Archives: November 2021

Second District Holds That Labor Union’s Interest in CEQA Action Was Not Sufficiently Direct and Immediate for Permissive Intervention

In South Coast Air Quality Management District v. City of Los Angeles (November 4, 2021, No. 20STCP02985) __ Cal.App.5th __, the Second District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision to deny a labor union’s motion for permissive intervention in a CEQA case.

Background

This case involved the City of Los Angeles’s issuance of a permit authorizing a shipping company owned by the Chinese government to construction of a terminal within the Port of Los Angeles. In 2008, the City completed an EIR that concluded that the project would have significant and unavoidable environmental impacts. The EIR incorporated over 50 mitigation and lease measures to reduce these impacts.

In 2020, the City prepared a revised EIR that eliminated some of the mitigation measures required in the 2008 EIR. The revised EIR also concluded that the project would have significant, unavoidable, and increased impacts on air quality, and that it would exceed a threshold for cancer risk. The 2020 EIR did not contain enforcement provisions for the mitigation measures, did not require a lease amendment, and did not require the project applicant to implement or pay for the mitigation measures.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District filed a petition for writ of mandate, claiming that the City violated CEQA by failing to enforce the measures required by the 2008 EIR, and certifying the 2020 EIR, allowing the project to operate under allegedly inferior measures.

The petition named the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles City Council, the Los Angeles Harbor Department, and the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners as respondents, and several shipping companies as real parties in interest.

The California Attorney General and the California Air Resources Board sought permissive intervention pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 387, subdivisions (d)(1) and (d)(2). The trial court granted both parties’ motions.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Locals 13, 63, and 94 also sought permissive intervention, arguing that no existing party could advocate for its members’ interests adequately. Specifically, the Union claimed that it was the only party that could properly protect the 3,075 jobs at stake. The trial court denied the Union’s motion, determining that its interest was speculative and consequential, rather than direct and immediate, as required for permissive intervention. The Union appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s denial of the Union’s motion for permissive intervention. The court explained that pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 387, the statute for permissive intervention, there must be a balancing of the interests of those affected by a judgment against the interests of the original parties in pursuing their case unburdened by others. It also emphasized that trial courts are afforded broad discretion to strike this balance, and that the reviewing court reviews for abuse of discretion—reversing only if the appellant establishes the decision results in a miscarriage of justice or exceeds the bounds of reason.

The court further explained that the Union failed to articulate any unique interest that was not already represented by the other parties. The court found that the Union’s position on the merits was duplicative, that it had no concerns with the actual environmental analysis in the 2020 EIR, and that it was not the only party advocating for a remedy that did not result in a shut down of the project or rescission of its permits. Therefore, the Court of Appeal concluded that it was reasonable for the trial court to determine that the Union’s participation in the case would be largely cumulative and would unduly complicate an already complex case involving numerous parties, and to accordingly deny the Union’s motion for permissive intervention.

Third District Holds Order Requiring a Limited EIR Is Not an Appropriate Remedy Where a Project May Have Significant Impacts

In the published portions of Farmland Protection Alliance v. County of Yolo (November 3, 2021, No. PT161896) __ Cal.App.5th __, the Third District Court of Appeal held that a limited environmental impact report (“EIR”) is not an appropriate remedy where a court finds that substantial evidence supports a fair argument that the project might have a significant environmental impact.

Background

The Yolo County Board of Supervisors adopted a mitigated negative declaration and issued a conditional use permit for a bed and breakfast and commercial event facility on agriculturally-zoned property. Project opponents filed a lawsuit alleging, among other claims, that the MND was inadequate under CEQA. The trial court rejected most of petitioners’ claims but found substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the project may have a significant impact on three special-status species, and as the remedy, (1) ordered the County to prepare a limited EIR addressing only the project’s impacts on the three species, and (2) allowed the project to continue operations pending further environmental review.

Petitioners appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the court violated CEQA by ordering preparation of a limited EIR after its finding of potentially significant impacts, and allowing the project to continue operating while further environmental review was pending.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal held that Public Resources Code section 21168.9 does not authorize a court to split a project’s environmental review across two types of documents, such as a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration and an EIR. The court noted that while section 21168.9 is designed to provide a trial court with flexibility in crafting remedies to ensure compliance with CEQA, it does not authorize a court to circumvent CEQA’s mandatory provisions. According to the court, CEQA requires an agency to prepare a full EIR when substantial evidence supports a fair argument that any aspect of the project may have a significant effect on the environment. The Court of Appeal therefore found that the trial court erred by ordering preparation of a limited EIR after finding the fair argument test had been met as to impacts to the three species.

The Court of Appeal declined to consider petitioners’ argument that the trial court erred in allowing the project to operate while the limited EIR was being prepared. While the appeal was pending, the County filed a return to the peremptory writ of mandate stating the limited EIR ordered by the trial court had been certified.  As a result, the Court of Appeal determined the portion of the judgment allowing the project to continue to operate no longer had any effect, and therefore, the issue was moot.

Fourth District Upholds City of Tustin’s Reliance on CEQA’s Infill Exemption for a Costco Gas Station and Parking Lot

In Protect Tustin Ranch v. City of Tustin (2021) 70 Cal.App.5th 951, Division Three of the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the City of Tustin’s reliance on CEQAs’ categorical exemption for infill projects, holding that the petitioner failed to show that the project did not meet the requirements for the exemption or that an exception to the exemption applied.

Background

This case involves a proposal by Costco Wholesale Corporation to build a gas station next to an existing Costco warehouse in the Tustin Ranch area of the City of Tustin. The project site is already developed with a shopping center and is surrounded by commercial uses, as well as some residential development.

The project includes two components: (1) a 16-pump gas station with a canopy and landscaping, and (2) the demolition of an existing Goodyear Tire Center and parking lot, which would be replaced with a new 56-stall parking lot.

The planning commission voted to approve the project and adopted a resolution finding that the project is categorically exempt from CEQA under CEQA Guidelines section 15332 (Class 32, Infill Development Projects).

Members of the public appealed the planning commission’s decision to the city council. The staff report for the city council hearing explained why staff believed the project fell within the infill exemption. It also explained that, although Costco’s initial application indicated that the project site is 11.97 acres, the project site (i.e., the portion of the site to be developed) is actually only 2.38 acres.

The city council agreed with the planning commission and staff that the project is exempt under the infill exemption. The city council adopted a resolution finding the project categorically exempt and approved the project. In doing so, the city council expressly found that the project did not present any unusual circumstances as compared to other projects that would qualify for the exemption.

The trial court upheld the city’s determination that the project is categorically exempt from CEQA review. Petitioner appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

To qualify for the Class 32 infill exemption, a project must meet five criteria: (1) the project must be consistent with the general plan and with the zoning code, including all applicable general plan policies and zoning regulations; (2) the project must be located within city limits on a site that is no larger than five acres and is surrounded by urban uses; (3) the site must have no value as habitat for special-status species; (4) approval of the project must not cause any significant impacts related to air quality, noise, traffic, or water quality, and (5) the site must be adequately served by utilities and public services. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15332.)

Petitioner challenged the city’s reliance on the infill exemption only with respect to the size of the project, arguing that the project does not qualify for the exemption because the project site is larger than five acres. The court explained that the city’s conclusion that the project site is five acres or less is a factual determination to which the court applies the deferential “substantial evidence” standard of review. Under this standard, the court does not weigh conflicting evidence. Rather, the court must uphold the agency’s determination if it is supported by any substantial evidence in the record as a whole. In the case before it, explained the court, multiple documents in the administrative record confirmed that the size of the project site is 2.38 acres. For instance, Costco’s revised development application states that the “area of work” would be 2.38 acres, inclusive of the new gas station and parking at the demolished Goodyear site. A water quality management plan and maps of the project also showed that the site is 2.38 acres.  Additionally, at the city council’s hearing on the project, city staff clarified that the total project site was calculated by adding together the acreages of both components of the project—1.74 acres for the gas station and 0.64 acres of new surface parking where the Goodyear center would be demolished. Thus, held the court, substantial evidence supports the city’s determination that the project fits within the requirements of the infill exemption.

The court next considered whether the “unusual circumstances” exception to the categorical exemption applies. CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2, subdivision (c), provides that “[a] categorical exemption shall not be used for an activity where there is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.” If a project meets the requirements of a categorical exemption, the burden is on the party challenging the exemption to produce evidence supporting an exception. The Supreme Court, in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, explained that this showing may be made in two ways. First, the challenger may identify evidence that the project will have a significant environmental impact. Alternatively, the challenger may show that the project is unusual because its features distinguish it from others in the exempt class, and that there is a “reasonable possibility” that the project will result in a significant environmental impact due to that unusual circumstance. The substantial evidence standard applies to an agency’s determination that there are no unusual circumstances. But the less deferential “fair argument” standard applies to the question of whether there is a reasonable possibility that the unusual circumstances may cause a significant effect.

Petitioner argued that the unusual circumstances exception applied for three reasons. First, the project is located on a former Goodyear Tire Center where tires were installed and oil and other fluids were changed. Second, the proposed gasoline fueling station with 16 pumps is unusually large. And third, Costco proposed to re-route traffic during peak hours. The court summarily rejected these arguments, however, because petitioner had failed to explain why these features made the project unusual compared to other projects qualifying for the infill and exemption. In fact, evidence in the record showed that the project is similar to other Costco gas stations in California and is not unusually large—as evidenced by the fact that the project is less than five acres in size. The court went so far as to question whether the size of a project can be a characteristic that makes an otherwise exempt infill project unusual, since the infill exemption is expressly limited to projects less than five acres in size.

Petitioner further argued that the city’s reliance on the exemption was improper because the city should undertake studies to determine whether the project would contaminate soils. The court rejected this argument, however, explaining that unsupported assumptions and speculation are not enough to require the city to conduct CEQA review. By law, a categorically exempt project is deemed not to have potentially significant impacts unless the project’s administrative record shows that an exception to the exemption applies. Here, petitioner failed to show an exception applies. The fact that the project may have a significant environmental impact is not a sufficient basis to require CEQA review for a categorically exempt project.

Implications

This case highlights the standard of review that the courts will apply to an agency’s determination that a project is categorically exempt from CEQA. The burden of showing that the “unusual circumstances” exception applies is on the petitioner. In this case, the petitioner did not offer any concrete reasons or evidence showing that the project is distinct from other projects qualifying for the in-fill exemption. Therefore, the court upheld the city’s reliance on the exemption.

Upcoming Speaking and Teaching Engagements

On November 18, 2021, Tiffany Wright will be a guest lecturer for the UCLA Annual CEQA Update (virtual course). This intensive one-day seminar features the latest legislative amendments, proposed revisions to the CEQA Guidelines, court decisions handed down in the past year, and key issues and trends in CEQA practice. Also joining the seminar will be the Honorable Ronald B. Robie, Associate Justice for the Third District Court of Appeal, to discuss CEQA from a Justice’s perspective and to participate in the Q & A.

For more information and to register, please visit UCLA Extension’s website HERE.

In a Procedurally-Dense Opinion, First District Court of Appeal Clarifies that Real Parties in CEQA Cases Are Not Always Indispensable Parties

In Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods v. Regents of the University of California (2021) 70 Cal.App.5th 705, the First District Court of Appeal upheld a trial court’s determination that the developer and operator of a proposed campus expansion project were not indispensable parties to a lawsuit challenging the Regents of the University of California’s (Regent’s) approval of that project. In doing so, the court held that Assembly Bill No. 320 (AB 320) (2011–2012 Reg. Sess.)—which amended CEQA to require agencies to identify the recipients of project approvals on a project’s notice of determination (NOD) and to require CEQA petitioners to name and serve those persons or entities listed on the NOD—did not alter the court’s analysis of whether a party is “indispensable” to the lawsuit under Code of Civil Procedure section 389, subdivision (b) (CCP section 389(b)).

Background

The Regents approved a project to demolish an existing parking structure, construct student housing above a new parking structure, and develop a new academic building adjacent to the new residential building (project). The Regents prepared and certified a supplemental environmental impact report (SEIR) for the project. On May 17, 2019, the Regents filed an NOD, which identified American Campus Communities (ACC) and Collegiate Housing Foundation (CHF) as the parties undertaking the project. ACC is the developer for the project, and CHF is the ground lessee and borrower for the housing component of the project.

On June 13, 2019, petitioner Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking to vacate the Regents’ certification of the SEIR on the ground that the Regents violated CEQA. The petition named the Regents as a respondent, but did not name ACC or CHF as parties. Nor did petitioner serve ACC and CHF. On September 18, 2019, petitioner filed a first amended petition, which added ACC and CHF as real parties in interest. The amended petition acknowledged that ACC and CHF were listed as parties undertaking the project in the NOD, and thus were being named pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21167.6.5, subdivision (a), which requires the entities identified as recipients of project approvals on an NOD to be named as real parties in interest.

ACC and CHF filed demurrers to the first amended petition, asserting that petitioner failed to name them as parties within the applicable statute of limitations and that they are necessary and indispensable parties to the litigation, so the entire action should be dismissed. The trial court sustained the demurrers without leave to amend, but did not dismiss the lawsuit. The court held that ACC and CHF should have been named as real parties because they were listed on the NOD as the parties undertaking the project. Because petitioner had failed to amend its petition to name them as parties within 30 days after the Regents filed the NOD, petitioner’s challenge against ACC and CHF was time-barred under Public Resources Code section 21167. The court held, however, that the failure to timely name ACC and CHF as real parties did not justify dismissing the case because ACC and CHF were not indispensable parties under CCP 389(b).

ACC and CHF appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in concluding they were not indispensable parties. Petitioner filed a cross-appeal, arguing that the trial court erred in applying CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations to the lawsuit because, according to petitioner, the Regents’ NOD for the project – the filing of which triggered the 30-day statute of limitations – was defective. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s order sustaining the demurrer.

Discussion

Appealability

As a threshold matter, the appellate court considered whether the trial court’s order sustaining the demurrer was appealable. Petitioner argued that it was not because the appeal arose from an interlocutory (non-final) order and thus violated the “one final judgment” rule. Furthermore, petitioner argued, the issue of whether AOC and CHF are indispensable parties remained in the underlying action because that issue was also raised by the Regents, who remained a party to the action, so the court should not consider that issue yet. The court rejected these arguments. The court explained that in actions involving multiple parties, an order fully disposing all of the issues as to one party is appealable, even if those same issues remain as to the other parties. Accordingly, the appeal was proper.

Necessary and Indispensable Parties

The court next considered whether the trial court erred in determining that CHF and ACC were not indispensable parties. If CHF and ACC were indispensable parties, the lawsuit must be dismissed in full. If they were not indispensable, then petitioner’s lawsuit against the Regents could move forward. The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that CHF and ACC were not indispensable parties.

Assembly Bill 320 Did Not Alter a Court’s Analysis of Whether a Real Party is “Indispensable”

CEQA currently requires petitioners to name, as a real party in interest, any person or entity identified on an NOD as a recipient of the project’s approval. Prior to 2012, however, CEQA did not require the recipients of the project approvals to be identified on the NOD. CEQA did, however, require any recipient of a project approval to be named as a real party in interest. The phrase “any recipient of an approval” was not defined by the statute, leading to confusion in the courts.

In 2011, the Legislature passed AB 320, which amended CEQA to require agencies to identify the recipient of a project’s approval on the project’s NOD. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21108.) It also amended CEQA to require petitioners to name the entities identified on the NOD as real parties in interest and to serve the petition on those entities. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21167.6.5, subd. (a)). The AB 320 amendments also provided that the “failure to name potential persons, other than those real parties in interest described in Public Resources Code, § 21167.6.5, subdivision (a), is not a ground for dismissal pursuant to Section 389 of the Code of Civil Procedure.” (Pub. Resources Code, § 21167.6.5, subd. (d).)

ACC and CHF argued that AB 320 was intended to provide “finality and certainty” as to who must be joined in a CEQA action and, therefore, CCP 389(b), which provides an equitable balancing test for determining who constitutes an indispensable party, does not apply. The court rejected this argument, holding that the AB 320 did not alter judicial analysis of whether a party is indispensable.

ACC and CHF argued that the express language of Public Resources Code section 21167.6.5, as amended by AB 320, demonstrates that CCP 389(b) does not apply. Specially, subdivision (d) of that statute states: “Failure to name potential persons, other than those real parties in interests described in subdivision (a), is not grounds for dismissal pursuant to Section 389 of the Code of Civil Procedure.” (Italics added.) The court disagreed that this language indicates that CCP 389(b)’s equitable balancing test does not apply when the petition fails to name a real party. As the court explained, the statute does not explicitly state that CCP 389(b) cannot be applied in CEQA actions in which the real party has not been properly named and served. Rather, that statute only suggests that the failure to name a real party in interest may be grounds for dismissal, depending on the equitable factors set forth in CCP 389(b).

Turning to the Legislative intent, the court found that in enacting AB 320, the Legislature did not intend to prevent application of CCP 389(b). Rather, the bill was only meant to clarify who constitutes a real party in interest, as there had been confusion on that issue in the courts. Moreover, AB 320’s Legislative history suggests that rather than intending to limit CEQA actions, AB 320 was intended to “prevent the dismissal of important and meritorious CEQA cases.” Applying a blanket rule that the failure to timely name a real party in interest constitutes a ground for mandatory dismissal of a CEQA case would frustrate that intent.

Application of CCP 389(b)’s Equitable Factors

The court next considered whether the trial court erred in holding that ACC and HCF were not indispensable parties. Under CCP 389(b), if a necessary party cannot be joined, “the court shall determine whether in equity and good conscious the action should proceed among the parties before it, or should be dismissed without prejudice, the absent person being thus regarded as indispensable. The factors to be considered by the court include: (1) to what extent a judgment rendered in the person’s absence might be prejudicial to him or those already parties; (2) the extent to which, by protective provisions in the judgment, by the shaping of relief, or other measures, the prejudice can be lessened or avoided; (3) whether a judgment rendered in the person’s absence will be adequate; (4) whether the plaintiff or cross-complainant will have an adequate remedy if the action is dismissed for nonjoinder.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 389, subd. (b).)

Applying these factors, the trial court held that ACC and CHF were not indispensable parties. Among other things, ACC and CHF’s interests were closely aligned to that of Regents because ACC and CHF were undertaking the project for the Regents’ own use and benefit. Moreover, petitioner would have no way of challenging the SEIR if the case was dismissed. On the other hand, ACC and CHF were parties in a related case challenging the same SEIR and were thus unlikely to be harmed by a settlement.

On appeal, ACC and CHF argued that they had fundamentally different interests in the project than the Regents. The Regents’ interest was to add housing and academic space to the campus, whereas ACC and CHF’s interest was to develop and operate the project. The court disagreed, explaining that the Regents, like ACC and CHF, had a strong interest in moving forward with the project; the fact that the Regents might have different motivations for doing so was immaterial. Further, contrary to ACC and CHF’s assertion, the Regents had a strong economic interest in the project because the Regents would manage and operate the new parking structure and the new academic building and the Regents would regain ownerships of the project once the project’s debt was repaid. ACC and CHF had failed to cite any evidence that they had unique financial interests or would be more harmed by an adverse judgment than the Regents. Accordingly, the trial court properly concluded that ACC and CHF were not indispensable parties.

Petitioner’s Cross Appeal – Did the Trial Court Err in Applying CEQA’s 30-Day Statute of Limitations?

Turning to the cross appeal, the court held that the trial court properly applied CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations to the first amended petition. Petitioner argued that the statute of limitations should not apply because the Regents’ NOD for the project failed to accurately describe the project. In particular, the NOD did not explain that the project would result in an increase in student enrollment. The court disagreed that such information was required, holding that an increase in student enrollment was not a material component of the project. To the contrary, the NOD and SEIR indicated that the project was intended to accommodate the existing student body and planned growth, not necessarily to increase enrollment. Although it is possible that the project could result in an increase in enrollment, the record did not suggest that increasing enrollment was a component of project. Therefore, the trial court correctly held that the Regents’ filing of the NOD triggered CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations.

Implications

The Court of Appeal was unwilling to interpret AB 320’s amendments to CEQA as modifying judicial analysis of whether a party is indispensable in a CEQA case. Although Public Resources Code 21167.6.5, as amended, could be interpreted as implying that the failure to name a real party in interest is a ground for dismissal under CCP 389(b), as the court noted, the statute does not explicitly require such a result. Thus, where a CEQA petitioner fails to name all parties listed as approval recipients on an NOD (or a notice of exemption (NOE)), case law decided under the former statute is still relevant to the question of whether a party is indispensable. The case also clarifies that although a project might result in changes to the existing baseline (e.g., an increase in student enrollment), that change need not be described as a component of the proposed project in the NOD or NOE.