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In Central Coast Forest Association v. Fish and Game Commission ___ Cal.App.5th ___  (Case No. C060569) (Central Coast Association II), on remand from the Supreme Court, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the Fish and Game Commission, upholding the Commission’s denial of a request to move the southern boundary of Central California Coast salmon habitat range, and so delist the population occurring in that range as an endangered species. The court found that the Commission acted within its discretion when it determined that the southern evolutionary significant unit (ESU) was not a separate species from the threatened northern coho salmon, that the southern coho salmon ESU was native to California, and that it should be protected wherever it is currently found. The California Endangered Species Act (CESA) promotes the protection of wildlife, and the Legislature affords the Commission substantial deference in how CESA is interpreted to achieve that goal.

Factual and Procedural Background

In 1995 the Commission listed the southern coho salmon ESU as endangered, due to habitat loss and degradation. In 2000, the Commission amended this ruling, and additional populations of coho salmon occurring north of San Francisco were listed as either endangered or threatened in different regions.

This case is the culmination of two prior appeals in the Third District, and a ruling by the California Supreme Court, in Central Coast Forest Association v. Fish and Game Commission (2017) 2 Cal.5th 594 (Central Coast Association I). The petitioner is an association of timber companies that operate in areas where the southern coho migrates and spawns. Two months before the Commission’s 2004 amended listing decision, petitioner Big Creek Lumber requested that the Commission consider its petition to delist the southern ESU, alleging that new evidence had been made available since the Commission’s 1995 determination, and so the 1995 listing was improper.

Based on the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (DFW) findings and the Commission’s independent analysis, the Commission denied the delisting request in 2005. The petitioners challenged that decision in superior court, which remanded the matter back to the Commission. The Third District again reversed the judgment on appeal. On remand, the trial court again found for the petitioners, and was once again reversed by the Third District on appeal. The Third District then held that the petitioners committed a procedural error, as a delisting petition must be directed at events that occur after the decision to list a species, and not on new evidence that the original listing decision was improper. This holding was reversed by the Supreme Court in Central Coast Forest Association I. The Supreme Court held that a delisting petition can be based on new evidence, showing that the original decision to list the species was improper. The Court then remanded the case back to the Third District, with instructions to address specific issues and resolve the case on the merits. This decision followed.

Evidentiary Standard and Standard of Review

Under CESA, the evidentiary burden is on the petitioner, and judicial review is deferential to the agency. Petitioners must present enough evidence to lead a reasonable person to conclude that there is a substantial possibility that delisting would be justified, should the agency accept the petition. The Commission evaluates a petitioner’s evidence for reliability and credibility, and weighs it against DFW’s written findings. Because these matters are technical and scientific in nature, the Commission’s findings are afforded deference, and the DFW’s findings, upon which the Commission relies, are given substantial deference. The court reviews the Commission’s determination under administrative mandamus and draws all inferences in favor of the Commission. The court can reverse the agency only if the evidence clearly weighs against the agency’s findings.

Third District’s Decision

The petitioner argued that the southern coho is not native to California under CESA based on studies of archeological sites in the area and historical records and samples. They also argued that natural conditions in the region are too harsh to support a southern coho population, and that the record of hatchery plantings in the area’s streams include hatchery fish from out-of-state stocks.

After reviewing both the petitioner’s evidence and the Commission’s findings, the court upheld the Commission’s determination that the petitioner’s evidence was speculative, incorrect, irrelevant, or at best supported a contradictory inference, from which more than one conclusion could be drawn. The court stated that it was within the Commission’s discretion to draw different conclusions.

For example, reliable museum samples demonstrated that coho salmon existed south of the San Francisco, before hatcheries. The court stated that the low number of specimens was not dispositive, and the lack of conclusive evidence of the historic presence of the southern coho in the record could not be used to prove a negative—that the salmon did not exist. Finally, the petitioner’s contention that the existing samples are “strays” from other areas was unsupported by the evidence.

Notably, the court agreed with the Commission’s contention that “hatchery-influenced” fish are still considered native. While there is some evidence that out-state-stock was used in California hatcheries, there is no evidence to support a conclusion that current population consists entirely of non-native fish. Further, the inability to survive without hatchery support is not evidence for delisting a species.

In making these determinations, the Court agreed with the Commission that “native” means that the species as a whole is native to California and rejected the petitioner’s argument, as a matter of law, that once the focus of the term “species” is narrowed to a particular geographic area, “nativeness” is only viewed relative to that region. CESA emphasizes that the protection of species is of statewide concern.  Similarly, the “range” of a species is not determined by its historic range, which may be influenced by human activity, but it is protected wherever found.

Additionally, the court disagreed with the petitioner’s interpretation of the federal Endangered Species Act, and found that an endangerment listing does not require that an individual population must be an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species.

Federal policy provides that a population of pacific salmonids can only be considered an ESU if it is substantially reproductively isolated from other nonspecific populations and represents an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species. Based on a brief reference in a 2002 report stating that the southern ESU may be evolutionarily distinct, the petitioner argued that the Commission must find that the southern coho is evolutionarily distinct and important to the species in order to qualify as an ESU. The court held that the Commission correctly interpreted the federal guidance as protecting the southern coho, as a population of the California Central Coast ESU. The federal policy definition of ESU applies to the entire ESU, not just each individual population.

The court also addressed specific issues raised by the Supreme Court to be resolved on remand, reiterating that range means “current range” and not the historic area once occupied by a population. Additionally, a portion of an endangered species may be delisted only if it can be defined as a separate species, subspecies, or ESU that is not endangered. Because the southern coho is at risk for extinction, it is not eligible to be “carved out” from the California Central Coast ESU and delisted.

Sara Dudley

The Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision denying a challenge to the City of San Diego’s approval of construction of a secondary school and associated adoption of a mitigated negative declaration. (Clews Land and Livestock, LLC v. City of San Diego (2017) ___Cal.App.5th ___ (Case No. D071145).)

The City of San Diego adopted an MND and approved a project to build the 5,340-square-foot Cal Coast Academy, a for-profit secondary school, on property adjacent to the plaintiffs’ (Clews Land and Livestock, LLC, et al. [“CLL”]) commercial horse ranch and equestrian facility. CLL filed a petition for writ of mandate and complaint alleging the project would cause significant environmental impacts relating to fire hazards, traffic and transportation, noise, recreation, and historical resources. CLL also argued that CEQA required recirculation of the MND, that the project was inconsistent with the applicable community land use plan, and that the City did not follow historical resource provisions of the San Diego Municipal Code. The trial court determined that CLL had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, and ruled in favor of the City on the merits. CLL appealed and the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s determinations.

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

The court first held that CLL failed to exhaust its administrative remedies. The San Diego Municipal Code appeal process provides for two separate procedures—one for appeal of a hearing officer’s decision to the Planning Commission, and one for appeal of an environmental determination to the City Council. Because CLL filed only an appeal of the hearing officer’s decision, the court determined that CLL failed to exhaust its administrative remedies with respect to adoption of the MND. CLL argued that the City’s bifurcated appeal process violated CEQA, but the court found the process was valid. CLL also argued that the City had not provided proper notice of the appeal procedures under Public Resources Code section 21177, subdivision (a), thereby excusing CLL’s failure to appeal the environmental determination. The court explained, however, that section 21177 did not apply because CLL’s failure to appeal was not a failure to raise a noncompliance issue under that section. Where, like here, a public agency has accurately provided notice of a public hearing, but it misstates the applicable procedures to appeal the decision made at that hearing, the only available remedy is to prevent the public agency from invoking an administrative exhaustion defense through equitable estoppel. CLL had pursued a claim for equitable estoppel in the trial court and was unsuccessful, and CLL did not challenge that determination with the Court of Appeal. Therefore, the court found, CLL’s failure to exhaust could not be excused on an equitable estoppel basis.

Adoption of the MND

Notwithstanding its determination that CLL failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, the court also considered the merits of CLL’s claims. The court determined that CLL did not make a showing that substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the project may have a significant effect on the environment. In making its determination, the court emphasized that the project is “relatively modest” and located on already-developed land.

CLL argued that the City was required to prepare an EIR due to potentially significant impacts on fire hazards, traffic and transportation, noise, recreation, and historical resources. The court rejected each of CLL’s arguments. In part, the court was unpersuaded by CLL’s expert’s comments because they were “general” and did not have a specific nexus with the project, they focused on the effects of the environment on the students and faculty at the school rather than on the effects of the school on the environment, and they were conclusory and speculative. In addition, quoting Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 684, the court noted that “dire predictions by nonexperts regarding the consequences of a project do not constitute substantial evidence.” The court also found that a possibility that noise from the project would impact the adjacent business’s operations was insufficient to require an EIR under CEQA. The court explained that the question is not whether the project would affect particular persons, but whether the project would affect the environment in general. In addition, the court explained that the fact that a project may affect another business’s economic viability is not an effect that must be analyzed under CEQA unless the project may result in a change in the physical environment, such as by causing urban decay.

Recirculation of MND

CLL argued that by adding a shuttle bus plan and describing the school’s intent to close on red flag fire warning days after circulation of the MND, the City substantially revised the MND and was required to recirculate the draft prior to certification. The court rejected these contentions, explaining that the added plans were purely voluntary, and thus could not constitute mitigation measures. In addition, the court explained, CLL did not show that the plans were added to the project to reduce significant effects on the environment. According to the court, all revisions to the MND were clarifying and amplifying in nature and did not make substantial revisions to the project, and therefore, did not warrant recirculation.

Historical Resource Regulations

CLL argued that City did not follow its historical resource regulations and guidelines. The court explained that the City relied on an exemption contained within the regulations, but CLL did not address the substance of that exemption, nor did CLL show that the City was actually required to apply the specific procedures contained in the regulations. Instead, CLL simply critiqued the City’s reliance on the exemption as a post hoc rationalization; the court found this was not enough to meet CLL’s burden to show failure on the part of the City.

Consistency with Neighborhood Plan

CLL argued that the project conflicted with the Carmel Valley Neighborhood 8 Precise Plan because the plan designates the site as open space. CLL’s argument was two-fold. First, CLL argued the site could not be developed because of the plan’s open space designation. Second, CLL argued the plan’s designation was in conflict with the multifamily residential zoning at the project site.

With respect to the plan’s open space designation, the court held that CLL failed to meet its burden to show that the City’s consistency finding was an abuse of discretion. The court explained that the standard is whether no reasonable person could have reached the conclusion made by the City. In making its determination, the City relied on the fact that the property was already developed—the school would be sited at the location of a previously-capped swimming pool, and the project would not impact or be developed on undisturbed open space. The court found that the City’s determination was reasonable, and that CLL did not address the City’s reasoning or explain how the City abused its discretion. With respect to the site’s zoning, the court explained that consistency of the zoning ordinance with the plan was not at issue—instead, the issue was whether the project is consistent with the Precise Plan’s open space designation.

The court affirmed the judgment of the lower court and upheld the City’s determinations regarding the project and the associated MND.

Elizabeth Pollock

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 (city) 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.

The proposed project is a new three-unit condominium fronting on Telegraph Hill Boulevard, the restoration of an existing small cottage at the back of the property, and three off-street parking spaces. The city planning department determined that the renovation of the cottage was categorically exempt from CEQA under the Class 1 exemption (Guidelines, § 15301, subd. (d)), and construction of the new building was exempt under the Class 3 exemption as a residential structure totaling no more than four dwelling units (Guidelines, § 15303, subd. (b)). The planning commission approved a conditional use authorization with some conditions on construction activity. A neighborhood group appealed both decisions to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The board approved the exemption and the conditional use authorization, with additional conditions on the construction activity. Protect Telegraph Hill filed a petition for writ of mandate, arguing that the city’s findings relating to the exemptions and approval of the conditional use authorization were unsupported by the evidence, the city failed to consider the entire project, and unusual circumstances and the inclusion of mitigation measures made the reliance on categorical exemptions improper. The trial court denied the petition, and Protect Telegraph Hill appealed.

On appeal, the petitioner argued that granting the exemptions was unlawful because the conditions of approval imposed by the city were intended to mitigate environmental impacts from the project’s construction, indicating that the project would have significant impacts and thus could not be exempt from CEQA. The petitioner also argued that the project description was inadequate to determine whether the project was truly exempt and that the unusual circumstances exception applied.

The court concluded that while some of the conditions of approval addressed traffic and pedestrian safety, they were attached to the approval of the conditional use authorization, and not the exemptions. The exemptions were initially approved by the planning department without qualification, while the conditional use authorization was originally approved by the planning commission with certain conditions. The petitioner had to appeal both decisions separately to the Board of Supervisors, which voted separately on each decision, attaching further conditions to the conditional use authorization only. The court also found that there was no substantial evidence in the record suggesting that the project would have significant effects on traffic and pedestrian safety. The court stated that the appellant’s “expressions of concern” in the record were not substantial evidence. The court also rejected attacks on the project description, finding that the included description complied with the requirements in the San Francisco Administrative Code and there was no evidence in the record suggesting the description was deficient.

Turning to the unusual circumstances exception, the court applied the two-part test announced by the California Supreme Court in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086. The city’s conclusion that the unusual circumstances exception was not met is reviewed for substantial evidence. But, if there are unusual circumstances, the court considers whether there is a fair argument that there is a reasonable possibility that the project will have a significant effect.

Protect Telegraph Hill argued that the location of the project on Telegraph Hill was itself an unusual circumstance. But the court found that the city’s determination that there were no unusual circumstances was supported by substantial evidence. While Telegraph Hill is described in the design element of the general plan, the project conformed to the zoning requirements for that area and was similar in proportion to the immediately adjacent buildings. The petitioner also argued that the area was heavily traveled because of its proximity to Coit Tower landmark, but the court agreed with the city that large traffic and pedestrian volumes was “more commonplace than unusual” in San Francisco.

Next, the petitioner argued that the project would impair views of the downtown skyline from the public stairway. The court rejected this argument in part by applying new Public Resources Code section 21099, subdivision (d), which applies to residential urban infill projects in transit priority areas, and requires that aesthetic impacts “shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment.” Additionally, the city considered the project’s impact on views from Coit Tower and Pioneer Park and concluded it would not have an adverse effect. The petitioner also argued that the 30% slope of the lot was an unusual circumstance. The court again agreed with the city that the slope was not unusual for San Francisco and found that the city’s engineering report provided substantial evidence supporting its decision. The petitioner also submitted an engineering report that provided conflicting evidence, but that report did not negate the substantial evidence supporting the city’s conclusion.

Lastly, the petitioner argued that the conditional use authorization finding was unsupported because of the project’s potential to obscure views of the downtown skyline from the stairway. The court held that even if there were some conflict with one policy in the general plan, the policies were not strictly construed and the project was consistent with other policies and the Urban Design Element for Telegraph Hill. Ultimately, the court found that the record supported the city’s conclusion that the project would not change the character of Telegraph Hill, and denied the petition.

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.

The challenged project proposed converting an existing office building into a medical clinic providing a range of services and operated by Planned Parenthood. The City Planning Commission approved the application after a public hearing and found that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA review. Respect Life South San Francisco (Respect Life) appealed that decision to the City Council, arguing that, because of the nature of Planned Parenthood’s services, the project might draw protests that could have environmental impacts. The City Council rejected the appeal and found that the project qualified for three categorical exemptions. Respect Life and three individuals filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the City’s decision. The trial court denied the petition and Respect Life appealed. On appeal, Respect Life admitted that at least one of the exemptions applied, but alleged that the unusual circumstances exception applied, requiring full environmental review.

The court first rejected Planned Parenthood’s argument that Respect Life lacked standing. Planned Parenthood argued that Respect Life had failed to allege that it had a beneficial interest in the litigation, but the court found that the group’s petition included sufficient allegations to establish standing.

The court then articulated the standard of review for categorical exemptions and the unusual circumstances exception under the California Supreme Court’s recent decision in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2016) 60 Cal.4th 1086 (Berkeley Hillside). At the administrative level, a challenger must prove to the agency that 1) there are unusual circumstances, and 2) there is a reasonable possibility of a significant impact because of those circumstances. Upon judicial review, a court applies the deferential “substantial evidence” test to the agency’s decision regarding the first prong, and the non-deferential “fair argument” test to the agency’s decision on the second.

Here, the City denied the administrative appeal and found the project categorically exempt, but made no express finding on the unusual circumstances exception. Thus, the record did not reveal whether the City concluded that the project presented no unusual circumstances (a decision entitled to deference) or had found that, while there were unusual circumstances, there was no reasonable possibility of significant impacts due to those circumstances (a decision reviewed under the non-deferential “fair argument” test). The court determined that when an agency makes an implied finding regarding the unusual circumstances exception, the court must assume that the agency determined that there were unusual circumstances. To uphold the agency’s implied finding that the exception is inapplicable, a court must conclude that the record contains no substantial evidence supporting either 1) the existence of unusual circumstances, or 2) a fair argument that such circumstances will have a significant effect on the environment. Thus, the court applies a non-deferential test to both implied determinations.

In this instance, the court found that even assuming that the first condition had been met by Respect Life, it had not identified any substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the protests may result in significant effects. The court stated that Respect Life contradicted itself by conceding that CEQA review does not consider the identity of the applicant or operator, but also arguing that because the proposed operator is Planned Parenthood, the project might draw protests that will create indirect environmental impacts. The court held that “the possibility of ‘foreseeable First Amendment activity’” does not establish the unusual circumstances exception, where Respect Life “simply assert[ed] that protests will lead to environmental impacts.” The court also found that comments by opponents of abortion, even those that indicated they would protest, were not substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that there is a reasonable possibility that protests will have indirect significant effects on the environment. Ultimately, Respect Life was required, but unable, to point to evidence of the alleged indirect impacts, not just evidence of the protest activity that might lead to such impacts.

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.

As a threshold issue, the court held that the appellants were barred from raising objections to the college’s decision because they had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. The appellants argued that they were excused from objecting to the purchase agreement because the college did not give notice of the meeting at which it approved the agreement. Because the appellants could not establish that the no-notice exception applied—the court relied on the presumption afforded by Evidence Code section 664 to presume that the college had posted the agenda in accordance with the Brown Act requirements because the record contained no evidence to the contrary.

Nonetheless, the court went on to discuss the merits and determined that appellants’ claims were meritless because the purchase agreement required completion of an EIR before the sale could even be finalized. The court found that the purchase agreement complied with CEQA’s land acquisition agreement rule. Unlike the circumstances in the definitive California Supreme Court decision, Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116, here, no funds had been committed to the project and a developer had yet to be identified. The court found nothing in the administrative record to indicate that the college had committed itself to a definitive use of the property.

Finally, the court held the college did not violate CEQA by failing to formally adopt local implementing guidelines. Public Resources Code section 21082 provides an exemption for school districts, if they “utilize” the guidelines of another public agency. Here, the college had chosen to use the local guidelines adopted by Riverside County.

 

Christina Berglund

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 (ICCTA) 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 (NCRA) 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.

The NCRA is a state agency created in 1989 for the purpose of resuming railroad freight service along a previously-abandoned route through Napa and Humboldt Counties. The northern portion of the line runs along the Eel River, while the southern portion, at issue in the case, runs along the Russian River.  In 2000, the Legislature authorized funding for NCRA’s program, with the express condition of CEQA compliance. NCRA subsequently contracted with NWPCo, a private company, to run the railroad. As part of the lease agreement between the two entities, NWPCo agreed that CEQA compliance by NCRA was a precondition to resumed operation. Accordingly, in 2007, NCRA issued a notice of preparation, and in June 2011, it certified a Final EIR. In July 2011, petitioners sued, challenging the adequacy of the EIR on a number of grounds. Concurrently, NWPCo commenced limited freight service along the Russian River. In 2013, NCRA took the unusual step of rescinding its certification of the Final EIR, asserting in explanation as follows: that ICCTA preempted California environmental laws; that the reinitiation of rail service was not a “project” under CEQA; and that the EIR NCRA had prepared had not been legally required. Although NCRA successfully removed the case to federal court, the case subsequently sent back to state court for a resolution of both the state CEQA claims and NCRA’s ICCTA preemption defense. The Court of Appeal sided with NCRA, finding that ICCTA was broadly preemptive of CEQA. The Supreme Court granted review.

Federal preemption is based on the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, which provides that federal law is the supreme law of the land. Preemption can occur expressly, through the plain words of a federal statute, or can be implied, as when a court discerns that Congress intends to occupy an entire field of regulation, or when a court concludes that a state law conflicts with a federal purpose or the means of achieving that purpose. A federal statute can be preemptive on its face or as applied. There is a presumption against preemption, particularly in areas traditionally regulated by the states, which can only be overcome by a clear expression of intent (the Nixon/Gregory rule). The market participant doctrine is a related concept and holds that a public agency has all the freedoms and restrictions of a private party when it engages in the market (provided that the state does not use tools that are unavailable to private actors). The courts presume that Congress did not intend to reach into and preempt such proprietary marketplace arrangements, absent clear evidence of such expansive intent.

The Court began by recognizing that ICCTA does preempt state environmental laws, including CEQA, that interfere with private railroad operations authorized by the federal government. ICCTA contains an express preemption clause giving the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) jurisdiction over railroad transportation (including operation, construction, acquisition, and abandonment). ICCTA’s purpose was both unifying (to create national standards) and deregulatory (to minimize state and federal barriers). Although ICCTA is a form of economic regulation, state environmental laws are also economic in nature when they facially, or as applied, dictate where or how a railroad can operate in light of environmental concerns. Such state laws act impermissibly as “environmental preclearance statutes.” These legal principles, however, did not extend to the actions of NCRA in this case. Just as a private railroad company may make operational decisions based on internal policies and procedures, and may even modify its operations voluntarily in order to reduce environmental risks and effects, so too may a state, in determining whether to create a new railroad line, subject itself to its own internal requirements aimed at environmental concerns. In the latter context, though, a state operates through laws and regulations, as opposed to purely private policies. When a state acts in such a manner, its laws and regulations are a form of self-governance, and are not regulatory in character. CEQA is an example of such an internal guideline that governs the process by which a state, through its subdivisions, may develop and approve projects that affect the environment. Viewed in this context, CEQA is part of state self-governance, and is not a regulation of private activity.

Although the market participant doctrine does not directly apply, being mainly applicable in Commerce Clause jurisprudence, the doctrine supports by analogy the view that that California was not acting in a regulatory capacity in this case. CEQA is analogous to private company bylaws and guidance to which corporations voluntarily subject themselves. By imposing CEQA requirements on the NCRA, the state was not “regulating” any private entity, but rather was simply requiring that NCRA, as one of its subdivisions, conduct environmental review prior to making a policy decision to recommence the operation of an abandoned rail line. If Congress had intended to preempt the ability of states to govern themselves in such a fashion, any such intention should have been clear and unequivocal. The Court found no such intent in the ICCTA.

The Court’s remedy, however, was cognizant of the narrowness of its holding. The Court concluded that, because NWPCo is currently operating the line, the California Judiciary could not enjoin that private entity’s operations even if, on remand, the lower state courts found problems with NCRA’s CEQA documentation. An injunction under CEQA against NWPCo would act as a regulation, by having the state dictate the actions to private railroad operator. Such action would go beyond the state controlling its own operations.

James G. Moose & Sara Dudley

In San Diegans for Open Government v. City of San Diego (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 1306, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the City of San Diego’s denial of an administrative appeal of the City Planning Commission’s determination that an applicant’s modified design plans substantially conformed to the conditions and requirements of a previously issued development permit and that there was no need for further environmental review.

The challenged project involved a master plan, initially approved in 1997 and modified several times, for a mixed-use, industrial, commercial, and residential development. In 2012 the city approved a planned development permit to allow construction of the first phase of development. In November 2013, the applicant proposed design changes triggering the city’s Substantial Conformance Review (SCR) process under the permit. City staff reviewed the proposed changes to determine if the modified project was consistent with the previously approved project, including the existing environmental mitigation conditions. On January 30, 2014, the city’s development services department issued a written notice of decision approving the project and finding it to be in substantial conformance.

The petitioners appealed the decision to the planning commission, contending that the changes were substantial and that SCR review was not appropriate. The commission denied the appeal and upheld the SCR decision. The petitioners then attempted to appeal the decision to the city council, but the city refused to process the appeal, citing CEQA Guidelines section 15162 and San Diego Municipal Code section 113.0103. The petitioners filed a petition for writ of mandate asserting they were entitled to an administrative appeal before the city council. The trial court denied the petition and the petitioners appealed.

The court first rejected the petitioners’ arguments that they were entitled to an administrative appeal to the city council under Public Resources Code section 21151, subdivision (c). That section provides that if a “nonelected decisionmaking body of a local lead agency certifies an environmental impact report, approves a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration, or determines that a project is not subject” to CEQA, that decision can be appealed to the agency’s elected decision-making body, if any. The court held that section 21151, subdivision (c), did not apply because the SCR decision did not certify an EIR, approve a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration, or decide that the project was not subject to CEQA.

The petitioners further argued that the SCR decision was a decision that the project is not subject to CEQA, but the court rejected this argument. The court stated that city had already held that the project was subject to CEQA, and had required several environmental review documents and a mitigation monitoring and reporting program, all of which were considered as part of SCR process.

The petitioners also argued that a provision of the San Diego Municipal Code allowed appeals of “environmental determinations” to the city council, but the court disagreed. The court observed that the municipal code provision defining “environmental determination” was substantially similar to the activities in Public Resources Code section 21151, subdivision (c). Hence, the petitioners were not entitled to an administrative appeal of the planning commission’s decision to the city council under CEQA or the municipal code.

In Communities For A Better Environment v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 715, the First District Court of Appeal held a petition for writ of mandate as time-barred under Public Resources Code § 21167, subdivision (d). Petitioners argued that the ”discovery rule” should apply because the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (“District”) failed to provide public notice of the ministerial approval and the project itself (a change in operation at a transloading facility from ethanol to crude oil) was “hidden from the public eye.” The court held that the statute governed when the public was deemed to have constructive notice of a project, and the discovery rule postpones the accrual of an action beyond the date of the injury, not beyond the date when the plaintiff is deemed to have constructive notice.

The District issued a ministerial permit for the project in July 2013, which was not subject to CEQA. But the District did not file the optional notice of exemption (“NOE”) and the applicant began transloading crude oil at its facility in October 2013. The conditions of the permit were modified in October and December of 2013, and the District issued a second permit incorporating these modifications in February 2014. On March 27, 2014 petitioners filed a petition for a writ of mandate. The District argued that the petition was time-barred because it should have been brought within 180 days of July 2013, when the permit was issued. Petitioners argued that they only became aware of the project on July 31, 2014, and that the facility is completely enclosed making the change in operation “invisible.” The trial court dismissed the petition without leave to amend as time-barred under 21167.

The First District Court of Appeal distinguished Concerned Citizens of Costa Mesa, Inc. v. 32nd Dist. Agricultural Assn. (1986) 42 Cal.3d 929 (“Concerned Citizens”). In Concerned Citizens, the Court interpreted “the date of commencement of the project” to mean “commencement” of the project approved by the lead agency and analyzed in the EIR. Because the project had changed significantly, the petitioners could bring an action within 180 days of when they knew or reasonably should have known that the project commenced was substantially different from the approved project. Here, petitioners did not argue that there was a substantial change in the project, and instead argued that the discovery rule should postpone the accrual of the action until they had actual notice of the project. The First District found this argument to have been rejected in Concerned Citizens, as contrary to legislative intent.

The Court of Appeal also distinguished Ventura Foothill Neighbors v. County of Ventura (2014) 232 Cal.App.4th 429 (“Ventura Foothills”). In that case, the height of a planned building was changed from 75 feet to 90 feet, and while a notice of determination (“NOD”) was filed because of the change, the NOD did not disclose the change in height. The court in Ventura Foothills determined that the 30-day statute of limitations for NODs only applied to the determinations announced in the NOD. Since the change in height was not disclosed, the 30-day statute had not run. Here, the petitioners could not point to any deficiencies in a required notice.

The court stated that in both cases the court interpreted the statute so that the triggering date for barring an action did not occur. Because petitioners could not argue for such an interpretation in this case, their claim was time-barred. Similarly, they could not amend their pleadings to show that the dates of constructive notice in 21167 had not occurred more than 180 days prior to their filing suit.

In Walters v. City of Redondo Beach (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 809, the Second District Court of Appeal determined that the City of Redondo Beach did not err in finding a combination car wash and coffee shop project categorically exempt from CEQA and that unusual circumstances exception did not apply. The site was previously a car wash, but was unused since 2001 and the original structure had been demolished, leaving a vacant lot. The city approved a conditional use permit (“CUP”) and determined that the project was exempt under CEQA Guidelines § 15303, as “new, small facilities or structures [and] installation of small new equipment and facilities in structures.”

The dispute between the parties on the exemption concerned whether a car wash fits within the category of “commercial buildings” as defined in CEQA Guidelines section 15303, subdivision (c), and whether the car wash met the size restrictions of that section. The court held that the list in 15303(c) is illustrative and the section expressly includes “similar structure[s].” The car wash qualified because it was a consumer-facing commercial business, similar to those listed in 15303(c), and it included a coffee shop which qualifies as a restaurant. On the issue of size, the court found that, because the project was going to be in an “urbanized area,” the size limit was 10,000 square feet instead of 2,500. So the project’s 4,080 square feet was well under the limit. Lastly, the court found that there was no evidence that the project would “involve the use of significant amounts of hazardous substances” and was thus exempt.

On the unusual circumstances exception issue, the court applied the two tests discussed by the California Supreme Court in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086 (“Berkeley Hillside”). Under the first test, the court first determines whether there are unusual circumstances under the substantial evidence standard, and, if unusual circumstances are found, “whether there is a reasonable possibility of a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances” under the fair argument standard. The second test requires the challenger to establish unusual circumstances by showing that the project will have a significant effect on the environment.

In applying the first test, the court found that presence of other car washes in the surrounding area, and the fact that the site had been a car wash previously, indicated that the circumstances were not unusual. The court also stated that common operational effects, like noise, traffic, and parking do not constitute unusual circumstances in and of themselves. The court concluded that the petitioners had failed to produce substantial evidence supporting unusual circumstances based on the project’s features. The court therefore never reached the second, fair argument prong of the first test.

The court applied the second test from Berkeley Hillside, and found that petitioners failed to meet their burden under that test as well. Petitioners argued that the project will have a significant effect on the environment because operating a car wash would violate the city’s noise ordinance. The court found this unpersuasive because the city had found that the project would not violate the noise ordinance and took the extra step to condition approval of the project on its meeting the noise ordinance. Petitioners also argued that the project would have a significant adverse effect on traffic because the design of the car wash would cause backups within the property. The court stated that the flow of cars within the property was not “traffic” as defined by CEQA, and there was substantial evidence supporting the city’s finding that any such backups would not affect traffic on the streets.

The court concluded that neither of the Berkeley Hillside tests had been satisfied, and therefore the petitioners had failed to show unusual circumstances. The court upheld the city’s issuance of the CUP and finding that the project was exempt from CEQA.

In Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 677, certified for partial publication, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld a mitigated negative declaration providing insight on the subjects of urban decay and general plan consistency.

San Bernardino County adopted a mitigated negative declaration approving a 9,100 square foot general retail store. The intended occupant was Dollar General. The Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance, a group of local business owners, challenged the project on several grounds: (1) failure to adequately consider the project’s potential to cause urban decay; (2) failure to complete an EIR based on substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project would cause urban decay; (3) inconsistency with various economic goals and policies incorporated in the general plan; and (4) failure to disclose the intended occupant’s identity.

The Fourth District agreed with the lower court’s ruling that the county had considered urban decay but had simply concluded that because there was no evidence of a negative economic impact—there was likewise no evidence of urban decay. The court stated that economic impacts, alone, are not enough to require an EIR. By adopting a mitigated negative declaration, the county expressly found that there were no significant impacts through which economic impacts and urban decay could ultimately be traced.

The court further held that lay opinion regarding economic impacts did not qualify as substantial evidence. A business owner and former attorney with the Oregon Department of Justice provided extensive comments on the project’s potential to cause urban decay. The court stated that she was not an expert and was therefore not qualified to opine on whether the project would cause urban decay. Moreover, she had not provided any factual basis for her assertions. The county exercised appropriate discretion in deeming her testimony not substantial evidence.

The Fourth District also rejected petitioner’s claims that the project was inconsistent with the economic goals and policies in the general plan. Applying the abuse of discretion standard—rather than the fair argument standard as argued by petitioners—the court found that the county could reasonably conclude that the project was consistent with the general plan. The court stated that words in the policies such as “encourage” and “support” were “amorphous policy terms” that give the local agency some discretion.

Finally, in the unpublished portion of the opinion, the court rejected petitioner’s claim that the county had improperly withheld the identity of Dollar General as the intended occupant. CEQA did not require the county, in this instance, to identify the end user. In dicta, however, the court left open the possibility that disclosure of the end user may be required where it is “environmentally relevant.”

Written by Christina Berglund

In Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Fish and Wildlife (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 452, a partially published opinion on remand from the California Supreme Court (Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Fish and Wildlife (2015) 62 Cal. 4th 204), the Second District reversed in part and affirmed in part the trial court’s judgment.

In the non-published portions of the opinion, the Second District reversed the trial court’s decision where it was inconsistent with the opinion of the California Supreme Court. The Second District reversed on the issues of significance criteria selection and baseline calculation, and affirmed on the issues of cumulative greenhouse gas emission impacts and two mitigation measures that would violate Fish and Game Code section 5515. The Second District also reconsidered its previous ruling in the case on two issues in light of the California Supreme Court’s holding that comments filed after certification of the joint EIR/EIS were timely. The Second District considered comments and the responses thereto, but stuck to its original conclusion that the findings on Native American Cultural Resources and impacts of dissolved copper on steelhead smolt were supported by substantial evidence.

In the published portion of the opinion, the Second District considered whether it had the authority to, instead of remanding the matter to the trial court, issue its own writ of mandate to the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) and supervise compliance. The developer/real party in interest requested that the court do so, and its motion was supported by DFW. The developer suggested that the California Supreme Court’s opinion in this case and the language of Public Resources Code section 21168.9 would allow the appellate court to do so. They also argued that the general principle of expedient resolution to CEQA litigation supported the appellate courts ability to issue its own writ of mandate.

The Second District looked first at the plain language of section 21168.9 and determined that there was some ambiguity in the statute’s use of the term “appellate court” because courts of appeal do have original mandate jurisdiction in some cases. But the court’s exploration of the legislative history of section 21168.9 found nothing to suggest that the legislature intended appellate courts on direct appeal to have the authority to issue writs of mandate.

The court then examined the lay of the land, in terms of CEQA and appellate practice, when section 21168.9 was adopted in 1984. According to the Second District, “the practice in 1984 … was for administrative mandate petitions to be filed in superior court,” and no statute provided appellate courts with authority to hear direct CEQA challenges at that time. Further, the Code of Civil Procedure—then and now—limits an appellate court to affirming or reversing and modifying the lower court’s judgment. And, after making its decision, the appellate court must remand the matter back to the trial court. The court found nothing to suggest that the legislature intended to alter this procedure when it enacted Public Resources Code section 21168.9. The court also stated that there is a presumption against repeal by implication, which applied to the Code of Civil Procedure sections governing appellate review.

The Second District concluded there was no authority for appellate courts on direct appeal to issue writs of mandate. Given that lack of authority, there was no way for appellate courts to supervise compliance either. Lastly, the court found that section 21168.9, subdivision (b) was clear in its requirement that trial courts retain jurisdiction over the lead agency to ensure compliance with the writ of mandate.

In Bay Area Citizens v. Association of Bay Area Governments (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 966, the First District Court of Appeal interpreted SB 375 as requiring the California Air Resources Board (Board) and regional agencies to set and meet the emissions reductions targets through regionally developed land use and transportation strategies that are independent of existing statewide clean technology mandates.  Therefore, the court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision, finding that the appellant’s claims about the inadequacy of the EIR failed because they were based on a misinterpretation of SB 375’s requirements.

SB 375 requires the Board to provide greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets to each region while taking into account statewide mandates such as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard and the New Vehicle Emissions Standards. Then each regional metropolitan planning organization (MPO) must prepare a sustainable communities strategy to meet those targets. The Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments (collectively, the Agencies) prepared Plan Bay Area. The appellants commented on the Plan’s EIR stating that the Agencies should have counted reductions expected from preexisting statewide mandates. However, when the Board’s staff conducted a technical review of the Plan they stated that the Agencies had appropriately excluded greenhouse gas emissions reductions from other technology and fuel programs. The Board then issued an executive order with the staff’s technical report attached, accepting that Plan Bay Area, if implemented, would achieve the targets.

The appellants filed a petition alleging that the Agencies failed to comply with CEQA because they falsely relied on the assumption that SB 375 compelled them to exclude consideration of the statewide mandates when assessing strategies for meeting the emissions reductions targets. First, the court looked to the plain meaning and purpose of the statute and found that because the emissions reductions from the statewide mandates are projected to dwarf those achieved by SB 375, the whole statute would be superfluous if the MPOs were simply allowed to cite the expected reductions from preexisting initiatives. Further, the Board’s AB 32 Scoping Plan repeatedly emphasized that the regional land use and transportation strategies were distinct from the statewide mandates. Although the Board was required to take the statewide mandates into account when setting targets under SB 375, they were not compelled to take any specific approach and it was within their power to instruct regions to exclude consideration of reductions expected from statewide mandates. The final technical evaluation of Plan Bay Area clearly stated the Board’s approach when it confirmed that the Agencies correctly declined to include statewide mandates because they were not counted toward the adopted targets. The court went on to say that even if the legislation did not require exclusion of reductions from statewide mandates, the Board had discretion to do so.

Next, the court addressed the claims about the inadequacy of the Plan’s EIR. The court found that the appellant’s arguments were based on their misinterpretation of SB 375 and deemed the EIR adequate. The Agencies were not required to consider the appellants proposed alternative that relied on statewide mandates because, as discussed above, it did not comply with SB 375 and was therefore infeasible. Contrary to the appellant’s contentions, the EIR did not ignore statewide mandates. Consideration of the New Vehicle Emissions Standards and the Low Carbon Fuel standard were included when determining whether implementation of the Plan would result in a net increase in emissions and whether it would impede the goals of AB 32. Further, the court found that in light of the Agencies’ sufficient disclosures throughout the EIR, including when they did and did not consider statewide mandates, the appellant’s arguments amounted to an impermissible substantive attack on Plan Bay Area.

In Bay Area Citizens v. Association of Bay Area Governments (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 966, the First District Court of Appeal interpreted SB 375 as requiring the California Air Resources Board (Board) and regional agencies to set and meet the emissions reductions targets through regionally-developed land use and transportation strategies that are independent of existing statewide clean technology mandates. Therefore, the court of appeal upheld the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Government’s (collectively, the Agencies) “Plan Bay Area” and its EIR, finding the opponent’s arguments failed because they were based on a misinterpretation of SB 375’s requirements.

SB 375 requires the Board to provide greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets to each region while taking into account statewide mandates such as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard and the New Vehicle Emissions Standards. Then, each regional metropolitan planning organization (MPO) must prepare a sustainable communities strategy to meet those targets. The Agencies prepared Plan Bay Area. The petitioners commented on the Plan’s EIR stating that the Agencies should have counted reductions expected from preexisting statewide mandates. When the Board’s staff conducted a technical review of the Plan, however, they stated that the Agencies had appropriately excluded greenhouse gas emissions reductions from other technology and fuel programs. The Board then issued an executive order with the staff’s technical report attached, accepting that Plan Bay Area, if implemented, would achieve the targets.

The petitioners alleged that the Agencies failed to comply with CEQA by incorrectly assuming that SB 375 compelled them to exclude compliance with statewide mandates when assessing strategies to meet emissions reductions targets. First, the court looked to the plain meaning and purpose of the statute and found that because the emissions reductions from the statewide mandates are projected to dwarf those achieved by SB 375, the whole statute would be superfluous if the MPOs were simply allowed to cite the expected reductions from preexisting initiatives. Further, the Board’s AB 32 Scoping Plan repeatedly emphasized that the regional land use and transportation strategies were distinct from the statewide mandates. Although the Board was required to take the statewide mandates into account when setting targets under SB 375, the statute did not require any specific approach and the board had discretion to instruct MPOs to exclude consideration of reductions expected from statewide mandates. The Board made this instruction clear when it approved of Plan Bay Area with the exclusion of reductions from statewide mandates.

On the alleged inadequacy of the Plan’s EIR, the court stated that the petitioner’s arguments were based on their misinterpretation of SB 375 and found the EIR adequate. The Agencies were not required to consider the appellants proposed alternative that relied on statewide mandates because, as discussed above, it did not comply with SB 375 and was therefore infeasible. Contrary to the appellants’ contentions, the EIR did not ignore statewide mandates. Consideration of the New Vehicle Emissions Standards and the Low Carbon Fuel standard were included when determining whether implementation of the Plan would result in a net increase in emissions and whether it would impede the goals of AB 32. Further, the court found that in light of the Agencies’ sufficient disclosures throughout the EIR, including when they did and did not consider statewide mandates, the appellant’s arguments amounted to an impermissible substantive attack on the plan.

Written by Sabrina S. Eshaghi

In Ukiah Citizens for Safety First v. City of Ukiah (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 256, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found that the city’s environmental impact report (EIR) failed to sufficiently analyze potential energy impacts and that the adoption of an addendum subsequent to EIR approval could not be considered in determining the EIR’s adequacy because it was not part of the administrative record. Therefore, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s ruling that the EIR was adequate when analyzed in tandem with the addendum.

The project at issue was a Costco warehouse store and gas station. The EIR concluded the project would have significant traffic impacts but the city certified it and adopted a statement of overriding conditions.  CEQA requires that EIRs propose mitigation measures to reduce the wasteful, inefficient, and unnecessary consumption of energy. Although the certified EIR mentioned energy impacts throughout, it did not contain a separate section devoted to energy impacts analysis. One section stated that since the project would comply with the California Code of Regulations Title 24 energy conservation standards, it would not result in wasteful, inefficient, and unnecessary consumption of energy.

Project opponents filed a petition asserting that the EIR failed to include adequate information regarding the project’s energy use. After the writ petition was filed, the Third District Court of Appeal issued an opinion finding that the analysis of energy impacts in an EIR substantially similar to the one at issue in this case was inadequate. In California Clean Energy Committee v. City of Woodland (2014) 225 Cal.App.4th 173 (CCEC) the Third District held that the energy analysis was insufficient for three reasons: (1) the EIR concluded the project would generate new trips without calculating the impacts of those trips; (2) the EIR improperly relied on compliance with the building code to mitigate energy impacts without analyzing the additional considerations required by appendix F; and (3) reliance on mitigation measures designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was misplaced because though there may be a correlation between the two, air quality mitigation is not a substitute for energy analysis. Ukiah’s EIR had all three of these problems. The city addressed these deficiencies by adopting an addendum to the EIR, and the trial court read the two documents together and concluded the energy analysis was adequate.

The court of appeal reversed the trial court’s decision upholding the EIR and found that subject to Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5 the addendum was not part of the administrative record and therefore could not be considered in deciding whether the city abused its discretion in certifying the EIR. CEQA Guidelines section 15164, which allows the preparation of addendums, assumes the EIR previously certified was adequate and does not allow retroactive correction of inadequate EIRs. Thus, the court directed the city to set aside its project approval and certification of the EIR until recirculation of the energy analysis and consideration of public comments took place. The court did not offer any opinion on the adequacy of the addendum.

In the unpublished portion of the opinion the court rejected the rest of the project opponent’s arguments. First, the impacts from an interchange improvement discussed in the traffic section of the EIR did not need to be analyzed because it was a longstanding proposal that was needed regardless of the project. Second, the population estimates used in the traffic study were supported by substantial evidence. Third, the court held that the noise study was sufficient and that the impacts to nearby hotel guests were insignificant because nighttime deliveries already occurred for existing commercial uses. Lastly, the court found that the Airport Industrial Park specific plan, with which the project was inconsistent, did not apply because it was effectively superseded.

Written by Sabrina S. Eshaghi