Author Archives: Laura Harris

Eastern District of California Upholds Biological Opinion for Yuba River Dams Against Federal Endangered Species Act Challenge

On February 22, 2018, the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California, issued a detailed written decision in Friends of the River v. National Marine Fisheries Service (Case No. 2:16-cv-00818-JAM-EFB), upholding the 2014 Biological Opinion (BiOp) and Letter of Concurrence adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps’) activities at the Daguerre Point and Englebright Dams on the Yuba River. RMM attorneys Howard “Chip” Wilkins, Laura Harris, and Elizabeth Sarine represented the defendant-intervenor Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA) in the matter.

The case is part of a long-standing dispute over whether the Corps’ ongoing activities at Daguerre Point Dam and Englebright Dam jeopardize the survival and recovery of three ESA-listed species or adversely modify their critical habitat. The primary purpose of both Daguerre Point Dam and Englebright Dam is to retain hydraulic mining debris. Both dams were constructed prior to Congress’ enactment of ESA.

In 2012, the Corps prepared a biological assessment (BA) as part of its ESA consultation for the Corps activities on Daguerre Point and Englebright. The 2012 BA excluded the future effects of the dams’ presence as part of the “agency action,” and instead posited that such effects should be included in the environmental baseline. The Corps made this determination on the basis that it did not have the authority to change the existence of the dams (e.g., the Corps had not authority to remove the dams). The 2012 BiOp issued by NMFS, however, concluded that the Corps’ activities—including those over which the BA stated the Corps had no discretion, such as the existence of the dams—were likely to jeopardize the listed species.

The Corps and YCWA had “serious concerns” regarding the 2012 BiOp and the Corps sought to reinitiate consultation. In 2013, the Corps reasserted its position that the dams’ continued existence was not an agency action because it was non-discretionary. The Corps also broke up what it had previously considered one “agency action” along the Yuba River into several parts, separating actions connected with the dams, and licensing.

In 2014, NMFS issued a “Letter of Concurrence” for the Englebright Dam, in which NMFS concurred with the Corps’ 2013 BA for that dam. NMFS agreed with the Corps that the Corps’ proposed action at Englebright was not likely to jeopardize listed species. NMFS also issued a new BiOp for Daguerre Point (2014 BiOp), also agreeing with the Corps that the Corps’ activities at Daguerre Point were not likely to jeopardize listed species.

Friends of the River (FOR) filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District, against NMFS and the Corps alleging the 2014 Letter of Concurrence and the 2012 BiOp violated Section 7 of ESA’s consultation requirements. FOR also alleged the Corps had violated Section 9 of ESA, which prohibits “take” of a listed species. YCWA moved to intervene as a defendant in the case, and the motion was granted. The court decided the case via motion and cross-motions for summary judgment.

At the heart of the dispute between FOR and the defendants was the question of whether the Corps and NMFS had properly defined the scope of the Corps’ actions on the Daguerre Point and Englebright Dams. In particular, FOR argued that the agencies violated ESA in excluding impacts arising from the existence of the dams from the agency action under consultation. The court disagreed, holding that the federal agencies’ inclusion of the effects of the existence of the dams as part of the environmental baseline, as opposed to part of the agency action, was not arbitrary and capricious.

In particular, FOR argued to the District Court that the agencies violated the ESA in excluding impacts arising from the existence of the dams from the effects of the agency action. The court disagreed, holding that the federal agencies’ inclusion of the effects of the existence of the dams as part of the environmental baseline, as opposed to part of the agency actions, was not arbitrary and capricious. The court also held: (1) NMFS consideration of voluntary conservation measures as part of the agency actions was not arbitrary or capricious; (2) the federal agencies were not required to include additional activities on the Yuba River as interrelated and interdependent actions in their evaluation of the agency actions; (3) federal defendants’ assessment of the action area was not arbitrary and capricious; (4) NMFS was under no duty to re-identify the agency actions defined by the Corps; (5) the conclusions that the Corps’ activities at the dams would not likely adversely affect listed species was not arbitrary and capricious; (6) NMFS adequately explained its change in position from the 2012 BiOp that took a different approach in defining the agency actions; (7) reinitiation of consultation was not required; and (8) the Corps could not be held liable under Section 9 for take caused by the existence of the dams because the Corps has no discretion over the dams’ existence.

The decision represents an important victory for YCWA and the federal defendants in the long-standing dispute concerning the Corps’ activities at Englebright and Daguerre Point Dams and their effects on listed species.

Second District Finds for Respondents on All Counts, Upholding EIR for “Iconic Gateway” Project in West Hollywood

In Los Angeles Conservancy v. City of West Hollywood (2017) ­18 Cal.App.5th 1031, the Second Appellate District upheld the trial court’s denial of a petition for writ of mandate, finding that the EIR’s treatment of alternatives was sufficient and that the city adequately responded to comments.

In 2014, the city certified an EIR for a mixed–use development in the Melrose Triangle section of West Hollywood. The project was the product of city incentives to redevelop the area in order to create a unified site design with open space, pedestrian access, and an iconic “gateway” building to welcome visitors and promote economic development. The EIR concluded that a significant and unavoidable impact would result from the demolition of a building eligible for listing as a California historic resource.

One alternative would have preserved the building in its entirety, by reducing and redesigning the project. The preservation alternative was ultimately rejected as infeasible because it was inconsistent with project objectives, and would eliminate or disrupt the project’s critical design elements.

After circulating the draft EIR, the project’s architects developed a site design which incorporated the building’s façade and mandated this design as a condition of approval. Furthermore, a subsequent fire destroyed 25 percent of the building, but left the façade intact. The final EIR and conditions were approved in 2014. Petitioners immediately filed suit.

In the court below, petitioner argued that the EIR’s analysis of the preservation alternative was inadequate, the city did not respond to public comments, and that the city’s finding that the alternative was infeasible was not supported by substantial evidence. The respondents prevailed on all claims and petitioner appealed.

Finding for respondents, the court reiterated the Laurel Heights standard that an analysis of alternatives does not require perfection, only that the EIR provide sufficient information to support a reasonable range of alternatives. The court rejected petitioner’s contention that the EIR was required to include a conceptual drawing of the preservation alternative. Furthermore, the EIR’s statement that preservation of the building would preclude construction of other parts of the project was self-explanatory and did not require additional analysis. The EIR’s use of estimates to calculate how the preservation alternative would reduce the project’s footprint did not create ambiguities that would confuse the public. Such imprecision is simply inherent in the use of estimates.

The court also found that the city’s responses to the three comments cited by the petitioner were made in good faith and demonstrated reasoned analysis.  The court reiterated that a response is not insufficient when it cross-references relevant sections of the draft EIR, and that the level of detail required in a response can vary. Here, the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance and the President of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles opined in comments that the building could be preserved while achieving the project’s objectives. The city adequately responded to these comments by referencing, and expanding upon, the EIR’s analysis of the preservation alternative, where this option was considered. The last comment was of a general nature, so the city’s brief, general response was appropriate.

Finally, the court found sufficient evidence to support the city’s finding that the preservation alternative was infeasible. An alternative is infeasible when it cannot meet project objectives or when policy considerations render it impractical or undesirable. An agency’s determination of infeasibility is presumed correct and entitled to deference, if supported by substantial evidence in the record. The court found that the city’s conclusion that the alternative is infeasible was supported by substantial evidence in the record. Development plans, photographs, and testimony from senior planning staff support the city’s conclusion that retaining the building and reducing the project would not fulfill the project objectives of creating a unified site design, promoting pedestrian uses, and encouraging regional economic development.  That another conclusion could have be reached did not render the city’s decision flawed.

A consistent theme underlying the court’s decision was the city’s clear goal of revitalizing the entire site, in order to create a functional and attractive gateway for West Hollywood. Critical to the project’s success was removing the specific building that the petitioner sought to preserve. The court appeared reluctant to overcome such a strong mandate by flyspecking the EIR’s analysis of this acknowledged significant impact.

2017 CEQA Case Law: The Year in Review

2017 CEQA Case Law: The Year in Review

2017 was a busy year in CEQA jurisprudence, with over two dozen published cases. Below is a list of the most significant, with links to the full case summaries from the RMM blog.

Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (2017) __Cal.App.5th­­__ (Case No. B280815)

In a partially published decision filed December 4, 2017, the Second District Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s judgment and order on remand in Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (2017) __Cal.App.5th­­__ (Case No. B280815). The court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in decertifying only the affected sections of the EIR, enjoining all project construction, and suspending some (but not all) of the project approvals. This CEQA remedy also provided adequate relief for violations of the Fish and Game Code.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/12/second-district-upholds-limited-writ-in-second-newhall-ranch-appeal/

Monterey Coastkeeper v. Monterey Water Resources Agency (2017) ___ Cal.App.5th ___ (Case No. H042623)

In Monterey Coastkeeper v. Monterey Water Resources Agency (2017) ___ Cal.App.5th ___ (Case No. H042623), the Sixth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment granting Monterey Coastkeeper’s petition for writ of mandate for violation of section 13260 of the Porter-Cologne Act (failure to file a report of waste discharge), holding that the petitioner had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/12/sixth-district-court-of-appeal-holds-breach-of-public-trust-doctrine-claim-not-ripe-for-adjudication-in-the-absence-of-petitioners-exhaustion-of-its-administrative-remedies/

Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 413

On November 11, 2017, the Fourth District, Division One in Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 413 (Cleveland II), resolved the remaining issues on remand from California Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year. The court found that the EIR’s analysis of impacts and mitigation measures for air quality and impacts to agricultural land were insufficient and not supported by substantial evidence.

Case summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/12/on-remand-fourth-district-determines-that-case-challenging-sandags-rtp-is-not-mooted-by-later-eir-and-resolves-ceqa-issues-on-the-merits/

Washoe Meadows Community v. Department of Parks and Recreation (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 277.

In Washoe Meadows Community v. Department of Parks and Recreation (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 277, the First District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision directing the Department of Parks and Recreation and the State Park and Recreation Commission to set aside project approvals where the draft EIR analyzed five alternative projects in detail, but did not identify one preferred alternative.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/11/in-a-case-of-first-impression-first-district-court-of-appeal-holds-that-presentation-of-five-alternatives-in-eir-without-designation-of-one-as-the-project-does-not-satisfy-ceqa/

Association of Irritated Residents v. Kern County Board of Supervisors (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 708.

On November 21, 2017, the Fifth District partially published its decision in Association of Irritated Residents v. Kern County Board of Supervisors (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 708. The published sections covered arguments about the baseline used for the oil refinery modification project, the mitigation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the extent to which federal preemption precludes aspects of CEQA review of project impacts. In reversing the trial court’s judgment denying the petition for writ of mandate, the Court of Appeal upheld the EIR’s treatment of the project baseline and GHG emissions but determined that the county erred in relying on federal preemption to avoid analyzing and mitigating impacts from off-site rail activities.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/11/fifth-district-court-of-appeal-approves-of-oil-refinery-eirs-use-of-cap-and-trade-program-to-mitigate-ghg-emissions-but-disapproves-of-kern-countys-reliance-on-federal-preemption-in/

Kennedy Commission v. City of Huntington Beach (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 841

On October 31, 2017 in Kennedy Commission v. City of Huntington Beach  (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 841, the Fourth Appellate District reversed the lower court, finding that the city was a charter city, and thus exempt from the requirement that zoning ordinances and specific plans be consistent with the general plan.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/11/fourth-district-rejects-challenge-to-the-city-of-huntington-beachs-housing-element-applying-charter-city-exemption/

Highway 68 Coalition v. County of Monterey (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 883

The Sixth District Court of Appeal held in the partially-published opinion, Highway 68 Coalition v. County of Monterey (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 883, that general plan consistency is not a CEQA issue, and therefore mandate procedures for CEQA violations are inapplicable.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/11/sixth-district-court-of-appeal-upholds-trial-courts-use-of-interlocutory-remand-on-determination-regarding-general-plan-consistency/

Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 187

On October 16, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal published its decision in Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 187, upholding the San Francisco County Superior Court’s denial of a petition for writ of mandate challenging the Judicial Council of California’s decision to certify a Final EIR and approve the New Placerville Courthouse Project.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/10/first-district-court-of-appeal-upholds-judicial-council-of-californias-determination-that-closure-of-downtown-placerville-courthouse-would-not-lead-to-significant-urban-decay-impacts/

Protect Telegraph Hill v. City and County of San Francisco (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 261

In Protect Telegraph Hill v. City and County of San Francisco (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 261, the First District Court of Appeal, Division Three, upheld the City and County of San Francisco’s finding that a conditional use authorization for the restoration of a small cottage and construction of a three-unit condominium on Telegraph Hill was categorically exempt from CEQA, and found that the city’s conditions of approval relating to construction were not mitigation for pedestrian and traffic impacts.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/10/first-district-upholds-categorical-exemption-with-conditions-of-approval-and-conditional-use-authorization-for-residential-project-on-infill-site-in-transit-priority-area/

Pesticide Action Network North America v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 224

In Pesticide Action Network North America v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 224 (republished as modified), the First Appellate District reversed the Alameda Superior Court and found that environmental documents prepared by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, regarding amended labelling for two pesticides, inadequately analyzed potential impacts on honeybees. The court held that the Department was required to analyze the environmental baseline, alternatives, and cumulative impacts in documents promulgated under CEQA’s exemption for certified regulatory programs (CRP).

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/10/first-circuit-finds-environmental-review-under-certified-regulatory-program-inadequate/

Respect Life South San Francisco v. City of South San Francisco (2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 449

In Respect Life South San Francisco v. City of South San Francisco (2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 449, the First District Court of Appeal, Division One, upheld the City of South San Francisco’s (City) finding that a conditional use permit for the conversion of an office building into a medical clinic was categorically exempt from CEQA, as well as the City’s implied finding that the unusual circumstances exception did not apply.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/09/first-district-upholds-categorical-exemption-for-planned-parenthood-clinic-and-implied-finding-of-no-unusual-circumstances-under-the-fair-argument-test/

Bridges v. Mt. San Jacinto Community College District (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 104

In Bridges v. Mt. San Jacinto Community College District (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 104, the Fourth District Court of Appeals held that a land acquisition agreement entered into by the Mt. San Jacinto Community College District to purchase property from the Riverside County Regional Park & Open-Space District for potential future use as the site of new campus did not trigger the duty to prepare an EIR.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/08/fourth-district-holds-that-land-acquisition-agreement-did-not-trigger-duty-to-prepare-an-eir/

Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority (2017) 3 Cal.5th 677

In Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority (2017) 3 Cal.5th 677, the California Supreme Court held that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act does not preempt CEQA when a California public agency decides to undertake a new railroad project, even if the state agency later authorizes a private entity to operate the new rail line. The Court therefore concluded that the North Coast Railroad Authority was required to comply with CEQA prior to taking steps to reinitiate rail service on a segment of an interstate rail line that had gone out of operation for many years. The Court declined, however, to enjoin the ongoing operations of the railroad by NWPCo, the private operator. Because these operations had been occurring during the course of the litigation against NCRA, any such injunction would intrude into an area of activity that is preempted by the ICCTA, namely, private railroad operations.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/08/california-supreme-court-holds-that-state-agency-compliance-with-ceqa-is-not-preempted-by-the-iccta/

Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments (2017) 3 Cal. 5th 497

In a 6/1 opinion, the California Supreme Court held that the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) did not abuse its discretion by failing to present a consistency analysis in the EIR for its 2011 regional transportation plan (RTP) comparing anticipated GHG emissions with the long-term reduction goals presented in Executive Order (EO) S-3-05, in Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments (2017) 3 Cal. 5th 497.  The court reasoned that SANDAG had adequately informed the public, using information available at the time, of inconsistencies with overall state climate goals.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/07/3822/

Friends of Outlet Creek v. Mendocino County Air Quality Management District (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1235

In Friends of Outlet Creek v. Mendocino County Air Quality Management District (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1235, the First District Court of Appeal held that a responsible agency air quality management district may be sued under CEQA, but such suit must be limited to the agency’s specific discretionary action and may not challenge prior lead agency approvals. In addition, the court held that such an action must be brought as an administrative mandamus proceeding under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/07/first-district-reversal-allows-for-challenge-to-local-air-districts-limited-discretionary-approval-under-ceqa/

Grist Creek Aggregates, LLC v. The Superior Court of Mendocino County (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th­­­ 979

On June 14, 2017, Division One of the First Appellate District published its decision in Grist Creek Aggregates, LLC v. The Superior Court of Mendocino County (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th­­­ 979, in which the Court of Appeal held that a county air district board’s tie vote on the petitioner’s administrative appeal of an asphalt production facility’s construction permit, effectively resulted in the appeal’s denial, rendering the denial subject to judicial review.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/07/air-district-boards-tie-vote-on-authority-to-construct-permit-is-effectively-a-decision-not-to-revoke-it-which-is-reviewable-for-prejudicial-abuse-of-discretion/

Kutzke v. City of San Diego (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1034

On May 23, 2017, the Fourth District Court of Appeal court ordered published Kutzke v. City of San Diego (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1034. In a succinct opinion, the court upheld the city’s decision to deny a mitigated negative declaration (MND), initially approved by the planning commission, regarding an application to subdivide two hillside lots and build three residences.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/06/denial-of-mitigated-negative-declaration-upheld-for-small-san-diego-subdivision/

Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 11

On April 21, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal in Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 11, affirmed the trial court and ruled that Sonoma County’s ordinance, issuing an erosion-control permit to establish a vineyard was a ministerial act, not subject to CEQA.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/05/first-district-rules-that-issuing-erosion-control-permit-under-sonoma-county-ordinance-was-ministerial-act-exempt-from-ceqa/

Save our Heritage Organization v. City of San Diego (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 154

In Save our Heritage Organization v. City of San Diego (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 154, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld a trial court’s denial of a Code of Civil Procedure section 1025.1 attorneys’ fee award to the prevailing real party in interest.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/05/despite-being-a-successful-party-real-party-in-interest-denied-attorneys-fee-award-by-fourth-district/

POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 52

In POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 52 (“POET II”), the Fifth District Court of Appeal held that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) failed to comply with the terms of the writ of mandate issued by the same court in POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 681 (“POET I”). The court invalidated the trial court’s discharge of the writ, modified the existing writ, and ordered CARB to correct its defective CEQA Environmental Analysis (EA).

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/04/fifth-district-rules-carb-acted-in-bad-faith-in-selecting-baseline-for-analysis-of-low-carbon-fuel-standards-regulations/

Friends of the College of San Mateo v. San Mateo County Community College (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 596

On remand from the Supreme Court’s holding in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College (2016) 1 Cal.5th 926 (San Mateo I ), the First District interpreted the Supreme Court’s direction as requiring the application of the fair argument standard of review to claims challenging an addendum to a negative declaration in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District (2017) 11 Cal. App.5th 596.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/category/blog/

The Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 993

In The Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 993, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the mandatory relief provisions of Code of Civil Procedure section 473, subdivision (b), do not apply where counsel fails to lodge the administrative record in a CEQA proceeding and receives a judgment denying the petition for writ of mandate.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/04/second-district-holds-that-failure-to-lodge-administrative-record-barred-post-trial-relief/

California Chamber of Commerce v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 604

In a 2-1 opinion, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the auction-sale component of the cap-and-trade program created by the State Air Resources Board pursuant to the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (“AB 32”) in California Chamber of Commerce v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 604.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/04/third-district-court-of-appeal-upholds-state-air-resources-boards-ab-32-cap-and-trade-program/

Aptos Council v. County of Santa Cruz (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 266

In Aptos Council v. County of Santa Cruz (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 266, the Sixth District held that the County of Santa Cruz did not engage in piecemeal review when it separately adopted three different zoning ordinances. The court also upheld the negative declaration for an ordinance increasing the height and density of hotels.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/04/sixth-district-rules-county-of-santa-cruz-did-not-engage-in-piecemeal-review-and-upholds-negative-declaration/

Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918

In Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918, the California Supreme Court held that CEQA requires an EIR for a project located within a coastal zone to identify which areas in a project site might qualify as “environmentally sensitive habitat areas” (ESHA) under the California Coastal Act and account for those areas in its analysis of project alternatives and mitigation measures.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/03/california-supreme-court-holds-that-ceqa-requires-eirs-for-projects-located-within-coastal-zones-to-identify-potential-environmentally-sensitive-habitat-areas-as-defined-by-the-calif/

Residents Against Specific Plan 380 v. County of Riverside (2017) 9 Cal.App.5th 941

On March 15, 2017 the Fourth District certified for publication its February 4, 2017 decision in Residents Against Specific Plan 380 v. County of Riverside (2017) 9 Cal.App.5th 941, upholding the EIR for a master- planned community (project). A citizens group challenged the sufficiency of the EIR and the county’s approval process on six grounds. The court found for the county and real party in interest, Hanna Marital Trust (applicant), on every count.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/03/fourth-district-upholds-eir-for-master-planned-community-and-concludes-that-county-not-required-to-recirculate/

City of San Jose v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County (2017) 2 Cal.5th 608

In City of San Jose v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County (2017) 2 Cal.5th 608, the City of San Jose argued that messages communicated through personal accounts of city employees were not public records subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”). The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that a city employee’s emails about public business are not excluded from disclosure simply because they have been sent, received, or stored in a personal email account.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/03/california-supreme-court-rules-personal-emails-may-be-considered-public-records-subject-to-disclosure-under-the-public-records-act/

Central Coast Forest Association v. Fish and Game Commission (2017) 2 Cal.5th 594

On February 27, 2017, the California Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion in Central Coast Forest Association v. Fish and Game Commission (2017) 2 Cal.5th 594, reversing an appellate decision holding that Plaintiff’s petition to delist coho salmon south of San Francisco from the register of endangered species was procedurally improper.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/03/high-court-reverses-appellate-decision-limiting-use-of-delisting-petitions-under-the-california-endangered-species-act-but-avoids-reaching-merits-of-fish-and-game-commissions-decision-denyin/

Second District Upholds Limited Writ in Second Newhall Ranch Appeal

In a partially published decision filed December 4, 2017, the Second District Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s judgment and order on remand in Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (2017) __Cal.App.5th­­__ (Case No. B280815).

This is the second appeal of the EIR for the Newhall Ranch development project. It follows the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision where the Court determined that the EIR’s analysis of GHG emissions improperly relied on a “business-as-usual” model and that mitigation adopted for the stickleback fish (catch and relocate) was itself a prohibited taking under the California Fish and Game Code. Subsequently, the Second District affirmed in part and reversed in part its original decision. The appellate court remanded the matter to the trial court, with instructions to issue an order consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion, but otherwise granting the trial court discretion to resolve all outstanding matters under Public Resources Code section 21168.9.

After additional briefing and a hearing, the trial court issued a limited writ. The writ decertified those sections of the EIR concerning GHG emissions and mitigation measures for the stickleback; enjoined all project activity, including construction; and suspended two of the six project approvals. This appeal followed.

In the unpublished portion the of the opinion, the court found that the writ was not a separate appealable post-judgment order or injunction, and therefore the court had jurisdiction to hear the appeal under Code of Civil Procedure section 904.1.

The court reviewed the lower court’s interpretation of section 21168.9 de novo.  The court determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in partially decertifying the EIR, as section 21168.9 expressly permits decertification of an EIR “in whole or in part.” The court also held that after partial decertification, it is permissible to leave in place project approvals that do not relate to the affected section of the EIR. This is consistent with the statute’s implicit mandate that project activities that do not violate CEQA must be permitted to go forward.

The court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in issuing the limited writ. The lower court adequately supported its findings and demonstrated that project activities were severable, that severance would not prejudice compliance with CEQA, and that the remaining activities complied with CEQA. The court noted that prejudice with CEQA compliance is particularly unlikely here, given the court’s injunction against further construction.

Finally, the court rejected petitioners’ contention that the writ, issued under CEQA, does not provide an adequate remedy for California Fish and Game Code violations. While acknowledging that section 21168.9 is part of CEQA, the streambed alteration agreement, which remains in place, already prohibits the taking of sticklebacks. Furthermore, the injunction barring project construction provides a suitable remedy for this violation.

On Remand, Fourth District Determines that Case Challenging SANDAG’s RTP Is Not Mooted by Later EIR and Resolves CEQA Issues on the Merits

On November 11, 2017, the Fourth District, Division One in Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 413 (Cleveland II), resolved the remaining issues on remand from California Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year.

SANDAG certified a programmatic EIR for its 2050 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy in 2011. Petitioners challenged that EIR, alleging multiple deficiencies under CEQA, including the EIR’s analysis of greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts, mitigation measures, alternatives, and impacts to air quality and agricultural land. The Court of Appeal held that the EIR failed to comply with CEQA in all identified respects.  The Supreme Court granted review on the sole issue of whether SANDAG was required to use the GHG emission reduction goals in Governor Schwarzenegger’s Executive Order S-3-05 as a threshold of significance. Finding for SANDAG, the Court left all other issues to be resolved on remand.

First, the Court of Appeal ruled that the case was not moot, although the 2011 EIR had been superseded by a new EIR certified in 2015, because the 2011 version had never been decertified and thus could be relied upon. The court also found that petitioners did not forfeit arguments from their original cross-appeal by not seeking a ruling on them. And, even if failing to raise the arguments was a basis for forfeiture, the rule is not automatic, and the court has discretion to resolve important legal issues, including compliance with CEQA.

Second, the court reiterated the Supreme Court’s holding, that SANDAG’s choice of GHG thresholds of significance was adequate for this EIR, but may not be sufficient going forward. Turning to SANDAG’s selection of GHG mitigation measures, the court found that SANDAG’s analysis was not supported by substantial evidence, because the measures selected were either ineffective (“assuring little to no concrete steps toward emissions reductions”) or infeasible and thus “illusory.”

Third, also under the substantial evidence standard of review, the court determined that the EIR failed to describe a reasonable range of alternatives that would plan for the region’s transportation needs, while lessening the plan’s impacts to climate change. The EIR was deficient because none of the alternatives would have reduced regional vehicles miles traveled (VMT). This deficiency was particularly inexplicable given that SANDAG’s Climate Action Strategy expressly calls for VMT reduction. The measures, policies, and strategies in the Climate Action Strategy could have formed an acceptable basis for identifying project alternatives in this EIR.

Fourth, the EIR’s description of the environmental baseline, description of adverse health impacts, and analysis of mitigation measures for air quality, improperly deferred analysis from the programmatic EIR to later environmental review, and were not based on substantial evidence.  Despite acknowledging potential impacts from particulate matter and toxic air contaminants on sensitive receptors (children, the elderly, and certain communities), the EIR did not provide a “reasoned estimate” of pollutant levels or the location and population of sensitive receptors. The EIR’s discussion of the project’s adverse health impacts was impermissibly generalized. The court explained that a programmatic EIR improperly defers mitigation measures when it does not formulate them or fails to specify the performance criteria to be met in the later environmental review. Because this issue was at least partially moot given the court’s conclusions regarding defects in the EIR’s air quality analysis, the court simply concurred with the petitioners’ contention that all but one of EIR’s mitigation measures had been improperly deferred.

The court made two rulings regarding impacts to agricultural land. In finding for the petitioners, the court held that SANDAG impermissibly relied on a methodology with “known data gaps” to describe the agricultural baseline, as the database did not contain records of agricultural parcels of less than 10 acres nor was there any record of agricultural land that was taken out of production in the last twenty years.  This resulted in unreliable estimates of both the baseline and impacts. However, under de novo review, the court found that the petitioners had failed to exhaust their remedies as to impacts on small farms and the EIR’s assumption that land converted to rural residential zoning would remain farmland. While the petitioners’ comment letter generally discussed impacts to agriculture, it was not sufficiently specific so as to “fairly apprise” SANDAG of their concerns.

Justice Benke made a detailed dissent. Under Benke’s view, the superseded 2011 EIR is “most likely moot” and in any event, that determination should have been left to the trial court on remand. This conclusion is strengthened, when, as here, the remaining issues concern factual contentions. As a court of review, their record is insufficient to resolve those issues.

Fourth District Rejects Challenge to the City of Huntington Beach’s Housing Element, Applying Charter City Exemption

On October 31, 2017 in Kennedy Commission v. City of Huntington Beach  (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 841, the Fourth Appellate District reversed the lower court,  finding for defendants on the first cause of action under state housing element, zoning, and planning laws. The court of appeal allowed plaintiffs leave to refile their third to sixth causes of actions, which had been dismissed without prejudice in the court below. A separate ruling on plaintiffs’ fee award from the court below is pending.

Background

The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) determines each region’s Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA), including each region’s share of lower income housing. HCD then determines if the housing element of a general plan is compliant and reflects the agency’s share of the RHNA. HCD approved Huntington Beach’s general plan housing element in 2013. At the time, the majority of lower income housing was zoned for the Beach Edinger Corridor Specific Plan area (BECSP). Residents complained about the rapid pace of development in this area. In response, in 2015, the city amended the BECSP, cutting the amount of housing in this area by half. This resulted in a 350-unit shortfall of lower income housing for Huntington Beach. The city then sought to amend the housing element of the general plan to provide for lower-income housing in other areas of the city.

Plaintiffs, a fair housing advocacy organization and two lower-income Huntington Beach renters, filed a writ of mandate with six causes of action. The first cause of action was under state housing element law, for adopting a specific plan that was inconsistent with an approved general plan. The second cause of action was for failure to implement the general plan. The third and fourth causes of action were based on Article XI, section 7 of the California Constitution, alleging that the amended BECSP was preempted by state law. The fifth and sixth causes of action were allegations of housing discrimination, for adverse impacts to racial and ethnic minorities.

In an expedited trial, the trial court found that the amended BECSP violated state housing law because it no longer complied with the general plan (plaintiffs’ first cause of action). The trial court found that under Government Code section 65454, a municipality may not amend a specific plan unless the amendment is consistent with the general plan. The city, in violation of this provision, amended the specific plan without first amending the housing element to find other areas where lower income housing could be built. The BECSP amendment was void when passed and could not be enforced. The third through sixth causes of action were dismissed without prejudice. The second cause of action was not pursued on appeal.

Appellate Court Ruling

For the first time on appeal, the city raised the defense that as a charter city, Huntington Beach was exempt from requirements under Government Code sections 65860 and 65454, requiring that zoning ordinances and specific plans be consistent with the general plan. Charter cities with less than two million residents are exempt from these requirements, per Government Code 65803 (zoning) and 65700 (local planning). An exception to this exemption is when the charter city expressly states, in either its charter or by ordinance, that it intends to adopt the consistency requirement, which Huntington Beach alleged that it had not done. Therefore, the defendants argued, while they were required to provide for their share of lower income housing as determined by the RHNA, the city was permitted to amend the general plan to be compliant. To support this argument, the city moved for the appellate court to take judicial notice of the city’s charter and population, providing the factual basis for the city’s charter city exemption.

First, as a threshold matter, the court of appeal exercised its discretion to take judicial notice of documents that were not before the trial court, that are of substantial consequence in the determination of the action. The court chose to exercise its discretion here, because the trial court had not restricted the issues in its expedited hearing. Although this was not a justification for defendants’ failure to raise the issue, this decision afforded the defendants some latitude in this regard.

As to the merits, the court found that Huntington Beach met the requirements for the charter city exemption, and that the exception to this exemption was inapplicable. First, the court found that the consistency requirement was not adopted by the city in its charter. The court then examined Huntington Beach’s zoning ordinance concerning specific plans and determined that the city did not intend to adopt a consistency requirement there, either. In making this determination, the court heavily relied on its decision in Garat v. City of Riverside (1991) 2 Cal.App.4th 259. In Garat, Riverside, also a charter city, enacted two voter initiatives which changed the zoning to favor agricultural uses in specified areas, creating an inconsistency with the general plan.

In Garat, the court rejected the argument that the adoption of any specific plans, even if they were intended to be consistent with the general plan, creates either a presumption that all specific plans in the general plan area must also be consistent, or that a city has generally adopted the consistency requirement in its land use planning.

More importantly, Garat established that Government Code section 67000 exempts charter cities from local planning requirements, in virtually the same way that section 65803 exempts charter cities from the provisions requiring consistency with to specific plans, and these exemptions are strictly construed.

Turning to Huntington Beach’s zoning ordinance, the city did not explicitly state that any specific plan that was not consistent with the general plan was void. The ordinance did use language concerning consistency, but fell short of expressly adopting the language of Government Code section 65454. To adopt the consistency requirement, a zoning ordinance must state that “[n]o specific plan may be adopted or amended” unless it is consistent with the general plan, or else it is void. Absent this, plaintiffs’ attempt to imbue a consistency requirement in the zoning ordinance must fail, as it did in Garat.

The court also rejected plaintiffs’ argument that even if the charter city exemption applied, the amended BECSP should be considered void, as violating state law. Even if the court were to accept that the BECSP violated state law, the remedy would not be to render the BECSP void. Rather, the remedy would be to grant the city time to amend its housing element. The city is already implementing this remedy. The amendment process can proceed, while leaving the amended BECSP in force.

 The court noted while one may question the wisdom of creating the charter city exemption for certain aspects of land use planning, this was clearly the legislative intent.

The ruling is notable for several reasons. It set a high bar for plaintiffs in the Fourth District who are seeking to establish that a charter city has adopted specific plan consistency requirements, absent express adoption of the language of Government Code section 65454. Additionally, the city’s victory may be pyrrhic. As the city conceded, and the court concurred, the general plan’s housing element will ultimately require amendment to provide the city’s designated share of the RHNA. While the city achieved its goal of slowing down the pace of development, plaintiffs may yet refile and potentially prevail on their claims of housing discrimination, incurring liability for the city. Finally, although the court did decide to exercise its discretion and take judicial notice of the city’s charter, if it had not, the court would have had no basis for finding merit in the city’s defense under the charter city exemption. By not raising this defense in trial, the city came close to forfeiting this ultimately successful defense. Therefore, municipalities would do well to note if they are a charter city, and be prepared to argue that defense where applicable in the first instance.

First Circuit Finds Environmental Review Under Certified Regulatory Program Inadequate

In Pesticide Action Network North America v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 224 (republished as modified) the First Appellate District reversed the Alameda Superior Court and found that environmental documents prepared by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, regarding amended labelling for two pesticides, inadequately analyzed potential impacts on honeybees. The court held that the Department was required to analyze the environmental baseline, alternatives, and cumulative impacts in documents promulgated under CEQA’s exemption for certified regulatory programs (CRP).

The Department of Pesticide Regulation registers all pesticides in California, after evaluating their efficiency and potential for impacts to human health and the environment. The Department has a continuing obligation to reevaluate pesticides, and may cancel a prior registration. Since 2006, there has been a documented widespread collapse of honey bee colonies in the United States. One suspected factor is exposure to pesticides such as dinotefuran, the active ingredient in pesticides sold by the real parties. For this reason, in 2009, the Department initiated the still-ongoing process of reevaluating dinotefuran’s registration. Simultaneously, in 2014, the Department issued public reports for a proposal to amend labels for pesticides containing dinotefuron. The amended labels would allow the pesticides to be used on fruit trees, and in increased quantities. The reports concluded that the use of each pesticide in a manner consistent with the new labels would have no direct or indirect significant adverse environmental impacts, and therefore the Department did not propose alternatives or mitigation measures. The Department issued a final approval of the label amendments in June 2014. Pesticide Action Network filed a petition for writ of mandate in Alameda Superior Court and after a lower court finding for the Department, this appeal followed.

The Department’s pesticide program falls under the CEQA section 21080.5 exemption for CRPs. This exemption permits a state agency to rely on abbreviated environmental review documents, which are the functional equivalent of CEQA documents. Here, the Department issued the functional equivalent of a negative declaration. The standard of review is whether there was a prejudicial abuse of discretion, which is established if the agency did not proceed in a manner required by law, or if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence.

First, the court rejected the Department’s assertion that because it operates a CRP, its functionally-equivalent environmental review documents are otherwise exempt from CEQA’s substantive requirements. The court found that section 21080.5 is a “limited” exemption, and environmental review must otherwise comply with CEQA’s policy goals, substantive requirements, content requirements stated in section 21080.5, and any other CEQA provisions, as well as the Department’s own regulations.

Second, the court found that the Department’s report was inadequate under CEQA because it failed to analyze alternatives and cumulative impacts, and did not describe the environmental baseline. With respect to alternatives, contrary to the Department’s assertion, a functionally-equivalent document prepared under a CRP must consider alternatives, as required by both CEQA and the Department’s own regulations. The Department argued that it did not need to consider alternatives because it concluded there would be no significant environmental impacts. The court explained that the standard for a CRP for determining whether an adverse impact may occur is the same as the “fair argument” standard under CEQA. Furthermore, the content requirements for environmental review under a CRP require that a state agency provide proof–either a checklist or other report–that there will not be adverse effects. The court found that the Department did not produce or consider such evidence.

The court also held that the substantive requirements and broad policy goals of CEQA require assessment of baseline conditions. The Department argued that it had acknowledged and assessed baseline conditions, but the court disagreed. The Department’s baseline discussion was based on one statement that “the uses are already present on the labels of a number of currently registered neonicotinoid containing products.” The court found that this general statement was not sufficient.

The court found that the Department also abused its discretion when it failed to consider cumulative impacts. In its report, the Department simply stated that the cumulative analysis would be put off until the reevaluation was complete. The court found that this one-sentence discussion lacked facts and failed to provide even a brief explanation about how the Department reached its conclusion.

Finally, the court found that the Department is required to recirculate its analysis. Recirculation is required when significant new information is added to an environmental review document, after notice and public comment has occurred, but before the document is certified. The court explained that, in light of the Department’s required reevaluation, its initial public reports on the amended labeling were so “inadequate and conclusory” that public comment on them was “effectively meaningless.”

Pesticide Action Network provides important guidance regarding environmental compliance under a CEQA-exempt CRP. The court emphasized that unless specifically exempt from a CEQA provision, even functionally-equivalent CRP documents must comply with CEQA’s substantive requirements and broad policy goals. Also notable was the court’s application of the “fair argument standard” to the analysis of whether an impact would be significant under the functional equivalent of a negative declaration.

Streamlined Yet Underutilized: CEQA’s Class 32 Urban Infill Exemption

Streamlining—the promotion of organizational and systemic efficiency through the simplification of process—has been steadily incorporated into CEQA for years, largely through exemptions. The notion being: why not shorten the lengthy CEQA review where prior planning documents have nearly fully assessed potential impacts of a project? (E.g., CEQA Guidelines, § 15183.3, subd. (a).) These exemptions, categorical or statutory, are intended to save agencies, and by extension the public, time and resources.

Unlike many statutory exemptions that excuse qualifying projects entirely from CEQA consideration, categorical exemptions only discharge a “class” of projects from typical CEQA evaluation via a discretionary preliminary review. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15354.) The “Class 32” exemption is one such class promoting “shovel-ready” urban infill development projects through categorical streamlining. Established in 1998, this urban infill exemption requires projects to be consistent with applicable general plans and zoning designations, located within a city’s limits on a site five acres or less, bordered by urban uses, and without significant impacts to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality. The project site itself can be either vacant or previously developed, but must be devoid of sensitive habitat and adequately served by public utilities. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15332).

In 2011, additional streamlining provisions included in Senate Bill 226 were intended to balance the interests of the government, business, and the environment by better fast-tracking Class 32 urban infill development by specifying conditions under which these projects would be adequately supported by existing planning documents and land use designations. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21094.5.) Despite SB 226 streamlining and Class 32’s beneficial function, it still goes underutilized. So why aren’t cities using this infill categorical exemption and should that change?

Class 32 and the Balancing Act of Senate Bill 226

The Class 32 infill development exemption was included in the Guidelines as a part of a 1998 revision by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) to clarify project types that are categorically exempt from typical CEQA review. In an effort to promote this exemption, along with other environmental tools such as solar technology, in 2011 State Senator Joseph Simitian penned SB 226 to expand CEQA streamlining provisions for infill development projects. Sen. Simitian intended the bill to balance interests, especially with increasing legislative demands for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. He also purported to provide a much-needed boost to industries struggling to recover from the country’s economic recession, specifically construction. (See State Sen. Joseph Simitian, letter to Governor Jerry Brown, Sept. 5, 2011, http://www.senatorsimitian.com/images/uploads/SB_226_CEQA_Letter.pdf; Sen. Rules Com., Off. of Sen. Floor Analyses, Analysis of Sen. Bill No. 226 (2011–2012 Reg. Sess.) as amended September 9, 2011, p. 4.) By June 2012, OPR had effectuated the final proposal, incorporated the bill’s language into CEQA Guidelines, and published its accompanying performance standards as Appendix M, at which time it became an official enhancement to Class 32 exemptions.

Exemption Usage…or Lack Thereof

While a Class 32 exemption and its streamlining provisions can help cities more predictably plan development, it has gone underutilized.

Scott Morgan, OPR Deputy Director of Administration and State Clearinghouse Director, has stated that agencies often choose to prepare negative declarations or even environmental impact reports (EIRs) for projects that meet infill exemption criteria, despite the fact that negative declarations are often litigated and held to an less deferential standard of judicial review (“fair argument” versus “substantial evidence” standard, see below). Mr. Morgan explains some of this underutilization as simple unfamiliarity—city staff often aren’t aware of or comfortable using this exemption and its streamlining possibilities. However, some larger cities like Oakland and San Francisco almost exclusively use this exemption for their smaller-scale infill projects, thereby exemplifying the principle that areas already predetermined for these exact uses by a CEQA-driven planning process need not undergo a more onerous review.

The City of Oakland has developed a Class 32 exemption process that includes a preliminary review with report-style documentation, inclusive of applicable technical analysis and informal findings. In July 2015, for example, the Oakland Bureau of Planning prepared a 54-page Class 32 exemption report for a 24-story, mixed-use project with residential, retail, and restaurants on a previously developed half-acre site at 1700 Webster Street. This report included a detailed project description, CEQA categorical exemption and streamlining criteria, a CEQA exemption checklist demonstrating how this criteria has been met, and seven technical appendices ranging from transportation impact analysis to air quality and noise studies to a wind tunnel analysis. The report led to the planning staff’s December 2015 recommendation for approval and the Planning Commission’s subsequent approval. The project broke ground in the spring of 2017.

Taking Exception: How Unusual Are Unusual Circumstances?

Procedurally, Class 32 exemptions require a fraction of the process prescribed for standard CEQA review, with no required public review period, specific CEQA documents, or mitigation. Exceptions to the exemptions, however, add back in a measure of consideration to the process. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2, subds. (b), (c)–(f).) Under these exceptions, the infill exemption cannot be used if the project would cause cumulatively significant impacts, impact scenic highways or historical resources, involve hazardous waste, or are subject to “unusual circumstances.” While these four exemptions lend themselves to relatively straightforward interpretation and have been largely uncontroversial, the “unusual circumstances” exception has been the subject of much litigation.

The “unusual circumstances” exception precludes the use of any categorical exemption when there is a “reasonable possibility” that the project “will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2 (c.).) In reviewing a lead agency’s determination as to whether the exemption applies and if the effects will be significant, the Supreme Court has applied a two-prong test wherein an agency must answer: (1) are there unusual circumstances? And if so, (2) would these unusual circumstances create a potential for significant impact? Further complicating the issue is the bifurcation of the standard of review that applies the “substantial evidence” standard to the first prong of the test and the “fair argument” standard to the second. Under the more deferential first prong, an agency may base its decision on substantial evidence, including conditions in the vicinity of the project. If it determines there is an “unusual circumstance,” then the “fair argument” standard requires an EIR when it can be fairly argued based on substantial evidence that “due to” the unusual circumstances of the project, it may have a significant effect on the environment. Both standards require substantial evidence in the record. And the question of whether a project qualifies for the Class 32 exemption in the first instance is subject to the more deferential “substantial evidence” threshold. (Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, 1114).

Given the above, a prudent agency using a Class 32 exemption should document its determination of whether any “unusual circumstances” are present and resulting potential significant effects (or presumably, the lack thereof) with applicable land use documents (zoning maps, general plans, etc.) and if warranted, some standard preliminary technical analysis (traffic, biology, noise, etc.). With these components on the record, as in the Oakland example, in conjunction with the issuance of an NOE, the outcome of legal challenges should be more favorable for cities and developers.

Conclusion

Although litigation for Class 32 exemption projects is always a possibility for development projects, with fulfillment of applicable CEQA criteria and requirements, agencies would be wise to consider the Class 32 exemption. Based on judicial trends, this exemption may be more likely to survive a legal challenge than a negative declaration at least in some jurisdictions. If these trends continue, over time challenges to these exemptions could even quieted by case law that supports agency discretion with the use of the Class 32 CEQA infill exemption, making it an increasingly viable option for agencies to speed up the development of much needed infill housing and other urban projects.

By: Casey Shorrock Smith

Air District Board’s Tie Vote on Authority to Construct Permit Is Effectively a Decision Not to Revoke It, Which Is Reviewable for Prejudicial Abuse of Discretion

On June 14, 2017, Division One of the First Appellate District published its decision in Grist Creek Aggregates, LLC v. The Superior Court of Mendocino County (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th­­­ 979, in which the Court of Appeal held that a county air district board’s tie vote on the petitioner’s administrative appeal of an asphalt production facility’s construction permit, effectively resulted in the appeal’s denial, rendering the denial subject to judicial review.

The appellate court’s decision is the latest in a series of environmental and administrative challenges arising from Grist Creek Aggregate’s construction and operation of an asphalt facility in Mendocino County. At issue here, in November 2015, the Mendocino County Air Quality Management District issued an authority to construct permit (ATC) to Grist Creek Aggregates to build a facility to heat and blend rubber. Friends of Outlet Creek, the petitioner in the related suits, appealed the ATC decision to the District’s five-member Hearing Board. After recusal of one of the Board’s members, the remaining four members were locked in a tie vote. Because it was unable to reach a decision, the Board determined not to hold any further hearings on the appeal. Thus, the ATC remained in place.

Friends filed suit, alleging that the Air District and the Hearing Board violated CEQA in not conducting environmental review for the ATC, and violated the District’s own regulations. The Hearing Board demurred on the ground that because the tie vote was tantamount to no action, there was no agency decision for the court to review. Grist Creek Aggregates also demurred, arguing that Friends could not sue directly under CEQA and had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies. The trial court sustained the Board’s demurrer with leave to amend and overruled Grist Creek’s demurrer, both on the basis that the tie vote was not a Board “decision,” and therefore, there was nothing for the court to review. In the interim, the Board added a fifth member. The trial court noted this, but failed to order that the new Board rehear the ATC permit appeal. Grist Creek filed a writ of mandate in the Court of Appeal seeking to require the trial court to vacate all of its demurrer rulings.

The Court of Appeal granted Grist Creek’s petition. The court first noted that the trial court’s decision was internally inconsistent. The Board was under no obligation to hold another hearing on the appeal, and in fact indicated to opposing counsel that they would not do so. Coupled with the trial court’s conclusion that the tie vote meant that Friends did not have a cause of action, it was unclear how the trial court envisioned that Friend’s writ petition could be cured by amendment.

As the purpose and meaning of a tie vote, the Court of Appeal explained there are two criteria for the Board to reach a decision: a quorum of voting members and a majority decision by those voting members. The Board had a quorum (four voting members out of five) but they failed to reach a majority decision. It does not follow from this result that there is nothing for a trial court to review, since the gravamen of Friends’ petition was a challenge to the District’s underlying approval of the ATC and the Board’s failure to revoke it.

In reaching this decision, the court emphasized that the meaning of tie votes in administrative proceedings must be viewed in context. The trial court erroneously oversimplified precedent in its finding that a tie vote of an administrative action agency always results in no action. A deeper analysis of the relevant case law demonstrates that a tie vote can mean that the petitioner is entitled to a different remedy—a return to status quo ante, a new hearing, or setting aside the agency decision—not that the agency has not acted.

Viewing the tie vote in context, the Board’s action here was the equivalent of allowing the ATC to stand, which is effectively a decision not to revoke it. That decision was ripe for judicial review under the prejudicial abuse of discretion standard of Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5.