Author Archives: Bridget McDonald

SECOND DISTRICT FINDS QUANTIFICATION OF EXISTING WATER RIGHTS NOT REQUIRED UNDER CEQA FOR WATER DIVERSION AND STORAGE PROJECT

On March 3, 2022, the Second District Court of Appeal ordered published its decision in Buena Vista Water Storage District v. Kern Water Bank Authority (Feb. 23, 2022) 76 Cal.App.5th 576, in which the court held that an EIR for a project to divert and store unappropriated flood flows need not quantify all existing water rights. The court also held that CEQA does not require the project description to specify the exact amount of water that would be diverted, since that amount will vary from year to year based on the weather. Additionally, the court held that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that the project would not adversely affect the long-term recovery of the groundwater basin in which it is located, as the project would cause a net benefit to the aquifer.

Factual & Procedural Background

Although the Kern River had been designated a fully appropriated stream for many years—such that only those who held an appropriative right could divert from it—in 2010, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) found that in certain wet years, Kern River water was available in excess of the amount appropriated. In particular, following construction of the Kern River-California Aqueduct Intertie in 1977, the Kern River water master began occasionally releasing reservoir water into the intertie to alleviate flooding. This release only occurs when flows are in excess of those held by existing water rights holders. The SWRCB concluded that this flood-released water was unappropriated and stated that it would allow applications to appropriate that water.

Respondent, the Kern Water Bank Authority, thereafter filed an application with the SWRCB seeking a permit for a water right to divert and store up to 500,000 acre-feet-per-year of the unappropriated water. The Authority also certified an EIR for the project. Buena Vista Water Storage District filed a petition for writ of mandate, seeking to set aside the Authority’s certification of the EIR and its approval of the project.

The trial court granted Buena Vista Water Storage District’s writ petition, holding: (1) the EIR’s project description was inadequate because it did not quantify existing water rights and it was unstable; (2) the EIR’s discussion of the existing baseline was inadequate because it did not quantify competing existing rights to Kern River water; and (3) the EIR’s impact analysis was inadequate because it did not adequately assess impacts on senior rights holders and impacts on groundwater during long-term recovery operations. The Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that the EIR complied with CEQA.

The Court of Appeal’s Opinion

The EIR’s Project Description is Accurate and Stable

Unlike the trial court, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the EIR’s project description is adequate under CEQA. As explained by the court, the EIR consistently and adequately describes the project as “‘high flow Kern River water, only available under certain hydrologic conditions and after the rights of senior Kern River water right holders have been met, that otherwise would have (1) been diverted to the Intertie, (2) flooded farmlands, or (3) left Kern County.’”

Buena Vista Water Storage District argued that the EIR’s project description is unstable because it relies on an “open-ended limit of ‘up to 500,000 [acre-feet] of water.” The court rejected this argument, explaining that a precise amount of water to be diverted by the project cannot be determined because water availability will fluctuate from year to year. As stated by the court: “A project description may use a flexible parameter when subject to future changing conditions.” Furthermore, the proposed 500,000 acre-foot-per-year is a finite maximum amount based on historical conditions, thus providing an adequate upper-end of the proposed diversion.

EIR Not Required to Quantify Existing Water Rights

The appellate court also rejected the District’s contention that the EIR’s project description must include a quantification of existing Kern River rights. That amount of detail is not necessary under CEQA Guidelines section 15124, subdivision (c), which requires a “general description” of the project’s technical and environmental characteristics. Moreover, a stream-wide quantification is a complex proceeding conducted by the SWRCB or a court and can take several years (or even decades) to complete. CEQA does not require this type of exhaustive detail.

Similarly, the EIR’s description of the existing environmental setting is not required to include a quantification of the existing Kern River water rights. The EIR satisfies CEQA’s informational requirements by providing measurements of Kern River water historically diverted into the Kern Water Basin and estimating, based on these historic records, how much water the Kern River Bank Authority could have diverted from the basin under baseline conditions. A complete quantification of existing water rights was not necessary to provide these estimates.

Finally, the court found it was clear that existing rights would not be impacted because the SWRCB cannot issue a new permit to divert water that is already subject to existing water rights. Further, the SWRCB expressly allowed processing of water rights applications, like the one at issue, in its Order finding that the water diverted to the Intertie was not fully appropriated. Quantification of the existing water rights was not necessary to evaluate the project’s impacts.

Substantial Evidence Supports the EIR’s Conclusions Regarding Groundwater Impacts

According to the trial court, the project would alter groundwater recovery by making groundwater available for long-term pumping for additional months or years during drought conditions, which, in the trial court’s view, would likely deplete groundwater during a drought. The Second District rejected the lower court’s analysis as factually inaccurate. The purpose of the project is to add to groundwater supplies and increase the availability of groundwater storage. The EIR concludes that the project would raise the local groundwater, resulting in a net increase in aquifer volume. Additionally, the Kern Water Bank Authority’s existing groundwater and monitoring policies will ensure that banking additional groundwater will not lower groundwater tables or affect the production rate of existing wells. Thus, substantial evidence supports the EIR’s conclusion that the project’s groundwater impacts will not be significant.

Conclusions & Implications

The Second District’s decision addresses whether an EIR for a water diversion and storage project must quantify the existing water rights to the underlying waterbody. In holding that such quantification is not required for the Kern Water Bank Authority’s proposed water diversion project, the Court of Appeal adhered to the principle that CEQA does not require an exhaustive analysis, but rather a good faith and reasonable effort at full disclosure. The decision also recognizes that for certain types of projects, particularly those involving water supplies, a project description must be somewhat flexible. The decision illustrates how a court reviewing an EIR must defer to the lead agency’s factual analyses and conclusions—deference that the trial court had failed to give to the Kern Water Bank Authority’s determinations.

– Laura Harris Middleton

SECOND DISTRICT FINDS 90-DAY STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS APPLIES TO LAWSUIT ALLEGING CITY FAILED TO OBTAIN COASTAL DEVELOPMENT PERMIT PRIOR TO ADOPTING SHORT-TERM RENTAL ORDINANCE

In Coastal Act Protectors v. City of Los Angeles (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 526, the Second District Court of Appeal held a lawsuit alleging the City of Los Angeles was required to obtain a coastal development permit (CDP) prior to the adoption an ordinance imposing restrictions on short-term vacation rentals was subject to the 90-day statute of limitations in Government Code section 65009 subdivision (c)(1)(B). Because the lawsuit was not filed with 90 days, the court dismissed the case.

Background

The City adopted an ordinance imposing restrictions on short-term vacation rentals in December 2018. More than a year later, Coastal Act Protectors (CAP) filed a lawsuit seeking a writ of mandate to enjoin the City from enforcing the ordinance in the Venice coastal zone until the City obtained a CDP pursuant to the California Coastal Act, arguing that the ordinance constituted a “development” under the Act.

The trial court concluded that the 90-day statute of limitations in Government Code section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(B), applied to the City’s adoption of the ordinance, and CAP’s petition was therefore untimely. It reasoned that the City’s purported duty to obtain a CDP was a procedural task to perform in enacting a lawful ordinance; therefore, CAP’s petition challenging the City’s failure to obtain a CDP constituted an action to “attack, review, set aside void, or annual” the decision of the City to adopt the ordinance, bringing it within the ambit of Government Code section 65009 subdivision (c)(1)(B). The trial court also addressed the merits of the petition and concluded that the ordinance was not a “development” under the Coastal Act. CAP appealed.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, CAP argued that the City’s purported failure to comply with the Coastal Act when it adopted the ordinance was not an “action” or “decision” contemplated by section 65009 of the Government Code, but was instead subject to the three-year statute of limitations in Code of Civil Procedure section 338, subdivision (a), for actions “upon a liability created by statute.”

The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that CAP’s petition constituted an action to “attack, review, set aside void, or annual” the decision of the City to adopt the ordinance, and therefore, the 90-day limitations period applied. The court explained that, unlike in cases where it would have been impossible for a petitioner to bring a lawsuit within 90 days, the Coastal Act predated the County’s ordinance. If the City did have a duty to obtain a permit for application of the ordinance to residences in the Venice coastal zone, the court held, that duty would have existed when the City enacted the ordinance. The statute of limitations in the Government Code therefore applied. Because CAP waited over a year to file suit, the Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that the petition was untimely. The court concluded by noting its determination comported with the Legislature’s stated intent to “provide certainty for property owners and local governments regarding” local zoning and planning decisions. (Gov. Code, § 65009, subd. (a)(3).)

Since its holding on the statute of limitations issue was dispositive, the Court of Appeal did not address whether the ordinance constituted a “development” subject to the CDP requirements of the Coastal Act.

– Elizabeth Pollock

THIRD DISTRICT PARTIALLY AFFIRMS JUDGMENTS SETTING ASIDE EIR FOR SPECIFIC PLAN LAND SWAP IN EASTERN PLACER COUNTY

In a 123-page decision, League to Save Lake Tahoe Mountain Area Preservation Foundation et al. v. County of Placer (2022) __ Cal.App.5th __, the Third District partially affirmed the trial court’s judgment in two cases granting a petition for writ of mandate, finding that the EIR for the Martis Valley West Parcel Specific Plan (Project) failed to adequately describe the environmental setting of Lake Tahoe regarding water quality, failed to adequately analyze impacts to Lake Tahoe water quality resulting from automobile trips, impermissibly deferred the formulation of mitigation for GHG impacts, failed to analyze proposed mitigation for the Project’s significant and unavoidable traffic impacts on SR 267, and failed to analyze whether renewable energy features could be incorporated into the Project. The Court of Appeal upheld the EIR’s analysis of impacts to forest resources and air quality, including the County’s reliance on the Placer County Air Pollution Control District’s (PCAPCD) thresholds of significance. The court also upheld the County’s decision not to recirculate the Draft EIR and to immediately rezone the subject property out of Timberland Productivity Zone (TPZ). Lastly, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision that the EIR did not adequately analyze emergency evacuation impacts.

Background

Real Party in Interest, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), owns two undeveloped parcels on either side of SR 267, between Truckee and Lake Tahoe. The West Parcel is southeast of the Northstar Resort and has 1,052 acres. The East Parcel has 6,376 acres.  The existing zoning and land use designation in the Martis Valley Community Plan (MVCP) allows up to 1,360 residential units and 6.6 acres of commercial uses in a 670-acre area of the larger east parcel. Otherwise, both parcels are zoned TPZ and designated as forest in the MVCP. Starting in 2013, SPI and its partners (collectively, Real Parties in Interest or RPI) proposed that the County adopt a specific plan for the two parcels that would amend the MVCP and zoning to move the residential and commercial uses from the East Parcel to the West Parcel, reduce the residential capacity from 1,360 units to 760 units, immediately rezone 662 acres on the West Parcel out of TPZ, and rezone the entire East Parcel as TPZ. Following adoption of the specific plan, the applicants would sell the East Parcel for conservation purposes or place the land in a conservation easement. The effect of the land swap would be to allow development on the West Parcel, adjacent to Northstar and existing residential development, while permanently conserving all 6,376 acres of the East Parcel, connecting some 50,000 acres of open space east of SR 267. Two small areas of both parcels are within the Lake Tahoe Basin, and thus subject to the jurisdiction of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), but neither area would be included in the specific plan.

The County circulated a draft EIR for the Project in 2015. In 2016, the County certified the final EIR, immediately rezoned the 662-acre project area of the West Parcel out of TPZ, rezoned the East Parcel to TPZ, and adopted the specific plan.

Sierra Watch, Mountain Area Preservation, and the League to Save Lake Tahoe (collectively, Sierra Watch) filed a lawsuit challenging the EIR and the County’s finding that immediately rezoning the project area on the West Parcel was consistent with the purposes of the Timberland Productivity Act (TPA). The California Clean Energy Committee (CCEC) filed a separate petition, also challenging the EIR. The trial court issued judgments in April and June 2018, rejecting all the challenges to the EIR, with the exception of the EIR’s analysis of impacts to emergency evacuations, and upholding the County’s findings on the immediate rezone out of TPZ. Sierra Watch and CCEC filed separate appeals, and the County and RPI cross-appealed on the emergency evacuation issue.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, Sierra Watch argued that the EIR failed to adequately describe the Lake Tahoe Basin’s existing air and water quality, that the County should have adopted the TRPA’s threshold of significance for vehicle miles traveled (VMT) with respect to basin air and water quality, and that the EIR failed to adequately analyze the impacts of project traffic on air and water quality in the basin. Sierra Watch also challenged the County’s decision not to recirculate the EIR following changes to the analysis of GHG impacts, and argued that the adopted GHG mitigation measure was invalid. Lastly, Sierra Watch argued that the County violated the TPA by failing to make required findings. In their cross-appeal, the County and RPI argued that the EIR’s analysis of impacts to emergency evacuations was adequate, and that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that the impacts would be less than significant.

CCEC’s appeal argued that the EIR did not adequately describe existing forest resources or analyze cumulative impacts to forest resources, failed to analyze feasible traffic mitigation measures proposed in comments, failed to disclose significant impacts from widening SR 267, and failed to discuss the use of renewable energy sources to meet Project energy demand. CCEC also argued that the adopted GHG mitigation measure was infeasible and unenforceable.

Lake Tahoe

The Court of Appeal found the County was not legally required to use TRPA’s thresholds of significance for measuring the Project’s impacts because, although the two parcels did include land within TRPA’s jurisdiction, the Project was revised to not include those areas. Instead, the County, as the lead agency, had discretion to rely on TRPA’s thresholds or those of another agency, or use their own thresholds, including thresholds unique to the Project. The court also concluded that, while TRPA had “jurisdiction by law” over resources that could be affected by the Project, and was thus, a “Trustee agency” under CEQA, they were not a “Responsible agency” because they had no permitting authority over the Project.
The court also found that the County did not abuse its discretion in adopting the PCAPCD’s thresholds of significance for the project’s air emissions impacts because, contrary to Sierra Watch’s claims, the PCAPCD’s significance thresholds were adopted to address air and water quality (resulting from air emissions) within the Tahoe Basin. However, the EIR failed to adequately describe the existing water quality of Lake Tahoe, which could be impacted by “crushed abrasives and sediment” from project traffic within the basin. According top the court, the EIR did not include a threshold of significance (though several were discussed in post-EIR responses to comments) for such impacts, even though there was substantial evidence that the project-generated traffic would travel within the basin, which the court found to be an abuse of discretion.

Recirculation

Sierra Watch argued that the revisions to the draft EIR’s GHG analysis included in the Final EIR triggered the need to recirculate. The draft EIR included a tiered analysis of GHG impacts. First, annual Project GHG emissions were calculated and compared to PCAPCD’s numeric threshold of 1,100 MTC2E for residential development. Second, although the draft EIR acknowledged that little, if any, of the Project would be constructed by 2020, the EIR compared a completed Project in 2020 with the GHG reduction measures, including those required by law, in place with a “no action” or “business as usual” scenario to determine the Project’s GHG efficiency, pursuant to the California Air Resources Board’s revised Scoping Plan. The draft EIR concluded that, because the Project would generate GHG emissions substantially greater than the numeric threshold, and because it was uncertain what regulatory GHG measures would be in place after 2020, when the Project was likely to begin operating, the impact was significant and unavoidable.

Before the final EIR was published, however, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (2015) 62 Cal.4th 204 (Newhall Ranch). Newhall Ranch ruled that an efficiency metric comparing a proposed project to a hypothetical “business as usual” scenario was a permissible way to analyze GHG impacts, but the Scoping Plan’s statewide efficiency threshold required additional evidence and analysis to apply to individual projects, and the EIR in that case did not include the required connection. In response to Newhall Ranch, the final EIR dropped the efficiency analysis, but affirmed the draft EIR’s conclusion that impacts would be significant and unavoidable because the Project would generate emissions exceeding the numeric threshold, and because of the uncertainty around future regulatory GHG reduction measures. The County concluded that, because the significance conclusion did not change, recirculation was not required. The Court agreed recirculation was not required because the final EIR did not show new or substantially more significant effects, and merely clarified or amplified the information provided in the draft EIR.

GHG Mitigation

The court agreed with the appellants that the GHG mitigation measure impermissibly deferred determining the significance of GHG impacts, because the measure required future tentative maps to establish consistency with future efficiency targets adopted in compliance with the Newhall Ranch decision, even though the EIR acknowledged that no such targets existed and may not ever exist. The measure provided a suite of proposed mitigation tools that future maps could use to meet the efficiency targets. The court reasoned that, if no efficiency target consistent with Newhall Ranch became available, mitigation would never be triggered. RPI and the County argued that, if no efficiency targets were available, the 1,100 MTC2E threshold would apply to future maps, but the court found that the language of the measure itself did not include the numeric threshold.

Emergency Evacuations

The court agreed with the County and RPI that the EIR’s analysis of impacts to emergency evacuation plans was adequate and the EIR’s conclusion that impacts would be less than significant was supported by substantial evidence. The court upheld the EIR’s reliance on the questions in Appendix G to the CEQA Guidelines to set a threshold of significance. The EIR acknowledged that adding people and development to the area could exacerbate cumulative impacts to evacuation but concluded that the impact was less than significant because the project would not cut off or modify any evacuation routes and would not prevent an evacuation from occurring or otherwise interfere with the implementation of the County’s evacuation plans. The court found that the conclusion was supported by substantial evidence, including the EIR’s analysis of how long it would take to evacuate the project site, the number of emergency access/evacuation roads included in the project, the requirement that RPI develop a “shelter in place” feature, and the analysis of impacts to fire department response times.

The court acknowledged that evacuation planning involved multiple unknown factors and a host of potential circumstances which made it difficult to predict how an evacuation might play out or how a project could impact such an evacuation. The court reasoned that because the County had discretion as the lead agency to decide how to analyze an impact, the court would defer to the County’s methodology decision provided it was reasonable and supported by substantial evidence. The court found that it was. The court concluded that many of Sierra Watch’s challenges to the EIR’s analysis amounted to requests for further analysis, additional modeling, and speculative hypothetical scenarios. The court cited Guidelines sections 15145 and 15151 for the propositions that the EIR need not speculate and need not be exhaustive. While some of the evidence, relating to fire prevention and fire department response times, did not directly relate to emergency evacuation planning, the evidence indirectly supported the County’s conclusions by demonstrating that the project was reducing the likelihood of wildfire on the site and reducing the need for an evacuation.

Sierra Watch also argued that the EIR was internally inconsistent because the traffic analysis reached the opposite conclusion of the emergency evacuation analysis regarding project traffic on SR 267. The court found that the EIR’s conclusion that project generated traffic would have a significant impact on vehicle delay was not inconsistent with the conclusion that project generated traffic would not substantially interfere with emergency evacuation plans. The court reasoned that the two analyses focused on different types of impacts, with time (as measured by vehicle delay) being the focus of the traffic analysis and public safety being the focus of the emergency evacuation analysis.

Forest Resources

The court upheld the EIR’s conclusions that cumulative impacts to forest resources were less than significant. The EIR discussed the County’s 1994 General Plan EIR’s analysis of impacts to forest resources based on projected growth and development in the County and concluded that the Project’s impacts were consistent with and would not exceed the impacts disclosed in 1994 General Plan EIR. The Final EIR concluded that analyzing climate-related forest impacts, such as drought, wildfire, and tree mortality cause by bark beetles, would be speculative, and the court agreed. The court concluded that climate-driven tree mortality was not within the scope of a CEQA cumulative impacts analysis, which required the County to analyze impacts from the Project combined with past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future projects. Tree mortality is not a “project” under CEQA. The court acknowledged that climate-caused tree mortality could be exacerbated by a project, but such impacts would be best analyzed as part of the climate change and GHG analysis. The court concluded that aspect of the GHG analysis was not challenged in this case.

Traffic Mitigation

The EIR concluded that the Project’s traffic impacts on SR 267, measured in terms of delay and using the level of service (LOS) metric, would be significant and unavoidable. The EIR reached this conclusion in part because while the California Department of Transportation had plans to widen SR 267 from two to four lanes, the plan did not cover the portion of SR 267 within the Tahoe Basin, and it was uncertain when the widening would occur. Several commenters suggested that the EIR analyze transportation demand management (TDM) options to reduce traffic on SR 267. The EIR included similar measures for the Project’s impact on public transit but did not analyze whether TDM measures could further reduce the significant traffic impacts. The court, without acknowledging previous rulings by the Third District Court of Appeal finding LOS impacts to be moot given the Legislature’s directive that vehicle delay is not a significant environmental impact, ruled that the EIR failed to analyze facially feasible mitigation proposed in comments and therefore violated CEQA. The Court also found that, while the EIR did not analyze the impacts of widening SR 267, that lack of analysis was not prejudicial error because widening SR 267 was previously approved by the County in the MVCP, which concluded at the time that impacts of such a project would be analyzed in a separate EIR once the improvements were designed.

Energy Resources

Lastly, the court found fault in the EIR’s analysis of impacts to energy resources. The EIR concluded that the Project’s energy consumption impacts would be less than significant because the Project would not result in “wasteful, inefficient, or unnecessary use of energy, or wasteful use of energy resources.” The court, however, ruled that the EIR was required to analyze the Project’s potential use of renewable energy both in determining whether the Project may have a significant impact and how to mitigate that impact. Citing California Clean Energy Com. v. City of Woodland (2014) 225 Cal.App.4th 173, 209, the court concluded that the requirement to analyze renewable energy as part of a project’s impact analysis was a procedural requirement of CEQA, which the EIR failed to comply with.

– Nathan George

*RMM Attorneys Whit Manley, Chip Wilkins, and Nate George served as counsel to Real Parties in Interest in the above litigation.

FIRST DISTRICT HOLDS RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT PROJECT THAT IS CONSISTENT WITH SPECIFIC PLAN AREA IS EXEMPT FROM FURTHER ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW

In Citizens’ Committee to Complete the Refuge v. City of Newark (2021) 74 Cal.App.5th 460, the First District Court of Appeal upheld the city’s determination that a residential project within a specific plan area was exempt from further environmental review under Government Code section 65457, which provides an exemption from CEQA for housing development proposals that follow a city’s specific plan.

Background

In 2010, the city certified an environmental impact report (EIR) for a specific plan. The specific plan allowed for development of up to 1,260 residential units, and a golf course and related facilities spread across identified subareas (Areas 3 and 4). Area 4 contained wetland habitat for the salt marsh harvest mouse, a state-protected species. After petitioners filed suit under CEQA, the trial court found several deficiencies with the EIR.

In response, the city prepared a recirculated EIR (REIR), which stated that it was a program-level analysis of the impacts related to development of housing and the golf course in Areas 3 and 4 because the final design of those components was not yet known. In March 2015, the city certified the final REIR and re-adopted the 2010 specific plan.

In 2019, the developer submitted a proposed subdivision map for approval of 469 residential lots, omitting the golf course that was previously authorized by the specific plan.

The city prepared a checklist to determine whether the REIR adequately analyzed the environmental impacts of the proposed subdivision map and concluded that the project was consistent with the specific plan and that there were no changed circumstances or new information that might trigger additional environmental review. Accordingly, the city determined the project qualified for the statutory CEQA exemption under Government Code section 65457.

Petitioners challenged the city’s determination, arguing that a subsequent EIR was required due to changes in the project showing that it would have new significant impacts on the endangered harvest mouse.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

To qualify for the Government Code section 65457 exemption, a project must be for residential development, must be consistent with a specific plan for which an EIR was previously certified, and circumstances requiring subsequent environmental review (Pub. Resources Code, § 21166; CEQA Guidelines, § 15162) must not be present.

Petitioners alleged that three changes to the project created new significant impacts triggering the requirement for a subsequent EIR:

(1) Fill of only uplands and not wetlands inhibited wetland migration;

(2) Omission of the golf course deprived the harvest mouse of escape habitat; and

(3) Use of riprap on the banks of elevated upland increased predation of the harvest mouse.

The court disagreed, finding that substantial evidence supported the city’s conclusion that none of the changes significantly increased the impacts on the harvest mouse beyond what the REIR analyzed, i.e., the impacts of the complete development of all of Area 4. The court noted that the project as approved would develop fewer total acres and include far fewer residential units than analyzed in the REIR.

In regard to petitioners’ specific arguments of new impacts, the court held the REIR addressed the impact of loss of upland escape habitat and found that the impact would be less than significant because the uplands did not provide high quality transitional habitat as they were regularly used for agriculture. The project would develop less upland than previously analyzed, meaning the project would eliminate less, not more, upland escape habitat. Additionally, because of the low value of upland habitat, the REIR’s less-than-significant determination did not depend on the golf course continuing to provide upland habitat. Accordingly, the elimination of the golf course did not affect that determination.

While the REIR did not discuss the use of riprap to stabilize the slopes of the filled and raised development areas, the court found this did not require subsequent environmental review because the REIR already examined the issue of rat predation on the harvest mouse and petitioners cited to no evidence that the riprap would substantially increase the severity of predation effects. The court acknowledged that there could be some potential increase in predation due to riprap but recognized that the Section 65457 exemption sets a higher threshold for environmental review. Like other statutory exemptions, the court said, Section 65457 reflects the Legislature’s determination that the interest promoted, which here was to increase the housing supply, was important enough to justify foregoing the benefits of environmental review.

The court also rejected petitioners’ claim that changed circumstances and new information related to sea level rise triggered subsequent review. Petitioners argued that the city was required, due to new scientific insights concerning the amount and rate of sea level rise, to analyze whether the project would exacerbate the effects of sea level rise because of how the project would interact with wetlands in the area (e.g., wetland migration). Even assuming wetland migration must be analyzed under CEQA, the court found that it was mentioned in the original 2010 EIR and the REIR assumed that all developable areas would be impacted. Accordingly, the court concluded that petitioners should have raised this argument in response to the REIR, or even the 2010 EIR.

Finally, the court rejected petitioners’ claim that an adaptive management approach to sea level rise was impermissibly deferred mitigation. The court held that the city’s adaptive responses were not mitigation because sea level rise is not an environmental impact caused by the project that needs to be analyzed under CEQA.

– Nina Berglund

The Future of Wetlands and Waters of the United States: U.S. Supreme Court Grants Review of Sackett v. EPA

On January 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court granted review of Sackett v. U.S. EPA (No. 21-454) to consider whether the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals set forth the proper test for determining whether wetlands constitute “waters of the United States” under the federal Clean Water Act. (33 U.S.C. § 1362(7).) The Supreme Court’s second grant of certiorari marks a pivotal development in a long-running legal battle between the Sacketts—an Idaho couple seeking to build a home near Priest Lake—and the EPA, which has maintained that the Sacketts’ property contains wetlands subject to federal jurisdiction and permitting.

Factual Background

The Sacketts own a residential lot in Bonner County, Idaho, that lies just north of Priest Lake. To prepare for construction of a house, the Sacketts filled part of their lot with dirt and rock. Several months later, the Sacketts received a compliance order from the EPA stating that the lot contained wetlands that were adjacent to Priest Lake, which was a “navigable water” within the meaning of section 502(7) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and constituted “waters of the United States” within the meaning of 40 C.F.R. § 232.2. The compliance order found that the Sacketts violated the CWA by impermissibly discharging pollutants into navigable waters. The order directed the Sacketts to remove the fill and restore the lot to its original condition, or be subject to civil penalties.

March 2012: Initial Lawsuit & Supreme Court Decision

The Sacketts sought, but were denied, an administrative hearing before the EPA. The Sacketts thus filed suit in the U.S. District Court of Idaho, contending that the compliance order violated the Administrative Procedure Act and the Sacketts’ due process rights. The petition alleged the EPA acted arbitrarily and capriciously by issuing the compliance order, and deprived the Sacketts of life, liberty, or property without due process of law in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The District Court dismissed the action due to lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding that the CWA precluded pre-enforcement judicial review of compliance orders, and that such preclusion does not violate the Fifth Amendments’ due process guarantee.

In 2012, the Supreme Court granted review of the Ninth Circuit’s decision to consider whether the EPA’s compliance order constituted a “final agency action” that could be subject to judicial review. The Supreme Court unanimously held in favor of the Sacketts, finding that the order had “all the hallmarks of APA finality.” In an opinion authored by the late Justice Scalia, the court held that the EPA’s order “determined” the “rights or obligations” of the Sacketts by imposing “legal consequences” that “flowed” from noncompliance with its terms. Because the EPA denied them an administrative hearing, the Sacketts possessed “no other adequate remedy in a court” so as to challenge the nature and scope of the order and administrative penalties therein.

August 2021: The Ninth Circuit’s Decision on Remand

On August 16, 2021, the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion on the merits of the Sacketts’ claims. The court of appeal held that the EPA reasonably determined that the Sacketts’ property contained wetlands. The court explained that Justice Kennedy’s interpretation and understanding of “significant nexus” in his concurring opinion in Rapanos v. United States (2006) 547 U.S. 715, provided the standard for determining when wetlands are regulated under the CWA. Applying that test, the panel held that the standard was satisfied because evidence in the record supported EPA’s conclusion that wetlands on the Sacketts’ property were adjacent to a jurisdictional tributary and that, together with a similarly situated wetlands complex, they had a significant nexus to Priest Lake, a navigable water that is regulated under the CWA.

January 2022: The Supreme Court’s Second Grant of Certiorari – Implications

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Rapanos, most lower courts have relied on Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test as the governing standard. Nevertheless, the split of opinion in Rapanos, coupled with the lack of executive rulemaking to clarify the scope of the EPA’s CWA jurisdiction, has created confusion. As such, the Supreme Court’s second grant of certiorari could mark a momentous step in the ongoing debate about the appropriate “WOTUS” test.

The Supreme Court will consider “whether the Ninth Circuit set forth the proper test for determining whether wetlands are ‘waters of the United States’ under the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1362(7).” The Sacketts urge the Court to adopt the four-justice plurality’s test in Rapanos, which, unlike the “significant nexus” test, would allow regulation of wetlands only when they have a continuous surface water connection to regulated waters of the United States. In contrast, the EPA maintains that a rule divergent from the significant nexus test would deprive the agency of “authority to protect wetlands separated from a navigable river by a small dune or other natural barrier, even if overwhelming scientific evidence showed that the wetlands significantly affect the river’s ‘chemical, physical, and biological integrity.’”

Though the Court will likely hear this case in October 2022, with a decision to follow in early 2023, it remains to be seen how the pending outcome will affect the EPA’s current implementation of, and revisions to, the “WOTUS” rule. Either way, the scope of federal jurisdiction in regulating and protecting the nation’s wetlands and navigable waters will be decided by our highest court yet again, hopefully yielding greater clarity on the issue rather than further muddying the waters.

– Bridget McDonald

FOURTH DISTRICT HOLDS CITY OF PALM SPRINGS’ SHORT-TERM RENTAL ORDINANCE IS CONSISTENT WITH ZONING CODE

The Fourth District Court of Appeal in Protect Our Neighborhoods v. City of Palm Springs (Jan. 7, 2022) 73 Cal.App.5th 667 (part. pub.), upheld the City of Palm Springs’ ordinance authorizing short-term rentals in residential zones as consistent with the City’s Zoning Code.

Factual Background

The 2008 Short-Term Rental Ordinance

The City of Palm Springs’ Zoning Code authorizes two uses in a single-family residential (R-1) zone without a permit: (1) a “permanent single-family dwelling”; and (2) uses “customarily incident to the permitted uses when located on the same lot therewith.” All other uses not expressly permitted are prohibited, and the Planning Commission shall not permit commercial uses in such zones.

As a popular vacation destination, the City has expressly allowed for short-term rentals of single-family dwellings since 2008. The corresponding ordinance initially applied to rentals for 28 days or less and limited occupancy based on the number of bedrooms. Rental owners were required to register the property with the City and use “reasonably prudent business practices” to ensure that renters and their guests did not create unreasonable disturbances or engage in disorderly conduct.

The 2016–2017 Ordinance Amendments

In 2016, the City amended the short-term rental ordinance to authorize short-term rentals of single-family residences and duplexes, but not apartments. The City adopted subsequent amendments in 2017, which barred ownership of more than one vacation rental, limited rentals to 36 per year, and added new provisions for “estate homes” (5+ bedrooms) and “homesharing.” The 2017 amendments also included findings that—when taken together—confirmed vacation rentals are permitted in R-1 zones as “ancillary and secondary uses of residential properties.”

Procedural Background

Protect Our Neighborhoods, an organization of homeowners opposed to vacation rentals, filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging the 2017 amendments violated the City’s Zoning Code, General Plan, and CEQA. The trial court denied the petition. Protect Our Neighborhoods appealed on the zoning code claims, but did not appeal the trial court’s ruling on the CEQA or General Plan claims.

The Court of Appeal’s Opinion

On appeal, petitioners alleged short-term rentals violated the zoning code because they are “commercial,” not “residential” uses, and improperly change the character of the R-1 Zone. Petitioners also contended that, if the zoning code permits short-term rentals at all, it only does so on the condition that an owner obtain a land use or conditional use permit.

Conflict With the Zoning Code

Effect of a Conflict

The Court of Appeal rejected petitioners’ contention that the ordinance conflicted with the zoning code. Petitioners treated the code as some kind of “higher law” that invalidated any subsequent conflicting law, even though the zoning code and ordinance are “coequal parts of the Municipal Code.” The court thus reasoned that, to the extent they conflicted with one another, “the most recently enacted statute expressed the will of the Legislature.” Therefore, even if the ordinance and zoning code could not be reconciled, the ordinance would remain valid because the City’s findings evinced its intent to repeal any inconsistent provision of the zoning code.

Existence of a Conflict

The court also rejected petitioners’ claim that vacation rentals constituted “commercial uses” that were barred in R-1 residential zones. The court noted that R-1 zones expressly permit any use that is “customarily incident to” the use of a “permanent single-family dwelling.” A “dwelling” includes “a building or portion thereof designed exclusively for residential occupancy…” Here, the ordinance plainly states that “vacation rentals are an ‘ancillary and secondary use of residential property…’” Petitioners failed to establish that this interpretation was erroneous.

Petitioners also failed to establish how short-term vacation rentals fell within the definition of a “commercial use.” The zoning code meaningfully distinguishes between commercial stays, and the City could reasonably conclude that the short-term rental of a single-family dwelling has different impacts than the short-term rental of a 20, 50, or 100-unit motel. That vacation rentals will impermissibly change the character of the R-1 zone is equally unavailing. Petitioners mistakenly cited to the “business regulations” provision of the code’s “home occupations” chapter, which does not apply to short-term rentals. Nevertheless, even if rentals did affect nearby single-family residents, allowing them was a legislative judgment left up to the City.

The Ordinance’s Findings

Petitioners claimed the ordinance’s supportive findings were internally inconsistent because they impliedly permitted an owner to acquire property and exclusively use it as a short-term rental without ever living in it. The court observed that a property can be “residential,” even if it is vacant. The code defines “dwelling” based on whether the building is designed exclusively for residential occupancy, not whether the building is actually occupied. The building is then limited to use as a single-family residence or uses customarily incident thereto, such as vacation rentals.

Need for a Discretionary Permit

Finally, petitioners argued short-term rentals in R-1 zones required issuance of a discretionary permit. Though the zoning code only requires permits for large day cares, model homes, temporary onsite trailers in conjunction with sale of subdivision lots, accessory apartments, churches, schools, and golf courses in R-1 zones, petitioners argued that vacation rentals have greater impacts than those uses. The court rejected this by observing that the zoning code does not require permits for “similar uses” with “similar impacts.” Rather, uses customarily incident to uses as a single-family dwelling—i.e., vacation rentals—are allowed without a permit.

– Bridget McDonald

THIRD DISTRICT FINDS EIR FOR OLYMPIC VALLEY RESORT PROJECT FAILED TO ADEQUATELY CONSIDER IMPACTS TO LAKE TAHOE’S UNIQUE ENVIRONMENTAL RESOURCES

In Sierra Watch v. County of Placer (2021) 69 Cal.App.5th 86, the Third District Court of Appeal found that the EIR for a resort development project in Olympic Valley violated CEQA because it contained an inadequate description of the environmental setting and failed to adequately consider the project’s potential air quality, water quality, and noise impacts on Lake Tahoe and the surrounding Basin.

FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In 1983, Placer County adopted the Squaw Valley General Plan and Land Use Ordinance to guide development and growth within the Olympic Valley (formerly Squaw Valley) area. The 4,700-acre area lies a few miles northwest of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

In 2011, Real Party in Interest Squaw Valley Real Estate LLC proposed the first project under the general plan and ordinance—the Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan—which included two components to be built over a 25-year timeframe: (1) an 85-acre parcel that included 850 lodging units, approximately 300,000 square feet of commercial space, and 3,000 parking spaces (“the Village”); and (2) an 8.8-acre parcel that included housing for up to 300 employees (“the East Parcel”).

The County approved the project and certified its associated EIR in 2016. Following the County’s approval, Sierra Watch filed a petition for writ of mandate, alleging the County violated CEQA in numerous ways. The trial court rejected Sierra Watch’s claims. Sierra Watch appealed.

COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION

In the published portion of the opinion, the Third District considered whether the EIR sufficiently described the project’s environmental setting and adequately considered water quality, air quality, and noise impacts.

EIR’s Description of the Environmental Setting

The court first considered whether the EIR’s discussion of the environmental setting adequately addressed Lake Tahoe and the Lake Tahoe Basin, particularly with respect to the settings for water and air quality.

Water Quality Setting

As to water quality, the Court of Appeal agreed with Sierra Watch’s assertion that the EIR’s hydrology and water quality analysis failed to adequately describe the regional setting specific to Lake Tahoe. Though the Draft EIR explained that the project would be “located within the low elevation portion of the approximately eight square mile Squaw Creek watershed, a tributary to the middle reach of the Truckee River (downstream of Lake Tahoe),” it concluded that VMT generated by the project would not exceed TRPA’s cumulative VMT threshold, and thus, would not affect the Lake’s water quality. The court rejected this rationale by noting that the EIR’s description failed to discuss the importance of the Lake’s current condition or the relationship between VMT and the Lake’s water clarity and quality, thereby depriving the public of an ability to evaluate and assess impacts on the Lake.

Air Quality Setting

As to air quality, the court found that the EIR’s description of the air quality setting and baseline was more substantial, and thus, adequate. The EIR properly explained the applicable air quality standards and presented data on the current concentrations and sources of criteria air pollutants in the area.

EIR’s Analysis of Impacts

Air Quality Impacts

The court agreed with Sierra Watch’s assertion that the EIR failed to meaningfully assess the project’s traffic impacts on Lake Tahoe’s air quality. The EIR concluded the project would not exceed TRPA’s cumulative VMT threshold but acknowledged it would likely exceed TRPA’s project-level VMT threshold for basin traffic. Nevertheless, the EIR ultimately concluded that TRPA’s VMT significance thresholds did not apply because the project was not located in the Tahoe Basin. The court found this rationale “provided mixed messages.” Rather than summarizing and declaring TRPA’s VMT thresholds as inapplicable, the court held that the EIR should have determined whether the Project’s impacts on Lake Tahoe and the Basin were potentially significant.

The court also agreed that the EIR underestimated the Project’s expected cumulative VMT in the Basin by failing to consider expected VMT from other anticipated projects. Even though the County addressed this issue in post-FEIR responses to comments, the court held that the public was denied an opportunity to “test, assess, and evaluate the newly revealed information and make an informed judgment as to the validity of the conclusions to be drawn therefrom.”

Construction Noise Impacts

The court rejected Sierra Watch’s initial assertion that the EIR failed to adequately disclose the duration of construction noise at any specific location, particularly at the Village parcel. The EIR properly explained that that portion of the Project would be constructed over 25 years based on market conditions, and thus, it would be too speculative to identify specific noise levels for every single receptor.

The court agreed, however, with Sierra Watch’s assertion that the EIR failed to analyze the project’s full geographic range of noises by ignoring activities occurring farther than 50 feet from sensitive receptors. The court reasoned that a “lead agency cannot ignore a project’s expected impacts merely because they occur…’outside an arbitrary radius.’” The EIR only considered impacts to sensitive receptors within 50 feet of construction—yet, according to the court, “ignore[d] potential impacts to a receptor sitting an inch more distant[,] even though the noise levels at these two distances would presumably be the same.” Though the County explained this analysis was standard practice, the court contended that an agency “cannot employ a methodological approach in a manner that entirely forecloses consideration of evidence showing impacts to the neighboring region [and] beyond a project’s boundaries.”

Finally, the court agreed that mitigation requiring “operations and techniques … be replaced with quieter procedures where feasible and consistent with building codes and other applicable laws and regulations” was too vague because “in effect, [it] only tells construction contractors to be quieter than normal when they can.” The court concluded that the measure improperly deferred which construction procedures can later be modified to be quiet but did not explain how these determinations are to be made.

– Bridget McDonald

*RMM Attorneys Whit Manley, Andee Leisy, Chip Wilkins, and Nathan George represented Real Party in Interest Squaw Valley Real Estate LLC in this litigation. 

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