filed their challenge within the 35-day limitations period, their claims were time-barred.
In Committee for Green Foothills, the Supreme Court held that a challenge to Santa Clara County’s approval of a trail alignment for a countywide trail master plan was untimely. The petitioners alleged the county had failed to determine whether review was required, and therefore argued that the 180-day statute of limitations under section 21167, subdivision (d) should apply. The county had, however, filed an NOD.
Noting that Section 21167 does not specifically define the limitations period that applies to such a scenario, the Court found that the determinative question in identifying the appropriate statute of limitations was not the type of violation alleged, but whether the action complained of was disclosed in a public notice. According to the Court, when an agency gives the public notice of its decision under CEQA, the public can be expected to act promptly in challenging this decision. In contrast, when an agency does not give the statutorily required notice and the public is held to constructive notice based on the start of the project, a longer limitations period applies. Regardless of the type of violation alleged by petitioners, they had notice of the county’s action when the NOD was filed, and the Court concluded the petitioners thereafter had 30 days to file suit challenging that action.
The court also rejected the petitioners’ contention that the NOD was defective, and thus did not trigger a 30-day limitations period. The record supported the trial court’s finding that both the initial and the revised NODs were, at a minimum, in substantial compliance with CEQA guidelines.
In both of these cases, the posting of a CEQA notice, whether in the form of an NOD or NOE, was a crucial factor in determining the period during which CEQA challenges could be brought. In both cases, the Court found that the language of section 21167 strongly suggested that the Legislature intended the filing of an NOD or NOE to trigger a 30-day or 35-day, respectively, statute of limitations. Of particular concern to the Court seems to be the unusually short limitations periods set forth in CEQA, which are meant to ensure finality and predictability in land use planning decisions.