On June 14, 2012, the California Supreme Court decided Tomlinson v. County of Alameda (Case No. S188161), holding that the requirement for exhaustion of administrative remedies found in Public Resources Code section 21177, subdivision (a) of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) applies to an agency’s decision that a project is categorically exempt from compliance with CEQA, so long as the public agency gives notice of the grounds for its exemption determination, and that determination is preceded by a public hearing at which members of the public had the opportunity to raise objections to the project.
In its decision the Court carefully considered conflicting holdings in Azusa Land Reclamation Co. v. Main San Gabriel Basin Watermaster (1997) 52 Cal.App.4th 1165 and Hines v. California Coastal Commission (2010) 186 Cal.App.4th 830.
Azusa held that section 21177’s exhaustion requirement does not apply to a challenge to a public agency’s decision that a project is categorically exempt from CEQA compliance, whereas Hines held to the contrary.
Procedurally, the issue is that while section 21777 requires that petitioners exhaust their administrative remedies during the public comment period or during a public hearing on the project before issuance of a notice of determination, CEQA does not provide for a public comment period prior to an agency’s determination of a categorical exemption. Further, no public hearing typically precedes the agency’s notice of determination in this situation, because a notice of determination is not generally filed for a categorical exemption.
Under Hines, an exhaustion provision does apply for categorical exemptions, where there was ample notice of a public hearing. The Court followed Hines rather than Azusa because it found that in this case, as in Hines, the agency did hold public hearings on the project which gave interested parties the opportunity to raise objections to the project before the agency’s exemption finding.
The Supreme Court did not reach the petitioners’ arguments that the public agency’s description of the requirements for the infill exemption was misleading, where the County omitted any mention of the infill exemption’s criterion requiring that the project be located “within city limits.” In Tomlinson, the County did not quote the full language in CEQA Guidelines section 15332 in any of its notices and staff reports. Instead, it substituted “in an established urban area” for the exemption’s language “within city limits” in all of its summaries of the exemption criteria in project materials. Petitioners asserted that this substitution misled and prevented them from raising the specific issue of whether the “city limits” restriction disqualified the project from using the infill exemption. The Court also did not address the argument that the petitioner’s extensive objections to the project on multiple issues at public hearings were sufficient to satisfy the exhaustion requirement.
The Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeal to determine whether the claims the petitioners raised were adequate to put the County on notice that the infill exemption did not apply, and whether the County’s omission of key criteria for a categorical exemption excuses the petitioner’s duty to exhaust on that issue.
This case continues to have important precedential value: it is still important to resolve whether an agency must provide full and accurate information in order to successfully assert the affirmative defense of failure to exhaust administrative remedies in CEQA litigation. The Tomlinson petitioners were represented by RMM partner Sabrina V. Teller.