Second District Court of Appeal Holds That Placing a Measure on the Ballot to Establish a Competitive Bidding Process for a City’s Future Waste Disposal Contracts Does Not Constitute a “Project” Under CEQA.

On October 23, 2012, the Second District Court of Appeal issued its decision in Chung v. City of Monterey Park (2012))       Cal.App.4th     (Case No. B233859).  The court held that a city council’s approval of a ballot measure seeking voter approval of a competitive bidding process for residential trash service was not a “project” within the meaning of the CEQA.

Factual and Procedural Background

The Monterey Park City Council voted to place Measure BB on the March 8, 2011 municipal ballot without performing any type of environmental review under CEQA.  No initial study was prepared, and there was no Notice of Exemption.  Measure BB requires that the City seek competitive bids for trash service when the City’s current contract expires in 2017, and thereafter requires that the City competitively bid for trash service every five years.  Opponents of Measure BB argued that the measure was a “project” under CEQA and that environmental review was required before the measure could be placed on the ballot.  Measure BB, among other things, would require the City Council to award the residential solid waste franchise to a single franchisee, but the City Council would also have the discretion to award the commercial solid waste franchise to up to three franchisees.  Therefore, Measure BB raised concerns about air quality, noise pollution and road damage that would likely result from an increase in the size of the solid waste contractor fleet serving the City. On March 8, 2011, City voters approved Measure BB, with over 71 percent voting in favor of establishing a competitive bidding process. 

Wing Chung, a city resident, filed a petition for writ of mandate, alleging that Measure BB was a “project” subject to CEQA, and that the City violated CEQA by failing to make any decision as to whether Measure BB would have a significant impact upon the environment, failing to consider any alternatives or mitigation measures, and failing to conduct the requisite informed decision-making under CEQA. 

The trial court disagreed and determined that Measure BB was not a “project” within the meaning of CEQA and therefore the measure did not require environmental review before being placed on the ballot.  

Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal began its analysis by navigating through the statutory definition of a “project” and the extensive case law on the subject. Citing CEQA Guidelines section 15378, subdivision (b)(4), the court noted that the definition of a  “project” does not include the “creation of government funding mechanisms or other government fiscal activities, which do not involve any commitment to any specific project which may result in a potentially significant physical impact on the environment.” The court determined that placing the ballot measure on the ballot fit within that definition. The ballot measure merely established a competitive bidding process for future waste services contracts, and the new manner of awarding such contracts is a fiscal activity that does not involve a commitment to a specific project. As such, the measure is not a project within the meaning of CEQA.

The court placed emphasis on distinguishing the seminal case Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116, where the City of West Hollywood conditionally agreed to allow a private developer to redevelop property for senior housing predicated on future compliance with CEQA. There, the fatal flaw in the City of West Hollywood’s decision was that the city had “committed itself to a definite course of action regarding the project before fully evaluating its environmental effects.” (Id. at p. 142.) The court explained that this case was different because the City has not committed itself to any particular course of action. Measure BB does not require the City to select more than one service provider and does not preclude the City from providing solid waste services by itself. 

In addition, the court noted that Measure BB requires the City Council to hold one or more public hearings before deciding whether to grant one or more solid waste franchises.  Thus, at the time Chung filed the lawsuit it was unknowable which companies would bid on the contract, what additional trucks would be required (if any), or what significant impacts the City’s choice of service provider(s) may have in 2017.  The court held that, at this juncture, environmental review of Measure BB would be meaningless because there is simply not enough specific information about the various courses of action available to the City to warrant review at this time.