Citizens for a Green San Mateo v. San Mateo County Community College District

(2014) 226 Cal.App.4th 1572

The First District Court of Appeal determined that a petitioner’s lawsuit involving the removal of trees on a college campus was time-barred under CEQA’s statute of limitations. The case, which was filed June 17, 2014, shows the importance of filing timely CEQA lawsuits.

The controversy arose when the San Mateo Community College District removed and pruned more than 200 eucalyptus trees on the northern edge of the its campus. The district began removing trees on December 28, 2010. Citizens for a Green San Mateo petitioned the trial court for a writ of mandate on July 1, 2011, alleging that the district violated CEQA and was required to prepare an EIR to study the tree removal. The trial court found the challenge timely and granted the petition, finding the district violated CEQA. On appeal, the district argued the 30-day statute of limitations period established by Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivisions (b) or (e) applied to bar the CEQA lawsuit because the district filed a Notice of Determination. The NOD described the mitigated negative declaration prepared by the district when it approved an overall community college expansion project in 2007. The negative declaration determined that the proposed project would result in the removal and pruning of an unknown number of trees, but that tree plantings would mitigate any unavoidable tree removal, resulting in a less than significant impact.

The appellate court rejected the petitioner’s claim that the tree removal was “materially different” from the activities discussed in the mitigated negative declaration and subsequent NOD. The court emphasized that the term “project,” for the purposes of CEQA, does not mean each separate governmental approval that may ultimately be required to complete the proposed action. The court concluded that the record demonstrated the tree removal was a subsequent activity encompassed within the scope of the overall expansion project. Since the district filed an NOD recording its approval of the expansion project, and the public was on notice that trees could be removed anywhere on campus as a result of expansion project, the 30-day statute of limitations established by section 21167, subdivisions (b) and (e) applied to bar the lawsuit.

The court went on to determine that even if the 180-day limitations period, which applies when no NOD is filed, applied to this case, the suit was still time-barred because the district committed to the tree removal at a public meeting November 17, 2010, and the petitioner did not file for a writ with the trial court until July 1, 2011. The appellate court emphasized that section 21167, subdivision (a), does not require any special notice requirement to start the 180-day clock; all that is required is a formal decision by a public agency to carry out or approve the project. Therefore, the petition was time-barred, even assuming the tree removal was not described in the mitigated negative declaration certified for the campus expansion project.

(RMM attorneys James G. Moose, Sabrina V. Teller and John T. Wheat represented the San Mateo Community College District.)