Archives: June 2012

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Regulations

On June 26, 2012, in Coalition for Responsible Regulation, Inc., et al., v. Environmental Protection Agency, No. 09-1322 (D.C. Cir. June 26, 2012), the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s Endangerment Finding and Tailpipe Rule regarding greenhouse gases. The court also upheld the agency’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act (CAA) requiring major stationary sources of greenhouses gases to obtain construction and operating permits. Opponents of these rules disputed the Endangerment Findings and EPA’s authority to regulate GHG emissions under the CAA based upon the finding.

Background and Procedure

The EPA promulgated the disputed rules following the Supreme Court’s holding in Massachusetts v. EPA that GHGs may be regulated as an air pollutant under the CAA. In response to this holding, the EPA first issued its Endangerment Finding for GHGs. The Finding was based “on a considerable body of scientific evidence,” and EPA concluded that emissions of specified GHGs “contribute to the total greenhouse gas air pollution, and thus to the climate change problem, which is reasonably anticipated to endanger public health and welfare.” Based on this finding, the EPA was required under the CAA to establish motor-vehicle emission standards for GHGs. The ensuing Tailpipe Rule set GHG emission standards for cars and light trucks as part of a joint rule-making with fuel economy standards issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Due to EPA’s standing interpretation of the CAA, the Tailpipe Rule automatically triggered regulation of stationary GHG emitters under the Prevention of Significant Deterioration of Air Quality (PSD) program and Title V. The PSD program requires state-issued construction permits for stationary sources producing either 100 tons per year (tpy) or 250 tpy of any air pollutant. Title V requires state-issued operating permits for stationary sources that have the potential to emit at least 100 tpy of any air pollutant. EPA then issued two rules phasing in stationary source GHG regulation. First, in the Timing Rule, EPA concluded that an air pollutant becomes subject to regulation under the CAA (and therefore to PSD and Title V) only once a regulation requiring control of that pollutant takes effect. Therefore, EPA determined major stationary emitters of GHGs would be subject to PSD and Title V permitting requirements on the date the Tailpipe Rule became effective—or the date when GHGs first became regulated under the CAA. Following the Timing Rule, EPA promulgated the Tailoring Rule, providing that only the largest sources of GHG emissions, those exceeding 75,000 or 100,000 tpy CO2e, would initially be subject to the GHG permitting. This rule was adopted after the EPA determined requiring permitting for all sources would be overwhelmingly burdensome for both permitting authorities and stationary sources.

A number of states and regulated industries filed petitions for review of these new GHG regulations, arguing the EPA misinterpreted the CAA or otherwise acted arbitrarily and capriciously.

Challenges to the Endangerment Finding.

Petitioners challenged EPA’s Endangerment Finding on numerous substantive and procedural grounds. All challenges were rejected by the court.

  1. EPA’s interpretation of CAA section 202(a)(1).

Petitioners argued that the EPA improperly interpreted CAA § 202(a)(1) as restricting the finding to a science-based judgment without considerations of policy concerns and regulatory consequences. Petitioners believed the EPA was required to consider the benefits of activities emitting GHGs, the effectiveness of emissions regulation, and the potential for societal adaptation to or mitigation of climate change. Petitioners argued that, by not considering these factors, EPA acted arbitrarily and capriciously.

The Court determined the plain language of CAA § 202(a)(1) was contrary to these arguments. The language of the section requires only that the endangerment evaluation relate to whether an air pollutant causes or contributes to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger the public health or welfare. The court held that the evaluation process required “scientific judgment”—not policy discussions—about the potential risks of GHGs. The court also held that CAA § 202(a)(1) does not allow the EPA to consider, as part of the endangerment inquiry, the implications or impacts of regulations that might result from a positive endangerment finding.

  1. The Scientific Record

Petitioners also challenged the adequacy of the scientific record underlying the endangerment findings. Petitioners initially challenged the EPA’s reliance on publications issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.S. Global Climate Research Program, and the National Research Council.  The court summarily rejected this argument, noting the scientific literature was peer-reviewed and consisted of thousands of individual studies on GHGs and climate change. The court also rejected, as “little more than a semantic trick,” that EPA delegated its authority by relying on these studies. The EPA relied on the reports not as substitutes for its own judgment but as evidence upon which it relied to make its ultimate judgment. The court noted that EPA is not required to re-prove “the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question.”

Finally, in their challenge to the adequacy of the scientific record, Petitioners argued EPA erred in reaching the Endangerment Finding due to scientific uncertainty surrounding climate change. The court responded by noting the “substantial” body of scientific evidence supporting the Endangerment Finding. The court held the existence of some uncertainty does not, without more, warrant invalidation of an endangerment finding. The statute itself is designed to be precautionary in nature and to protect the public health. Further, the Supreme Court itself ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that the agency may make an endangerment finding despite lingering uncertainty. The court held that the EPA’s decision was supported by substantial evidence and that the agency had relied on the scientific record “in a rational manner.” The court noted that it was not its role to reweigh the evidence before it and reach its own conclusion.

  1. Lack of a quantitative threshold

Petitioners contended that the Endangerment Finding was arbitrary and capricious because the EPA did not define, measure or quantify either the atmospheric concentration at which GHGs endanger the public health or welfare, the rate or type of climate change anticipated to endanger the public welfare, or the risk or impacts of climate change. The court, again relying on the plain language of CAA § 202(a)(1), held that EPA is not required to establish a precise numerical value as part of its endangerment findings. Instead, section 202(a)(1) allows for a qualitative approach that allows the EPA to make case-by-case determinations based on the potential severity of harm in relation to the probability that the harm will occur.

  1. EPA’s definition of “air pollutant”

EPA defined the GHG “air pollution” and “air pollutant” subject to the Endangerment Finding as an aggregate of six GHGs, which the EPA called “well mixed greenhouse gases”: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). Industry Petitioners argued EPA’s decision to include PFCs and SF6 was arbitrary and capricious because motor vehicles do not emit these pollutants. The court responded that no petitioner established standing to make this argument, as no petitioner could demonstrate an injury-in-fact resulting from EPA’s decision to include PFCs and SF6 in the Endangerment Finding.

  1. Failure to submit Endangerment Finding for review by Science Advisory Board

Petitioners claimed that the EPA’s failure to submit the Endangerment Finding to the Science Advisory Board (SAB) violates its mandate to “make available” to the SAB “any proposed criteria document, standard, limitation, or regulation under the Clean Air Act” at the time it provides the same “to any other Federal agency for formal review and comment.” The court noted that it wasn’t clear this obligation was even triggered because it wasn’t clear that the EPA provided the Endangerment Finding to any Federal agency for formal review and comment—it had only been submitted to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs pursuant to Executive Order 12,866 for informal review. The court found that even if the EPA violated its mandate by failing to submit the Endangerment Finding to the SAB, Petitioners did not show this error was prejudicial to the rulemaking.

  1. Denial of petitions seeking reconsideration of Endangerment Finding

In the final challenge, Petitioners argued the EPA erred by denying all ten petitions for reconsideration of the finding. Petitioners asserted that internal documents and emails obtained from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit undermined the scientific evidence upon which the EPA relied. When determining whether to commence reconsideration of a rule, EPA considers an objection to be of “central relevance to the outcome” of that rule “if it provides substantial support for the argument that the regulation should be revised.” Additionally, the party raising the objection must demonstrate that it was impracticable to raise the objection during the public comment period.

The court rejected Petitioners’ assertion, finding that they failed to provide substantial support for their arguments that the Endangerment Findings should have been revised. The assessment had relied on over 18,000 peer-reviewed studies, and two errors identified in IPCC reports were harmless because EPA did not actually rely on such errors to reach the positive Endangerment Finding. Isolated errors identified by Petitioners did not rise to the level of substantial evidence required to support their arguments to overturn the Endangerment Findings.

Challenges to the Tailpipe Rule

Petitioners did not directly challenge the vehicle emission standards set by the Tailpipe Rule, and instead argued the EPA acted arbitrarily and capriciously by failing to consider and justify the costs of its conclusion that the Rule triggers stationary-source regulation under the PSD Program and Title V. The court rejected this argument and held that once EPA made the Endangerment Finding, the language of section 202(a)(1) created a non-discretionary duty that the EPA adopt regulation applicable to vehicle GHG emissions. The court noted this interpretation was supported by the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA.

Petitioners also advanced a claim under the Administrative Procedures Act, alleging that EPA failed to show that the proposed standards “would meaningfully mitigate the alleged endangerment.” The court rejected this argument, indicating that petitioner misread earlier D.C. Circuit decisions on EPA air regulations. EPA was under no requirement to establish a particular level of mitigation that the regulation had to achieve. Instead, EPA was only required to show that the Tailpipe Rule would contribute to “meaningful mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Finally, the court rejected an argument made by Petitioners that EPA should have considered the cost of stationary source permitting that would follow adoption of the Tailoring Rule. The D.C. Circuit had previously held that section 202(a)(2) reference only compliance costs to the motor vehicle industry and does not mandate consideration of costs to other entities not directly subject to the proposed tailpipe emission standards.

Challenges to EPA’s interpretation of PSD Permitting, Timing and Tailoring Rules

Petitioners challenged EPA’s longstanding interpretation of the scope of the permitting requirements for construction and modification of major emitting facilities under the CAA. Since 1978, EPA has defined “major stationary source” as a source that emits major amounts of “any air pollutant regulated under the [CAA].” This interpretation held through EPA’s PSD regulations adopted in 1980 and 2002. “Any pollutant” was interpreted by the EPA to include both criteria pollutants for the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) and non-criteria pollutants. As a result, when EPA determined that GHGs would become a regulated pollutant, emissions of more than 100 or 250 tpy of GHGs would trigger a PSD permitting requirement. Petitioners challenged this interpretation and argued that EPA could and should have avoided extending the PSD permitting program to major GHG emitters. The court adopted a plain meaning of section 169(1), which requires PSD permits for stationary sources emitting major amounts of “any air pollutant.” Both the EPA and the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA clearly established that GHGs are air pollutants. As a result, the court rejected Petitioners’ arguments that EPA should not have extended the PSD permitting program to major GHG emitters. The court rejected the Petitioners’ alternative interpretations of the PSD permitting triggers, as none cast doubt on the unambiguous nature of the statute.

Petitioners also challenged the Tailoring and Timing Rules established by EPA to facilitate initial regulations of GHGs. The court determined Petitioners lacked standing to challenge these two Rules because none had suffered an injury-in-fact as a result of the rules. Instead, the court found the Timing and Tailoring Rules actually mitigated Petitioners’ purported injuries, as many would be subject to PSD and Title V permitting requirements at an earlier time absent the rules.

First District Court of Appeal Upholds ARB’s Scoping Plan for AB 32, Finding the Plan is Not Arbitrary and Capricious

On June 18, 2012, in Association of Irritated Residents v. California Air Resources Board (2012) ___ Cal.App.4th ___ (No. A132165), the First District Court of Appeal upheld the California Air Resources Board’s (“ARB’s”)  2009 Climate Change Scoping Plan, finding it complies with the requirements of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of (2006) (“AB 32”) and that ARB’s adoption of the plan was not arbitrary or capricious. Continue reading

Second District Orders Publication of Additional Sections of Opinion in Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 552

On May 9, 2012, the Second District published parts 5-8 of its opinion in Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 552. These sections featured Petitioner’s claims of inadequate CEQA analysis for cumulative impacts, mitigation measures, alternatives, and recirculation. In each case, the court found in favor of Respondent Metro. Parts 3 and 4 of the opinion remain unpublished.

Cumulative impacts

Petitioner argued that the cumulative traffic analysis in Metro’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was inadequate because it failed to consider traffic impacts of related projects. Under CEQA, an EIR must discuss cumulative impacts of a project if the project’s incremental effects are cumulatively significant, that is, if the project’s effects are significant when considered together with related effects of past, current, and probable future projects. Metro’s EIR did not separately assess cumulative traffic impacts since the discussion of the traffic impacts of the project itself was already cumulative, in that it was based on a combination of existing and future conditions with and without the project.

The court held that in analyzing cumulative impacts, the agency’s discussion should note the severity of the impacts and likelihood of their occurrence, but need not provide the same level of detail as is provided for the effect of the main project. Thus, for example, Metro’s “summary of [project] projections” did not need to include analyses specific intersections that were not under environmental review when the draft EIR was circulated.


Petitioner also argued that Metro failed to provide adequate mitigation measures and improperly deferred mitigation for parking, noise, safety, and construction.  The court found that the EIR’s mitigation measures were not uncertain, speculative, or infeasible, and found no evidence that the measures would be ineffective, unfunded, or not implemented.

To address spillover parking, Metro adopted a measure to monitor parking activity and work with local jurisdictions to create permit parking programs where necessary. The EIR noted that Metro would reimburse local jurisdictions for these programs. The agency included alternative mitigation options such as metered parking where a permit program would not suffice. Petitioner argued that Metro could not assure formation or effectiveness of the permit program, and that such a program would be inadequate unless it retained residents’ current ability to park in their neighborhoods. The court disagreed. The court distinguished this case from Gray v. County of Madera (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 1099, where a mitigation measure proposing to provide bottled water to compensate for a decline in water levels “defie[d] common sense” and was not substantially similar to residents’ pre-project conditions. In contrast, residents here would still have street parking, making their situation substantially similar to pre-project conditions. Additionally, the court refused to assume that simply because Metro could not require local jurisdictions to adopt the permit program, the mitigation measure was inadequate. The mitigation set for the a specific performance standard in the form of monitoring parking activity to determine if the light rail activity would increase parking utilization to 100 percent and, if so, requiring Metro to work with local jurisdictions regarding permit parking programs. Citing the second prong of Section 21081(a), which allows an agency to make a finding regarding a significant effect that changes lie within another agency’s jurisdiction, the court noted that the feact that Metro could not require a local jurisdiction to adopt a permit program, did not make the mitigation measure inadequate.

Metro’s EIR addressed removal of street parking with measures that included replacement parking and revised parking designs, such as diagonal parking. Petitioner contended a lack of evidence that such measures were feasible, given high land costs, or would actually be implemented. Unlike in Federation of Hillside & Canyon Associations v. City of Los Angeles (2000) 83 Cal.App.4th 1252, there was no acknowledgement by Metro of any “great uncertainty” as to whether mitigation would ultimately be funded or implemented. The court also noted Petitioner’s failure to challenge the EIR’s financial evaluation of Metro’s ability to build the project, which included allowance for mitigation measures. Since the mitigation explicitly stated that property would have to be acquired for replacement parking, and identified parcels for that purpose, the court found the mitigation measures were not uncertain or speculative and petitioner failed to meet its burden to identify any deficiency.

In anticipation of noise and vibration effects from the project, Metro’s mitigation measures included installation of sound walls alongside the rail line. The agency added that where those walls would not suffice, it would provide for sound insulation of residences to meet the applicable noise threshold. Petitioner again argued that the measure lacked evidence of feasibility, and did not include details on how such improvements would be provided. The Court rejected Petitioner’s arguments, finding that CEQA does not require a lead agency to detail how it will actually carry out the proposed mitigation measure, so long as it commits to satisfying specific performance criteria. Metro was also not required to restore residents to their original position and eliminate noise and vibration completely; the agency merely had to minimize impacts to less-than-significant levels.

Metro included mitigation measures to address safety impacts, such as coordination with affected cities and encouragement of emergency response updates, which had been successfully implemented on other Metro rail lines. Though Petitioner repeated its argument of lack of proof of effectiveness and actual implementation, the Court saw no reason to conclude that cities would fail to update their emergency response procedures as other municipalities had done in the past.

Finally, the EIR identified possible closure of lanes in major streets during project construction, and proposed providing alternative lanes on cross streets in cooperation with the cities, as well as limiting construction to nights and weekends. Petitioner argued that these measures improperly deferred mitigation and did not include performance standards. The Court countered that limiting street closure to weekend and evening hours was an acceptable performance standard. Moreover, Metro’s required compliance with traffic control plans formulated in cooperation with affected jurisdictions and in accordance with specified manuals offered additional performance standards.


Petitioner claimed that Metro’s failure to include a detailed examination of grade separation in a particular segment of the project resulted in an inadequate consideration of project alternatives. The court disagreed, finding the EIR evaluated a reasonable range of alternatives and no inadequacy in the EIR’s failure to include a detailed examination of the suggested alternative. Detailed analysis of the suggested alternative was neither required, since the proposed project on its own would decrease environmental impacts to a less-than-significant level, and the suggested alternative would not have offered substantial environmental advantages over the proposed project.


Finally, Petitioner argued that the Final EIR reflected major changes to the project made after circulation of the draft, requiring recirculation of the EIR for further public comment. Such changes included new information on grade separation at various intersections; signal phasing at one intersection; parking; and noise impacts. CEQA requires recirculation of an EIR when significant new information is added, such that the public is deprived of a meaningful opportunity to comment upon a substantial adverse environmental effect. The court found that the added information did not disclose a new substantial environmental impact or a substantial increase in severity of one of the project’s impacts. The court highlighted the fact that Petitioner did not identify how the new information would undermine Metro’s less-than-significant-impact conclusions. Thus, Metro’s decision not to recirculate was supported by substantial evidence.


The summary of the baseline portion of this decision can be read here:

Citizens for Open Government v. City of Lodi

(2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 296

The Third Appellate District upheld the trial court’s judgment discharging a writ after the City of Lodi demonstrated full compliance with CEQA for a revised, recirculated EIR prepared for a use permit to develop a 35-acre shopping center. In 2005, the trial court granted a petition for writ of mandate in a proceeding challenging the City’s environmental review (Lodi First I).  The city council rescinded approval of the project and decertified the original EIR. In 2007, the city circulated revisions to the EIR for public review and comment.  The city concluded some of the comments it had received on the revised draft EIR were beyond the scope of the revisions and barred by res judicata. The city declined to provide substantive responses to these comments. In 2009, the city council conditionally approved the project entitlements and adopted findings of fact and a statement of overriding considerations for the project.

In order to proceed with the project, the city filed a petition to discharge the writ in the original proceeding. As part of this process, the city lodged a supplemental administrative record. Petitioner groups Citizens for Open Government (COG) and Lodi First filed separate lawsuits challenging the final revised EIR. Both groups contended the supplemental administrative record excluded documents, including internal agency communications and communications with city consultants.  COG filed a motion to augment the supplemental administrative record. The court granted the motion in part and denied the motion in part based on the attorney-client, attorney-work-product and deliberative process privileges. In 2010, following a hearing on the merits, the trial court granted the City’s request to discharge the 2005 writ in Lodi First I and deny the petitions challenging the revised EIR.

On appeal, Lodi First and COG argued the trial court erred in applying the deliberative process privilege to exclude some emails from the administrative record. Appellants also challenged the sufficiency of the revised EIR on numerous grounds and disputed the trial court’s ruling precluding them from challenging certain issues based on res judicata.

Under the deliberative process privilege, senior officials in government enjoy a qualified, limited privilege not to disclose certain materials or communications. These include the mental processes by which a given decision was reached and other discussions, deliberations, etc., by which government policy is processed and formulated. The deliberative process showing must be made by the one claiming the privilege. Not every deliberative process communication is protected by the privilege.  Instead, the privilege is implicated only if the public interest in nondisclosure clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

In the trial court, the city argued the deliberative process privilege applied because the city manager, city attorney, community development director, and other consultants engaged in various deliberative discussions and document exchanges concerning revisions to the EIR. The privilege was required, the city argued, “to foster candid dialogue and a testing and challenging of the approaches to be taken…” On appeal, Lodi First claimed this assertion was insufficient to support nondisclosure through the deliberative process privilege. The appellate court agreed, finding the city offered a correct statement of policy, but that invoking policy was not sufficient to explain the public’s specific interest in nondisclosure of the documents at issue. As a result, the city failed to carry its burden, and the trial court erred in excluding 22 e-mails from the administrative record based on the deliberative process privilege.

While the trial court erred in excluding these documents, this error was not necessarily prejudicial. Under the standard for prejudicial error established by the California Constitution, the appellant bears the burden to show it is reasonably probable he or she would have received a more favorable result at trial had the error not occurred.

Lodi First acknowledged it could not satisfy its burden to prove prejudice on appeal because it had not seen the documents that were erroneously withheld. Lodi First claimed the improper withholding of the documents itself was prejudicial because it was impossible for Lodi First to acquire them. The appellate court disagreed and noted Lodi First should have sought writ review of the trial court’s ruling on the motion to augment the administrative record. In addition, the appellate court, citing Madera Oversight Coalition Inc. v. County of Madera (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 48, disagreed with Lodi First’s contention that the incomplete record itself was a prejudicial error requiring reversal regardless of the actual contents of the withheld documents.

The appellate court upheld the revised EIR’s discussion of alternatives and cumulative urban decay impacts, the city’s selection of a baseline for urban decay impacts, cumulative impacts to agriculture, and a 1:1 conservation easement mitigation ratio.

Lodi First also attempted to argue the revised EIR failed to disclose cumulative water supply impacts. The trial court held that res judicata barred Lodi Frist from raising this claim. The appellate court agreed.

Res Judicata (claim preclusion) bars relitigation of a cause of action that was previously adjudicated in another proceeding between the same parties or parties in privity with them and that adjudication resulted in a final decision on the merits. In this case, a writ was issued in Lodi First I and was final on the merits.  The trial court granted Lodi First’s petition and held the 2005 EIR was inadequate under CEQA. The city chose not to appeal, and the ruling was final because the time to appeal passed.

Lodi first attempted to argue res judicata did not preclude its water supply challenge because it was based on new information and the city’s 2009 findings regarding the project’s water supply impacts differed from its 2005 findings. For the purposes of res judicata, causes of action are considered the same if based on the same primary right. A claim is based on the same primary right if based on the same conditions and facts in existence when the original action was filed.

The appellate court determined the problem of overdraft cited by Lodi First was not new evidence. The city’s own 1990 general plan identified overdraft in the aquifer. While Lodi First claimed new evidence established more information than the 1990 EIR, the critical fact was that the city’s water supply was inadequate to serve new development.  This was known at the time of the 2004 EIR. In addition, the court determined the findings were consistent in that both findings were that the project would have no significant impact on water supply and therefore, no mitigation was necessary

Finally, the appellate court disagreed with Lodi First that res judicata should not be applied to the water supply issue due to public policy. When the issue is a question of law rather than of fact, res judicata may not apply if injustice would result or if the public interest requires that relitigation be allowed. Lodi First’s water supply issue did not present a question of law, so the public interest exception did not apply.

This case demonstrates the limitations of the deliberative process privilege for public agencies. Agencies attempting to rely on this privilege must be prepared to support their assertion of the privilege with a specific showing that the nondisclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure; broad policy statements are not enough to support application of the privilege.  In addition, the case offers an important reminder of the consequences of failing to raise all potential arguments in original CEQA proceedings, and indeed, most regular civil proceedings.

RMM partners Andrea Leisy and Howard Wilkins and associate Laura Harris represented real party in in interest Browman Development in this litigation.

Salmon Protection & Watershed Network v. County of Marin

(2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 195

The First Appellate District Court of Appeal affirmed dismissal of Salmon Protection & Watershed Network’s (SPAWN’s) complaint in intervention where the underlying tolling agreements were valid. Property owners SPAWN had challenged the adequacy of an EIR certified by Marin County in connection with a county-wide General Plan update implementing stream conservation policies. The trial court had sustained a demurrer to SPAWN’s complaint, which alleged that the group’s petition was untimely. 

Marin County had certified an EIR in connection with area-wide stream conservation policies. Thereafter, SPAWN entered into a series of tolling agreements that extended the limitation period for filing a complaint challenging the sufficiency of the EIR, during which time the parties were engaged in unsuccessful settlement negotiations. The Court held, against SPAWN’s arguments, that these tolling agreements were valid because the added time benefitted the County rather than SPAWN, and thus could be waived by the County. Because the tolling agreements were valid, the trial court had properly sustained demurrers to the complaint in intervention. [RMM Partner James G. Moose, Senior Counsel Jennifer S. Holman and Associate Jeannie Lee  represented the respondent County.]

Tomlinson v. County of Alameda

(2012) 54 Cal.4th 281

The California Supreme Court held that the requirement for exhaustion of administrative remedies found in Public Resources Code section 21177, subdivision (a) of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) applies to an agency’s decision that a project is categorically exempt from compliance with CEQA, so long as the public agency gives notice of the grounds for its exemption determination, and that determination is preceded by a public hearing at which members of the public had the opportunity to raise objections to the project.

The petitioners had participated in Alameda County’s administrative process to challenge the approval of an 11-unit subdivision in the unincorporated portion of the County near Hayward. The County Board of Supervisors determined that the infill exemption found at CEQA Guidelines section 15332 applied and approved the project after hearing the petitioners’ appeal from the planning commission.

The Court did not reach the petitioners’ arguments that the public agency’s description of the requirements for the infill exemption was misleading, where the county omitted any mention of the infill exemption’s criterion requiring that the project be located “within city limits.” The county did not quote the full language of the exemption in any of its notices and staff reports. Instead, it summarized the criteria and substituted “in an established urban area” for the proper phrase “within city limits” in the exemption in all explanations of the exemption in project materials. Petitioners asserted that this substitution misled and prevented them from raising the specific issue of whether the “city limits” restriction disqualified the project from using the infill exemption. The Court also did not address the argument that the petitioner’s extensive objections to the project on multiple grounds at public hearings, including a dispute about the project site’s characterization as an “urban area”, were sufficient to satisfy the exhaustion requirement.

The Court remanded the case to the First District Court of Appeal to determine whether the claims the petitioners raised were adequate to put the County on notice that the infill exemption did not apply, and whether the County’s omission of key criteria for the exemption excused the petitioner’s failure to exhaust on the specific issue of the city limits criterion. [The petitioners were represented by RMM partner Sabrina V. Teller.]

California Supreme Court holds that exhaustion of administrative remedies is required for challenges to categorical exemptions under CEQA where public hearings are held.

On June 14, 2012, the California Supreme Court decided Tomlinson v. County of Alameda (Case No. S188161), holding that the requirement for exhaustion of administrative remedies found in Public Resources Code section 21177, subdivision (a) of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) applies to an agency’s decision that a project is categorically exempt from compliance with CEQA, so long as the public agency gives notice of the grounds for its exemption determination, and that determination is preceded by a public hearing at which members of the public had the opportunity to raise objections to the project.

In its decision the Court carefully considered conflicting holdings in Azusa Land Reclamation Co. v. Main San Gabriel Basin Watermaster (1997) 52 Cal.App.4th 1165 and Hines v. California Coastal Commission (2010) 186 Cal.App.4th 830.

Azusa held that section 21177’s exhaustion requirement does not apply to a challenge to a public agency’s decision that a project is categorically exempt from CEQA compliance, whereas Hines held to the contrary.

Procedurally, the issue is that while section 21777 requires that petitioners exhaust their administrative remedies during the public comment period or during a public hearing on the project before issuance of a notice of determination, CEQA does not provide for a public comment period prior to an agency’s determination of a categorical exemption. Further, no public hearing typically precedes the agency’s notice of determination in this situation, because a notice of determination is not generally filed for a categorical exemption.

Under Hines, an exhaustion provision does apply for categorical exemptions, where there was ample notice of a public hearing. The Court followed Hines rather than Azusa because it found that in this case, as in Hines, the agency did hold public hearings on the project which gave interested parties the opportunity to raise objections to the project before the agency’s exemption finding.

The Supreme Court did not reach the petitioners’ arguments that the public agency’s description of the requirements for the infill exemption was misleading, where the County omitted any mention of the infill exemption’s criterion requiring that the project be located “within city limits.” In Tomlinson, the County did not quote the full language in CEQA Guidelines section 15332 in any of its notices and staff reports. Instead, it substituted “in an established urban area” for the exemption’s language “within city limits” in all of its summaries of the exemption criteria in project materials. Petitioners asserted that this substitution misled and prevented them from raising the specific issue of whether the “city limits” restriction disqualified the project from using the infill exemption. The Court also did not address the argument that the petitioner’s extensive objections to the project on multiple issues at public hearings were sufficient to satisfy the exhaustion requirement.

The Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeal to determine whether the claims the petitioners raised were adequate to put the County on notice that the infill exemption did not apply, and whether the County’s omission of key criteria for a categorical exemption excuses the petitioner’s duty to exhaust on that issue.

This case continues to have important precedential value: it is still important to resolve whether an agency must provide full and accurate information in order to successfully assert the affirmative defense of failure to exhaust administrative remedies in CEQA litigation. The Tomlinson petitioners were represented by RMM partner Sabrina V. Teller.


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

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.

SB 973: “Save Our Events” Act would exempt annual fireworks displays

Senate Bill 973, otherwise known as the “Save Our Events” Act, would exempt annual fireworks displays from CEQA. The CEQA Guidelines include a list of project classes that have been determined not to have a significant effect on the environment. SB 973 authorizes a lead agency to grant, on an annual basis, one categorical exemption per site for a fireworks display. The bill would thereby impose a state-mandated local program. SB 973 would authorize the office of Planning and Research to identify potential environmental issues related to fireworks displays and to develop guidelines to assist local agencies regarding those displays.

According to Senator Juan Vargas, who fought to pass the bill, “CEQA was not created to allow frivolous lawsuits to ban family and charitable events like parades and fireworks on the Fourth of July.” However, the bill’s narrowness may be fatal to its support. The limited application of SB 973 was intended to be a temporary, politically palatable compromise during negotiations, but Vargas and other supporters now say that if they cannot get broader exemptions they would rather abandon the bill.