Author Archives: Veronika Morrison

Third District Holds Bumble Bees are “fish” under the California Endangered Species Act, Can Be Listed as Endangered or Threatened Species

In Almond Alliance of California v. Fish and Game Commission (2022) 79 Cal.App.5th 337, the Third District Court of Appeal held that bumble bees fall under the general definition of “fish,” as the term is defined in the California Fish and Game Code, because the definition includes terrestrial, as well as aquatic, invertebrates. Accordingly, bumble bees, which are terrestrial invertebrates, may receive protected status as endangered or threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act (“CESA”).

Background

In October 2018, several public interest groups petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission (“Commission”) to list four species of bumble bees as endangered. Soon after, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (“Department”) issued a report declaring sufficient evidence for the Commission to accept the petition to list the species. The Commission acted accordingly, declaring the bee species as “candidate” species for further review by the Department.

In September 2019, Petitioners challenged the Commission’s decision to list the bumble bees as candidate species. They alleged the Commission violated its legal duty and abused its discretion because bumble bees are terrestrial invertebrates not included in CESA’s protections for “bird[s], mammal[s], fish, amphibian[s], reptile[s], or plant[s].” Furthermore, they asserted that section 45’s definition of “fish,” which includes invertebrates, refers only to aquatic invertebrates.

The trial court ruled for petitioners. The Commission, the Department, and several public interest groups appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Section 45 Definition of “Fish” as Applied to Sections 2062, 2067, and 2068 of CESA

“Fish” as defined in section 45 of the California Fish and Game Code means “a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals.”  The Commission contended that this definition applies to the provisions of CESA which define endangered, threatened, and candidate species—sections 2062, 2067 and, 2068, respectively.

The Court agreed with the Commission, citing legal precedent and CESA’s legislative history. Specifically, the Court reaffirmed the holding in California Forestry Association v. California Fish & Game Commission (2007) 156 Cal.App.4th 1535 that section 45 defines “fish” as the term is used in sections 2062 and 2067 of CESA. Additionally, the Court identified several instances in which the Legislature used or acquiesced to the use of the section 45 definition. For example, the Court highlighted that the Legislature expressly used the section 45 definition of “fish” when it enacted CESA, though it was within the purview the Legislature to create its own definition. Relatedly, the Legislature amended section 45 after the California Forestry Association decision, but stopped short of signaling its contrary intent from the holding in that case. Based on this evidence, the Court concluded that the Legislature intended for the word “fish” in sections 2062, 2067, and 2068 of CESA to take on the meaning as defined in section 45.

“Fish” Is a Term of Art Not Limited to Aquatic Species 

Petitioners asserted that even if section 45 applies to sections 2062, 2067, and 2068, the term invertebrates in the definition of “fish” should be read as being limited to aquatic invertebrates. However, the Court espoused the more technical definition of “fish” that encompasses all terrestrial and aquatic species that fall under the categories of “mollusks, invertebrates, amphibians, and crustaceans.”

The Court described how legislative history supports this definition. It explained that at the time CESA was enacted, several bill analysis reports noted that the Commission had the authority to designate insects as endangered or threatened. Additionally, the Court highlighted that the Commission previously approved a terrestrial mollusk and invertebrate, the Trinity Bristle Snail, as an endangered species and expressly reaffirmed its status upon CESA’s enaction. The Trinity Bristle Snail’s endangered status is an explicit example of the Commission using its authority to protect terrestrial invertebrates under the section 45 definition of “fish.”

Additionally, the Court noted that previous caselaw directs it to construe laws providing for the conservation of natural resources liberally.

Construing CESA liberally, and considering the legislative intent behind CESA, the Court concluded that “a terrestrial invertebrate, like each of the four bumble bee species, may be listed as an endangered or threatened species under [CESA].”

— Jordan Wright

Third District Holds EIR’s Project Objectives Were Too Narrow and Recirculation Was Required Due to Increase in Significant and Unavoidable GHG Emissions

In We Advocate Through Environmental Review v. County of Siskiyou (2022) 78 Cal. App.5th 683, the Third District Court of Appeal held that Siskiyou County’s environmental analysis of a bottling plant was deficient because the project objectives were too narrow, and because the County failed to recirculate the EIR despite a discrepancy in the estimated carbon dioxide emissions from the draft EIR to the final EIR (FEIR). Though the discrepancy did not change the EIR’s ultimate conclusions, recirculation was necessary to provide the public with meaningful opportunity to review and comment on the project’s environmental impacts. In We Advocate Through Environmental Review v. City of Mount Shasta (April 12, 2022, No. C091012) ___ Cal.App.5th___ [2022 WL 1487832], petitioners challenged city’s approval of wastewater permit for the same project.

Background

Real Party in Interest, Crystal Geyser, purchased a non-operational bottling facility in Siskiyou County in 2013, seeking to revive the plant for beverage production. To initiate the project, Crystal Geyser requested permits from the County to build a caretaker’s residence, and the City of Mount Shasta for discharging wastewater into the City’s sewer system. Both permits were approved.

We Advocate Through Environmental Review and the Winnehem Wintu Tribe sued the County alleging the EIR violated CEQA because it (1) provided an inaccurate description of the project, (2) defined the project’s objectives in an impermissibly narrow manner, (3) improperly evaluated several of the project’s impacts, and (4) approved the project though it would be inconsistent with the County’s and City’s general plans.

The trial court rejected all of petitioners’ claims. This appeal followed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court in part, holding in the published portions of the decision that the project objectives were too narrow and that recirculation was required because the FEIR estimated that the project would generate significantly more carbon dioxide emissions than disclosed in the DEIR. The fact that the DEIR concluded that this impact was significant and unavoidable did not mean the increase in greenhouse gas emissions was “insignificant” under CEQA.

Project Objectives

The Court agreed with Appellant’s contention that the EIR defined the project objectives too narrowly, because the County defined the project objectives in a manner that precluded all alternatives other than the proposed project. For example, one objective was to “site the proposed facility at the Plant . . . to take advantage of the existing building, production well, and availability and high quality of existing spring water on the property.” Another objective aimed to “utilize the full production capacity of the existing plant based on its current size.” According to the Court, this narrow approach was unacceptable because it transformed the alternatives section of the EIR into an “empty formality,” rather than served the purpose of enabling meaningful environmental review of a project. The Court concluded the County’s error was prejudicial because it foreclosed viable alternatives.

Climate Change Impacts Analysis

Appellants challenged the EIR’s discussion and mitigation of climate change impacts, arguing (1) the County failed to recirculate the EIR to address the discrepancy in carbon dioxide emissions estimations between the DEIR and the FEIR, (2) the County failed to analyze foreseeable emissions from “preform” bottles, and (3) the EIR’s mitigation measures were not properly amended to reflect the emissions change from the DEIR to the FEIR.

The Court agreed that the County violated CEQA by failing to recirculate the EIR after changing the greenhouse gas emissions estimate from 35,486 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year in the DEIR, to 61,281 metric tons in the FEIR. The County argued recirculation was unnecessary because the impact remained above the “significant and unavoidable” threshold in both versions of the EIR. The Court held that the estimated increase of over 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year between the versions was significant enough to require recirculation, though it did not change the EIR’s ultimate conclusions. Failing to recirculate “wrongly deprived the public of a meaningful opportunity to comment on a project’s substantial environmental impacts.”

The Court rejected Appellants’ other arguments regarding climate change impacts. On the subject of “preforms,” the Court rejected Appellants’ argument because they failed to concretely show that “each preform that Crystal Geyser purchases for the project would necessarily be a preform that would not otherwise have been produced.” Additionally, the Court held that the mitigation measures were valid and enforceable because the County revised and reevaluated mitigation measures to reflect increased emissions in the FEIR.

— Jordan Wright

First District Holds Stipulated Federal Court Judgments Do Not Preclude Independent Review Under CEQA

In Tiburon Open Space Committee v. County of Marin (2022) 78 Cal.App.5th 700, the First District Court of Appeal held that Marin County properly limited the scope of its environmental review to comport with its legal obligations pursuant to two stipulated federal judgments. In the same vein, the Court rejected appellants’ claim challenging the scope of the EIR’s project description, which incorporated the constraints imposed by the judgments. The Court also rejected appellants’ claims that the County abused its discretion by rejecting a scaled down project alternative, and making several mitigation findings for impacts to traffic safety and density, a threatened species, and water supply and fire flow.

Background

Real Party in Interest, the Martha Company (Martha), owns a 110-acre property on a mountaintop in Marin County that overlooks the Town of Tiburon. For several decades, Martha attempted to develop single family homes on the property, yet all proposed projects befell to forceful opposition from residents of the Town of Tiburon and the County.

The current dispute is predated by two stints in federal court that resulted in stipulated judgements.

The first federal case occurred in 1975, when the County adopted a re-zoning measure that drastically reduced the number of residences Martha could build on the property from a minimum of 300 to a maximum of 34. Martha sued the County in federal district court, alleging the re-zoning constituted a regulatory taking of property. The case resolved in 1976 by stipulated settlement that (1) Martha could develop no fewer than 43 single family homes on a minimum of half-acre lots; (2) Martha could place some homes on portions of the property named the Ridge and the Upland Greenbelt; and (3) 43 single family homes on half-acre lots is consistent with the goals of the County’s general plan while allowing owners a feasible economic use of their property.

Between federal cases, Martha submitted a project proposal to the County, which directed Martha to file an application with the Town of Tiburon for approval. The Town conducted years of environmental study without rendering a decision, and eventually Martha withdrew its application. In 2005, Martha submitted a new project proposal. The County refused to process Martha’s second application just as it refused to process the first.

The County returned to federal court, seeking relief from the 1976 stipulated settlement. It alleged that California environmental laws had changed in the 30 years since 1976, such that it would be against public policy of the state to “allow a development of this magnitude, on environmentally sensitive and constrained land to proceed without the development and density being subject to CEQA review.” The district court dismissed the County’s complaint and granted the 2007 stipulated settlement, which set a timeline and procedures for enforcing the 1976 judgement.

Martha submitted a third development application for a 43-unit residential development project (the Project). The County circulated a draft EIR for the project in 2011.

In 2017, after years of administrative proceedings, further environmental review, and litigation concerning the project, Martha submitted a modified Master Plan of the development project to comply with the County Board of Supervisors’ request for a “more specific proposal.” Additionally, Martha agreed to a phased review of its development application. The Marin County Board of Supervisors certified the EIR by a 3-2 vote.

Tiburon Open Space Committee and the Town of Tiburon (collectively, the Town) each filed petitions for a Writ of Mandate against the County, alleging the EIR was legally inadequate in numerous respects, and the County’s review process was legally deficient. The trial court denied both petitions. The Town appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Implications of the Stipulated Judgments

The Town’s principal allegation was that the County violated CEQA by failing to exercise the full measure of its statutory discretion when it complied with the stipulated judgements. In essence, the Town claimed the County illegally “contracted away its police powers.”

The Court of Appeal rejected these claims, explaining that the Board proceeded “along lines that are in fact expressly embedded in CEQA,” and did not circumvent its obligations under the statute.

First, the Court concluded that the EIR was not a “pro forma” exercise, nor had a preordained outcome as the Town contends. The Court underscored the fact that the EIR underwent several revisions, spanned 850 pages, involved consultation with other agencies, provided meaningful opportunity for public review and comment, and cost considerable time and money. Furthermore, the County retained discretion to shape the contours of the Project during the later phases of approval. Specifically, the Court noted, the EIR proceedings were not “rushed, perfunctory, or short circuited” and were “utterly at odds with the conduct of a public entity that believed itself free to blow off CEQA.”

Second, the County appropriately limited its CEQA analysis to the scope of its discretionary authority. The Court cited Sequoyah Hills Homeowners Association v. City of Oakland (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 704 for the holding that an agency’s discretion under CEQA is limited by its own legal obligations. For example, the Court remarked that CEQA imposes a duty to mitigate environmental impacts only to the extent feasible. Applied here, the County had a legal obligation to comply with the conditions imposed by the stipulated judgements. Since the stipulated judgments limit the scope of the County’s discretion by requiring certain conditions for the project be met, they also limited the scope of its environmental review. Thus, while legally feasible alternatives and mitigation measures had to be examined by the County, alternatives or mitigation measures that contradicted its obligations under the stipulated judgements were legally infeasible and did not need to be examined. Accordingly, the Court held that the County’s approval of a project that complied with the conditions set by the stipulated settlements was proper.

The Town also raised a corollary argument that the stipulated judgements deprived the members of the County Board of Supervisors from exercising their “independent judgement.” The Court refuted this argument by highlighting its logical flaw; that is, if it can be said that federal judgements are not binding on a public official’s independent discretion, then it can equally be said that inconvenient provisions of state law, namely CEQA, are not binding on independent discretion either.

The Court therefore concluded that the EIR fulfilled the central purpose of CEQA to “disclose to the public the reasons why a governmental agency approved the project in the manner the agency chose,” and the County’s review process appropriately limited the scope of its environmental review to match its discretionary authority.

Project Description

The Court also rejected the Town’s claim that Final EIR’s 34-page project description was “artificially narrow” because it incorporated the legal constraints imposed by the stipulated judgments. The Court explained that the project description provided more detail than CEQA requires, and this argument was a mere variation of the claim that the County “abdicated” its responsibilities under CEQA by complying with the judgments—which it already rejected.

Alternatives

The Court held that the County did not abuse its discretion by rejecting a 32-unit alternative because that alternative was legally infeasible due to the legal requirements imposed by the stipulated judgments. It emphasized that an EIR is not required to review infeasible alternatives “even when such alternatives might be imagined to be environmentally superior.”

Environmental Impacts and Mitigation Findings

The Court of Appeal held that substantial evidence supported the County’s findings that several of the Project’s impacts would be mitigated to a less than significant level.

First, the Court upheld the County’s finding that traffic safety impacts could be mitigated by measures that required the Town to implement them—including removing traffic obstacles such as trash receptacles and enforcing speed limits on narrow winding road. The Court explained that CEQA only requires a “reasonable plan” for mitigation and allows for the approval of a project with a finding that mitigation should be adopted by another entity that has exclusive jurisdiction.

The Court also concluded that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s “level of service” (LOS) methodology for calculating the Project’s traffic density impacts, noting that LOS was an established standard required in the County. Quoting the trial court, the Court of Appeal held that the traffic analyst was entitled to rely on this methodology because it “had the prerogative to resolve conflicting factual conclusions” about the traffic congestion impacts of the Project.

The Court upheld the EIR’s use of best management practices (BMPs) for the mitigation of impacts on the threatened California red-legged frog. It explained that the BMPs did not defer mitigation, but rather qualified as “revisions in the project plans” agreed to by Martha because they were accepted as conditions of approval. Further, the Court noted, the BMPs were already in existence because they were included in the Project’s Stormwater Control Plan. Accordingly, the Court determined that the BMPs were incorporated by reference in the EIR.

The Town’s claims regarding the County’s water supply and fire flow mitigation measures were barred due to its failure to exhaust the issues during the County’s administrative process. The Court nonetheless concluded that the measures requiring Martha to work with local water and fire authorities were sufficient and would not allow Martha to do “nothing” because failing to comply would result in the County not issuing the permits required to proceed with the Project. The Court also concluded that the Town’s demand for more detail in the water supply plan went beyond what CEQA requires.

Lastly, the Court concluded that substantial evidence—specifically, construction and traffic experts’ opinions—supported the County’s determination that mitigation would reduce the Project’s safety impacts resulting from a temporary on-site construction road to less than significant. The Court explained that alternative evidence does not negate the substantial evidence that the County relied on, and that it is within the agency’s discretion to evaluate the credibility of such evidence. It also emphasized that the safety risks were limited to the workers building the Project, and CEQA only requires review of safety risks posed to the public in general.

The Court’s Closing Remarks

The Court of Appeal concluded its opinion by expressing its inclination to afford the trial court’s decision great weight in counties with designated CEQA judges. The Court also generally criticized the use of CEQA lawsuits as “tool[s] of obstruction,” especially for housing developments.

— Jordan Wright & Veronika Morrison

SECOND DISTRICT FINDS LOS ANGELES’S 15 PERCENT AFFORDABLE HOUSING SET-ASIDE INOPERATIVE

In AIDS Healthcare Foundation v. City of Los Angeles (2022) 78 Cal.App.5th 167, the Second District Court of Appeal rejected claims challenging the City of Los Angeles’s decision to approve the development of a large mixed-use apartment building in Hollywood. The court upheld the decision of the Superior Court, finding that a 15 percent low income set-aside requirement had been voided by 2011 legislation and, even if it had not, the set-aside requirement applied only to the aggregate amount of dwelling units within a planning area, not to individual projects.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In 1986, the (now dissolved) Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles (CRA-LA) established the “Hollywood Redevelopment Plan” (HRP) in accordance with the City of Los Angeles’s (City’s) “Community Redevelopment Law” (CRL). Both the HRP and CRL included a requirement that at least 15 percent of all new and rehabilitated dwelling units within a total project area be reserved for families of “low or moderate income.” However, the local redevelopment agencies charged with preparing and executing these plans had no power to tax, and instead funded their activities using “tax increment” financing.

Under this financing scheme, public entities that were entitled to receive property tax revenue received such revenues from properties within the planning area based on their assessed value prior to the effective date of the applicable redevelopment plan. Any tax revenue received in excess of that amount was a “tax increment.” However, in 2011, the Legislature enacted the “Dissolution Law,” which dissolved redevelopment agencies and repealed any provisions of the CRL that depended upon tax increment financing. “Successor agencies” acquired the former redevelopment agencies’ “housing functions and assets,” but were to have no “legal authority to participate in redevelopment activities, except to complete any work related to an approved enforceable obligation.”

In January 2019, the City’s Advisory Agency approved a tentative tract map for a 26-story mixed-use building on a 0.89-acre plot within the HRP planning area (developed by 6400 Sunset, LLC, the real party in interest). The project involves approximately 200 dwelling units, of which 5 percent will be reserved for “very low income households.” Coalition to Preserve LA (CPLA) appealed the Advisory Agency’s approval to the City Planning Commission, arguing that a reservation of only 5 percent of units for affordable housing would violate the CRL/HRP requirement of 15 percent. The Planning Commission denied CPLA’s appeal in March 2019. CPLA’s appeal of that decision, to the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, was also denied in June 2019.

In July 2019, CPLA (joined by AIDS Healthcare Foundation) filed a petition for writ of mandate. The superior court denied the petition on the grounds that the pertinent provisions of the CRL had been repealed and, even under the CRL’s language, the 15 percent requirement “need not be imposed on each individual project,” but only to buildings within the planning area “in the aggregate.” CPLA and AIDS Healthcare Foundation timely appealed.

THE COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION

The Court of Appeal agreed with the superior court on both counts, holding that the Dissolution Law had effectively repealed the 15 percent requirement and that, even if it had not, the requirement applied to the number of dwelling units within the CRL planning area as a whole—not individual projects.

Under the Dissolution Law, “all provisions of the [CRL] that depend on the allocation of tax increment to redevelopment agencies . . . shall be inoperative.” The court agreed that because enforcement of the 15 percent requirement depended upon redevelopment agencies, and redevelopment agencies in turn depended upon the funds supplied by the tax increment, this requirement was also rendered inoperative. The appellants countered that redevelopment agencies could raise funds by issuing bonds, but the court reasoned that “bonds . . . have to be repaid, and the former agencies repaid the bonds, generally, from the same source of funds used to pay other obligations—from the tax increment.”

The appellants also argued that the 15 percent requirement was an “enforceable obligation” under the Dissolution Law, which the successor agency (here, the City) was required to perform. The court, however, found that such obligations related only to “monetary and existing contractual obligations,” not to statutory affordable housing requirements. The appellants countered that the City, as the former CRA-LA’s successor agency, is not limited to the statutory powers enumerated under the CRL and, therefore, the 15 percent requirement could be enforced under the City’s “inherent police power.” The court remained unpersuaded. Even assuming that the City is CRA-LA’s successor agency, the Dissolution Law did not grant the successor any powers that the former redevelopment agency did not have (such as general police powers).

The court also rejected appellants’ argument that, even if the Dissolution Law rendered the CRL’s 15 percent requirement inoperative, the HRP’s own 15 percent requirement remained intact. According to the court, the HRP and its powers applied only to CRA-LA (not the City), and that agency was dissolved by the Dissolution Law.

Finally, beyond the nullifying effects of the Dissolution Law, the court held that under the plain language of both the CRL and HRP, the 15 percent requirement would apply only “in the aggregate,” and “not to each individual case of rehabilitation, development, or construction of dwelling units, unless an agency determines otherwise.” Because CRA-LA never determined otherwise, individual projects were not subject to a strict 15 percent minimum.

 —Griffin Williams

First District Holds Petitioner Exhausted Its Remedies by Raising General Objections That the Project Site Should Be Preserved as Open Space, Finds “No Project” Alternative Analysis Defective

In the published portions of Save the Hill Group v. City of Livermore (2022) 76 Cal.App.5th 1092, the First District Court of Appeal held that Petitioner Save the Hill’s failure to specifically reference the recirculated EIR or the no-project alternative in its comments to the City Council did not bar its CEQA claims regarding preservation of the Project site.

Background

This case involves the City of Livermore’s approval of a development application for a housing development in the Garaventa Hills. The Project underwent multiple revisions, and the Project at issue is a scaled-down version of the original 76-unit residential development. The final Project is a 44-unit development with pedestrian across Altamont creek that also serves as a secondary emergency vehicle access road. The City published a Recirculated Final EIR (RFEIR) for this final revised Project.

Save the Hill filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the City’s approval of the Project and certification of the RFEIR for failure to consider significant environmental impacts, adequately investigate and evaluate the no-project alternative, and mitigate significant environmental impacts. The trial court denied the petition, determining that Save the Hill failed to exhaust its administrative remedies in challenging the RFEIR. Save the Hill appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Exhaustion

The Court of Appeal held that Save the Hill did not fail to exhaust its administrative remedies before challenging the City’s failure to evaluate the no-project alternative. While Save the Hill did not mention the environmental documents or the lack of a no-project alternative specifically, it did express its desire to preserve the Project site as open space. The Court emphasized that CEQA does not require public interest groups such as Save the Hill—which are often unrepresented by counsel at administrative hearings—to do more than “fairly apprise” the agency of their complaints to preserve them for appeal.

Several Save the Hill representatives voiced support for preserving the Project site as open space in perpetuity at the City Council hearing for the RFEIR’s certification. These comments sparked questions from city councilmembers regarding the possibility of preserving the Project site and a discussion of available funding to purchase Garaventa Hills for conservation. This option was shut down by the City Attorney, who advised the City Council that its evaluation should be limited to the Project as set before them, and that if it were to change the zoning to permanent open space on the property, the City would likely face a takings lawsuit.

The Court determined that these comments and the ensuing discussion reflected the City Council’s consideration of a no-project alternative as a result of Save the Hill’s objections. It concluded that Save the Hill’s failure to specifically refer to the RFEIR’s Project alternatives evaluation was immaterial to the fact that it fairly appraised the City of its position. The court further explained that even if Save the Hill framed its arguments in the context of the RFEIR’s no-project alternative, “the evidence is overwhelmingly that, had it done so, the result would have been the same: [t]he City would have rejected the group’s proposal and certified the RFEIR” because it was improperly instructed to limit its focus to the presented Project.

Accordingly, the Court held that an exception to the exhaustion requirement applied because the aggrieved party—Save the Hill—could “positively state” what the lead agency’s decision would be in its particular case.

No Project Alternative Analysis

On the merits of Save the Hill’s alternative analysis claim, the Court held that the RFEIR failed to disclose and analyze information regarding the availability of funding sources that could have been used to purchase and permanently conserve the Project site. The Court explained that zoning changes are within the City’s police power, and the RFEIR accordingly should have discussed the feasibility of rezoning the site as permanent open space.

Mitigation Measures Adequacy

Save the Hill asserted that the mitigation measures for impacts to vernal pool fairy shrimp were inadequate because they would only be implemented if the fairy shrimp were detected at the site. The Court explained that CEQA allows deferred mitigation where the agency commits to achieving specific performance standards, which it did here, and that the mitigation measures were adequate because the RFEIR assumed that the fairy shrimp were present.

The Court also held that the preservation of an 85-acre compensatory mitigation site was adequate, despite Save the Hill’s contention that the City’s General Plan required the location to be preserved as open space. The Court concluded that the General Plan is “merely aspirational,” while the RFEIR’s mitigation measure created a “perpetual legal restraint on development” at the site, including requiring funding for upkeep and enforcement. Moreover, distinguishing this case from King & Gardiner Farms, LLC v. County of Kern (2020) 45 Cal.App.5th 814 (“King”), the Court explained that this Project involved the loss of only 32 acres—as opposed to the loss of 6,450 acres in King—and CEQA does not require mitigation measures to “completely eliminate the environmental impacts of a project.”

Hydrological Impacts Adequacy

The Court held that the City’s finding of no significant hydrological impacts was supported by substantial evidence because Save the Hill failed to refute the City’s points in its reply brief. The Court refused to afford any weight to Save the Hill’s argument that the Project would degrade downstream water quality because a larger development project (which originally included this Project) would have a significant downstream water quality impact. The Court determined that impacts from a project almost 200 acres larger than this Project were not relevant.

Settlement Agreement Obligation Claims

Lastly, the Court held that that Save the Hill forfeited its claim that the City violated CEQA by failing to preserve the Project site to satisfy its obligations under two settlement agreements by failing to raise the issue prior to appeal. Moreover, Save the Hill was not a party to either settlement agreement and thus lacked standing to enforce those obligations.

Second District Holds That Labor Union’s Interest in CEQA Action Was Not Sufficiently Direct and Immediate for Permissive Intervention

In South Coast Air Quality Management District v. City of Los Angeles (2021) 71 Cal.App.5th 314, the Second District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision to deny a labor union’s motion for permissive intervention in a CEQA case.

Background

This case involved the City of Los Angeles’s issuance of a permit authorizing a shipping company owned by the Chinese government to construction of a terminal within the Port of Los Angeles. In 2008, the City completed an EIR that concluded that the project would have significant and unavoidable environmental impacts. The EIR incorporated over 50 mitigation and lease measures to reduce these impacts.

In 2020, the City prepared a revised EIR that eliminated some of the mitigation measures required in the 2008 EIR. The revised EIR also concluded that the project would have significant, unavoidable, and increased impacts on air quality, and that it would exceed a threshold for cancer risk. The 2020 EIR did not contain enforcement provisions for the mitigation measures, did not require a lease amendment, and did not require the project applicant to implement or pay for the mitigation measures.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District filed a petition for writ of mandate, claiming that the City violated CEQA by failing to enforce the measures required by the 2008 EIR, and certifying the 2020 EIR, allowing the project to operate under allegedly inferior measures.

The petition named the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles City Council, the Los Angeles Harbor Department, and the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners as respondents, and several shipping companies as real parties in interest.

The California Attorney General and the California Air Resources Board sought permissive intervention pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 387, subdivisions (d)(1) and (d)(2). The trial court granted both parties’ motions.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Locals 13, 63, and 94 also sought permissive intervention, arguing that no existing party could advocate for its members’ interests adequately. Specifically, the Union claimed that it was the only party that could properly protect the 3,075 jobs at stake. The trial court denied the Union’s motion, determining that its interest was speculative and consequential, rather than direct and immediate, as required for permissive intervention. The Union appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s denial of the Union’s motion for permissive intervention. The court explained that pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 387, the statute for permissive intervention, there must be a balancing of the interests of those affected by a judgment against the interests of the original parties in pursuing their case unburdened by others. It also emphasized that trial courts are afforded broad discretion to strike this balance, and that the reviewing court reviews for abuse of discretion—reversing only if the appellant establishes the decision results in a miscarriage of justice or exceeds the bounds of reason.

The court further explained that the Union failed to articulate any unique interest that was not already represented by the other parties. The court found that the Union’s position on the merits was duplicative, that it had no concerns with the actual environmental analysis in the 2020 EIR, and that it was not the only party advocating for a remedy that did not result in a shut down of the project or rescission of its permits. Therefore, the Court of Appeal concluded that it was reasonable for the trial court to determine that the Union’s participation in the case would be largely cumulative and would unduly complicate an already complex case involving numerous parties, and to accordingly deny the Union’s motion for permissive intervention.

Third District Holds Order Requiring a Limited EIR Is Not an Appropriate Remedy Where a Project May Have Significant Impacts

In the published portions of Farmland Protection Alliance v. County of Yolo (2021) 71 Cal.App.5th 300, the Third District Court of Appeal held that a limited environmental impact report (“EIR”) is not an appropriate remedy where a court finds that substantial evidence supports a fair argument that the project might have a significant environmental impact.

Background

The Yolo County Board of Supervisors adopted a mitigated negative declaration and issued a conditional use permit for a bed and breakfast and commercial event facility on agriculturally-zoned property. Project opponents filed a lawsuit alleging, among other claims, that the MND was inadequate under CEQA. The trial court rejected most of petitioners’ claims but found substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the project may have a significant impact on three special-status species, and as the remedy, (1) ordered the County to prepare a limited EIR addressing only the project’s impacts on the three species, and (2) allowed the project to continue operations pending further environmental review.

Petitioners appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the court violated CEQA by ordering preparation of a limited EIR after its finding of potentially significant impacts, and allowing the project to continue operating while further environmental review was pending.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal held that Public Resources Code section 21168.9 does not authorize a court to split a project’s environmental review across two types of documents, such as a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration and an EIR. The court noted that while section 21168.9 is designed to provide a trial court with flexibility in crafting remedies to ensure compliance with CEQA, it does not authorize a court to circumvent CEQA’s mandatory provisions. According to the court, CEQA requires an agency to prepare a full EIR when substantial evidence supports a fair argument that any aspect of the project may have a significant effect on the environment. The Court of Appeal therefore found that the trial court erred by ordering preparation of a limited EIR after finding the fair argument test had been met as to impacts to the three species.

The Court of Appeal declined to consider petitioners’ argument that the trial court erred in allowing the project to operate while the limited EIR was being prepared. While the appeal was pending, the County filed a return to the peremptory writ of mandate stating the limited EIR ordered by the trial court had been certified.  As a result, the Court of Appeal determined the portion of the judgment allowing the project to continue to operate no longer had any effect, and therefore, the issue was moot.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Upholds Denial of Anti-SLAPP Motion to Strike Malicious Prosecution Claim in CEQA Lawsuit with Respect to Defendants, but Not Their Attorneys

In Dunning v. Johnson (2021) 64 Cal.App.5th 156, a project developer (“Cal Coast”) sued defendant Clews Horse Ranch (“the Ranch”) and its attorneys (“attorney defendants”) for malicious prosecution in response to the Ranch’s earlier lawsuit alleging that the City of San Diego violated CEQA by approving and adopting a mitigated negative declaration for Cal Coast’s project. In response, the defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which the trial court denied. The Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the motion’s denial with respect to the Ranch, but reversed the denial with respect to the attorney defendants.

Background

In the underlying action, Clews Land and Livestock, LLC v. City of San Diego (2017) 19 Cal.App.5th 161 (“Clews”), Cal Coast sought approval from the city to build and operate a school on its property, adjacent to Ranch property. Concluding that significant environmental impacts either were not present or would be mitigated, the city did not prepare an EIR. Instead, it adopted a MND and approved the project. The Ranch argued that the project would adversely affect the surrounding environment, that it would interfere with the Ranch’s operations, and that the city’s use of a MND was improper. The attorney defendants, on behalf of Ranch, appealed the approval of the project, but failed to timely appeal the city’s adoption of the MND. The city rejected the appeal.

The Ranch then sought a writ of mandate to compel the city to abandon the project and set aside the MND, arguing that the city’s procedure for preparing and adopting the MND violated CEQA. Additionally, it challenged the city’s appeal process for environmental findings. The trial court denied recovery on both procedural and substantive grounds, and the court of appeal affirmed.

Upon the conclusion of Clews, Cal Coast brought a malicious prosecution action against the Ranch and the Ranch’s attorneys, alleging that the CEQA action had been brought for an improper purpose. Cal Coast alleged that the Ranch simply sought to prevent or delay the project and preserve the Ranch owner’s privacy to enable criminal activity on the premises. (The Ranch owner pled guilty and was sentenced to prison in 2018 for child pornography charges.) Cal Coast also argued that the attorney defendants had maintained the case in an effort to force the Project’s abandonment, hoping to avoid a legal malpractice claim or a complaint to the State Bar for their failure to timely appeal the adoption of the MND. The defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion to strike the malicious prosecution claim. The trial court denied the anti-SLAPP motion and the defendants appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Opinion

To defeat the anti-SLAPP motion, Cal Coast simply needed to show minimal merit in its malicious prosecution claims that the CEQA action in Clews was brought without probable cause and with malice. This court held that Cal Coast met its burden with respect to the probable cause question. However, it concluded that Cal Coast could only point to evidence of malicious action by the Ranch, and not by the attorney defendants.

The court emphasized evidence in the administrative record showing that the Ranch’s concerns about the project were rooted in its potential impacts on the Ranch specifically, rather than on the environment. The Ranch’s concerns were therefore not within the scope of CEQA. The court additionally noted that the Ranch generally did not point to substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project could have a significant environmental impact. Under Preserve Poway v. City of Poway (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 560, this showing is required to establish a MND’s insufficiency. The speculation, arguments, and opinions posited by the Ranch did not constitute substantial evidence. The court therefore concluded that Cal Coast established a probability for prevailing on the question of probable cause.

The court also noted the Ranch’s aggressive and consistent efforts to oppose any use of the proposed project site, including by prior owners of the property. It thus concluded that Cal Coast introduced sufficient evidence of the Ranch’s malice to survive the anti-SLAPP motion with respect to the Ranch. However, the court determined that there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that the attorney defendants acted maliciously, as there was no indication that the attorneys were actually aware of either the Ranch’s improper motives or the untenability of the Ranch’s claim. Cal Coast’s speculation that the attorney defendants were merely acting to avoid a malpractice claim or a State Bar complaint was insufficient to support a finding that the attorney defendants acted maliciously in maintaining the CEQA claims in Clews.

– Louisa I. Rogers

SB 7 – Jobs and Economic Improvement Through Environmental Leadership Act of 2021

On May 20, 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill (SB) 7, known as the Housing + Jobs Expansion & Extension Act. SB 7 extends the provisions of legislation enacted in 2011 (Assembly Bill 900) that created an expedited judicial review process under CEQA for large development projects that met certain criteria. AB 900 was repealed by its own terms on January 1, 2021.

SB 7 reenacts and updates AB 900 in order to “expedite the development and construction of urgently needed housing, clean energy, low carbon, and environmentally-beneficial projects, and the jobs they create.” The bill notes that numerous large projects under consideration in California have the potential to create thousands of high-skill, high-wage jobs. Many of these projects will replace old and outdated facilities with newer, cleaner, and innovative facilities that will lead the nation in environmental impact mitigation and reduction.

Thus the bill streamlines and facilitates development projects in a number of ways. First, the Governor may certify a project before the lead agency certifies a final EIR. Second, the environmental review, administrative process, and record of proceedings may be prepared concurrently. Third, the project applicant must agree to pay trial court costs if the lead agency’s certification is challenged. Fourth, to the extent feasible, judicial review of lead agency action must conclude within 270 days once commenced. Finally, the Bill extends the benefits of AB 900 to those projects that were certified by the Governor before AB 900’s expiration and by the lead agency within one year of AB 900’s expiration.

In order to be eligible for streamlined certification, a project must fall into at least one of the following categories. It must be on an infill site, certified as LEED Gold (or better), and able to achieve a 15% improvement in transportation efficiency. Or it must be a clean energy project that either generates power exclusively through wind or solar energy or manufactures equipment used in renewable energy production. Or it must be a housing project on an infill site that will dedicate at least 15% of the development to affordable and low-income housing. Although it may include mixed-use development—assuming at least two-thirds is residential—or transitional housing, no part of a certified housing project may be used for transient lodging, manufacturing, or industrial uses.

Regardless of the category it falls into, the project must meet certain criteria. First, it must result in at least $100 million in investment in California (except for housing projects, which must result in an investment of between $15 million and $100 million). It must also create high-wage and high-skill jobs that help reduce unemployment and encourage apprenticeship training. And, at a minimum, it must not lead to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions, including from employee transportation. Finally, the project applicant must agree to monitoring and enforcement of its mitigation efforts by the lead agency.

SB 7 aims to boost California’s economic recovery by creating more and better housing and jobs, and doing so in an environmentally sustainable way. As Governor Newsom noted when he signed the legislation, “California’s recovery from the pandemic must tackle the housing shortage that threatens our economic growth and long-term prosperity. Cutting red tape to save time and remove barriers to production helps us meet the urgent need for more housing while creating good jobs and preserving important environmental review.” Indeed, AB 900 had already led to roughly twenty major clean energy and housing projects, 10,000 housing units, and thousands of high paying jobs. Proponents of SB 7 hope its passage will continue this trend.

The Governor’s press release is available here: https://www.gov.ca.gov/2021/05/20/in-san-jose-governor-newsom-signs-legislation-to-fast-track-key-housing-economic-development-projects-in-california/

– Blake C. Hyde