Author Archives: Bridget McDonald

First District Holds that Deficiencies in Notice Did Not Excuse CEQA Litigants from Exhausting Available Administrative Remedies

The First District Court of Appeal in Schmid v. City and County of San Francisco (Feb. 1, 2021) 60 Cal.App.5th 470, held that Appellants’ CEQA claims were barred by their failure to exhaust available administrative remedies, even where deficiencies in the notice excused the litigants from satisfying the exhaustion requirements under Public Resources Code section 21177.

BACKGROUND

The “Early Days” statue, located in San Francisco’s Civic Center, is part of the “Pioneer Monument”—a series of five bronze sculptures memorializing the pioneer era when California was founded. The statue depicts three figures, including a reclining Native American over whom bends a Catholic priest. Public criticism has surrounded the statue since its installation in 1894.  

In 2018, after charges of the statue’s racial insensitivity resurfaced, the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) granted a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) to remove the statue and place it in storage. In granting that approval, the HPC determined the removal of the statue was categorically exempt from CEQA. There were no issues raised at the HPC hearing about a perceived need for environmental review. Nor were there any appeals of HPC’s CEQA determination to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. 

Appellants, two opponents of the statue’s removal, appealed the HPC’s adoption of the COA to the San Francisco Board of Appeals. The Board of Appeals initially voted to overturn the COA, but later had it reinstated. After the Board of Appeals approved the COA, the City immediately removed the statue the following morning. 

Appellants filed suit seeking to overturn the Board of Appeals’ order authorizing removal of the statue. They alleged violations of constitutional and statutory law, including CEQA. The trial court sustained a demurrer without leave to amend. On the CEQA claims, the trial court found Appellants failed to exhaust available administrative remedies. Appellants appealed.

COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies
The Court of Appeal explained that CEQA litigants must comply with two exhaustion requirements. First, Public Resources Code section 21177 requires that a would-be CEQA petitioner must object during the administrative process and that all allegations raised in the litigation must have been presented to the agency before the challenged decision is made. Second, a would-be CEQA petitioner must exhaust all remedies that are available at the administrative level, including any available administrative appeals. Under Public Resources Code section 21151, a CEQA determination made by a nonelected decision-making body of a local agency may be appealed to the agency’s elected decision-making body, if any. The CEQA Guidelines encourage local agencies to establish procedures for such appeals. As relevant here, the San Francisco Administrative Code requires that appeals of CEQA determinations must be made to the Board of Supervisors, as the body of elected officials responsible for making final CEQA determinations.

The Court of Appeal found Appellants failed to comply with both exhaustion requirements. They did not object to the HCP’s determination that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA during the administrative process and they did exhaust administrative appeals available under the San Francisco Administrative Code. Specifically, on the second point, although Appellants appealed the HPC’s decision to the Board of Appeals, they failed to exhaust available remedies because they did not separately appeal the HPC’s CEQA determination to the Board of Supervisors, as required under the City’s Code.

Appellants argued they were excused from both exhaustion requirements because the City failed to provide adequate notice. The court agreed with Appellants in part, finding that Appellants were not required to comply with the statutory exhaustion requirements in section 21177 because there was no notice in advance of the HPC meeting that a categorical exemption might be on the agenda. But, the court explained, the inadequate CEQA notice did not excuse Appellants from complying with the requirement in the City’s Code that CEQA determinations must be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. The court also noted that Appellants had notice of the HPC’s CEQA determination because they appealed it, improperly, to the Board of Appeals. Because Appellants failed to appeal the CEQA determination to the appropriate body, they forfeited their right to bring a CEQA action.

Futility Argument
Appellants also argued they should be excused from exhausting their administrative remedies because doing so would have been futile. Citing a Board of Supervisors resolution that was not in the record, Appellants argued that an appeal to the proper board would have been futile because the Board of Supervisors already adopted a definitive position that the statue should be taken down. The court rejected this argument, stating that even if the Board of Supervisors held this view as a policy matter, it still could have disagreed with the process of removal and opted for an EIR. In addition, the Court concluded that the Board of Supervisors was never presented with any arguments concerning the appropriateness of a categorical exemption, and thus any argument regarding how the Board of Supervisors would have responded was pure speculation.

– Veronika Morrison 

Sixth District Holds City’s Failure to Send Notice of Determination Did Not Excuse Plaintiff’s Failure to Name Indispensable Party Within Limitations Period

The Sixth District Court of Appeal in Organizacion Comunidad de Alviso v. City of San Jose (Feb. 9, 2021) 60 Cal.App.5th 783, held that the City of San Jose’s failure to send a Notice of Determination to a member of the petitioner organization, in violation of Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (f), did not excuse the petitioner’s failure to name an indispensable party in a CEQA action before the statute of limitations expired.

BACKGROUND

A light industrial center project was planned for construction on a primarily fallow farmland site in San Jose. Mark Espinoza, a member of the petitioner organization, Organizacion Comunidad de Alviso, requested that the City’s environmental project manager place him on the list to receive the Notice of Determination (NOD) for the Project.
Later that month, Microsoft Corporation purchased land from the original owner and took over as the project applicant. The San Jose City Council initially approved the project and associated EIR at an October 2017 meeting. The meeting agenda incorrectly referenced the previous landowner instead of Microsoft. Microsoft was, however, correctly referred to as the project applicant at the hearing. A second meeting was held to reconsider the project approval and EIR in December 2017. The notice for that hearing correctly identified Microsoft as the property owner, but the resolution approving the project incorrectly referenced the previous owners.

The City filed two NODs for the project. The first NOD, which was sent to Espinoza, listed the wrong project applicant. The City later realized the mistake and issued a second NOD that correctly listed Microsoft as the applicant. The City did not send Espinoza the second NOD.

The petitioner filed a petition for writ of mandate within 30 days of the first NOD, alleging violations of CEQA and the Planning and Zoning Law. The petition named the previous property owners as real party in interest, based on the information in the first NOD. Two weeks after the 30-day statute of limitations for the CEQA cause of action expired, the previous owners’ attorney notified the petitioner’s counsel that Microsoft had acquired the property and was named as the applicant in the second NOD. A month after receiving this notice—and well after the 30-day limitations period had run—the petitioner filed an amended petition naming Microsoft as a real party in interest.

Microsoft and the City demurred to the CEQA action in the amended petition, arguing that it was time-barred because petitioner failed to name Microsoft as the real party in interest before the limitations period expired. The trial court determined that the initial petition was defective for failing to join Microsoft, and consequently dismissed the CEQA cause of action as untimely.

COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION

Failure to Name Applicant in NOD as Real Party in Interest
Under Public Resources Code section 21167.6.5, subdivision (a), in addition to naming as a defendant the agency that approved the project, a petitioner must name as a real party in interest the “person or persons identified by the public agency” in the NOD. Here, the petitioner did not dispute that Microsoft was a necessary and indispensable party under CEQA because it was named as the applicant in the NOD. Instead, the petitioner argued that its failure to name Microsoft should be excused because the NOD sent by the City named the wrong party and the City did not resend the new NOD after the error was corrected. The court disagreed.

Although the court acknowledged the City violated Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (f), by failing to send the second, corrected NOD to Espinoza, it concluded that CEQA contains no relief for the City’s violation. The court ruled that the City’s violation could not excuse or cure the amended petition’s untimeliness because Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (f), itself provides that the “date upon which [the NOD] is mailed shall not affect” the statute of limitations. The court also cited the Supreme Court’s emphasis that potential CEQA litigants must pay close attention to NOD filings before initiating litigation.

Additionally, the court reasoned that the second NOD was properly filed with the county clerk, posted at the county clerk’s office, and made available for review by all potential litigants—thereby providing constructive notice of the correct parties to name in a potential action. The court further noted that petitioner had actual notice of Microsoft’s status as the applicant because it had participated in the public hearings at which Microsoft was identified and the public notice for the City’s re-approval hearing listed Microsoft as the owner.

Because the petitioner failed to name Microsoft within the 30-day statute of limitation period after the corrected NOD was filed, the court held that the trial court’s dismissal was appropriate.

Material Defect
The petitioner also argued that the 30-day statute of limitations was not triggered because the NOD was materially defective, and therefore, the 180-day limitations period should apply. The court easily rejected this argument because the petitioner did not claim that the second NOD was insufficient or incorrect. The petitioner only claimed that the posting of two contradictory NODs essentially amounted to an NOD defect. The court disagreed, determining that the second NOD contained all required information and was therefore not defective.

Relation-Back Doctrine
The court also disagreed with the petitioner’s argument that the relation back doctrine under Code of Civil Procedure section 474 should apply. The court determined the petitioner’s ignorance of Microsoft’s status as the project applicant was unreasonable because the second NOD was correct and provided constructive notice of Microsoft’s identity. Additionally, the petitioner had received actual notice of the second NOD from the former owners’ attorney and still proceeded to wait two months to file its amended petition—a delay, which the court pointed out, was longer than even the initial limitations period.

Estoppel
Finally, the court rejected the petitioner’s argument that the City and Microsoft should have been equitably estopped from asserting the statute of limitations defense. It concluded that even if the City’s failure to send Espinoza the second NOD was intentional, the petitioner’s reliance on that failure would be unreasonable. Again, the City’s timely filing of the second NOD with the county clerk’s office gave all potential litigants constructive notice of the correct parties to name in a CEQA action.

– Veronika Morrison

First District Holds Regional Water Quality Control Board’s Failure to Impose Mitigation Requirements Through CEQA Process Did Not Preclude it from Later Imposing Those Requirements Pursuant to Its Authority Under the Porter-Cologne Act

The First District Court of Appeal in Santa Clara Valley Water District v. San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (2020) 59 Cal.App.5th 199, held that CEQA did not preclude the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, acting as a responsible agency under CEQA, from imposing additional waste discharge requirements via the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act, beyond the mitigation measures imposed during the CEQA process.

Background

Every 10-20 years, the Upper Berryessa Creek—which drains from the Diablo Range Hills to the Coyote Creek tributary, and ultimately into the San Francisco Bay—floods the nearby areas of Milpitas and San Jose. In the 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began working on plans to build a flood control project on the creek, but the project did not move forward until 2013, when construction of a nearby BART station that could be impacted by flooding was proposed.

In 2015, the Santa Clara Valley Water District (District), acting as the lead agency under CEQA, issued a Draft EIR for the project. That same month, the Corps applied to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) for a section 401 Clean Water Act certification for the project.

The District later issued the Final EIR for the project, and the RWQCB’s executive officer issued the section 401 certification. As a CEQA responsible agency, the RWQCB found that all impacts within its jurisdiction would be mitigated to less-than-significant levels but clarified that it would later consider waste discharge requirements (WDRs) pursuant to its authority under the Porter-Cologne Act to address impacts to waters and wetlands that were not handled by the section 401 certificate.

In 2017, when project construction was nearly complete, the RWQCB issued a WDR order that required the Corps and the District to provide addition mitigation for the project’s impacts to waters and wetlands. The order stated that it suspended and replaced the prior 401 certification.

The District filed a petition for writ of mandate against the RWQCB, challenging the WDR order under CEQA, as well as section 401 of the Clean Water Act, the Porter-Cologne Act, and other state laws. The trial court denied the petition. The District appealed.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, the District argued the RWQCB violated CEQA because: (1) the RWQCB’s failure to impose mitigation requirements as part of the RWQCB’s CEQA review barred it from imposing mitigation via the WDR order; and (2) the RWQCB prejudicially abused its discretion by failing to support the mitigation requirements with substantial evidence. The Court of Appeal rejected both arguments.

Relying on CEQA Guidelines section 15096, the District argued that the RWQCB’s only opportunity to impose mitigation was through the CEQA process. CEQA Guidelines section 15096 provides that a responsible agency that disagrees with the adequacy of a lead agency’s EIR must either sue the lead agency within 30 days, be deemed to have waived any objections to the EIR, prepare a subsequent EIR if legitimate grounds exist, or, assume the role of a lead agency as provided by Guidelines section 15052, subdivision (a)(3). Because the RWQCB did not challenge the District’s certification of the EIR or find that a subsequent EIR was required, the District argued that the EIR was deemed adequate and no additional mitigation measure could be imposed. As explained by the court, however, Public Resources section 21174 includes a savings clause that makes clear that CEQA does not prevent an agency from exercising it independent authority under statutes other than CEQA. The court determined, therefore, that the RWQCB did not violate CEQA by issuing the WDRs because it did so pursuant to its duties under the Porter-Cologne Act. Although the District, acting as lead agency, had not imposed CEQA mitigation measures requiring WDRs, the RWQCB, as a responsible agency, was not precluded from separately discharging its authority under the Porter-Cologne Act. Although the appellate court noted that unified CEQA review and other environmental regulation should be the norm, there may be times when an agency’s own environmental regulation can take place after CEQA review, as recognized by Public Resources Code section 21174.

The court also rejected the District’s claim that the RWQCB’s WDR order imposed “excessive” mitigation that was not supported by substantial evidence. The court concluded that the District failed to engage in sufficient analysis of the evidence supporting the RWQCB’s conclusions, and therefore, failed to carry its burden. The court also concluded that the District’s arguments lacked merit even if they had been properly briefed because the RWQCB’s determinations were supported by substantial evidence.

– Bridget McDonald

Fourth District Holds that Agencies May Not Destroy, But Rather Must Retain All Writings Required by CEQA’s Administrative Record Statute.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal in Golden Door Properties, LLC v. Superior Court of San Diego County (2020) 53 Cal.App.5th 733 (“Golden Door III”) held that the broad and inclusive language in Public Resources Code section 21167.6 requires lead agencies to retain all project-related writings and e-mails during the CEQA statute of limitations period or any CEQA litigation. The court issued a writ of mandate directing the San Diego County Superior Court to permit petitioners to conduct discovery against San Diego County to recover unlawfully deleted e-mails for the record of proceedings. The court also ruled on matters related to mootness, discovery in CEQA cases, the common interest doctrine, and the Public Records Act.

BACKGROUND

San Diego County’s E-mail Retention and Deletion Policy

In June 2008, the County of San Diego (“County”) adopted an administrative policy that provided for the automatic and permanent deletion of e-mails after 60 days, except for e-mails identified by e-mail users as “official records.” E-mails identified as “official records” must be retained for at least two years, and e-mail users must classify qualifying e-mails as “official records” within 60 days of creating them. E-mails considered “official records” under the policy include those: “made for the purpose of disseminating information to the public”; “made and kept for the purpose of memorializing an official public transaction”; “required by law to be kept”; or, “necessary and convenient to the discharge of a County officer’s official duties and…made or retained for the purpose of preserving its informational content.” The policy also excluded “preliminary drafts, notes, or inter- or intra-agency memoranda not kept in the ordinary course of business and the retention of which is not necessary for the discharge of County’s officer’s official duties,” from the definition of an “official record.”

The Newland Real Estate Project & Procedural Background

In January 2015, Newland Real Estate Group (“Newland”) proposed a mixed-use development project (“Project”) consisting of 2,134 new residential units and 81,000 square feet of commercial development. Petitioner, Golden Door Properties (“Petitioner” or “Golden Door”), owned and operated a 600-acre spa and resort near the proposed project site. In April 2014, Golden Door had warned the County it would oppose Newland’s proposed Project—as it had previously done with a similarly proposed project in 2009—citing environmental concerns and general plan violations.

In December 2016, while the County processed Newland’s Project application, Golden Door sued the Vallecitos Water District (“District”), Newland, and the County. The suit alleged that the District lacked adequate water supplies to support the Newland Project, which would result in adverse groundwater overextraction. To defend against that litigation, the District, the County, and Newland, entered into a “Confidential Joint Defense Agreement.”

In June 2017, the County released a draft environmental impact report (EIR) for the Project. Shortly thereafter in July 2017, Golden Door submitted a Public Records Act (PRA) (Gov. Code, § 6250 et seq.) request seeking the draft EIR’s technical analyses. The County refused production on grounds that only consultants had possessory rights to the documents. Golden Door submitted a second PRA request in October 2017, which sought copies of the County’s consultant contracts and “all documents and communications in the County’s possession” pertaining to the Newland Project. In response, the County produced, among other documents, only 42 emails that spanned the 60-day period between September through October 2017. When questioned about e-mails spanning from the entire three-year environmental review process, the County explained its 60-day automatic e-mail deletion program, and refused to produce copies of deleted e-mails that may still have been in consultants’ possession.

On June 18, 2018, the County released a second draft EIR for the Project. The following day, Petitioner sued the County once again, alleging that it: (1) used unauthorized consultants to prepare the EIR’s technical studies; (2) failed to executed a consultant memorandum of understanding (MOU) in accordance with County CEQA guidelines; (3) improperly destroyed official records; and (4) improperly withheld records under the PRA. In July 2018, the County and Newland entered into another “Confidential Joint Defense Agreement.” That same month, the trial court issued a temporary restraining order directing the County to stop deleting project-related emails.

On September 26, 2018, the County’s Board of Supervisors approved the Newland Project and certified the final EIR. In anticipation of potential CEQA litigation, the County and Newland entered into yet another “Confidential Joint Defense Agreement” to defend against potential claims challenging the County’s Project approvals. In October, two CEQA lawsuits were subsequently filed against the County, including one by Petitioner, Golden Door. The superior court consolidated the two CEQA cases, along with Golden Door’s June 2018 PRA action against the County.

In January 2019 and thereafter, Golden Door conducted civil discovery against the County, Newland, and two of the County’s environmental consultants. The County produced nearly 6,000 documents, but partially refused discovery requests that sought documents pertaining to the County’s compliance with Golden Door’s initial PRA requests. Golden Door also attempted to obtain the County’s deleted e-mails from Newland and subpoenaed the consultants for other Project-related notes, e-mails, studies, and agreements, but both parties opposed the requests.

Golden Door subsequently filed motions to compel discovery and to require the production of privilege logs for the withheld documents. A discovery referee was appointed to resolve the discovery disputes and ultimately issued several rulings in favor of the County, Newland, and the environmental consultants. The superior court adopted the referee’s recommendations and the various plaintiffs filed the first of three petitions for writ of mandate with the Court of Appeal. The appellate court denied the petition and plaintiffs sought Supreme Court review. The Supreme Court directed the Court of Appeal to show cause as to why the first petition should not issue. The appellate court did so and filed an additional order to show cause for the second petition, thereby consolidating the two writ proceedings.

In October 2019, the CEQA plaintiffs filed a motion to augment the record by seeking to add documents the County omitted from the record, and other material plaintiffs had submitted to the County prior to its approval of the Project and certification of the EIR. The superior court “mostly” denied the motion, allowing the addition of only certain documents. Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed their third writ petition in the Court of Appeal.

On March 3, 2020, the County’s voters rejected the Newland Project in a referendum election. The County Board of Supervisors rescinded the Project’s General Plan Amendment, Specific Plan, zoning changes, and other approvals in April 2020. However, the Board did not vacate its certification of the Final EIR or its approval of the Project’s tentative map. Though Newland ultimately withdrew the Project, the Court of Appeal rendered a decision given the likelihood of the reoccurring e-mail retention issue.

COURT OF APPEAL DECISION

Mootness

As a threshold matter, the Fourth District considered whether the writ petitions were moot because the County had rescinded some, but not all of its Project approvals. The appellate court held that the petitions were not moot because the County did not rescind all project approvals and counsel for Newland indicated that the Project will likely return in some form, perhaps in reliance on the certified Final EIR and tentative map. The court also explained that even if these issues were moot, it had discretion to retain the case because it presented an issue of broad public interest that is likely to reoccur, the parties’ controversy may reoccur, and the County’s e-mail deletion policy remained a material issue of statewide significance.

The County’s E-mail Retention Policy

The Fourth District’s analysis began by interpreting the scope of requisite administrative record documents contemplated by Public Resources Code section 21167.6. The section requires that the record include any document that “ever came near a proposed development or to the agency’s compliance with CEQA in responding to that development.” Moreover, section 21167.6, subdivision (e) uses very broad and inclusive language, which provides that records “shall” include “correspondence” submitted to and transferred from the respondent agency regarding the Project or CEQA compliance, as well as all “internal agency communications” relating to the Project or CEQA compliance.

The court further found that section 21167.6’s broad mandate comports with CEQA’s intent of providing information and disclosure. A complete record is essential for courts to fulfill their role in assuring that an agency’s determinations are lawful under CEQA and supported by substantial evidence. Based on the plain language of the statute, the court held “that a lead agency may not destroy, but rather must retain writings section 21167.6 mandates for inclusion in the record of proceedings.” The court also found that the trial court erred in finding that the County’s e-mails were extra-record evidence; rather, the e-mails plaintiffs sought to include were record evidence contemplated by section 21167.6.

The appellate court also rejected the discovery referee’s finding that the County’s e-mail destruction policy was lawful. The court found that the referee had inappropriately equated non-official emails with preliminary drafts in determining that “[n]on-official emails and other preliminary drafts” are not included under section 21167.6. The court noted that e-mails are a method of communication, while preliminary drafts describe content. Section 21167.6, subdivision (e)(10) “expressly requires certain preliminary drafts—namely, ‘any drafts of any environmental document, or portions thereof, that have been released for public review’—to be included in the record of proceedings.” In contrast, administrative drafts of EIRs, draft staff reports, and other similar preliminary documents that preceded those circulated for public review are not to be treated as part of the record of the agency’s proceedings. Similarly, agencies need not include e-mails in the administrative record that are irrelevant to a project or a project’s CEQA compliance (i.e., email equivalents to “sticky notes, calendaring faxes, and social hallway conversations” are not within the scope of section 21167.6, subdivision (e) and do not need to be retained).

While the Fourth District held that under the County’s e-mail retention and deletion policy the requisite document should have been retained for at least two years, the court did not reach the issue of how long other agencies must keep their e-mails before destroying them. The court’s opinion does not hold that e-mails must be kept “in perpetuity”—rather, the CEQA statute of limitations and a final judgment serve as relevant considerations to assessing when e-mails may be destroyed.

Discovery in CEQA Litigation

The Fourth District overturned the discovery referee’s denial of plaintiff’s motions to compel discovery against Newland and the County’s consultants. The court held that plaintiffs were not inappropriately attempting to enlarge the record; they were properly seeking discovery of documents that should have originally been included.

Because section 21167.6 is mandatory and broadly inclusive, the court held that discovery to obtain record components should largely be unnecessary. However, in cases such as these where documents may have been wrongly excluded from the administrative record, discovery is possible in a CEQA proceeding.

The Common Interest Doctrine

The County’s objections to Golden Door’s discovery requests cited the common interest doctrine. Golden Door’s subsequent May 2019 motion to compel asked the County to produce a privilege log. The County’s initial privilege log identified 3,864 withheld documents, and amended privilege log identified 1,952 withheld documents.

Golden Door asserted that the common interest doctrine did not apply to the documents shared between the project applicant and the county prior to October 10, 2018, the date the county board adopted the last project approval. The court disagreed, holding that the referee correctly determined the common interest doctrine applied pre-project approval. The court distinguished Ceres for Citizens v. Super. Ct. (2013) 217 Cal.App.4th 889, by pointing out that Golden Door had already sued the County twice prior to Project approval, each time seeking orders to kill the Project, thereby creating a common interest between the County and the Newland to defend the Project pre-approval.

The court explained that entities with common legal interests may share attorney-client privileged information without waiving that privilege. For these reasons, the Confidential Joint Defense Agreement between the County, the District, and Newland was proper because they were entered into after litigation had commenced.

Public Record Act Exemptions

Lastly, the Fourth District considered whether the County appropriately relied on the “preliminary draft exception” and the “deliberative process privilege” to withhold approximately 1,900 documents from discovery. Under the PRA’s preliminary draft exception, agencies need not disclose preliminary drafts, notes, or inter/intra-agency memoranda that are not retained by the public agency in the ordinary course of business if the public interest in withholding those records outweighs the public’s interest in disclosure.  Similarly, the deliberative process privilege applies to the mental processes by which an agency reached a given decision, which includes the substance of conversations, discussions, debates, deliberations, and materials reflecting advice, opinions, and recommendations by which government policy is processed.

Here, the court overturned the referee’s recommendation by finding that the declaration in support of the County’s privilege log lacked sufficient detail to justify withholding over 1,900 documents. The declaration failed to discuss individual documents and how the exceptions apply—rather, the County only discussed the 1,900 documents as one “enormously large unified group.” Moreover, while the court recognized the difficult balance the County must strike in determining what to release or withhold, the County here only provided “broad conclusory claims” that “merely echo[ed] public policies underlying claims of privilege generally.” The court held that the County had failed to carry its burden of establishing that the public interest in withholding the documents clearly outweighed the public interest in disclosure.

Remedy

The court rejected plaintiff’s contention that the County’s inadequate record requires a judgment on the merits as premature. On remand, the plaintiffs are allowed to complete discovery. The court also granted the consolidation of the writ petitions and overturned many of the discovery referee and superior court’s findings. The court directed the trial court to vacate its order denying Golden Door’s motion to augment the record because the County’s long-standing e-mail retention and deletion policy is unlawful. Finally, once discovery is complete, Petitioner should be afforded a reasonable period of time to augment the record.

MODIFIED DECISION ON DENIAL OF REHEARING

On August 25, 2020, the Fourth District issued an order denying three petitions for rehearing filed by Golden Door, the County, and Newland, and modifying the court’s July 30, 2020 opinion. Notably, the order expanded the original opinion’s analysis of the “common-interest”/“joint defense” doctrine. The court reiterated that the discovery referee properly applied the doctrine to communications between the County and Newland because Golden Door’s Vallecitos and PRA lawsuits sought to “defeat” or “mortally wound” the Project before it had been approved. In a subsequent footnote, the court explained that the common-interest doctrine may keep the attorney-client and work-product privileges in-tact for the purposes of defending against those two lawsuits. However, that common interest does not absolve the County of its duties as a lead agency under CEQA.

– Mina Arasteh, Bridget McDonald

City of San Diego Appropriately Relied on CEQA’s In-Fill Exemption in Approving Residential Development, Although Project Less Dense than Typically Required by the general plan, Fourth District Holds

In Holden v. City of San Diego (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 404, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the City of San Diego’s reliance on CEQA’s in-fill exemption for a seven unit residential project on environmentally sensitive land in the city’s North Park community. The court rejected plaintiff’s claim that the city erred in relying on the in-fill exemption because the project was less dense than the standards established in the city’s general plan. The court held that substantial evidence supported the city’s reliance on the exemption because the general plan, together with an applicable community plan, allowed the city to deviate from the density standards for projects in environmentally sensitive areas.

Background

In 2014, the developer applied to the city to demolish two houses and to construct seven new residential condos on a 0.517-acre site located on a canyon hillside. City staff initially informed the developer that the project did not comply with the minimum density standards for the site under the general plan and an applicable community plan. Specifically, staff determined Policy LU-C.4 of the general plan and the housing element of the community plan required a minimum of 16 dwelling units on the site. Later, however, city staff concluded that a reduced density of seven units was appropriate because the site is considered environmentally sensitive.

The city determined that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA under the infill exemption set forth in CEQA Guidelines section 15332. To qualify for this exemption, a project must be consistent with the general plan’s designations and policies. On April 18, 2017, at the planning commission’s recommendation, the city council unanimously voted to approve the project.

The petitioner filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the city’s determination that the project is exempt from CEQA and the city’s approval of the project. The trial court denied the petition. The petitioner appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Opinion

On appeal, petitioner contended that the city erred in finding the project is exempt from CEQA under the infill exemption because the project provides less residential density than is required by the general plan. In so arguing, petitioner relied primarily on a policy of the general plan to “‘[e]nsure efficient use of remaining land available for residential development … by requiring that new development meet the density minimums of appliable plan designations.’” The general plan recommended that residential areas designated “Medium High”—including the project site—provide multi-family housing with a density range of 30- to 44-dwelling units per acre. Because the project did not meet this standard, petitioner argued the project was inconsistent with the general plan, and, therefore, the city abused its discretion in relying on CEQA’s in-fill exemption.

The court rejected the petitioner’s argument as too rigid of an interpretation of the general plan. The court explained that the city’s determination that the project is consistent with the general plan is entitled to great weight because the city is in the best position to interpret it. The general plan consistency requirement does not require rigid conformity to the general plan. A project is consistent with the general plan if it will further the plan’s objectives and policies, and not obstruct their attainment.

Although the general plan’s density standards would ordinarily require 16 or more units on the site, the city council adopted extensive findings explaining why the project was consistent with the general plan, despite its lower density. In support of its findings, the city council cited a note in the community plan, which states that the residential density recommendations “‘may be subject to modification.’” Further, the community plan provided that modifications could be made to the recommended densities. The general plan provides that the community plans are integral components of the general plan; thus, the court held, the city appropriately considered these statements in the community plan as part of the general plan. The city council found that the project, at seven units, struck a reasonable balance of meeting the city’s housing goals, while also respecting the environmentally sensitive canyons. The city’s code limits development on steep hillsides, and the project proposed design was consistent with the city’s hillside development standards. Further, the project would provide infill residential housing, consistent with the city’s housing policies. As stated by the city council, the project’s “‘creation of seven new dwellings, where there existed two units, would assist the housing needs of the North Park area community.’”

The Court of Appeal concluded that the city’s extensive general plan consistency findings demonstrated that the city considered the general plan, the community plan, and the city’s steep hillside development regulations in approving the project and balanced the competing interest of those plans and regulations. Based on its review of the record, the court concluded that the city acted reasonably and did not abuse its discretion by balancing those competing policies and regulations to determine the project is consistent with the general plan. Accordingly, the court held that substantial evidence supported the city’s reliance on the in-fill exemption.

 

Laura Harris

Fifth District Court of Appeal Upholds Air Pollution Control District As Proper Lead Agency, Finds Permit Requirements Provide Substantial Evidence For EIR Emissions Estimates, And Holds EIR Lacked “Reasoned Analysis” For Rejecting Additional Mitigation Measures

In Covington v. Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 867, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed in part the judgement of the trial court by holding that the District is the proper CEQA lead agency and that permit requirements provide substantial evidence to support the EIR’s fugitive emissions estimates for a proposed geothermal power project; and reversed in part by holding that the District’s feasibility assessment of a mitigation measure proposed by EIR commenters was flawed and required more “reasoned analysis.”

Background

In July 2014, the District certified the Casa Diablo IV Geothermal Development Project joint document EIR/EIS prepared for a proposed geothermal energy facility located on national forest land in Mono County. The project was proposed by Ormat Nevada, Inc., and Ormat Technologies, Inc. (“project proponents”) to be located adjacent to an existing geothermal power complex in an area that has been developed for geothermal activity since 1984. The joint document was prepared by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the District, with the state agency serving as the CEQA lead agency. The project was designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels by using heat extracted from water pumped from a deep geothermal reservoir to fuel a closed-loop system that would ultimately produce electricity. The reaction, however, would produce n-pentane (normal pentane)—a non-toxic reactive organic gas but a precursor to ozone—which would leak in some amount leak from the system and result in fugitive emissions. The EIR concluded that the amount of fugitive emissions would not exceed 410 pounds per day.

The Laborer’s International Union of North America Local Union No. 783 and certain individual members (“Petitioners”) filed a petition for writ of mandate against the District and project proponents as real parties in interest claiming that the EIR’s fugitive emissions conclusions were not supported by substantial evidence, that the District was an improper lead agency, and that the District erred in its feasibility analysis for measures to further mitigate fugitive emissions. The trial court denied the petition in full. Petitioners appealed.

District is Proper Lead Agency

Petitioners argued that Mono County, not the District, was the proper CEQA lead agency as defined in Guidelines section 15051, subdivision (b), because it was the agency with more “‘general governmental powers’” over the project. While the Court agreed that “‘normally’” a county would be the CEQA lead, as the first non-federal agency to act on the project, the District was qualified under Guidelines section 15052, subdivision (c), to act as lead.  As further evidence, the Court pointed out that, for a while, the District appeared to be the only involved state agency because of its unique permit authority over an otherwise federalized project. The Court further reasoned that the County’s involvement is minimal in comparison because the project requires “only” a conditional use permit from the County for a “small portion” of its pipeline, which gave it lesser responsibility for “approving the project as a whole,” thereby making the District the proper CEQA lead.

Permit Provides Substantial Evidence

Petitioners also argued that “the record does not contain substantial evidence to support the [EIR’s] conclusion that the Project’s n-pentane [fugitive] emissions will be limited to 410 pounds per day.” The EIR did not, in fact, include emissions calculations. But, the District countered that it provided total emissions numbers to Petitioner’s counsel under a public records act request prior to EIR certification. And, after EIR certification, it sent Petitioner’s counsel additional emissions data, albeit with some redactions. The District further argued that project compliance with permit requirements that limit daily fugitive emissions to 410 pounds per day provides substantial evidence to support the EIR’s conclusion that the project will not exceed that limitation. The Court agreed and cited to several cases for support, including Oakland Heritage Alliance v. City of Oakland (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 884 and Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of University of California (1988) 47 Cal.3d 376, where other courts held that “compliance with performance standards is a substitute for substantial evidence.” The Court also pointed out that the EIR contained several mitigation measures to lessen impacts from project fugitive emissions.

Mitigation Feasibility Assessment Lacks “Reasoned Analysis”

Petitioners then argued that additional feasible mitigation measures existed to further reduce fugitive emissions, provided by commenters on the Draft EIR, and that the District abused its discretion in finding them infeasible. The District countered  that the project’s required use of “‘best available technology’” and “‘state of the art equipment’” was enough to reduce impacts to less than significant, thereby rendering additional measures irrelevant. The Court, while not invalidating the District’s conclusion, required it to provide a “good faith, reasoned response” explaining why the specific technologies suggested by commenters, which are successfully used in other industrial facilities, could not be used for the project to further reduce impacts. Without such explanation, the Court contended that the EIR would not contain “a sufficient degree of analysis to enable decision makers to make an intelligent and informed decision,” pursuant to Guidelines section 15151.

– Casey Shorrock