In the published portions of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power v. County of Inyo (2021) 67 Cal.App.5th 1018, the Fifth District Court of Appeal held that the issue exhaustion requirement in Public Resources Code section 21177, subdivision (a) did not apply where the County of Inyo did not provide adequate public notice prior to adopting a Notice of Exemption (NOE) and that the County abused its discretion in finding that condemning three landfill sites was categorically exempt from CEQA under the “existing facilities” exemption in CEQA Guidelines section 15301 (the “Class 1” categorical exemption).
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Beginning in the 1950s, the County began leasing land within the County owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) for waste management purposes. At issue in this case were three sites leased by the County for use as unlined landfills. The County’s operation of the landfills is subject to permitting by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle). Beginning in 2012, the County sought to amend the permits for two of the three landfill sites to increase the permissible daily usage, overall capacity, and to accelerate the closure dates, effectively shortening the useful life of the landfills.
After negotiating with LADWP to extend the lease agreement for one of the sites, the County determined that acquiring all three landfill sites through condemnation was necessary. In a letter to the Board of Supervisors, LADWP objected to the County’s decision, in part, arguing that that the County was required to comply with CEQA before taking any action on the proposed condemnation. At the Board hearing on the condemnation proposal, County staff suggested that the Board’s actions would be exempt from CEQA review for several reasons, including the “existing facilities” categorical exemption under CEQA Guidelines section 15301. The Board approved the condemnation proceedings, but its written decision made no mention of CEQA.
LADWP filed suit. The Kern County Superior Court ruled that the County violated CEQA and issued a writ of mandate directing the County to rescind its resolutions relating to the condemnation proceedings, pending compliance with CEQA. The County appealed.
THE COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION
Before turning to the merits of LADWP’s CEQA claims, the Court of Appeal addressed the “threshold procedural issue” of whether LADWP’s CEQA claims were barred because it failed to exhaust its administrative remedies with respect to the issues that it raised in court. After discussing the statute and relevant case law, the court acknowledged that because CEQA did not require a comment period prior to determining that a project is exempt from CEQA, the relevant question was whether the agency provided adequate notice to the public prior to considering an exemption. Specifically, the court explained, an agency’s notice must inform the public that the agency will consider a CEQA exemption; otherwise, the issue exhaustion requirement in Public Resources Code section 21177, subdivision (a), does not apply. Here, the court found that the first mention of CEQA and the Board’s consideration of an exemption was made by staff during the hearing, and the hearing notice was silent on CEQA. The court concluded that the public was not provided with adequate notice regarding the exemption, and therefore, LADWP was not required to exhaust on its CEQA challenges to the County’s exemption determination.
Turning to the exemptions relied on by the County, the court found that because the issues before it involved the scope of the “existing facilities” categorical exemption and statutory construction, review of the County’s actions was de novo. After reviewing the language of CEQA Guidelines section 15301, the court concluded that the term “facilities” is ambiguous, agreeing with the Second District Court of Appeal in Azusa Land Reclamation Co. v. Main San Gabriel Basin Watermaster (1997) 52 Cal.App.4th 1165 (Azusa). Further agreeing with Azusa, the court reasoned that, because an unlined landfill was “excavated” rather than “built,” an unlined landfill was more akin to an alteration in the condition of land rather than a facility. The court reasoned that because section 15301 was revised following the Azusa decision but did not expressly mention landfills, the court concluded that the Secretary of Resources who issued the revised Guideline must have agreed with Azusa that unlined landfills are not a class of projects that do not have a significant effect on the environment. Thus, the court concluded that the County abused its discretion in finding the condemnation proceedings categorically exempt under the Class 1 categorical exemptions.
– Nathan O. George