Posts Tagged ‘CEQA’


2017 CEQA Case Law: The Year in Review

December 28th, 2017 by Sara Dudley

2017 CEQA Case Law: The Year in Review

2017 was a busy year in CEQA jurisprudence, with over two dozen published cases. Below is a list of the most significant, with links to the full case summaries from the RMM blog.

Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (2017) __Cal.App.5th­­__ (Case No. B280815)

In a partially published decision filed December 4, 2017, the Second District Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s judgment and order on remand in Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (2017) __Cal.App.5th­­__ (Case No. B280815). The court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in decertifying only the affected sections of the EIR, enjoining all project construction, and suspending some (but not all) of the project approvals. This CEQA remedy also provided adequate relief for violations of the Fish and Game Code.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/12/second-district-upholds-limited-writ-in-second-newhall-ranch-appeal/

Monterey Coastkeeper v. Monterey Water Resources Agency (2017) ___ Cal.App.5th ___ (Case No. H042623)

In Monterey Coastkeeper v. Monterey Water Resources Agency (2017) ___ Cal.App.5th ___ (Case No. H042623), the Sixth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment granting Monterey Coastkeeper’s petition for writ of mandate for violation of section 13260 of the Porter-Cologne Act (failure to file a report of waste discharge), holding that the petitioner had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/12/sixth-district-court-of-appeal-holds-breach-of-public-trust-doctrine-claim-not-ripe-for-adjudication-in-the-absence-of-petitioners-exhaustion-of-its-administrative-remedies/

Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 413

On November 11, 2017, the Fourth District, Division One in Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 413 (Cleveland II), resolved the remaining issues on remand from California Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year. The court found that the EIR’s analysis of impacts and mitigation measures for air quality and impacts to agricultural land were insufficient and not supported by substantial evidence.

Case summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/12/on-remand-fourth-district-determines-that-case-challenging-sandags-rtp-is-not-mooted-by-later-eir-and-resolves-ceqa-issues-on-the-merits/

Washoe Meadows Community v. Department of Parks and Recreation (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 277.

In Washoe Meadows Community v. Department of Parks and Recreation (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 277, the First District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision directing the Department of Parks and Recreation and the State Park and Recreation Commission to set aside project approvals where the draft EIR analyzed five alternative projects in detail, but did not identify one preferred alternative.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/11/in-a-case-of-first-impression-first-district-court-of-appeal-holds-that-presentation-of-five-alternatives-in-eir-without-designation-of-one-as-the-project-does-not-satisfy-ceqa/

Association of Irritated Residents v. Kern County Board of Supervisors (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 708.

On November 21, 2017, the Fifth District partially published its decision in Association of Irritated Residents v. Kern County Board of Supervisors (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 708. The published sections covered arguments about the baseline used for the oil refinery modification project, the mitigation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the extent to which federal preemption precludes aspects of CEQA review of project impacts. In reversing the trial court’s judgment denying the petition for writ of mandate, the Court of Appeal upheld the EIR’s treatment of the project baseline and GHG emissions but determined that the county erred in relying on federal preemption to avoid analyzing and mitigating impacts from off-site rail activities.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/11/fifth-district-court-of-appeal-approves-of-oil-refinery-eirs-use-of-cap-and-trade-program-to-mitigate-ghg-emissions-but-disapproves-of-kern-countys-reliance-on-federal-preemption-in/

Kennedy Commission v. City of Huntington Beach (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 841

On October 31, 2017 in Kennedy Commission v. City of Huntington Beach  (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 841, the Fourth Appellate District reversed the lower court, finding that the city was a charter city, and thus exempt from the requirement that zoning ordinances and specific plans be consistent with the general plan.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/11/fourth-district-rejects-challenge-to-the-city-of-huntington-beachs-housing-element-applying-charter-city-exemption/

Highway 68 Coalition v. County of Monterey (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 883

The Sixth District Court of Appeal held in the partially-published opinion, Highway 68 Coalition v. County of Monterey (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 883, that general plan consistency is not a CEQA issue, and therefore mandate procedures for CEQA violations are inapplicable.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/11/sixth-district-court-of-appeal-upholds-trial-courts-use-of-interlocutory-remand-on-determination-regarding-general-plan-consistency/

Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 187

On October 16, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal published its decision in Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 187, upholding the San Francisco County Superior Court’s denial of a petition for writ of mandate challenging the Judicial Council of California’s decision to certify a Final EIR and approve the New Placerville Courthouse Project.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/10/first-district-court-of-appeal-upholds-judicial-council-of-californias-determination-that-closure-of-downtown-placerville-courthouse-would-not-lead-to-significant-urban-decay-impacts/

Protect Telegraph Hill v. City and County of San Francisco (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 261

In Protect Telegraph Hill v. City and County of San Francisco (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 261, the First District Court of Appeal, Division Three, upheld the City and County of San Francisco’s finding that a conditional use authorization for the restoration of a small cottage and construction of a three-unit condominium on Telegraph Hill was categorically exempt from CEQA, and found that the city’s conditions of approval relating to construction were not mitigation for pedestrian and traffic impacts.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/10/first-district-upholds-categorical-exemption-with-conditions-of-approval-and-conditional-use-authorization-for-residential-project-on-infill-site-in-transit-priority-area/

Pesticide Action Network North America v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 224

In Pesticide Action Network North America v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 224 (republished as modified), the First Appellate District reversed the Alameda Superior Court and found that environmental documents prepared by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, regarding amended labelling for two pesticides, inadequately analyzed potential impacts on honeybees. The court held that the Department was required to analyze the environmental baseline, alternatives, and cumulative impacts in documents promulgated under CEQA’s exemption for certified regulatory programs (CRP).

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/10/first-circuit-finds-environmental-review-under-certified-regulatory-program-inadequate/

Respect Life South San Francisco v. City of South San Francisco (2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 449

In Respect Life South San Francisco v. City of South San Francisco (2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 449, the First District Court of Appeal, Division One, upheld the City of South San Francisco’s (City) finding that a conditional use permit for the conversion of an office building into a medical clinic was categorically exempt from CEQA, as well as the City’s implied finding that the unusual circumstances exception did not apply.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/09/first-district-upholds-categorical-exemption-for-planned-parenthood-clinic-and-implied-finding-of-no-unusual-circumstances-under-the-fair-argument-test/

Bridges v. Mt. San Jacinto Community College District (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 104

In Bridges v. Mt. San Jacinto Community College District (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 104, the Fourth District Court of Appeals held that a land acquisition agreement entered into by the Mt. San Jacinto Community College District to purchase property from the Riverside County Regional Park & Open-Space District for potential future use as the site of new campus did not trigger the duty to prepare an EIR.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/08/fourth-district-holds-that-land-acquisition-agreement-did-not-trigger-duty-to-prepare-an-eir/

Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority (2017) 3 Cal.5th 677

In Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority (2017) 3 Cal.5th 677, the California Supreme Court held that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act does not preempt CEQA when a California public agency decides to undertake a new railroad project, even if the state agency later authorizes a private entity to operate the new rail line. The Court therefore concluded that the North Coast Railroad Authority was required to comply with CEQA prior to taking steps to reinitiate rail service on a segment of an interstate rail line that had gone out of operation for many years. The Court declined, however, to enjoin the ongoing operations of the railroad by NWPCo, the private operator. Because these operations had been occurring during the course of the litigation against NCRA, any such injunction would intrude into an area of activity that is preempted by the ICCTA, namely, private railroad operations.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/08/california-supreme-court-holds-that-state-agency-compliance-with-ceqa-is-not-preempted-by-the-iccta/

Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments (2017) 3 Cal. 5th 497

In a 6/1 opinion, the California Supreme Court held that the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) did not abuse its discretion by failing to present a consistency analysis in the EIR for its 2011 regional transportation plan (RTP) comparing anticipated GHG emissions with the long-term reduction goals presented in Executive Order (EO) S-3-05, in Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments (2017) 3 Cal. 5th 497.  The court reasoned that SANDAG had adequately informed the public, using information available at the time, of inconsistencies with overall state climate goals.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/07/3822/

Friends of Outlet Creek v. Mendocino County Air Quality Management District (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1235

In Friends of Outlet Creek v. Mendocino County Air Quality Management District (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1235, the First District Court of Appeal held that a responsible agency air quality management district may be sued under CEQA, but such suit must be limited to the agency’s specific discretionary action and may not challenge prior lead agency approvals. In addition, the court held that such an action must be brought as an administrative mandamus proceeding under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/07/first-district-reversal-allows-for-challenge-to-local-air-districts-limited-discretionary-approval-under-ceqa/

Grist Creek Aggregates, LLC v. The Superior Court of Mendocino County (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th­­­ 979

On June 14, 2017, Division One of the First Appellate District published its decision in Grist Creek Aggregates, LLC v. The Superior Court of Mendocino County (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th­­­ 979, in which the Court of Appeal held that a county air district board’s tie vote on the petitioner’s administrative appeal of an asphalt production facility’s construction permit, effectively resulted in the appeal’s denial, rendering the denial subject to judicial review.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/07/air-district-boards-tie-vote-on-authority-to-construct-permit-is-effectively-a-decision-not-to-revoke-it-which-is-reviewable-for-prejudicial-abuse-of-discretion/

Kutzke v. City of San Diego (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1034

On May 23, 2017, the Fourth District Court of Appeal court ordered published Kutzke v. City of San Diego (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1034. In a succinct opinion, the court upheld the city’s decision to deny a mitigated negative declaration (MND), initially approved by the planning commission, regarding an application to subdivide two hillside lots and build three residences.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/06/denial-of-mitigated-negative-declaration-upheld-for-small-san-diego-subdivision/

Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 11

On April 21, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal in Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 11, affirmed the trial court and ruled that Sonoma County’s ordinance, issuing an erosion-control permit to establish a vineyard was a ministerial act, not subject to CEQA.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/05/first-district-rules-that-issuing-erosion-control-permit-under-sonoma-county-ordinance-was-ministerial-act-exempt-from-ceqa/

Save our Heritage Organization v. City of San Diego (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 154

In Save our Heritage Organization v. City of San Diego (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 154, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld a trial court’s denial of a Code of Civil Procedure section 1025.1 attorneys’ fee award to the prevailing real party in interest.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/05/despite-being-a-successful-party-real-party-in-interest-denied-attorneys-fee-award-by-fourth-district/

POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 52

In POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 52 (“POET II”), the Fifth District Court of Appeal held that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) failed to comply with the terms of the writ of mandate issued by the same court in POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 681 (“POET I”). The court invalidated the trial court’s discharge of the writ, modified the existing writ, and ordered CARB to correct its defective CEQA Environmental Analysis (EA).

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/04/fifth-district-rules-carb-acted-in-bad-faith-in-selecting-baseline-for-analysis-of-low-carbon-fuel-standards-regulations/

Friends of the College of San Mateo v. San Mateo County Community College (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 596

On remand from the Supreme Court’s holding in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College (2016) 1 Cal.5th 926 (San Mateo I ), the First District interpreted the Supreme Court’s direction as requiring the application of the fair argument standard of review to claims challenging an addendum to a negative declaration in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District (2017) 11 Cal. App.5th 596.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/category/blog/

The Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 993

In The Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 993, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the mandatory relief provisions of Code of Civil Procedure section 473, subdivision (b), do not apply where counsel fails to lodge the administrative record in a CEQA proceeding and receives a judgment denying the petition for writ of mandate.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/04/second-district-holds-that-failure-to-lodge-administrative-record-barred-post-trial-relief/

California Chamber of Commerce v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 604

In a 2-1 opinion, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the auction-sale component of the cap-and-trade program created by the State Air Resources Board pursuant to the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (“AB 32”) in California Chamber of Commerce v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 604.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/04/third-district-court-of-appeal-upholds-state-air-resources-boards-ab-32-cap-and-trade-program/

Aptos Council v. County of Santa Cruz (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 266

In Aptos Council v. County of Santa Cruz (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 266, the Sixth District held that the County of Santa Cruz did not engage in piecemeal review when it separately adopted three different zoning ordinances. The court also upheld the negative declaration for an ordinance increasing the height and density of hotels.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/04/sixth-district-rules-county-of-santa-cruz-did-not-engage-in-piecemeal-review-and-upholds-negative-declaration/

Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918

In Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918, the California Supreme Court held that CEQA requires an EIR for a project located within a coastal zone to identify which areas in a project site might qualify as “environmentally sensitive habitat areas” (ESHA) under the California Coastal Act and account for those areas in its analysis of project alternatives and mitigation measures.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/03/california-supreme-court-holds-that-ceqa-requires-eirs-for-projects-located-within-coastal-zones-to-identify-potential-environmentally-sensitive-habitat-areas-as-defined-by-the-calif/

Residents Against Specific Plan 380 v. County of Riverside (2017) 9 Cal.App.5th 941

On March 15, 2017 the Fourth District certified for publication its February 4, 2017 decision in Residents Against Specific Plan 380 v. County of Riverside (2017) 9 Cal.App.5th 941, upholding the EIR for a master- planned community (project). A citizens group challenged the sufficiency of the EIR and the county’s approval process on six grounds. The court found for the county and real party in interest, Hanna Marital Trust (applicant), on every count.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/03/fourth-district-upholds-eir-for-master-planned-community-and-concludes-that-county-not-required-to-recirculate/

City of San Jose v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County (2017) 2 Cal.5th 608

In City of San Jose v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County (2017) 2 Cal.5th 608, the City of San Jose argued that messages communicated through personal accounts of city employees were not public records subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”). The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that a city employee’s emails about public business are not excluded from disclosure simply because they have been sent, received, or stored in a personal email account.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/03/california-supreme-court-rules-personal-emails-may-be-considered-public-records-subject-to-disclosure-under-the-public-records-act/

Central Coast Forest Association v. Fish and Game Commission (2017) 2 Cal.5th 594

On February 27, 2017, the California Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion in Central Coast Forest Association v. Fish and Game Commission (2017) 2 Cal.5th 594, reversing an appellate decision holding that Plaintiff’s petition to delist coho salmon south of San Francisco from the register of endangered species was procedurally improper.

Case Summary: https://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/03/high-court-reverses-appellate-decision-limiting-use-of-delisting-petitions-under-the-california-endangered-species-act-but-avoids-reaching-merits-of-fish-and-game-commissions-decision-denyin/

 

In Respect Life South San Francisco v. City of South San Francisco (2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 449, the First District Court of Appeal, Division One, upheld the City of South San Francisco’s (City) finding that a conditional use permit for the conversion of an office building into a medical clinic was categorically exempt from CEQA, as well as the City’s implied finding that the unusual circumstances exception did not apply.

The challenged project proposed converting an existing office building into a medical clinic providing a range of services and operated by Planned Parenthood. The City Planning Commission approved the application after a public hearing and found that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA review. Respect Life South San Francisco (Respect Life) appealed that decision to the City Council, arguing that, because of the nature of Planned Parenthood’s services, the project might draw protests that could have environmental impacts. The City Council rejected the appeal and found that the project qualified for three categorical exemptions. Respect Life and three individuals filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the City’s decision. The trial court denied the petition and Respect Life appealed. On appeal, Respect Life admitted that at least one of the exemptions applied, but alleged that the unusual circumstances exception applied, requiring full environmental review.

The court first rejected Planned Parenthood’s argument that Respect Life lacked standing. Planned Parenthood argued that Respect Life had failed to allege that it had a beneficial interest in the litigation, but the court found that the group’s petition included sufficient allegations to establish standing.

The court then articulated the standard of review for categorical exemptions and the unusual circumstances exception under the California Supreme Court’s recent decision in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2016) 60 Cal.4th 1086 (Berkeley Hillside). At the administrative level, a challenger must prove to the agency that 1) there are unusual circumstances, and 2) there is a reasonable possibility of a significant impact because of those circumstances. Upon judicial review, a court applies the deferential “substantial evidence” test to the agency’s decision regarding the first prong, and the non-deferential “fair argument” test to the agency’s decision on the second.

Here, the City denied the administrative appeal and found the project categorically exempt, but made no express finding on the unusual circumstances exception. Thus, the record did not reveal whether the City concluded that the project presented no unusual circumstances (a decision entitled to deference) or had found that, while there were unusual circumstances, there was no reasonable possibility of significant impacts due to those circumstances (a decision reviewed under the non-deferential “fair argument” test). The court determined that when an agency makes an implied finding regarding the unusual circumstances exception, the court must assume that the agency determined that there were unusual circumstances. To uphold the agency’s implied finding that the exception is inapplicable, a court must conclude that the record contains no substantial evidence supporting either 1) the existence of unusual circumstances, or 2) a fair argument that such circumstances will have a significant effect on the environment. Thus, the court applies a non-deferential test to both implied determinations.

In this instance, the court found that even assuming that the first condition had been met by Respect Life, it had not identified any substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the protests may result in significant effects. The court stated that Respect Life contradicted itself by conceding that CEQA review does not consider the identity of the applicant or operator, but also arguing that because the proposed operator is Planned Parenthood, the project might draw protests that will create indirect environmental impacts. The court held that “the possibility of ‘foreseeable First Amendment activity’” does not establish the unusual circumstances exception, where Respect Life “simply assert[ed] that protests will lead to environmental impacts.” The court also found that comments by opponents of abortion, even those that indicated they would protest, were not substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that there is a reasonable possibility that protests will have indirect significant effects on the environment. Ultimately, Respect Life was required, but unable, to point to evidence of the alleged indirect impacts, not just evidence of the protest activity that might lead to such impacts.

Streamlining—the promotion of organizational and systemic efficiency through the simplification of process—has been steadily incorporated into CEQA for years, largely through exemptions. The notion being: why not shorten the lengthy CEQA review where prior planning documents have nearly fully assessed potential impacts of a project? (E.g., CEQA Guidelines, § 15183.3, subd. (a).) These exemptions, categorical or statutory, are intended to save agencies, and by extension the public, time and resources.

Unlike many statutory exemptions that excuse qualifying projects entirely from CEQA consideration, categorical exemptions only discharge a “class” of projects from typical CEQA evaluation via a discretionary preliminary review. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15354.) The “Class 32” exemption is one such class promoting “shovel-ready” urban infill development projects through categorical streamlining. Established in 1998, this urban infill exemption requires projects to be consistent with applicable general plans and zoning designations, located within a city’s limits on a site five acres or less, bordered by urban uses, and without significant impacts to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality. The project site itself can be either vacant or previously developed, but must be devoid of sensitive habitat and adequately served by public utilities. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15332).

In 2011, additional streamlining provisions included in Senate Bill 226 were intended to balance the interests of the government, business, and the environment by better fast-tracking Class 32 urban infill development by specifying conditions under which these projects would be adequately supported by existing planning documents and land use designations. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21094.5.) Despite SB 226 streamlining and Class 32’s beneficial function, it still goes underutilized. So why aren’t cities using this infill categorical exemption and should that change?

Class 32 and the Balancing Act of Senate Bill 226

The Class 32 infill development exemption was included in the Guidelines as a part of a 1998 revision by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) to clarify project types that are categorically exempt from typical CEQA review. In an effort to promote this exemption, along with other environmental tools such as solar technology, in 2011 State Senator Joseph Simitian penned SB 226 to expand CEQA streamlining provisions for infill development projects. Sen. Simitian intended the bill to balance interests, especially with increasing legislative demands for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. He also purported to provide a much-needed boost to industries struggling to recover from the country’s economic recession, specifically construction. (See State Sen. Joseph Simitian, letter to Governor Jerry Brown, Sept. 5, 2011, http://www.senatorsimitian.com/images/uploads/SB_226_CEQA_Letter.pdf; Sen. Rules Com., Off. of Sen. Floor Analyses, Analysis of Sen. Bill No. 226 (2011–2012 Reg. Sess.) as amended September 9, 2011, p. 4.) By June 2012, OPR had effectuated the final proposal, incorporated the bill’s language into CEQA Guidelines, and published its accompanying performance standards as Appendix M, at which time it became an official enhancement to Class 32 exemptions.

Exemption Usage…or Lack Thereof

While a Class 32 exemption and its streamlining provisions can help cities more predictably plan development, it has gone underutilized.

Scott Morgan, OPR Deputy Director of Administration and State Clearinghouse Director, has stated that agencies often choose to prepare negative declarations or even environmental impact reports (EIRs) for projects that meet infill exemption criteria, despite the fact that negative declarations are often litigated and held to an less deferential standard of judicial review (“fair argument” versus “substantial evidence” standard, see below). Mr. Morgan explains some of this underutilization as simple unfamiliarity—city staff often aren’t aware of or comfortable using this exemption and its streamlining possibilities. However, some larger cities like Oakland and San Francisco almost exclusively use this exemption for their smaller-scale infill projects, thereby exemplifying the principle that areas already predetermined for these exact uses by a CEQA-driven planning process need not undergo a more onerous review.

The City of Oakland has developed a Class 32 exemption process that includes a preliminary review with report-style documentation, inclusive of applicable technical analysis and informal findings. In July 2015, for example, the Oakland Bureau of Planning prepared a 54-page Class 32 exemption report for a 24-story, mixed-use project with residential, retail, and restaurants on a previously developed half-acre site at 1700 Webster Street. This report included a detailed project description, CEQA categorical exemption and streamlining criteria, a CEQA exemption checklist demonstrating how this criteria has been met, and seven technical appendices ranging from transportation impact analysis to air quality and noise studies to a wind tunnel analysis. The report led to the planning staff’s December 2015 recommendation for approval and the Planning Commission’s subsequent approval. The project broke ground in the spring of 2017.

Taking Exception: How Unusual Are Unusual Circumstances?

Procedurally, Class 32 exemptions require a fraction of the process prescribed for standard CEQA review, with no required public review period, specific CEQA documents, or mitigation. Exceptions to the exemptions, however, add back in a measure of consideration to the process. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2, subds. (b), (c)–(f).) Under these exceptions, the infill exemption cannot be used if the project would cause cumulatively significant impacts, impact scenic highways or historical resources, involve hazardous waste, or are subject to “unusual circumstances.” While these four exemptions lend themselves to relatively straightforward interpretation and have been largely uncontroversial, the “unusual circumstances” exception has been the subject of much litigation.

The “unusual circumstances” exception precludes the use of any categorical exemption when there is a “reasonable possibility” that the project “will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2 (c.).) In reviewing a lead agency’s determination as to whether the exemption applies and if the effects will be significant, the Supreme Court has applied a two-prong test wherein an agency must answer: (1) are there unusual circumstances? And if so, (2) would these unusual circumstances create a potential for significant impact? Further complicating the issue is the bifurcation of the standard of review that applies the “substantial evidence” standard to the first prong of the test and the “fair argument” standard to the second. Under the more deferential first prong, an agency may base its decision on substantial evidence, including conditions in the vicinity of the project. If it determines there is an “unusual circumstance,” then the “fair argument” standard requires an EIR when it can be fairly argued based on substantial evidence that “due to” the unusual circumstances of the project, it may have a significant effect on the environment. Both standards require substantial evidence in the record. And the question of whether a project qualifies for the Class 32 exemption in the first instance is subject to the more deferential “substantial evidence” threshold. (Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, 1114).

Given the above, a prudent agency using a Class 32 exemption should document its determination of whether any “unusual circumstances” are present and resulting potential significant effects (or presumably, the lack thereof) with applicable land use documents (zoning maps, general plans, etc.) and if warranted, some standard preliminary technical analysis (traffic, biology, noise, etc.). With these components on the record, as in the Oakland example, in conjunction with the issuance of an NOE, the outcome of legal challenges should be more favorable for cities and developers.

Conclusion

Although litigation for Class 32 exemption projects is always a possibility for development projects, with fulfillment of applicable CEQA criteria and requirements, agencies would be wise to consider the Class 32 exemption. Based on judicial trends, this exemption may be more likely to survive a legal challenge than a negative declaration at least in some jurisdictions. If these trends continue, over time challenges to these exemptions could even quieted by case law that supports agency discretion with the use of the Class 32 CEQA infill exemption, making it an increasingly viable option for agencies to speed up the development of much needed infill housing and other urban projects.

By: Casey Shorrock Smith

In Bridges v. Mt. San Jacinto Community College District (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 104, the Fourth District Court of Appeals held that a land acquisition agreement entered into by the Mt. San Jacinto Community College District to purchase property from the Riverside County Regional Park & Open-Space District for potential future use as the site of new campus did not trigger the duty to prepare an EIR.

As a threshold issue, the court held that the appellants were barred from raising objections to the college’s decision because they had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. The appellants argued that they were excused from objecting to the purchase agreement because the college did not give notice of the meeting at which it approved the agreement. Because the appellants could not establish that the no-notice exception applied—the court relied on the presumption afforded by Evidence Code section 664 to presume that the college had posted the agenda in accordance with the Brown Act requirements because the record contained no evidence to the contrary.

Nonetheless, the court went on to discuss the merits and determined that appellants’ claims were meritless because the purchase agreement required completion of an EIR before the sale could even be finalized. The court found that the purchase agreement complied with CEQA’s land acquisition agreement rule. Unlike the circumstances in the definitive California Supreme Court decision, Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116, here, no funds had been committed to the project and a developer had yet to be identified. The court found nothing in the administrative record to indicate that the college had committed itself to a definitive use of the property.

Finally, the court held the college did not violate CEQA by failing to formally adopt local implementing guidelines. Public Resources Code section 21082 provides an exemption for school districts, if they “utilize” the guidelines of another public agency. Here, the college had chosen to use the local guidelines adopted by Riverside County.

 

Christina Berglund

In Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority (2017) 3 Cal.5th 677, the California Supreme Court held that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA) does not preempt CEQA when a California public agency decides to undertake a new railroad project, even if the state agency later authorizes a private entity to operate the new rail line. The Court therefore concluded that the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) was required to comply with CEQA prior to taking steps to reinitiate rail service on a segment of an interstate rail line that had gone out of operation for many years. The Court declined, however, to enjoin the ongoing operations of the railroad by NWPCo, the private operator. Because these operations had been occurring during the course of the litigation against NCRA, any such injunction would intrude into an area of activity that is preempted by the ICCTA, namely, private railroad operations.

The NCRA is a state agency created in 1989 for the purpose of resuming railroad freight service along a previously-abandoned route through Napa and Humboldt Counties. The northern portion of the line runs along the Eel River, while the southern portion, at issue in the case, runs along the Russian River.  In 2000, the Legislature authorized funding for NCRA’s program, with the express condition of CEQA compliance. NCRA subsequently contracted with NWPCo, a private company, to run the railroad. As part of the lease agreement between the two entities, NWPCo agreed that CEQA compliance by NCRA was a precondition to resumed operation. Accordingly, in 2007, NCRA issued a notice of preparation, and in June 2011, it certified a Final EIR. In July 2011, petitioners sued, challenging the adequacy of the EIR on a number of grounds. Concurrently, NWPCo commenced limited freight service along the Russian River. In 2013, NCRA took the unusual step of rescinding its certification of the Final EIR, asserting in explanation as follows: that ICCTA preempted California environmental laws; that the reinitiation of rail service was not a “project” under CEQA; and that the EIR NCRA had prepared had not been legally required. Although NCRA successfully removed the case to federal court, the case subsequently sent back to state court for a resolution of both the state CEQA claims and NCRA’s ICCTA preemption defense. The Court of Appeal sided with NCRA, finding that ICCTA was broadly preemptive of CEQA. The Supreme Court granted review.

Federal preemption is based on the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, which provides that federal law is the supreme law of the land. Preemption can occur expressly, through the plain words of a federal statute, or can be implied, as when a court discerns that Congress intends to occupy an entire field of regulation, or when a court concludes that a state law conflicts with a federal purpose or the means of achieving that purpose. A federal statute can be preemptive on its face or as applied. There is a presumption against preemption, particularly in areas traditionally regulated by the states, which can only be overcome by a clear expression of intent (the Nixon/Gregory rule). The market participant doctrine is a related concept and holds that a public agency has all the freedoms and restrictions of a private party when it engages in the market (provided that the state does not use tools that are unavailable to private actors). The courts presume that Congress did not intend to reach into and preempt such proprietary marketplace arrangements, absent clear evidence of such expansive intent.

The Court began by recognizing that ICCTA does preempt state environmental laws, including CEQA, that interfere with private railroad operations authorized by the federal government. ICCTA contains an express preemption clause giving the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) jurisdiction over railroad transportation (including operation, construction, acquisition, and abandonment). ICCTA’s purpose was both unifying (to create national standards) and deregulatory (to minimize state and federal barriers). Although ICCTA is a form of economic regulation, state environmental laws are also economic in nature when they facially, or as applied, dictate where or how a railroad can operate in light of environmental concerns. Such state laws act impermissibly as “environmental preclearance statutes.” These legal principles, however, did not extend to the actions of NCRA in this case. Just as a private railroad company may make operational decisions based on internal policies and procedures, and may even modify its operations voluntarily in order to reduce environmental risks and effects, so too may a state, in determining whether to create a new railroad line, subject itself to its own internal requirements aimed at environmental concerns. In the latter context, though, a state operates through laws and regulations, as opposed to purely private policies. When a state acts in such a manner, its laws and regulations are a form of self-governance, and are not regulatory in character. CEQA is an example of such an internal guideline that governs the process by which a state, through its subdivisions, may develop and approve projects that affect the environment. Viewed in this context, CEQA is part of state self-governance, and is not a regulation of private activity.

Although the market participant doctrine does not directly apply, being mainly applicable in Commerce Clause jurisprudence, the doctrine supports by analogy the view that that California was not acting in a regulatory capacity in this case. CEQA is analogous to private company bylaws and guidance to which corporations voluntarily subject themselves. By imposing CEQA requirements on the NCRA, the state was not “regulating” any private entity, but rather was simply requiring that NCRA, as one of its subdivisions, conduct environmental review prior to making a policy decision to recommence the operation of an abandoned rail line. If Congress had intended to preempt the ability of states to govern themselves in such a fashion, any such intention should have been clear and unequivocal. The Court found no such intent in the ICCTA.

The Court’s remedy, however, was cognizant of the narrowness of its holding. The Court concluded that, because NWPCo is currently operating the line, the California Judiciary could not enjoin that private entity’s operations even if, on remand, the lower state courts found problems with NCRA’s CEQA documentation. An injunction under CEQA against NWPCo would act as a regulation, by having the state dictate the actions to private railroad operator. Such action would go beyond the state controlling its own operations.

James G. Moose & Sara Dudley

On May 23, 2017, the Fourth District Court of Appeal court ordered published Kutzke v. City of San Diego (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1034. In a succinct opinion, the court upheld the city’s decision to deny a mitigated negative declaration (MND), initially approved by the planning commission, regarding an application to subdivide two hillside lots and build three residences.

The court emphasized that the standard of review was deferential to the city, and limited to determining whether the city’s findings were supported by substantial evidence. The court interpreted this standard by stating that plaintiff could only prevail if she could demonstrate that no reasonable municipality could have reached the same decision as the city.

Under this standard of review, the court determined that the city presented substantial evidence in the record to support its finding that impacts to land use, geology, and public safety would be detrimental and inadequately mitigated. Flaws and omissions in the project’s geotechnical report cast doubt on the report’s conclusion that homes could be built safely on the steep sandstone hillside. Furthermore, the slope of the shared driveway would not permit access by firetrucks and potentially other emergency response vehicles. Proposed mitigation measures (sprinkler systems and standpipes) were inadequate to mitigate all of these risks.

Regarding the project’s consistency with the community plan, the city properly considered the opinions of neighbors, who stated that the project’s dense development with minimal setbacks was incompatible with the large lot, single-family residential character of the area. Finally, the project was properly rejected under city ordinances, which provide for deviations from the development regulations for qualified sustainable building projects, if the deviations result in a more desirable project. For similar reasons as to why the project was rejected under the community plan and CEQA, the deviations requested here (smaller setbacks, no frontage, and higher walls) would not make the project more desirable.

On December 20, 2016, the First District Court of Appeal ordered published its decision in The Committee for Re-Evaluation of the T-Line Loop v. San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (2016)  6 Cal.App.5th 1237. The court upheld the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s (Muni’s) determination that a supplemental EIR was not required for the final “loop” of a light-rail project that Muni’s predecessor agency had approved and certified an EIR for in the late 1990s. In so holding, the court rejected the petitioners’ argument that the loop constituted was a “new” project under CEQA. The decision is the first to rely on the California Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo Community College District (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937 (San Mateo), which established that the deferential substantial evidence standard of review applies to an agency’s decision that a proposal is part of the same project reviewed in an earlier EIR, rather than a new project.

Background

In the 1990s, Muni’s predecessor agency proposed to connect the southeastern part of San Francisco to the rest of the city via the Third Street Light Rail Project, which would link the Visitacion Valley/Little Hollywood and Bayview Hunters Point neighborhoods with Chinatown, Downtown, and South of Market. As relevant to the case, “Segment 4” of the project’s initial operating segment runs along Third Street from Kirkwood Avenue north to 16th Street, and includes a short-turn “Loop” from Third Street following 18th, Illinois, and 19th Streets. This Loop would allow the extension of an existing line to serve Mission Bay and provide an area for two-car trains to lay over. The San Francisco Planning Commission certified a Final EIR for the project in 1998.

By 2003, construction of the project’s initial operating segment was completed, including the Segment 4 along Third Street and much of the Loop. Due to budget constraints, however, the Loop was not fully completed.

In 2013, FTA awarded Muni a grant to fund completion of the Loop. In connection with applying for the grant, in 2012 Muni prepared a memorandum to the San Francisco Planning Department, seeking the department’s concurrence that, under Public Resources Code section 21166, and its implementing CEQA Guidelines sections 15162 and 15163, a supplemental or subsequent EIR was not required for the Loop to be completed. In the memorandum, Muni stated that the environmental impacts of the Loop had been analyzed in the certified Final EIR; there had been no changes to the Loop’s design since the Final EIR was certified; part of the Loop had been built; and, although there were new developments near the Loop, the Final EIR’s analysis assumed those developments would be built. The Planning Department responded that it agreed with Muni that no further environmental evaluation was required.

The project design for the Loop was then finalized. In August 2014, Muni prepared another memorandum to the Planning Department about the Loop, noting that it had been two years since the department had concluded that no further environmental review was required, and since then, the City had approved the stadium for the Golden State Warriors basketball team on the northeast corner of 3rd and 16th Street. The memorandum explained that the arena would likely increase demand for transit, and that the Loop would help meet this demand, and also allow light-rail vehicles to be stored near the arena for quick response to post-event surges in transit demand. The Planning Department responded that it agreed that no further environmental review was required.

In September 2014, the Muni Board of Directors adopted a resolution authorizing the execution of a construction contract for the Loop. The resolution explained that the Loop had been analyzed in the Final EIR certified by the City in 1998 and that the Planning Department had determined that no further environmental review was required.

The petitioners filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging Muni violated CEQA in approving the Loop without first preparing a new EIR. The trial court denied the petition and the petitioners appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Under CEQA, an agency must prepare an EIR in the first instance if there is substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that a proposed project may have a significant effect on the environment. This “fair argument” standard creates a low threshold for requiring an EIR. In contrast, once an EIR has been certified for a project, CEQA prohibits an agency from requiring further EIRs, unless: (a) substantial changes are proposed in the project which will require major revisions in the EIR; (b) substantial changes with respect to the circumstances under which the project is being undertaken will require major revisions in the EIR; or (c) new information, which was not known and could not have been known at the time the EIR was certified, becomes available. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21166.)

As the Court of Appeal explained, until recently, the law was unsettled as to the standard of review that applied to an agency’s determination that an activity is a “new” project as opposed to a project that had previously been considered in an EIR. In San Mateo, however, the Supreme Court held that the substantial evidence standard applied. As stated by the high court, “the question ‘whether an initial environmental document remains relevant … is a predominantly factual question,” so the court must defer to the agency’s determination on that issue if it is supported by substantial evidence in the record.

Turning to the record before it, the Court of Appeal concluded that substantial evidence supports Muni’s conclusion that the Loop is not a new project, but part of the previously approved project analyzed in the 1998 certified EIR. The court also held substantial evidence supported Muni’s implicit decision that the Final EIR retains informational value with respect to the Loop. The court explained that the Final EIR described and analyzed the Loop in connection with the project’s initial operating segment. Among other things, the Final EIR analyzed the effects of the initial operating segment on parking and pedestrians and the interrelationship between projected growth in population and employment in the southeastern part of San Francisco. In view of this evidence, the court held Muni did not abuse its discretion in treating the Loop as part of the earlier-approved light-rail project.

The petitioners argued that even assuming that the Final EIR did analyze the Loop as part of the project, the Final EIR did not provide sufficient detail about the Loop. The court rejected this argument, holding that it amounted to an untimely challenge to the Final EIR. The court explained that under Public Resources Code Section 21167.2, an EIR is conclusively presumed valid unless a lawsuit has been timely brought to contest its validity, which no one contended to have happened in this case.

The court further held that substantial evidence supported Muni’s conclusion that no subsequent or supplemental EIR was required for the Loop under Public Resources Code section 21166. Evidence supporting this conclusion included the 2012 and 2014 statements from the San Francisco Planning Department that no further environmental review was required as well as the memoranda prepared by Muni to which those statements respond. In addition, the record included a 2013 environmental assessment (EA) prepared by FTA under NEPA, which concluded the Loop would not result in any adverse environmental effects. The EA provided further substantial evidence in support of Muni’s conclusion that a supplemental EIR was not required.

The petitioners claimed that the Loop had changed since the Final EIR was certified, but the only change they cited was the fact that Muni deferred construction of the Loop, whereas the rest of Segment 4 was built in 2003. The court rejected this argument, noting that the petitioners had not cited any authority holding that mere delay in completing construction constitutes a substantial change in a project under CEQA.

Lastly, the court rejected the petitioners’ argument that Muni abused its discretion by failing to follow procedures in determining that no further CEQA analysis was requited. According to the petitioners, Muni based its decision that no further environmental review was necessary solely on “an unsupported staff conclusion.” But the court noted that this was not a procedural flaw, as CEQA does not set forth any procedure that an agency must follow in deciding whether a new EIR is required. And, in any event, the record shows that Muni relied on more than just the staff report.

 

 

Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937

In a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court emphatically rejected the notion that public agencies should get no deference in deciding whether to treat proposed projects as changes to previously reviewed projects or as new projects under CEQA. In doing so, the court strongly disagreed with the reasoning presented in the Third District’s decision in Save Our Neighborhood v. Lishman (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 1288, which first articulated the “new project” threshold question as a de novo question of law for the courts. The Supreme Court concluded that Division One of the First District Court of Appeal erred in applying Lishman’s “new” project standard to the case at hand, which involved a community college district’s proposed changes to the disposition of a small building complex and landscaped area on a campus for which a campus-wide renovation plan was previously reviewed in an unchallenged mitigated negative declaration (MND). The district considered the subsequent changes in an addendum to the MND and approved the demolition of an existing complex of outdated buildings and their replacement with a new parking lot, concluding that the changes posed no new or more severe environmental impacts than were previously described in the adopted MND.

The Supreme Court granted review to resolve the question of whether Lishman’s “new project” test was the correct approach for courts reviewing subsequent review documents, or whether courts should follow the more deferential, substantial evidence standard explained in Mani Brothers Real Estate Group v. City of Los Angeles (2007) 153 Cal.App.4th 1385. Few appellate courts had followed the Lishman approach after the court in Mani Brothers rejected it. Division One of the First District applied it to the college district’s case in an unpublished decision, but oddly declined to apply it again a few weeks later in its published decision, Latinos Unidos de Napa v. City of Napa (2013) 221 Cal.App.4th 192, 201-202, thereby highlighting the conflict in the law.

The Supreme Court noted that the Lishman court’s focus on the similarities or lack thereof in the features associated with an originally-reviewed project and subsequent proposal as lacking any basis or standards in CEQA. The court further noted that because of the lack of any standards or framework for measuring the “newness” of a given project, a “new project” test applied by the courts “would inevitably invite arbitrary results.” Moreover, the court emphasized that, given the purpose of CEQA to ensure agencies consider the environmental effects of proposed actions, focusing on the characterization of a proposed project as a new project or a modified project misses the point of subsequent review. Rather, the court concluded, the fundamental determination an agency must make is whether an original environmental document retains some informational value, or whether the proposed changes have rendered it wholly irrelevant.

The court affirmed the college district’s view (shared by the Regents of the University of California, League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties, Association of California Water Agencies, California Building Industry Association, Building Industry Association of the Bay Area, and California Business Properties Association, who participated as amicus parties at the Supreme Court) that the question of whether an initial environmental document remains relevant in light of changed plans or circumstances is inherently a factual question for the agency to answer in the first instance and is reviewable under the deferential substantial evidence standard of review.

Following oral argument, the court ordered supplemental briefing on two issues: (1) the standard of review that applies to an agency’s determination not to prepare an EIR for modifications to a project that was previously reviewed by a negative declaration; and (2) whether CEQA Guidelines section 15162, as applied to projects initially approved by negative declarations rather than EIRs, was a valid interpretation of the governing statute, Public Resources Code section 21166, which does not mention negative declarations. Guidelines section 15162, subdivision (a) prohibits agencies from requiring a subsequent or supplemental EIR unless the agency determines “on the basis of substantial evidence in the light of the whole record,” that “substantial changes . . . will require major revisions of the previous EIR or negative declaration due to the involvement of new significant environmental effects or a substantial increase in the severity of previously identified significant effects.” The court rejected the petitioner’s argument that application of this substantial evidence standard in section 15162(a) to projects initially analyzed in negative declarations creates a CEQA loophole that permits agencies to evade their obligation to prepare an EIR under the less deferential fair argument standard. As the court explained, “the substantial evidence test referred to in the Guidelines does not, as plaintiff supposes, refer to substantial evidence that the project, as modified, will necessarily have significant environmental effects. It instead refers to substantial evidence that the proposed modifications will involve ‘[s]ubstantial changes’ that ‘require major revisions of the previous EIR or negative declaration due to the involvement’ of new or significantly more severe environmental effects.” The court held that section 15162 constitutes a valid gap-filling measure as applied to projects initially approved via negative declaration, including the college district’s project at hand.

Lastly, the court rejected the petitioner’s contention that the subsequent review schemes in the statute and Guidelines were inapplicable to the district’s project because the originally-approved campus renovation project was more akin to a plan or program than a specific project. Both the Court of Appeal below and petitioner relied on Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma (1992) 6 Cal.App.4th 1307 to conclude that when an agency initially adopts a broad, large-scale environmental document (such as the college district’s original MND) that addresses the environmental effects of a complex long-term management plan, a court can find that a material alteration to the plan regarding a particular site or activity may be a new project triggering environmental review under Public Resources Code section 21151. The Supreme Court rejected the attempt to frame the original campus renovation plan and subsequent changes to the disputed area in this manner, holding that the tiering provisions, and therefore the Sierra Club decision, had no applicability here. The court noted that unlike the program EIR at issue in Sierra Club, the MND previously adopted by the college district was a project-specific review that could not be characterized as a first-tier document.

The Supreme Court remanded to the Court of Appeal’s consideration the merits of the district’s addendum and approval of the building demolition and parking lot project. The Court of Appeal had not previously reached the merits because of its conclusion that the subsequent project was “new.”

RMM partners Sabrina V. Teller and James G. Moose represented the respondent San Mateo County Community College District in the litigation from the trial court through the Supreme Court.

In California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 1067, on remand from the California Supreme Court (California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Quality Management District (2015) 62 Cal.4th 369), the First District found BAAQMD’s CEQA thresholds of significance for “new receptors” valid for specific purposes.

The First District was directed to re-analyze BAAQMD’s thresholds of significance for “new receptors” consisting of residents and workers who will be brought to an area of existing emissions as a result of a proposed project, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision. The Supreme Court held that CEQA generally does not require an analysis of how existing environmental conditions will impact future residents or users of a proposed project. In applying this principle, the Court of Appeal held that the receptor thresholds may be valid in the following instances—when voluntarily used on BAAQMD’s own projects; in analyzing whether a project exacerbates an existing environmental conditions; during CEQA review of school projects; and when analyzing housing development projects under CEQA exemption statutes. The court did not rule specifically on the propriety of the receptor thresholds with respect to determining a project’s consistency with general plans because it was not presented with a concrete example of their use in this context—but ruled that the receptor thresholds were not invalid on their face. While not facially invalid, the court held—consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling—that the receptor thresholds could not be used for their primary purpose, which was to assess the effect of existing environmental conditions to future users of a project.

In Friends of the Willow Glen Trestle v. City of San Jose (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 457, the Sixth District Court of Appeal held that the fair argument standard does not apply to a lead agency’s decision that a resource is not a historical resource—abandoning its previous holding to the contrary in Architectural Heritage Assn v. County of Monterey (2004) 122 Cal.App.4th 1095.

The resource at issue—a wooden railroad bridge, referred to as the Trestle—was built in 1922 as part of a spur line to provide rail freight access to canning districts near downtown San Jose. It was not listed or eligible for listing in the California Register of Historical Resources, nor was it included in a local register of historical resources. As part of its trail system, the City of San Jose proposed to demolish the Trestle and replace it with a new steel truss pedestrian bridge. The city adopted a mitigated negative declaration based on an initial study that concluded the Trestle was not a historical resource. Project opponents filed a writ petition asserting that there was substantial evidence to support a fair argument that the Trestle was a historical resource and therefore an EIR was required. Applying the fair argument standard, the trial court found in favor of petitioners.

The Sixth District disagreed. In rejecting the fair argument standard employed by the trial court, the court focused on the statutory language of Public Resources Code section 21084.1, which defines historical resources for purposes of CEQA. It provides, in part, that a resource may be presumed historical, if it meets certain criteria, unless a preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that it is not historical. Where a resource is not presumptively historical, an agency has the discretion to decide whether it is or is not historical. The court stated that by allowing an agency to overcome a presumption with a preponderance of the evidence, the standard of review logically must be whether substantial evidence supports the lead agency’s decision, not whether a fair argument can be made to the contrary. Based on this determination, the court found that the Legislature could not have intended that a lead agency’s discretionary decision to identify a resource as historical would be subject to a less-deferential review—i.e., fair argument—than a decision regarding a resource presumed to be historical.

In Communities For A Better Environment v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 715, the First District Court of Appeal held a petition for writ of mandate as time-barred under Public Resources Code § 21167, subdivision (d). Petitioners argued that the ”discovery rule” should apply because the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (“District”) failed to provide public notice of the ministerial approval and the project itself (a change in operation at a transloading facility from ethanol to crude oil) was “hidden from the public eye.” The court held that the statute governed when the public was deemed to have constructive notice of a project, and the discovery rule postpones the accrual of an action beyond the date of the injury, not beyond the date when the plaintiff is deemed to have constructive notice.

The District issued a ministerial permit for the project in July 2013, which was not subject to CEQA. But the District did not file the optional notice of exemption (“NOE”) and the applicant began transloading crude oil at its facility in October 2013. The conditions of the permit were modified in October and December of 2013, and the District issued a second permit incorporating these modifications in February 2014. On March 27, 2014 petitioners filed a petition for a writ of mandate. The District argued that the petition was time-barred because it should have been brought within 180 days of July 2013, when the permit was issued. Petitioners argued that they only became aware of the project on July 31, 2014, and that the facility is completely enclosed making the change in operation “invisible.” The trial court dismissed the petition without leave to amend as time-barred under 21167.

The First District Court of Appeal distinguished Concerned Citizens of Costa Mesa, Inc. v. 32nd Dist. Agricultural Assn. (1986) 42 Cal.3d 929 (“Concerned Citizens”). In Concerned Citizens, the Court interpreted “the date of commencement of the project” to mean “commencement” of the project approved by the lead agency and analyzed in the EIR. Because the project had changed significantly, the petitioners could bring an action within 180 days of when they knew or reasonably should have known that the project commenced was substantially different from the approved project. Here, petitioners did not argue that there was a substantial change in the project, and instead argued that the discovery rule should postpone the accrual of the action until they had actual notice of the project. The First District found this argument to have been rejected in Concerned Citizens, as contrary to legislative intent.

The Court of Appeal also distinguished Ventura Foothill Neighbors v. County of Ventura (2014) 232 Cal.App.4th 429 (“Ventura Foothills”). In that case, the height of a planned building was changed from 75 feet to 90 feet, and while a notice of determination (“NOD”) was filed because of the change, the NOD did not disclose the change in height. The court in Ventura Foothills determined that the 30-day statute of limitations for NODs only applied to the determinations announced in the NOD. Since the change in height was not disclosed, the 30-day statute had not run. Here, the petitioners could not point to any deficiencies in a required notice.

The court stated that in both cases the court interpreted the statute so that the triggering date for barring an action did not occur. Because petitioners could not argue for such an interpretation in this case, their claim was time-barred. Similarly, they could not amend their pleadings to show that the dates of constructive notice in 21167 had not occurred more than 180 days prior to their filing suit.

In Walters v. City of Redondo Beach (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 809, the Second District Court of Appeal determined that the City of Redondo Beach did not err in finding a combination car wash and coffee shop project categorically exempt from CEQA and that unusual circumstances exception did not apply. The site was previously a car wash, but was unused since 2001 and the original structure had been demolished, leaving a vacant lot. The city approved a conditional use permit (“CUP”) and determined that the project was exempt under CEQA Guidelines § 15303, as “new, small facilities or structures [and] installation of small new equipment and facilities in structures.”

The dispute between the parties on the exemption concerned whether a car wash fits within the category of “commercial buildings” as defined in CEQA Guidelines section 15303, subdivision (c), and whether the car wash met the size restrictions of that section. The court held that the list in 15303(c) is illustrative and the section expressly includes “similar structure[s].” The car wash qualified because it was a consumer-facing commercial business, similar to those listed in 15303(c), and it included a coffee shop which qualifies as a restaurant. On the issue of size, the court found that, because the project was going to be in an “urbanized area,” the size limit was 10,000 square feet instead of 2,500. So the project’s 4,080 square feet was well under the limit. Lastly, the court found that there was no evidence that the project would “involve the use of significant amounts of hazardous substances” and was thus exempt.

On the unusual circumstances exception issue, the court applied the two tests discussed by the California Supreme Court in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086 (“Berkeley Hillside”). Under the first test, the court first determines whether there are unusual circumstances under the substantial evidence standard, and, if unusual circumstances are found, “whether there is a reasonable possibility of a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances” under the fair argument standard. The second test requires the challenger to establish unusual circumstances by showing that the project will have a significant effect on the environment.

In applying the first test, the court found that presence of other car washes in the surrounding area, and the fact that the site had been a car wash previously, indicated that the circumstances were not unusual. The court also stated that common operational effects, like noise, traffic, and parking do not constitute unusual circumstances in and of themselves. The court concluded that the petitioners had failed to produce substantial evidence supporting unusual circumstances based on the project’s features. The court therefore never reached the second, fair argument prong of the first test.

The court applied the second test from Berkeley Hillside, and found that petitioners failed to meet their burden under that test as well. Petitioners argued that the project will have a significant effect on the environment because operating a car wash would violate the city’s noise ordinance. The court found this unpersuasive because the city had found that the project would not violate the noise ordinance and took the extra step to condition approval of the project on its meeting the noise ordinance. Petitioners also argued that the project would have a significant adverse effect on traffic because the design of the car wash would cause backups within the property. The court stated that the flow of cars within the property was not “traffic” as defined by CEQA, and there was substantial evidence supporting the city’s finding that any such backups would not affect traffic on the streets.

The court concluded that neither of the Berkeley Hillside tests had been satisfied, and therefore the petitioners had failed to show unusual circumstances. The court upheld the city’s issuance of the CUP and finding that the project was exempt from CEQA.

In Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Fish and Wildlife (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 452, a partially published opinion on remand from the California Supreme Court (Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Fish and Wildlife (2015) 62 Cal. 4th 204), the Second District reversed in part and affirmed in part the trial court’s judgment.

In the non-published portions of the opinion, the Second District reversed the trial court’s decision where it was inconsistent with the opinion of the California Supreme Court. The Second District reversed on the issues of significance criteria selection and baseline calculation, and affirmed on the issues of cumulative greenhouse gas emission impacts and two mitigation measures that would violate Fish and Game Code section 5515. The Second District also reconsidered its previous ruling in the case on two issues in light of the California Supreme Court’s holding that comments filed after certification of the joint EIR/EIS were timely. The Second District considered comments and the responses thereto, but stuck to its original conclusion that the findings on Native American Cultural Resources and impacts of dissolved copper on steelhead smolt were supported by substantial evidence.

In the published portion of the opinion, the Second District considered whether it had the authority to, instead of remanding the matter to the trial court, issue its own writ of mandate to the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) and supervise compliance. The developer/real party in interest requested that the court do so, and its motion was supported by DFW. The developer suggested that the California Supreme Court’s opinion in this case and the language of Public Resources Code section 21168.9 would allow the appellate court to do so. They also argued that the general principle of expedient resolution to CEQA litigation supported the appellate courts ability to issue its own writ of mandate.

The Second District looked first at the plain language of section 21168.9 and determined that there was some ambiguity in the statute’s use of the term “appellate court” because courts of appeal do have original mandate jurisdiction in some cases. But the court’s exploration of the legislative history of section 21168.9 found nothing to suggest that the legislature intended appellate courts on direct appeal to have the authority to issue writs of mandate.

The court then examined the lay of the land, in terms of CEQA and appellate practice, when section 21168.9 was adopted in 1984. According to the Second District, “the practice in 1984 … was for administrative mandate petitions to be filed in superior court,” and no statute provided appellate courts with authority to hear direct CEQA challenges at that time. Further, the Code of Civil Procedure—then and now—limits an appellate court to affirming or reversing and modifying the lower court’s judgment. And, after making its decision, the appellate court must remand the matter back to the trial court. The court found nothing to suggest that the legislature intended to alter this procedure when it enacted Public Resources Code section 21168.9. The court also stated that there is a presumption against repeal by implication, which applied to the Code of Civil Procedure sections governing appellate review.

The Second District concluded there was no authority for appellate courts on direct appeal to issue writs of mandate. Given that lack of authority, there was no way for appellate courts to supervise compliance either. Lastly, the court found that section 21168.9, subdivision (b) was clear in its requirement that trial courts retain jurisdiction over the lead agency to ensure compliance with the writ of mandate.

In Bay Area Citizens v. Association of Bay Area Governments (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 966, the First District Court of Appeal interpreted SB 375 as requiring the California Air Resources Board (Board) and regional agencies to set and meet the emissions reductions targets through regionally-developed land use and transportation strategies that are independent of existing statewide clean technology mandates. Therefore, the court of appeal upheld the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Government’s (collectively, the Agencies) “Plan Bay Area” and its EIR, finding the opponent’s arguments failed because they were based on a misinterpretation of SB 375’s requirements.

SB 375 requires the Board to provide greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets to each region while taking into account statewide mandates such as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard and the New Vehicle Emissions Standards. Then, each regional metropolitan planning organization (MPO) must prepare a sustainable communities strategy to meet those targets. The Agencies prepared Plan Bay Area. The petitioners commented on the Plan’s EIR stating that the Agencies should have counted reductions expected from preexisting statewide mandates. When the Board’s staff conducted a technical review of the Plan, however, they stated that the Agencies had appropriately excluded greenhouse gas emissions reductions from other technology and fuel programs. The Board then issued an executive order with the staff’s technical report attached, accepting that Plan Bay Area, if implemented, would achieve the targets.

The petitioners alleged that the Agencies failed to comply with CEQA by incorrectly assuming that SB 375 compelled them to exclude compliance with statewide mandates when assessing strategies to meet emissions reductions targets. First, the court looked to the plain meaning and purpose of the statute and found that because the emissions reductions from the statewide mandates are projected to dwarf those achieved by SB 375, the whole statute would be superfluous if the MPOs were simply allowed to cite the expected reductions from preexisting initiatives. Further, the Board’s AB 32 Scoping Plan repeatedly emphasized that the regional land use and transportation strategies were distinct from the statewide mandates. Although the Board was required to take the statewide mandates into account when setting targets under SB 375, the statute did not require any specific approach and the board had discretion to instruct MPOs to exclude consideration of reductions expected from statewide mandates. The Board made this instruction clear when it approved of Plan Bay Area with the exclusion of reductions from statewide mandates.

On the alleged inadequacy of the Plan’s EIR, the court stated that the petitioner’s arguments were based on their misinterpretation of SB 375 and found the EIR adequate. The Agencies were not required to consider the appellants proposed alternative that relied on statewide mandates because, as discussed above, it did not comply with SB 375 and was therefore infeasible. Contrary to the appellants’ contentions, the EIR did not ignore statewide mandates. Consideration of the New Vehicle Emissions Standards and the Low Carbon Fuel standard were included when determining whether implementation of the Plan would result in a net increase in emissions and whether it would impede the goals of AB 32. Further, the court found that in light of the Agencies’ sufficient disclosures throughout the EIR, including when they did and did not consider statewide mandates, the appellant’s arguments amounted to an impermissible substantive attack on the plan.

Written by Sabrina S. Eshaghi