Author Archives: Christina Berglund

Federal District Court Holds the United States Army Corps of Engineers Violated the Endangered Species Act in Reissuing Nationwide Permit 12 Without Initiating Section 7 Consultation

In Northern Plains Resource Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (D. Mont. 2020) 454 F.Supp.3d 985, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana overturned Nationwide Permit 12 (“NWP 12”). Of practical importance, the court’s ruling on this matter applies throughout the nation.

Under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) (33 U.S.C. § 1251 et seq.), the Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) is authorized to issue general nationwide permits to streamline the permitting process for certain categories of activities. Nationwide permits may last up to five years, at which point they must be reissued or allowed to expire. NWP 12 authorizes impacts to waters of the United States as a result of construction, repair, maintenance, and removal of utility infrastructure. All nationwide permits, including NWP 12, are subject to 32 general conditions contained in the federal regulations. As relevant here, General Condition 18 prohibits the use of any nationwide permit for activities that are likely to directly or indirectly jeopardize threatened or endangered species or designated critical habitat for such species under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) (16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq.)

NWP 12 is one of 52 nationwide permits the Corps reissued in 2017. In reissuing NWP 12, the Corps determined that NWP 12 would result in no more than minimal individual and cumulative adverse effects on the aquatic environment under the CWA and further concluded that NWP 12 complied with both the ESA and the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) (42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq.). The Corps determined there would be “no effect” to ESA-listed species or critical habitat and did not initiate consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife or National Marine Fisheries Service (collectively, the “Services”). Pursuant to NEPA, the Corps prepared an Environmental Assessment and issued a Finding of No Significant Impact.

Northern Plains Resource Council, et al. challenged the Corps’ action to reissue NWP 12, alleging it violated the ESA, NEPA, and the CWA.

Specifically, plaintiffs argued that the Corps’ failure to initiate programmatic consultation with the Services violated the ESA. The Corps, in response, contended that it did not need to conduct programmatic consultation because project-level review and General Condition 18 ensure that NWP 12 will not affect listed species or critical habitat. The court disagreed, finding there was substantial evidence supporting the contrary conclusion, therefore requiring the Corps to initiate consultation to ensure that activities authorized by NWP 12 complied with the ESA. The court emphasized that the Corps had acknowledged the many risks associated with discharges authorized by NWP 12 when it was reissued in 2017. For example, the Corps found that the construction of utility lines “will fragment terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems” and further stated that activities under NWP 12 “will result in a minor incremental contribution to the cumulative effects to wetlands, streams and other aquatic resources.” Moreover, the Corps had initiated consultation when it reissued NWP 12 in 2007 and 2012. The court also relied on expert declarations submitted by plaintiffs stating that the Corps’ issuance of NWP 12 authorized discharges that may affect endangered species and their habitats.

The court further held that General Condition 18 fails to fulfill the Corps’ obligations under the ESA. General Condition 18 requires the permittee to submit a pre-construction notification to the district engineer if the permittee believes that its activity “might” affect listed species or critical habitat. The court found that this improperly delegated the Corps’ responsibility to make the initial effect determination under the ESA.

Holding that the Corps’ “no effect” determination and resulting failure to initiate consultation prior to reissuance of NWP 12 was arbitrary and capricious, the court remanded NWP 12 to the Corps for compliance with the ESA. The court determined that it need not decide the plaintiffs’ remaining claims as it anticipated that Section 7 consultation will inform the Corps’ assessment under NEPA and the CWA based on the findings of the consultation.

Second District Court of Appeal Upholds Dismissal of CEQA Action as Untimely

On April 2, 2020, the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District in Coalition for an Equitable Westlake/Macarthur Park v. City of Los Angeles (2020) 7 Cal.App.5th 368 affirmed the trial court’s decision sustaining a demurrer without leave to amend because the petitioner’s claims were barred by the famously short statute of limitations for actions brought under CEQA. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.)

On March 3, 2017, after holding a public hearing, the advisory agency for the City of Los Angeles approved a vesting tentative tract map for the Lake on Wilshire Project, a mixed-use project consisting of a hotel, a residential tower, and a multi-purpose center with a theater. Prior to approving the tentative map, the advisory agency adopted a mitigated negative declaration. The city filed a notice of determination (NOD) on March 15, 2017.

Subsequently, on October 12, 2017, the planning commission approved conditional use permits for the project—finding that no subsequent review was required. Two tenants of an existing building on the project site appealed the planning commission’s decision. The city council denied the appeals on January 31, 2018, and further adopted a resolution approving general plan amendments in connection with the project.

On March 2, 2018, the petitioner filed a petition for writ of mandamus challenging the approval of the MND as violating CEQA. The city and real parties in interest filed a demurrer. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend on the grounds that the petitioner’s claims were time-barred under CEQA for failure to seek relief within 30 days after the NOD was filed on March 15, 2017.

In holding that the petitioner’s suit was untimely, the court found that application of the statute of limitations bar to the petitioner’s challenge was straightforward. The petitioner did not bring the CEQA action until March 2, 2018, nearly a year after the city approved the tentative map and posted the NOD. The court explained that there were only two situations where the filing of a NOD would not trigger CEQA’s statute of limitations—if the NOD is invalid on its face because the information required by the CEQA Guidelines is missing or incorrect, or where the NOD is filed before a decision-making body has approved the project. The court found neither of those circumstances existed.

Rather, the petitioner had attacked the validity of the NOD based on the advisory agency’s authority to make CEQA finding, including that: (1) the planning commission (not the advisory agency) was responsible for initial project approval and CEQA review; (2) the advisory agency lacked authority under the municipal code to make CEQA findings; (3) the advisory agency’s CEQA decisions were not properly appealable to an elected body; and (4) the authority to approve the project was improperly bifurcated from the authority for CEQA approval. In rejecting this argument, the court, quoting the California Supreme Court’s decision in Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton (2010) 48 Cal.4th 481, 499, stated that the petitioner ‘confuses the timeliness of a lawsuit with its merits.’” To the extent a petitioner wished to challenge the advisory agency’s authority to make the initial project approval or adopt the MND, the court held that those arguments needed to be made within the applicable statute of limitations period. Because they were not, the petitioner was precluded from raising such arguments.

Second District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Refinery Project

The Second District Court of Appeal upheld an Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) for a South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) permit for operational changes to two existing refinery facilities. (Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management Dist. (2020) 47 Cal.App.5th 588.) Praising both the lead agency and the EIR, the Second District Court of Appeal considered and rejected four arguments made by petitioner. One justice dissented on the issue of baseline.

Tesoro Refining and Marketing Company proposed the Los Angeles Refinery Integration and Compliance Project (“project”), which would integrate two of Tesoro’s oil refining facilities so that Tesoro could more flexibly alter outputs of gasoline and jet fuel, and reduce emissions in order to reduce air pollution and increase compliance. The SCAQMD was required to issue a permit, which allowed the facility to generate more heat, for the project. The court described three key points about the permit: (i) it was a paper change only and did not allow for any physical changes to the heater or other hardware; (ii) it imposed new limitations on emissions; and (iii) it allowed the facility to either process a heavier blend of crude or increase throughput by 6,000 barrels per day, but not both. The project would also shut down a catalytic cracking unit, a major source of emissions.

The SCAQMD prepared and certified an EIR which determined that the project would reduce emissions by 36 percent. The court explained that the analysis of emissions was conservative, in part because the EIR assumed the heater had never operated above 252 million BTUs per hour, when in fact it had. The project also imposed limitations on emissions that did not exist before the project. Although, the project could increase throughput or weight of the crude blend, the facility could have no new emissions under the new permit.

The court cited the following facts as pertinent—the draft EIR included over 1,700 pages; the SCAQMD circulated the EIR for 49 days more than required, for a total of 94 days; the final EIR responded to 1,112 pages of comments with 5,700 pages of responses; the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) reviewed the EIR and indicated it had no objection to issuing the permit; and the EIR was “many thousands of pages” with the index alone being 180 pages.

Communities for a Better Environment (“CBE”) challenged the project alleging the EIR was inadequate. The trial court rejected CBE’s arguments and upheld the EIR. On appeal, CBE made four arguments.

Baseline

The court rejected CBE’s argument that the baseline was insufficient under CEQA. The EIR relied on a near-peak 98% baseline, based on an average of the refinery’s worst air pollution emissions during the two years leading up to the project, excluding the top two percent of the data in order to leave out extreme outliers. The EIR compared this 98th percentile analysis with impacts from the project and determined the project would reduce air pollution. CBE argued that CEQA requires an average-value baseline, but the court disagreed. The court emphasized that both peak and average can measure actual situations that truly exist, and there is no one “normal” way to measure the baseline. The court concluded that it was rational, and not “sinister or wrong,” to care most about the worst effects of air pollution, which occur when emissions hit their highest levels. Because EPA relies on a similar approach to regulate air pollution at the federal level, the court concluded the use of the 98th percentile baseline was supported by substantial evidence. One justice, however, dissented because federal custom and practice, which “appear[] to be the only substantial evidence found by the majority,” are not enough to support use of the 98th percentile as the baseline.

Pre-Project Crude Oil Composition

The court also rejected CBE’s argument that the EIR was required to provide the information regarding the existing composition of crude oil at the facility. The EIR explained that in order for the refinery to process a different blend of crude oil, the entire system would need to be changed. The EIR clarified that the project would not make these changes, so the court agreed there was no need to include information regarding the composition of crude oil. The project included a fixed crude operating envelope that would be the same before and after the project, and therefore the court agreed that baseline crude oil data was not necessary.

Failure to Exhaust

CBE argued that the SCAQMD was required to explain how it calculated the amount of additional oil that could be processed with the project. But, the court concluded, neither CBE nor anyone else had raised that exact issue before the SCAQMD, and therefore the issue could not be raised on appeal. The court emphasized that “[m]aking ‘broad’ requests that ‘encompass’ an issue raised on appeal is not raising the ‘exact issue’ during the administrative process.”

Existing Volume of Crude and Refinery’s Unused Capacity

Finally, the court concluded the EIR was not required to disclose the existing volume of crude or the refinery’s unused capacity because this data was immaterial to evaluating the project’s air pollution impact. The EIR explained that in order to increase the crude oil processing rate, the facility would need bigger pipes and stronger pumps. Because the project would not make these changes, it would not increase the refinery’s overall throughput. Data about the existing volume of crude processed and the refinery’s unused capacity, therefore, was not necessary.

California Supreme Court Holds Adoption of Zoning Ordinance for Medical Marijuana Dispensaries is a “Project” Subject to CEQA

On August 19, 2019, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego (2019) 7 Cal.5th 1171, in which the Court unanimously held that the City of San Diego’s adoption of a zoning ordinance for medical marijuana dispensaries is a “project” subject to CEQA. Although the Court agreed with the Fourth District Court of Appeal and the city in rejecting the petitioner’s argument that the adoption of a zoning ordinance is always a project, as a matter of law, under Public Resources Code section 21080, the Court reasoned that the adoption of the ordinance at issue was nonetheless the type of activity which, by its general nature, “is capable of causing a direct or reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment.” As such, the Court held, it is a “project” subject to CEQA.

Background

In 2014, the city adopted a zoning ordinance authorizing the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries in the city and imposing various restrictions on their location and operation. The ordinance specified zones where dispensaries are permitted, included a cap on the number of dispensaries in any one district, restricted their proximity to sensitive uses, and imposed basic conditions on lighting, security, and hours of operation. At the time the ordinance was proposed, the city determined that the adoption of the ordinance did not constitute a “project” for purposes of CEQA. The city, therefore, did not conduct any environmental review prior to adopting the ordinance.

Following the city’s adoption of the ordinance, petitioner filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the city’s decision not to conduct CEQA review. In the trial court, petitioner argued that the adoption of the ordinance should have been found to be a project under Public Resources Code section 21065, which defines a “project” as any activity undertaken or funded by, or requiring the approval of, a public agency that “may cause either a direct physical change in the environment, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment.” According to the petitioner, the ordinance had the potential, among other effects, to cause increased vehicle traffic across the city, increase user cultivation, and concentrate dispensary development-related impacts in certain areas. The trial court rejected petitioner’s arguments and upheld the city’s decision, finding the petitioner’s claims were unsupported by evidence in the record.

On appeal, petitioner reiterated its argument regarding the potential to cause physical changes in the environment, and further argued that the adoption of the zoning ordinance was a project as a matter of law under Public Resources Code section 21080. Section 21080 states that CEQA “shall apply to discretionary projects proposed to be carried out or approved by public agencies, including, but not limited to, the enactment and amendment of zoning ordinances …” Pointing to this language, petitioner argued that the enactment of a zoning ordinance is automatically a project under CEQA, regardless of the potential for environmental change. Petitioner’s argument was based in part on the Third District’s decision in Rominger v. County of Colusa (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 690, where the court held that the county’s approval of a tentative map—another activity expressly listed in section 21080—was a project as a matter of law.

Notwithstanding Rominger, the Fourth District Court of Appeal rejected both of petitioner’s arguments, holding that the enactment of a zoning ordinance is subject to the same “project” test as any other activity under Public Resources Code section 21065. Further, the court found no error in the city’s conclusion that the zoning ordinance was not a project because it lacked the potential to cause a physical change in the environment. According to the Fourth District, the potential environmental effects raised by the petitioner were unsupported by the record and too speculative to establish a potential to physically change the environment.

The Supreme Court’s Review

Seeking to resolve the split between the Fourth District’s decision and Rominger, the Supreme Court granted review to address two issues: (1) whether, under Public Resources Code section 21080, a public agency’s enactment of a zoning ordinance is always project under CEQA, as a matter of law; and (2) whether the enactment of the city’s zoning ordinance was a “project” under section 21065.

The Court began its analysis by placing the dispute into context. As the Court explained, CEQA proceeds by way of a three-step process or “decision tree.” First, the lead agency must determine whether the proposed activity is a “project” subject to CEQA at all. Second, assuming CEQA applies, the agency must determine whether the project qualifies for one or more of the many CEQA exemptions. Third, assuming no exemptions apply, the agency must undertake environmental review, namely, preparation of an initial study and a negative declaration, mitigated negative declaration, or an environmental impact report. At issue here was the very first step of the process—the city’s determination that the adoption of the zoning ordinance was not a “project” subject to CEQA at all.

Turning to the first issue, the Court agreed with the Fourth District that Public Resources Code section 21080 does not dictate the result as a matter of law. Engaging in a statutory interpretation analysis, the Court reasoned that while section 21080 is ambiguous when read in isolation, the Legislature’s use of the statutorily defined term “project” in that section must be read to incorporate the definition of “project” in section 21065. Accordingly, the language in PRC section 21080 that CEQA “shall apply to discretionary projects” must be read to provide that CEQA applies to activities that are both (1) discretionary; and (2) meet the definition of a “project” in section 20165. According to the Court, the specific activities listed in section 21080 are merely generic examples of the type of activities approved or carried out by public agencies to which CEQA could apply, however, the mere listing of an activity in that section does not supplant the potential “physical change” analysis required under section 21065.

The Court found further support for its reading of section 21080 in the definition of the term “project” in CEQA Guidelines section 15378, which makes clear the enactment of a zoning ordinance is merely an example of an activity undertaken by public agencies; policy considerations against subjecting activities to CEQA where there is no potential to effect the environment; and the legislative history of section 21065 revealing the Legislature’s intent to narrow CEQA’s application to activities posing a possibility of an environmental effect.

The Court also refuted the notion that its reading of the statute renders section 21080 mere surplusage, noting that the significance of section 21080 is that it states, in the affirmative, the additional requirement that projects must be “discretionary” for CEQA to apply.

After concluding that the adoption of a zoning ordinance is not a project as a matter of law, the Court turned to whether the adoption of the dispensary ordinance in this case was nonetheless a project subject to CEQA under Public Resources Code section 21065. The Court disagreed with the appellate court and answered the question in the affirmative.

As the Court explained, the governing decision for the “project” inquiry is Muzzy Ranch Co. v. Solano County Airport Land Use Commission (2007) 41 Cal.4th 372. In that case, the Court observed, “Whether an activity constitutes a project subject to CEQA is a categorical question respecting whether the activity is of a general kind with which CEQA is concerned, without regard to whether the activity will actually have environmental impact.” In other words, an agency’s task in determining whether a proposed activity is a project is to determine if, by its general nature, the activity is capable of a causing physical change in the environment, without regard to whether actual effects will occur under the circumstances.

Applying Muzzy Ranch, the Court held that the city erred in determining that the adoption of the zoning ordinance was not a project subject to CEQA. The Court noted that the ordinance would permit the establishment of a sizable number of new businesses, which could foreseeably result in new construction. Furthermore, the ordinance could cause changes in vehicle traffic patterns as a result of customers, employees, and suppliers. Finally, the Court explained, the necessary casual connection between the ordinance and these effects was satisfied because the adoption of the ordinance was “an essential step culminating in action . . . which may affect the environment.” For these reasons, the Court held, the adoption of the zoning ordinance was a “project” subject to CEQA.

Collin McCarthy

First District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Mixed-Use Development Project

In the first published decision to apply the standard of review articulated by the Supreme Court in Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (Friant Ranch), the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision upholding an EIR for a mixed-use development project in South of Market Community Action Network v. City and County of San Francisco (2019) 33 Cal.App.5th 321.

The project at issue is a mixed-use development that covers four acres of downtown San Francisco and seeks to provide office, retail, cultural, educational, and open-space uses for the property, to support the region’s technology industry and offer spaces for coworking, media, arts, and small-scale urban manufacturing. The city certified an EIR, which described two options for the project—an “office scheme” and a “residential scheme.” The office scheme had a larger building envelope and higher density than the residential scheme but all other project components were the same and the overall square footage was substantially similar. Several community organizations raised a variety of claims challenging the environmental review. The trial court denied relief and the petitioners appealed.

Applying the three “basic principles” set forth by the Supreme Court in Friant Ranch regarding the standard of review for the adequacy of an EIR, the First District held the EIR was legally adequate.

The court rejected the petitioners’ argument that the project description was inadequate because it presented multiple possible projects. The court found that the EIR described one project—a mixed use development involving retention or demolition of existing buildings and construction of new buildings—with two options for different allocations of residential and office units. The court also rejected petitioners’ argument that the final EIR adopted a “revised” project that was a variant of another alternative identified in the draft EIR—emphasizing that the CEQA reporting process is not designed to freeze the ultimate proposal in the precise mold of the initial project, but to allow consideration of other options that may be less harmful to the environment.

Petitioners alleged that the cumulative impacts analysis was flawed because the EIR used an outdated 2012 project list, developed during the “Great Recession,” which did not reflect a more recent increase in development. The court noted the petitioners did not point to any evidence to establish that the project list was defective or misleading or that the city had ignored foreseeable projects. Accordingly, the court held that the petitioners had not met their burden of proving the EIR’s cumulative impacts analysis was not supported by substantial evidence.

With respect to traffic, the petitioners argued the EIR was inadequate because it failed to (1) include all impacted intersections, (2) consider the impact of the Safer Market Street Plan (SMSP), and (3) adequately evaluate community-proposed mitigation measures and alternatives. The court rejected each argument in turn. First, the court found that the EIR’s explanation for selecting certain intersections and excluding others and the related analysis was supported by substantial evidence. The court further held that the city did not need to include the SMSP in the EIR because it was not reasonably foreseeable when the city initiated the EIR, nor was there evidence that the SMSP would have an adverse impact on traffic and circulation related to the project. Lastly, the court deferred to the city’s selection of alternatives because the petitioners had failed to meet their burden to show the nine alternatives evaluated in the EIR were “manifestly unreasonable.” Similarly, the court found the petitioners had failed to meet their burden to demonstrate their proposed alternatives were feasible and met most of the project objectives.

In addressing wind impacts, an argument petitioners failed to exhaust, the court found such impacts were appropriately addressed in the EIR. The court reasoned an alternative configuration was not required under the city’s comfort criterion for wind speed impacts because the exceedance of the comfort criterion did not establish significant impacts for CEQA purposes.

The court also rejected an argument that the project failed to provide onsite open space because the EIR explained that the project provided more space than the city code required and the impact related to demand on existing parks and open spaces would be less than significant.

The court further upheld the EIR’s shade and shadow analysis, finding no evidence in the record to support that sunlight on a park is not a “special and rare resource” warranting “special emphasis” under CEQA Guidelines section 15125.

The court also held that the city had made a good faith effort to discuss inconsistencies with the applicable general plans, noting that CEQA does not “mandate perfection.”

Finally, the petitioners claimed that the statement of overriding considerations was invalid because the city improperly considered the benefits of the project before considering feasible mitigation measures or alternatives. The court disagreed, emphasizing that the project was modified to substantially conform to the identified environmentally superior alternative and stating that the revised project would not have been adopted if there had been no consideration of mitigation measures or alternatives.

Second District Court of Appeal Holds Brown Act’s “Committee Exception” for Public Comments Does Not Apply to Special Meetings

In Preven v. City of Los Angeles (2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 925, the Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s determination that the “committee exception” to the public comment requirements of the Ralph M. Brown Act (Brown Act) (Gov. Code, § 54950 et seq.) apply to special meetings.

Appellant addressed the city’s planning and land use committee (“PLUM Committee”), which is comprised of five members of the 15-member city council, regarding a proposed real estate development near his residence. The committee voted to recommend approval to the full city council. At a special meeting held to consider approval of the committee’s recommendation, the city council refused to allow the appellant to speak because he had already spoken on the matter.

The Second District Court of Appeal found the city’s process to be in error. Generally speaking, the Brown Act requires a legislative body to provide an opportunity for public comment before its consideration of an item. Section 54953.3, subdivision (a) of the Government Code provides for what is commonly referred to as the “committee exception” to this requirement. Under this exception, a legislative body is not required to hear public comment, if the item has already been considered by a committee where the public was afforded the opportunity for comment.

Using general rules of statutory construction, the court found that the plain language of the statute specifies that the committee exception applies only to regular meetings, not special meetings. The court also rejected the city’s interpretation that the required opportunity for public comment before a legislative body takes action at a special meeting includes comments made at a prior separate meeting. The court found that such an interpretation rendered the committee exception superfluous. Finally, the court found support for its interpretation in the legislative history of the Brown Act, which demonstrated that the Legislature had purposefully made a number of distinctions between the requirements of regular and special meetings.

Claims Raised by Environmental Groups Barred by Res Judicata, Fourth District Rules

In Inland Oversight Committee v. City of San Bernardino (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 771, the Fourth District upheld a lower court’s ruling sustaining the city’s demurrer without leave to amend, finding that the petitioners’ claims under CEQA and the Water Code were barred by the doctrine of res judicata.

This action relates to a proposed development pending in various permutations for decades in the Highland Hills area of San Bernardino. In 1982, the city approved a specific plan and EIR for the project. The EIR was promptly challenged by a homeowners association, one of the same petitioners in this case. The parties resolved the suit through a settlement agreement. A later addendum to the agreement stipulated that if future project modifications met specified criteria (i.e., did not increase the level of development or result in greater impacts), then those changes would be considered “minor modifications.” Minor modifications would not be subject to additional CEQA review.  The project was not built at that time.

In 2014, the original developers’ successors in interest wanted to proceed with the project. The city approved the project, agreeing that proposed modifications were minor, and did not require further environmental review. The HOA sued (the related action). Respondents requested and received a court order confirming that the modifications complied with the terms of the settlement agreement, were minor in nature, and that no further CEQA review was required.

This suit was then brought by the original petitioner, the HOA, and joined by two environmental groups (CREED-21 and Inland Oversight Committee). Petitioners asserted that the project as modified violated CEQA and the Water Code.  Respondents successfully moved for a demurrer without leave to amend. This appeal followed.

The court ruled that the petitioners’ claims were barred by res judicata, because the issue of whether further environmental review was required was resolved in the related action. Under the doctrine of res judicata, a valid, final judgment on the merits is a bar to subsequent action by parties or their privies in the same cause of action. In California, whether causes of action in two suits are the same for the purpose of res judicata depends on whether they involve the same primary right. In the CEQA context, the same primary right is at issue if the actions involve the same general subject matter, provided that they are not distinct episodes of noncompliance.

The allegations of noncompliance with the settlement agreement were the same in both this suit and the prior related matter. In both, the petitioners contended that the city violated CEQA by not conducting further environmental review. As the court held in the related matter, the updated proposal is a minor modification, and no further environmental review is required. That decision was final.

The court rejected the contention by the environmental group petitioners that they were not in privity with the HOA. Privity is found if the party’s interests are so similar that the party in the prior action was the current party’s virtual representative. The court found that standard applied here, because the environmental groups and the HOA both opposed the project and sought to invalidate its approvals. Even accepting the contention that the environmental groups were acting in public interest, and that the HOA acted in its own private interest, the petitioners failed to articulate how those interests were not aligned. The HOA did not, for example, assert any particular private harm that was not shared with the public at large. This holding is consistent with other persuasive authority finding privity between individuals asserting private interests and nonprofit organizations asserting public interests, both on similar grounds.

The court also found that the petitioners’ Water Code claims (alleging that a water supply analysis was required) were similarly barred by res judicata. As with the CEQA claims, the Water Code allegations rested on the petitioners’ key assertion—that the project was not a minor modification of the original project, and that further environmental review was required. That claim was litigated and decided; as such, a water supply analysis could not be required.

The court further briefly noted that petitioner’s claims would also be barred under the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

(Sara F. Dudley)

Fourth District Court of Appeal Holds City’s Use of Historical Baseline Legally Erroneous

In Bottini v. City of San Diego (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 281* the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s ruling ordering the City of San Diego to set aside its determination that the construction of a single-family home required full environmental review.
In February 2011, the Bottini family purchased Windemere Cottage (“Windemere”). At that time, Windemere’s designation as a historical resource was pending before the city’s historical resources board. Shortly thereafter, the board declined to grant historical status to Windemere. In November 2011, the city’s neighborhood code compliance division determined that Windemere constituted a public nuisance and ordered the Bottinis to demolish the structure. They complied. Then in August 2012, the Bottinis applied for a coastal development permit for the construction of a single-family home on the vacant lot. City staff determined that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA, but on an appeal of the determination, the city council ordered a fuller evaluation of the project using a January 2010 baseline, concluding that the demolition of Windemere was part of the project. The council further concluded that the project was not exempt because the unusual circumstances and historic resources exceptions to the exemption applied. In response to the city council’s decision, the Bottinis filed a petition for writ of administrative mandamus seeking to compel the city council to set aside its decision, as well as a complaint alleging constitutional causes of action. The trial court granted the CEQA petition finding that the demolition of Windemere was not a component of the project and therefore the city’s determination that the project is not categorically exempt lacked substantial evidentiary support. It granted summary judgment in favor of the city as to the constitutional claims. The Bottinis and the city cross-appealed.

CEQA
The court of appeal held that an environmental baseline that presumed the existence of the Windemere cottage, which in reality no longer existed at the time the project was proposed, did not accurately reflect the environmental conditions that would be affected by the project. The court dismissed the city’s allegations that the Bottinis “strong-armed” the city into making a public nuisance determination because there was no evidence to support such an allegation. Moreover, the court found that the public nuisance determination confirmed that the demolition permit served a purpose distinct from and not part of the single-family home under review. Thus, the court concluded that the demolition of the cottage could not properly be considered part of the project.

Using the appropriate baseline, the court held that city erred in concluding that the Class 3 exemption did not apply to the project. The construction of a single-family home on a vacant lot is typically categorically exempt. The court further determined that no exceptions to the exemption applied.

Constitutional Violations
The Bottinis alleged three causes of action for violation of the California Constitution’s takings, equal protection, and due process clauses. Regarding the takings claim, the court applied the test set forth in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City (1978) 438 U.S. 104, 124, concluding that the Bottinis did not have a “reasonable investment-backed expectation” because there was no evidence they intended to demolish the cottage when they purchased the property. Even if they had articulated a distinct expectation to do so, there was no basis to conclude that they had a reasonable expectation that they could demolish the cottage to construct a new residence without undertaking any form of environmental review. The court further found that the Bottinis could not sustain a claim for due process because they did not identify any property interest or statutorily conferred benefit of which the city had deprived them. Finally, with respect to equal protection, the court held that the Bottinis did not meet their burden to show that the city’s decision was not rationally related to a legitimate government interest.

  • Review granted, December 19, 2018.