Court holds that only agency decisionmaking bodies may certify the project’s EIR

In California Clean Energy Committee v. City of San Jose (2013) ___Cal.App.4th___ (Case No. CV212623), the city of San Jose prepared an environmental impact report for Envision San Jose, a comprehensive update of the city’s general plan. CCEC submitted a comment letter criticizing the project and the draft EIR’s analysis, arguing that the draft should be recirculated. The planning commission certified the EIR without recirculation. CCEC did not appeal the decision. CCEC subsequently submitted a letter to the city’s planning department but did not mention any deficiencies in the final EIR or the certification process. The city council thereafter independently reviewed, analyzed, and certified the final EIR. CCEC sued, the trial court granted the city’s motion for summary judgment, and CCEC appealed.

CCEC argued that the city planning commission’s certification of the final EIR was unlawful because the planning commission had no approval authority over the project.   The Court of Appeal agreed. The CEQA Guidelines prohibit the decisionmaking body of a public agency from delegating review of a final EIR to a nondecisionmaking body. The planning commission was not a decisionmaking body for the project because it could not to approve or disapprove the project. The court rejected the city’s contention that its certification process was bifurcated, since bifurcation would allow a decisionmaking body to be bound by a finding made by a nonelected, nondecisionmaking body. This process would skirt the purpose of CEQA by segregating environmental review of the EIR from project approval.  Because the planning commission did not have the authority to certify the EIR, the court held that CCEC did not need to take an administrative appeal against the commission in order to exhaust its administrative remedies. The court of appeal reversed the judgment of the trial court, effectively sending the matter back to the trial court to consider the merits of CCEC’s petition.