Second District Court of Appeal Upholds Dismissal of CEQA Action as Untimely

On April 2, 2020, the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District in Coalition for an Equitable Westlake/Macarthur Park v. City of Los Angeles (B293327) affirmed the trial court’s decision sustaining a demurrer without leave to amend because the petitioner’s claims were barred by the famously short statute of limitations for actions brought under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.).

On March 3, 2017, after holding a public hearing, the advisory agency for the City of Los Angeles approved a vesting tentative tract map for the Lake on Wilshire Project, a mixed-use project consisting of a hotel, a residential tower, and a multi-purpose center with a theater. Prior to approving the tentative map, the advisory agency adopted a mitigated negative declaration. The city filed a notice of determination (“NOD”) on March 15, 2017.

Subsequently, on October 12, 2017, the planning commission approved conditional use permits for the project—finding that no subsequent review was required. Two tenants of an existing building on the project site appealed the planning commission’s decision. The city council denied the appeals on January 31, 2018, and further adopted a resolution approving general plan amendments in connection with the project.

On March 2, 2018, the petitioner filed a petition for writ of mandamus challenging the approval of the MND as violating CEQA. The city and real parties in interest filed a demurrer. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend on the grounds that the petitioner’s claims were time-barred under CEQA for failure to seek relief within 30 days after the NOD was filed on March 15, 2017.

In holding that the petitioner’s suit was untimely, the court found that application of the statute of limitations bar to the petitioner’s challenge was straightforward. The petitioner did not bring the CEQA action until March 2, 2018, nearly a year after the city approved the tentative map and posted the NOD. The court explained that there were only two situations where the filing of a NOD would not trigger CEQA’s statute of limitations—if the NOD is invalid on its face because the information required by the CEQA Guidelines is missing or incorrect, or where the NOD is filed before a decision-making body has approved the project. The court found neither of those circumstances existed.

Rather, the petitioner had attacked the validity of the NOD based on the advisory agency’s authority to make CEQA finding, including that: (1) the planning commission (not the advisory agency) was responsible for initial project approval and CEQA review; (2) the advisory agency lacked authority under the municipal code to make CEQA findings; (3) the advisory agency’s CEQA decisions were not properly appealable to an elected body; and (4) the authority to approve the project was improperly bifurcated from the authority for CEQA approval. In rejecting this argument, the court, quoting the California Supreme Court’s decision in Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton (2010) 48 Cal.4th 481, 499, stated that the petitioner ‘confuses the timeliness of a lawsuit with its merits.’” To the extent a petitioner wished to challenge the advisory agency’s authority to make the initial project approval or adopt the MND, the court held that those arguments needed to be made within the applicable statute of limitations period. Because they were not, the petitioner was precluded from raising such arguments.