In Tiburon Open Space Committee v. County of Marin (2022) 78 Cal.App.5th 700, the First District Court of Appeal held that Marin County properly limited the scope of its environmental review to comport with its legal obligations pursuant to two stipulated federal judgments. In the same vein, the Court rejected appellants’ claim challenging the scope of the EIR’s project description, which incorporated the constraints imposed by the judgments. The Court also rejected appellants’ claims that the County abused its discretion by rejecting a scaled down project alternative, and making several mitigation findings for impacts to traffic safety and density, a threatened species, and water supply and fire flow.
Real Party in Interest, the Martha Company (Martha), owns a 110-acre property on a mountaintop in Marin County that overlooks the Town of Tiburon. For several decades, Martha attempted to develop single family homes on the property, yet all proposed projects befell to forceful opposition from residents of the Town of Tiburon and the County.
The current dispute is predated by two stints in federal court that resulted in stipulated judgements.
The first federal case occurred in 1975, when the County adopted a re-zoning measure that drastically reduced the number of residences Martha could build on the property from a minimum of 300 to a maximum of 34. Martha sued the County in federal district court, alleging the re-zoning constituted a regulatory taking of property. The case resolved in 1976 by stipulated settlement that (1) Martha could develop no fewer than 43 single family homes on a minimum of half-acre lots; (2) Martha could place some homes on portions of the property named the Ridge and the Upland Greenbelt; and (3) 43 single family homes on half-acre lots is consistent with the goals of the County’s general plan while allowing owners a feasible economic use of their property.
Between federal cases, Martha submitted a project proposal to the County, which directed Martha to file an application with the Town of Tiburon for approval. The Town conducted years of environmental study without rendering a decision, and eventually Martha withdrew its application. In 2005, Martha submitted a new project proposal. The County refused to process Martha’s second application just as it refused to process the first.
The County returned to federal court, seeking relief from the 1976 stipulated settlement. It alleged that California environmental laws had changed in the 30 years since 1976, such that it would be against public policy of the state to “allow a development of this magnitude, on environmentally sensitive and constrained land to proceed without the development and density being subject to CEQA review.” The district court dismissed the County’s complaint and granted the 2007 stipulated settlement, which set a timeline and procedures for enforcing the 1976 judgement.
Martha submitted a third development application for a 43-unit residential development project (the Project). The County circulated a draft EIR for the project in 2011.
In 2017, after years of administrative proceedings, further environmental review, and litigation concerning the project, Martha submitted a modified Master Plan of the development project to comply with the County Board of Supervisors’ request for a “more specific proposal.” Additionally, Martha agreed to a phased review of its development application. The Marin County Board of Supervisors certified the EIR by a 3-2 vote.
Tiburon Open Space Committee and the Town of Tiburon (collectively, the Town) each filed petitions for a Writ of Mandate against the County, alleging the EIR was legally inadequate in numerous respects, and the County’s review process was legally deficient. The trial court denied both petitions. The Town appealed.
The Court of Appeal’s Decision
Implications of the Stipulated Judgments
The Town’s principal allegation was that the County violated CEQA by failing to exercise the full measure of its statutory discretion when it complied with the stipulated judgements. In essence, the Town claimed the County illegally “contracted away its police powers.”
The Court of Appeal rejected these claims, explaining that the Board proceeded “along lines that are in fact expressly embedded in CEQA,” and did not circumvent its obligations under the statute.
First, the Court concluded that the EIR was not a “pro forma” exercise, nor had a preordained outcome as the Town contends. The Court underscored the fact that the EIR underwent several revisions, spanned 850 pages, involved consultation with other agencies, provided meaningful opportunity for public review and comment, and cost considerable time and money. Furthermore, the County retained discretion to shape the contours of the Project during the later phases of approval. Specifically, the Court noted, the EIR proceedings were not “rushed, perfunctory, or short circuited” and were “utterly at odds with the conduct of a public entity that believed itself free to blow off CEQA.”
Second, the County appropriately limited its CEQA analysis to the scope of its discretionary authority. The Court cited Sequoyah Hills Homeowners Association v. City of Oakland (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 704 for the holding that an agency’s discretion under CEQA is limited by its own legal obligations. For example, the Court remarked that CEQA imposes a duty to mitigate environmental impacts only to the extent feasible. Applied here, the County had a legal obligation to comply with the conditions imposed by the stipulated judgements. Since the stipulated judgments limit the scope of the County’s discretion by requiring certain conditions for the project be met, they also limited the scope of its environmental review. Thus, while legally feasible alternatives and mitigation measures had to be examined by the County, alternatives or mitigation measures that contradicted its obligations under the stipulated judgements were legally infeasible and did not need to be examined. Accordingly, the Court held that the County’s approval of a project that complied with the conditions set by the stipulated settlements was proper.
The Town also raised a corollary argument that the stipulated judgements deprived the members of the County Board of Supervisors from exercising their “independent judgement.” The Court refuted this argument by highlighting its logical flaw; that is, if it can be said that federal judgements are not binding on a public official’s independent discretion, then it can equally be said that inconvenient provisions of state law, namely CEQA, are not binding on independent discretion either.
The Court therefore concluded that the EIR fulfilled the central purpose of CEQA to “disclose to the public the reasons why a governmental agency approved the project in the manner the agency chose,” and the County’s review process appropriately limited the scope of its environmental review to match its discretionary authority.
The Court also rejected the Town’s claim that Final EIR’s 34-page project description was “artificially narrow” because it incorporated the legal constraints imposed by the stipulated judgments. The Court explained that the project description provided more detail than CEQA requires, and this argument was a mere variation of the claim that the County “abdicated” its responsibilities under CEQA by complying with the judgments—which it already rejected.
The Court held that the County did not abuse its discretion by rejecting a 32-unit alternative because that alternative was legally infeasible due to the legal requirements imposed by the stipulated judgments. It emphasized that an EIR is not required to review infeasible alternatives “even when such alternatives might be imagined to be environmentally superior.”
Environmental Impacts and Mitigation Findings
The Court of Appeal held that substantial evidence supported the County’s findings that several of the Project’s impacts would be mitigated to a less than significant level.
First, the Court upheld the County’s finding that traffic safety impacts could be mitigated by measures that required the Town to implement them—including removing traffic obstacles such as trash receptacles and enforcing speed limits on narrow winding road. The Court explained that CEQA only requires a “reasonable plan” for mitigation and allows for the approval of a project with a finding that mitigation should be adopted by another entity that has exclusive jurisdiction.
The Court also concluded that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s “level of service” (LOS) methodology for calculating the Project’s traffic density impacts, noting that LOS was an established standard required in the County. Quoting the trial court, the Court of Appeal held that the traffic analyst was entitled to rely on this methodology because it “had the prerogative to resolve conflicting factual conclusions” about the traffic congestion impacts of the Project.
The Court upheld the EIR’s use of best management practices (BMPs) for the mitigation of impacts on the threatened California red-legged frog. It explained that the BMPs did not defer mitigation, but rather qualified as “revisions in the project plans” agreed to by Martha because they were accepted as conditions of approval. Further, the Court noted, the BMPs were already in existence because they were included in the Project’s Stormwater Control Plan. Accordingly, the Court determined that the BMPs were incorporated by reference in the EIR.
The Town’s claims regarding the County’s water supply and fire flow mitigation measures were barred due to its failure to exhaust the issues during the County’s administrative process. The Court nonetheless concluded that the measures requiring Martha to work with local water and fire authorities were sufficient and would not allow Martha to do “nothing” because failing to comply would result in the County not issuing the permits required to proceed with the Project. The Court also concluded that the Town’s demand for more detail in the water supply plan went beyond what CEQA requires.
Lastly, the Court concluded that substantial evidence—specifically, construction and traffic experts’ opinions—supported the County’s determination that mitigation would reduce the Project’s safety impacts resulting from a temporary on-site construction road to less than significant. The Court explained that alternative evidence does not negate the substantial evidence that the County relied on, and that it is within the agency’s discretion to evaluate the credibility of such evidence. It also emphasized that the safety risks were limited to the workers building the Project, and CEQA only requires review of safety risks posed to the public in general.
The Court’s Closing Remarks
The Court of Appeal concluded its opinion by expressing its inclination to afford the trial court’s decision great weight in counties with designated CEQA judges. The Court also generally criticized the use of CEQA lawsuits as “tool[s] of obstruction,” especially for housing developments.
— Jordan Wright & Veronika Morrison