Tag: CEQA

First District Holds that Deficiencies in Notice Did Not Excuse CEQA Litigants from Exhausting Available Administrative Remedies

The First District Court of Appeal in Schmid v. City and County of San Francisco (Feb. 1, 2021) 60 Cal.App.5th 470, held that Appellants’ CEQA claims were barred by their failure to exhaust available administrative remedies, even where deficiencies in the notice excused the litigants from satisfying the exhaustion requirements under Public Resources Code section 21177.

BACKGROUND

The “Early Days” statue, located in San Francisco’s Civic Center, is part of the “Pioneer Monument”—a series of five bronze sculptures memorializing the pioneer era when California was founded. The statue depicts three figures, including a reclining Native American over whom bends a Catholic priest. Public criticism has surrounded the statue since its installation in 1894.  

In 2018, after charges of the statue’s racial insensitivity resurfaced, the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) granted a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) to remove the statue and place it in storage. In granting that approval, the HPC determined the removal of the statue was categorically exempt from CEQA. There were no issues raised at the HPC hearing about a perceived need for environmental review. Nor were there any appeals of HPC’s CEQA determination to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. 

Appellants, two opponents of the statue’s removal, appealed the HPC’s adoption of the COA to the San Francisco Board of Appeals. The Board of Appeals initially voted to overturn the COA, but later had it reinstated. After the Board of Appeals approved the COA, the City immediately removed the statue the following morning. 

Appellants filed suit seeking to overturn the Board of Appeals’ order authorizing removal of the statue. They alleged violations of constitutional and statutory law, including CEQA. The trial court sustained a demurrer without leave to amend. On the CEQA claims, the trial court found Appellants failed to exhaust available administrative remedies. Appellants appealed.

COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies
The Court of Appeal explained that CEQA litigants must comply with two exhaustion requirements. First, Public Resources Code section 21177 requires that a would-be CEQA petitioner must object during the administrative process and that all allegations raised in the litigation must have been presented to the agency before the challenged decision is made. Second, a would-be CEQA petitioner must exhaust all remedies that are available at the administrative level, including any available administrative appeals. Under Public Resources Code section 21151, a CEQA determination made by a nonelected decision-making body of a local agency may be appealed to the agency’s elected decision-making body, if any. The CEQA Guidelines encourage local agencies to establish procedures for such appeals. As relevant here, the San Francisco Administrative Code requires that appeals of CEQA determinations must be made to the Board of Supervisors, as the body of elected officials responsible for making final CEQA determinations.

The Court of Appeal found Appellants failed to comply with both exhaustion requirements. They did not object to the HCP’s determination that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA during the administrative process and they did exhaust administrative appeals available under the San Francisco Administrative Code. Specifically, on the second point, although Appellants appealed the HPC’s decision to the Board of Appeals, they failed to exhaust available remedies because they did not separately appeal the HPC’s CEQA determination to the Board of Supervisors, as required under the City’s Code.

Appellants argued they were excused from both exhaustion requirements because the City failed to provide adequate notice. The court agreed with Appellants in part, finding that Appellants were not required to comply with the statutory exhaustion requirements in section 21177 because there was no notice in advance of the HPC meeting that a categorical exemption might be on the agenda. But, the court explained, the inadequate CEQA notice did not excuse Appellants from complying with the requirement in the City’s Code that CEQA determinations must be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. The court also noted that Appellants had notice of the HPC’s CEQA determination because they appealed it, improperly, to the Board of Appeals. Because Appellants failed to appeal the CEQA determination to the appropriate body, they forfeited their right to bring a CEQA action.

Futility Argument
Appellants also argued they should be excused from exhausting their administrative remedies because doing so would have been futile. Citing a Board of Supervisors resolution that was not in the record, Appellants argued that an appeal to the proper board would have been futile because the Board of Supervisors already adopted a definitive position that the statue should be taken down. The court rejected this argument, stating that even if the Board of Supervisors held this view as a policy matter, it still could have disagreed with the process of removal and opted for an EIR. In addition, the Court concluded that the Board of Supervisors was never presented with any arguments concerning the appropriateness of a categorical exemption, and thus any argument regarding how the Board of Supervisors would have responded was pure speculation.

– Veronika Morrison 

First District Holds Regional Water Quality Control Board’s Failure to Impose Mitigation Requirements Through CEQA Process Did Not Preclude it from Later Imposing Those Requirements Pursuant to Its Authority Under the Porter-Cologne Act

The First District Court of Appeal in Santa Clara Valley Water District v. San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (2020) 59 Cal.App.5th 199, held that CEQA did not preclude the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, acting as a responsible agency under CEQA, from imposing additional waste discharge requirements via the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act, beyond the mitigation measures imposed during the CEQA process.

Background

Every 10-20 years, the Upper Berryessa Creek—which drains from the Diablo Range Hills to the Coyote Creek tributary, and ultimately into the San Francisco Bay—floods the nearby areas of Milpitas and San Jose. In the 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began working on plans to build a flood control project on the creek, but the project did not move forward until 2013, when construction of a nearby BART station that could be impacted by flooding was proposed.

In 2015, the Santa Clara Valley Water District (District), acting as the lead agency under CEQA, issued a Draft EIR for the project. That same month, the Corps applied to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) for a section 401 Clean Water Act certification for the project.

The District later issued the Final EIR for the project, and the RWQCB’s executive officer issued the section 401 certification. As a CEQA responsible agency, the RWQCB found that all impacts within its jurisdiction would be mitigated to less-than-significant levels but clarified that it would later consider waste discharge requirements (WDRs) pursuant to its authority under the Porter-Cologne Act to address impacts to waters and wetlands that were not handled by the section 401 certificate.

In 2017, when project construction was nearly complete, the RWQCB issued a WDR order that required the Corps and the District to provide addition mitigation for the project’s impacts to waters and wetlands. The order stated that it suspended and replaced the prior 401 certification.

The District filed a petition for writ of mandate against the RWQCB, challenging the WDR order under CEQA, as well as section 401 of the Clean Water Act, the Porter-Cologne Act, and other state laws. The trial court denied the petition. The District appealed.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, the District argued the RWQCB violated CEQA because: (1) the RWQCB’s failure to impose mitigation requirements as part of the RWQCB’s CEQA review barred it from imposing mitigation via the WDR order; and (2) the RWQCB prejudicially abused its discretion by failing to support the mitigation requirements with substantial evidence. The Court of Appeal rejected both arguments.

Relying on CEQA Guidelines section 15096, the District argued that the RWQCB’s only opportunity to impose mitigation was through the CEQA process. CEQA Guidelines section 15096 provides that a responsible agency that disagrees with the adequacy of a lead agency’s EIR must either sue the lead agency within 30 days, be deemed to have waived any objections to the EIR, prepare a subsequent EIR if legitimate grounds exist, or, assume the role of a lead agency as provided by Guidelines section 15052, subdivision (a)(3). Because the RWQCB did not challenge the District’s certification of the EIR or find that a subsequent EIR was required, the District argued that the EIR was deemed adequate and no additional mitigation measure could be imposed. As explained by the court, however, Public Resources section 21174 includes a savings clause that makes clear that CEQA does not prevent an agency from exercising it independent authority under statutes other than CEQA. The court determined, therefore, that the RWQCB did not violate CEQA by issuing the WDRs because it did so pursuant to its duties under the Porter-Cologne Act. Although the District, acting as lead agency, had not imposed CEQA mitigation measures requiring WDRs, the RWQCB, as a responsible agency, was not precluded from separately discharging its authority under the Porter-Cologne Act. Although the appellate court noted that unified CEQA review and other environmental regulation should be the norm, there may be times when an agency’s own environmental regulation can take place after CEQA review, as recognized by Public Resources Code section 21174.

The court also rejected the District’s claim that the RWQCB’s WDR order imposed “excessive” mitigation that was not supported by substantial evidence. The court concluded that the District failed to engage in sufficient analysis of the evidence supporting the RWQCB’s conclusions, and therefore, failed to carry its burden. The court also concluded that the District’s arguments lacked merit even if they had been properly briefed because the RWQCB’s determinations were supported by substantial evidence.

– Bridget McDonald

California Supreme Court Holds that Stanislaus County Well Permits Are Not Categorically Ministerial

Well construction permits in Stanislaus County are issued under an ordinance that incorporates the California Department of Water Resources’ (DWR’s) well construction standards. Prior to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources v. County of Stanislaus (Aug. 27, 2020, S251709)__Cal.5th__, the County categorically classified well construction projects that did not require a variance as ministerial, rather than discretionary. Ministerial projects—i.e., projects that involve no agency discretion—are exempt from CEQA. The plaintiffs, challenged the County’s categorization, alleging that all County well construction permits are discretionary projects requiring CEQA review. The Supreme Court held that the County’s “blanket classification” that all nonvariance permits are ministerial violated CEQA. Rather, CEQA requires the County to determine whether the issuance of a well permit is ministerial on a case-by-case basis.

Legal Background

CEQA does not apply to “[m]insterial projects proposed to be carried out or approved by public agencies.” (Pub. Resources Code, § 21080, subd. (b)(1).) “A ministerial decision involves only the use of fixed standards or objective measurements, and the public official cannot use personal, subjective judgment in deciding whether or how the project should be carried out.” (14 Cal. Code Regs. (“CEQA Guidelines”), § 15369, italics added.) Rather than exercise judgment, for ministerial approvals, “[t]he public official merely applies the laws to the facts as presented but uses no special discretion or judgment in reaching a decision.” (Ibid.)

A a project is discretionary, in contrast, if the approval requires exercise of judgment or deliberation. “The key question is whether the public agency can use its subjective judgment to decide whether and how to carry out or approve [the] project.” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15357.)

Factual Background

DWR has issued Water Resources Bulletin No. 74, Water Well Standards: State of California, described as “‘a 90-page document filled with technical specifications for water wells.’” The California Water Code requires counties to adopt well construction ordinances that meet or exceed the standards in Bulletin No. 74. Many counties have incorporated the bulletin’s standards into their well-permitting ordinances.

Stanislaus County’s groundwater ordinance, which regulates the location, construction, maintenance, abandonment, and destruction of wells, incorporates many of the standards set forth in Bulletin No. 74, including:

    • Standard 8.A (re well distance from contamination sources): All wells must “‘be located an adequate horizontal distance’” from potential sources of contamination. For example, a well should be located at least 50 feet from any sewer line, and 150 feet from any cesspool or seepage pit. Agencies may increase or decrease the suggested distances, however, depending on circumstances. Determining “‘the safe separate distance for individual wells requires detailed evaluation of existing and future site conditions.’”
    • Standard 8.B: “‘[W]here possible, a well shall be located up the ground water gradient from potential sources of pollution or contamination.’”
    • Standard 8.C: “‘[I]f possible, a well should be located outside areas of flooding.’”
    • Standard 9: A well’s “annular space” must be “‘effectively sealed’” and the well must be located at established minimum surface seal depths.

The County’s ordinance also allowed the county health officer to waive these and other requirements when, in his or her opinion, the provisions were unnecessary. When authorizing such a variance, the health officer could prescribe additional conditions that the health officer deemed necessary to protect water resources.

In 1983, the County adopted CEQA regulations which, broadly-speaking, classified well construction permits as ministerial projects, except for well construction projects that required a variance. Permits requiring a variance were designated discretionary, and thus triggered environmental review. In practice, the County treated all nonvariance permits as ministerial.

Plaintiffs sued the County, alleging “a pattern and practice” of approving well permits without CEQA review. Plaintiffs asserted that all well permits issued under the County’s groundwater ordinance are discretionary because the County may “deny [a] permit or require changes to the project as a condition of permit approval to address concerns relating to the environmental impacts.”

The Supreme Court’s Decision

The Court explained that in determining whether the County’s issuance of well permits is discretionary, it is guided by the principle that CEQA must be interpreted “‘to afford the fullest possible protection to the environment within the reasonable scope of the statutory language.’” Additionally, the Court observed, one purpose of CEQA is to reduce or avoid environmental damage by requiring project’s changes when feasible. Against this backdrop, the Court held the County violated CEQA by categorically classifying nonvariance well permits as ministerial. Instead, held the Court, the County must decide whether a well permit is ministerial on a case-by-case basis.

The Court reasoned that the plain language of Bulletin No. 74’s standards incorporated into the County’s groundwater ordinance required the exercise of judgment. For instance, Standard 8.A requires the health officer to determine the “‘adequate horizontal distance,’”—a judgment that may depend on “‘[m]any variables.’” Further, Standard 8.A states that “‘[n]o separation distance is adequate and reasonable for all conditions.’” And, although the standard provides a list of minimum suggested distances, the standard also states that ‘[l]ocal conditions may require greater distances.’” Moreover, the standard allows for lesser distances which may be approved “‘on a case-by-case-basis.’”

The Court found Standard 8.A “confers significant discretion on the county health officer to deviate from the general standards,” depending on the proposed permit’s unique circumstances. It is clear from the County’s ordinance, which incorporates Bulletin 74’s standards, that the County “may shape a construction project in response to concerns that could be identified by an environmental review.” Thus, held the Court, a permit that required the County to exercise its independent judgment under Standard 8.A. is not properly classified as ministerial.

The County argued that Standard 8.A is part of a much larger regulatory scheme, which, when read as a whole, allows little or no judgment in determining whether a well permit may be issued. The Court rejected this argument as inconsistent with the CEQA Guidelines, which provide that when a project “‘involves an approval that contains elements of both a ministerial action and a discretionary action, the project will be deemed to be discretionary.’ (CEQA Guidelines, § 15268, subd. (d).)” Further, noted the Court, when there is doubt, an approval should be treated as discretionary, in service to CEQA’s environmental protection goals.

The County further argued that the issuance of well permits is ministerial because the County’s ability to mitigate potential environmental damage under the ordinance is highly constrained. The County posited, for instance, that Standard 8.A only allows the health officer to adjust the location of the well to prevent groundwater contamination. The ordinance does not allow the County to address other environmental concerns, such as groundwater depletion, or to impose other measures to prevent contamination, such as regulating the use of pesticides or fertilizers. Unpersuaded, the Court explained that “[j]ust because the agency is not empowered to do everything does not mean it lacks discretion to do anything.” Although the groundwater ordinance does not authorize the County to impose other mitigation measures, that does not mean the permit is ministerial.

The Court also rejected the County’s argument that the Court should hold the permits are ministerial in deference to the County’s determination. The Court explained that although case law suggests a local agency’s interpretation of its own ordinance may be entitled to deference, here, the relevant standards come from DWR’s Bulletin No. 74, not just a local ordinance. Furthermore, although the courts will defer to an agency’s factual determinations supporting a conclusion that a given approval is ministerial, the County’s determination in this case was based solely on the County’s legal interpretation of Bulletin No. 74’s requirements. The Court need not defer to a local agency’s interpretation of state law.

The Court was also unpersuaded by the County’s argument that a decision in plaintiffs’ favor will increase costs and delays in the issuance of well permits. The Court explained that “CEQA cannot be read to authorize the categorical misclassification of well construction permits simply for the sake of alacrity and economy.” Furthermore, observed the Court, even though CEQA review may be required for some well permits, this does not mean that an EIR would necessarily be required. Rather, the County may be able to approve a well permit by relying on another categorical exemption or preparing a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration.

Lastly, although the Court disagreed that the County’s well permits are categorically ministerial, the Court also rejected plaintiffs’ claim that the permits are always discretionary. In some circumstances, the Court reasoned, the County’s issuance of a well permit might not require the exercise of judgment. For example, Standard 8.A only applies when there is nearby contamination. If no contamination source is identified during the permit approval process, the discretion conferred by Standard 8.A would not come into play. This, in turn, would mean that the permit may be ministerial.

Third District Court of Appeal Holds that the County Relied on the Incorrect Prior EIR in Subsequent Review for a Partial Road Abandonment

On August 17, 2020, the Third Appellate District in Martis Camp Community Association v. County of Placer et al. (2020) ___Cal.App.3rd___(Case No. C087759) reversed the trial court’s decision in part and found that Placer County abused its discretion when it approved a partial road abandonment because it relied on the incorrect prior EIR for its addendum and therefore could not accurately determine whether a supplemental or subsequent EIR was required. The court, however, affirmed the lower court’s rejection of the petitioners’ claim that baseline conditions should include the existing but disallowed use of the road along with other non-CEQA claims.

Background

In early 2005, the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved two residential developments and certified their final EIRs—the Martis Camp and the Retreat projects. Martis Camp consists of 650 homes on 2,200 acres just south of State Route (SR) 267 and west of Northstar ski resort. The Retreat consists of 18 homes on 31 acres just east of Martis Camp and within the larger Northstar development. The main roadway connecting Martis Camp to SR 267 is Schaffer Mill Road, a private street that dead-ends at Martis Camp’s southeastern shared boundary with the Retreat. On the other side of that boundary is Mill Site Road, a public road that ultimately connects to Northstar Drive and Northstar ski resort. As initially planned in the 2003 Martis Valley Community Plan, an emergency access roadway with gated access was constructed between Schafer Mill Road and Mill Site Road. The Martis Camp conditions of approval required the developer to construct  this emergency access roadway, provide the County with access for emergency and transit vehicle use, and place signage notifying traffic coming from Schafer Mill Road that the roadway and gate were for “Emergency Access Only.” The Retreat conditions of approval included construction of Mill Site Road and required Retreat property owners to fund road maintenance and snow removal services because such services represented a “‘special benefit’” to them as the sole approved users of the road. At some point around 2010, Martis Camp residents began regularly using Mill Site Road as a more direct route to Northstar in an effort to bypass SR 267. This use coincided with the Martis Camp developer replacing the manual gate with an automatic one that operated by transponder, issuing transponders to Martis Camp property owners, and removing emergency access signage. Retreat residents quickly complained to the County about this use, and in response the Director of the Community Development Resources Agency issued letters in 2011 and 2012 stating that Martis Camp residents have the right to use this road as “owners of property abutting a pubic roadway.” In 2013, Retreat property owners filed a lawsuit to enforce the prohibition on the use of Mill Site Road by Martis Camp residents. That litigation, separate from this case, resulted in the trial court sustaining the County’s demurrers, but on appeal, the court reversed and remanded for the trial court to consider the CEQA claims.

In 2014, Retreat residents petitioned the County to abandon its public road easement rights in Mill Site Road (and a nearby cul-de-sac) and dissolve the associated maintenance benefits. In 2015, the Board approved the petition requests by partially abandoning the road but reserving an easement for public transit and utility services as well as for emergency access and a multipurpose public trail. In approving the road abandonment, the County prepared, and the Board relied on, an addendum to the Martis Camp EIR. The County initially considered relying on the Retreat EIR, but concluded that the Martis Camp EIR was the appropriate environmental document for its subsequent CEQA review because road abandonment would, in effect, “restore traffic patterns to those that were envisioned by the Martis Camp project and analyzed in its EIR.” .

Martis Camp property owners and the Martis Camp Community Association (MCCA) filed petitions for writ of mandate challenging the County’s actions and alleged that the County violated CEQA when it improperly: (1) relied on an addendum to the Martis Camp EIR instead of the Retreat EIR; (2) prepared an addendum instead of a supplemental EIR; and (3) used a baseline that omitted existing use of the road by Martis Camp residents. Other non-CEQA claims alleged that the County violated statutory standards for abandoning Mill Site Road and violated the Brown Act by improperly modifying project conditions of approval without proper notice. Amended petitions asserted “causes of action for inverse condemnation.” After consolidating the two petitions, the trial court sustained without leave to amend a demurrer on the inverse condemnation claim for Martis Camp property owners, but overruled the demurer with respect to MCCA and bifurcated it from other claims. The trial court then denied all other claims. Petitioners appealed.

CEQA Claims

Discussed below, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court as to the first and second CEQA claims and affirmed the third and remanded to the County for additional consideration.

Addendum Prepared for Wrong EIR: The court held that the County’s decision to prepare an addendum for the Martis Camp EIR was “not supported by substantial evidence” and that its failure to consider whether the abandonment of Mill Site Road would require major revisions to the Retreat EIR was a prejudicial abuse of discretion, largely because the road “was not part of the Martis Camp project; it was part of the Retreat project.” The County had argued that road abandonment was a change in circumstances surrounding the Martis Camp project such that further environmental review for that project was appropriately triggered. But, the court pointed out that only “a further discretionary decision” on a project triggers subsequent CEQA review and because Mill Site Road is not a part of the Martis Camp project, there was no related discretionary action. As further support, the court cited to the finding that conditions of approval “prohibited” Martis Camp residents from regularly using the road. The court did concede, however, that the County’s approach was “reasonable from the perspective of informed decisionmaking.” Nevertheless, the County “should have looked to the Retreat EIR” when assessing the need for further environmental review.

Supplement or Subsequent EIR May Be Required: The petitioners argued that the County should have prepared a supplemental or subsequent EIR for the Mill Site Road abandonment instead of just an addendum because of “more and severe environmental impacts by forcing Martis Camp residents to use SR 267 to reach Northstar.” The court agreed with the petitioners, but did not address the substance of this claim because of the County’s improper reliance on the Martis Camp EIR. Instead, it generally found that the County had “prejudicially abused its discretion” when it relied on the wrong EIR to conclude that no subsequent or supplemental EIR was required.

In Supplemental Review, “Baseline” is the Approved Project: The court rejected the petitioners’ claim that the baseline should have included the existing use of Mill Site Road by Martis Camp residents. Agreeing with respondents, the court found that the petitioners “are conflating” CEQA rules for initial project review under Public Resources Code section 21151 with rules for supplemental review under section 21166. To that end, the court ordered the matter remanded so that the County may first decide whether the applicable EIR “retains relevance despite changes to the project or its surrounding circumstances,” and then consider whether project changes “require major revisions” to the EIR due to “new significant environmental effects or a substantial increase in the severity of previously identified significant effects,” per Public Resource Code section 21166. If it is found that the road abandonment has “rendered the Retreat EIR irrelevant to the decisionmaking process,” then the County must “start from the beginning” under section 21151 and determine whether a new EIR is required.

Other Claims

As a threshold issue, the court concluded that MCCA’s pending, bifurcated inverse condemnation claim did not preclude it from appealing the denial of other claims because the “‘one final judgement’ rule” does not definitively apply when there are multiple parties in a lawsuit. The court then upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the Martis Camp property owners’ inverse condemnation claim and its denial of the remaining non-CEQA claims, discussed below.

No Inverse Condemnation: The crux of the petitioners’ argument was that they have “abutter’s rights to access Mill Site Road” and “by approving the abandonment…the market value of their properties” is reduced, thereby impairing their property rights and effectuating inverse condemnation. However, as noted by the court, Martis Camp property owners do not own property that physically abuts Mill Site Road from whence an inverse condemnation claim can be made. Moreover, any theoretical “nonexclusive easement” granted to Martis Camp residents in 2011/2012 by the Director of the Community Development Resources Agency “does not alter this result.” Therefore, the court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of this claim.

Abandonment of Road Was Proper: The court started its analysis by noting that two standards of mandate review—ordinary (legislative) mandate and administrative mandate—have been used by courts to decide issue arising from road abandonment. Ordinary mandate is governed by Code of Civil Procedure section 1085 and applies to ministerial acts and quasi-judicial acts and decisions. Administrative mandate is governed by section 1094.5 and applies only to quasi-judicial decisions resulting from a proceeding where there was a hearing, evidence, and agency discretion “in the determination of facts.” Because “the outcome of this appeal would be the same under either standard, the court declined to “enter [the] debate” as to which standard applied. Thus, “for simplicity” it applied the “less deferential” administrative mandate standard that results in an abuse of discretion determination if an agency’s findings are not supported by “substantial evidence in light of the whole record.”

The petitioners argued that the County violated the California Streets and Highways Code when it abandoned Mill Site Road because it did not possess substantial evidence showing that the road was both unnecessary for public use and that abandonment is in the public interest, as is statutorily required. The petitioners then attempted to evidence the road’s public necessity with the fact that it was used regularly by Martis Camp residents and by the County’s choice to reserve emergency and public transit easements as a condition of abandonment. However, the court pointed out the mere “‘convenient’” use of a road does not make it necessary, and that Mill Site Road was “not planned, designed, or approved to accommodate that use.” Further, the court found no authority to support the notion that emergency and public transit easements denote the public necessity of a roadway. To the contrary, the court noted that the statute expressly authorizes “a legislative body to place conditions on abandonment” or to only partially abandon a roadway. The court also found that abandonment was in the public interest because, per the Board of Supervisors’ findings, it conformed with existing planning and environmental documents, protected “the integrity of the traffic management system,” and alleviated the County of the burden of road maintenance—all of which benefited the public.

No Brown Act Violation: The petitioners argued that the County violated the Brown Act when it approved the abandonment of the Mill Site Road because such abandonment altered conditions of approval established by the 2011/2012 letters from the Director of the Community Development Resources Agency and, therefore, should have been included on the agenda for the Board of Supervisor’s meeting per the Act’s noticing requirements. The trial court rejected this argument, and the Court of Appeal agreed, on grounds that the 2011/2012 letters do not override language in the conditions of approval for Martis Camp or the Retreat, which “did not contemplate Martis Camp residents using the emergency access road as a means of ingress and egress from the community.” Also, the court found that the Board was not bound by the Director’s prior enforcement decisions; therefore, the Board’s overruling of those enforcement decisions was not a “‘distinct item of business’” that required separate notice under the Brown Act.

Casey Shorrock

Fourth District Holds that Agencies May Not Destroy, But Rather Must Retain All Writings Required by CEQA’s Administrative Record Statute.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal in Golden Door Properties, LLC v. Superior Court of San Diego County (4th Dist., July 30, 2020) ___Cal.App.4th___ (“Golden Door III”) held that the broad and inclusive language in Public Resources Code section 21167.6 requires lead agencies to retain all project-related writings and e-mails during the CEQA statute of limitations period or any CEQA litigation. The court issued a writ of mandate directing the San Diego County Superior Court to permit petitioners to conduct discovery against San Diego County to recover unlawfully deleted e-mails for the record of proceedings. The court also ruled on matters related to mootness, discovery in CEQA cases, the common interest doctrine, and the Public Records Act.

BACKGROUND

San Diego County’s E-mail Retention and Deletion Policy

In June 2008, the County of San Diego (“County”) adopted an administrative policy that provided for the automatic and permanent deletion of e-mails after 60 days, except for e-mails identified by e-mail users as “official records.” E-mails identified as “official records” must be retained for at least two years, and e-mail users must classify qualifying e-mails as “official records” within 60 days of creating them. E-mails considered “official records” under the policy include those: “made for the purpose of disseminating information to the public”; “made and kept for the purpose of memorializing an official public transaction”; “required by law to be kept”; or, “necessary and convenient to the discharge of a County officer’s official duties and…made or retained for the purpose of preserving its informational content.” The policy also excluded “preliminary drafts, notes, or inter- or intra-agency memoranda not kept in the ordinary course of business and the retention of which is not necessary for the discharge of County’s officer’s official duties,” from the definition of an “official record.”

The Newland Real Estate Project & Procedural Background

In January 2015, Newland Real Estate Group (“Newland”) proposed a mixed-use development project (“Project”) consisting of 2,134 new residential units and 81,000 square feet of commercial development. Petitioner, Golden Door Properties (“Petitioner” or “Golden Door”), owned and operated a 600-acre spa and resort near the proposed project site. In April 2014, Golden Door had warned the County it would oppose Newland’s proposed Project—as it had previously done with a similarly proposed project in 2009—citing environmental concerns and general plan violations.

In December 2016, while the County processed Newland’s Project application, Golden Door sued the Vallecitos Water District (“District”), Newland, and the County. The suit alleged that the District lacked adequate water supplies to support the Newland Project, which would result in adverse groundwater overextraction. To defend against that litigation, the District, the County, and Newland, entered into a “Confidential Joint Defense Agreement.”

In June 2017, the County released a draft environmental impact report (EIR) for the Project. Shortly thereafter in July 2017, Golden Door submitted a Public Records Act (PRA) (Gov. Code, § 6250 et seq.) request seeking the draft EIR’s technical analyses. The County refused production on grounds that only consultants had possessory rights to the documents. Golden Door submitted a second PRA request in October 2017, which sought copies of the County’s consultant contracts and “all documents and communications in the County’s possession” pertaining to the Newland Project. In response, the County produced, among other documents, only 42 emails that spanned the 60-day period between September through October 2017. When questioned about e-mails spanning from the entire three-year environmental review process, the County explained its 60-day automatic e-mail deletion program, and refused to produce copies of deleted e-mails that may still have been in consultants’ possession.

On June 18, 2018, the County released a second draft EIR for the Project. The following day, Petitioner sued the County once again, alleging that it: (1) used unauthorized consultants to prepare the EIR’s technical studies; (2) failed to executed a consultant memorandum of understanding (MOU) in accordance with County CEQA guidelines; (3) improperly destroyed official records; and (4) improperly withheld records under the PRA. In July 2018, the County and Newland entered into another “Confidential Joint Defense Agreement.” That same month, the trial court issued a temporary restraining order directing the County to stop deleting project-related emails.

On September 26, 2018, the County’s Board of Supervisors approved the Newland Project and certified the final EIR. In anticipation of potential CEQA litigation, the County and Newland entered into yet another “Confidential Joint Defense Agreement” to defend against potential claims challenging the County’s Project approvals. In October, two CEQA lawsuits were subsequently filed against the County, including one by Petitioner, Golden Door. The superior court consolidated the two CEQA cases, along with Golden Door’s June 2018 PRA action against the County.

In January 2019 and thereafter, Golden Door conducted civil discovery against the County, Newland, and two of the County’s environmental consultants. The County produced nearly 6,000 documents, but partially refused discovery requests that sought documents pertaining to the County’s compliance with Golden Door’s initial PRA requests. Golden Door also attempted to obtain the County’s deleted e-mails from Newland and subpoenaed the consultants for other Project-related notes, e-mails, studies, and agreements, but both parties opposed the requests.

Golden Door subsequently filed motions to compel discovery and to require the production of privilege logs for the withheld documents. A discovery referee was appointed to resolve the discovery disputes and ultimately issued several rulings in favor of the County, Newland, and the environmental consultants. The superior court adopted the referee’s recommendations and the various plaintiffs filed the first of three petitions for writ of mandate with the Court of Appeal. The appellate court denied the petition and plaintiffs sought Supreme Court review. The Supreme Court directed the Court of Appeal to show cause as to why the first petition should not issue. The appellate court did so and filed an additional order to show cause for the second petition, thereby consolidating the two writ proceedings.

In October 2019, the CEQA plaintiffs filed a motion to augment the record by seeking to add documents the County omitted from the record, and other material plaintiffs had submitted to the County prior to its approval of the Project and certification of the EIR. The superior court “mostly” denied the motion, allowing the addition of only certain documents. Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed their third writ petition in the Court of Appeal.

On March 3, 2020, the County’s voters rejected the Newland Project in a referendum election. The County Board of Supervisors rescinded the Project’s General Plan Amendment, Specific Plan, zoning changes, and other approvals in April 2020. However, the Board did not vacate its certification of the Final EIR or its approval of the Project’s tentative map. Though Newland ultimately withdrew the Project, the Court of Appeal rendered a decision given the likelihood of the reoccurring e-mail retention issue.

COURT OF APPEAL DECISION

Mootness

As a threshold matter, the Fourth District considered whether the writ petitions were moot because the County had rescinded some, but not all of its Project approvals. The appellate court held that the petitions were not moot because the County did not rescind all project approvals and counsel for Newland indicated that the Project will likely return in some form, perhaps in reliance on the certified Final EIR and tentative map. The court also explained that even if these issues were moot, it had discretion to retain the case because it presented an issue of broad public interest that is likely to reoccur, the parties’ controversy may reoccur, and the County’s e-mail deletion policy remained a material issue of statewide significance.

The County’s E-mail Retention Policy

The Fourth District’s analysis began by interpreting the scope of requisite administrative record documents contemplated by Public Resources Code section 21167.6. The section requires that the record include any document that “ever came near a proposed development or to the agency’s compliance with CEQA in responding to that development.” Moreover, section 21167.6, subdivision (e) uses very broad and inclusive language, which provides that records “shall” include “correspondence” submitted to and transferred from the respondent agency regarding the Project or CEQA compliance, as well as all “internal agency communications” relating to the Project or CEQA compliance.

The court further found that section 21167.6’s broad mandate comports with CEQA’s intent of providing information and disclosure. A complete record is essential for courts to fulfill their role in assuring that an agency’s determinations are lawful under CEQA and supported by substantial evidence. Based on the plain language of the statute, the court held “that a lead agency may not destroy, but rather must retain writings section 21167.6 mandates for inclusion in the record of proceedings.” The court also found that the trial court erred in finding that the County’s e-mails were extra-record evidence; rather, the e-mails plaintiffs sought to include were record evidence contemplated by section 21167.6.

The appellate court also rejected the discovery referee’s finding that the County’s e-mail destruction policy was lawful. The court found that the referee had inappropriately equated non-official emails with preliminary drafts in determining that “[n]on-official emails and other preliminary drafts” are not included under section 21167.6. The court noted that e-mails are a method of communication, while preliminary drafts describe content. Section 21167.6, subdivision (e)(10) “expressly requires certain preliminary drafts—namely, ‘any drafts of any environmental document, or portions thereof, that have been released for public review’—to be included in the record of proceedings.” In contrast, administrative drafts of EIRs, draft staff reports, and other similar preliminary documents that preceded those circulated for public review are not to be treated as part of the record of the agency’s proceedings. Similarly, agencies need not include e-mails in the administrative record that are irrelevant to a project or a project’s CEQA compliance (i.e., email equivalents to “sticky notes, calendaring faxes, and social hallway conversations” are not within the scope of section 21167.6, subdivision (e) and do not need to be retained).

While the Fourth District held that under the County’s e-mail retention and deletion policy the requisite document should have been retained for at least two years, the court did not reach the issue of how long other agencies must keep their e-mails before destroying them. The court’s opinion does not hold that e-mails must be kept “in perpetuity”—rather, the CEQA statute of limitations and a final judgment serve as relevant considerations to assessing when e-mails may be destroyed.

Discovery in CEQA Litigation

The Fourth District overturned the discovery referee’s denial of plaintiff’s motions to compel discovery against Newland and the County’s consultants. The court held that plaintiffs were not inappropriately attempting to enlarge the record; they were properly seeking discovery of documents that should have originally been included.

Because section 21167.6 is mandatory and broadly inclusive, the court held that discovery to obtain record components should largely be unnecessary. However, in cases such as these where documents may have been wrongly excluded from the administrative record, discovery is possible in a CEQA proceeding.

The Common Interest Doctrine

The County’s objections to Golden Door’s discovery requests cited the common interest doctrine. Golden Door’s subsequent May 2019 motion to compel asked the County to produce a privilege log. The County’s initial privilege log identified 3,864 withheld documents, and amended privilege log identified 1,952 withheld documents.

Golden Door asserted that the common interest doctrine did not apply to the documents shared between the project applicant and the county prior to October 10, 2018, the date the county board adopted the last project approval. The court disagreed, holding that the referee correctly determined the common interest doctrine applied pre-project approval. The court distinguished Ceres for Citizens v. Super. Ct. (2013) 217 Cal.App.4th 889, by pointing out that Golden Door had already sued the County twice prior to Project approval, each time seeking orders to kill the Project, thereby creating a common interest between the County and the Newland to defend the Project pre-approval.

The court explained that entities with common legal interests may share attorney-client privileged information without waiving that privilege. For these reasons, the Confidential Joint Defense Agreement between the County, the District, and Newland was proper because they were entered into after litigation had commenced.

Public Record Act Exemptions

Lastly, the Fourth District considered whether the County appropriately relied on the “preliminary draft exception” and the “deliberative process privilege” to withhold approximately 1,900 documents from discovery. Under the PRA’s preliminary draft exception, agencies need not disclose preliminary drafts, notes, or inter/intra-agency memoranda that are not retained by the public agency in the ordinary course of business if the public interest in withholding those records outweighs the public’s interest in disclosure.  Similarly, the deliberative process privilege applies to the mental processes by which an agency reached a given decision, which includes the substance of conversations, discussions, debates, deliberations, and materials reflecting advice, opinions, and recommendations by which government policy is processed.

Here, the court overturned the referee’s recommendation by finding that the declaration in support of the County’s privilege log lacked sufficient detail to justify withholding over 1,900 documents. The declaration failed to discuss individual documents and how the exceptions apply—rather, the County only discussed the 1,900 documents as one “enormously large unified group.” Moreover, while the court recognized the difficult balance the County must strike in determining what to release or withhold, the County here only provided “broad conclusory claims” that “merely echo[ed] public policies underlying claims of privilege generally.” The court held that the County had failed to carry its burden of establishing that the public interest in withholding the documents clearly outweighed the public interest in disclosure.

Remedy

The court rejected plaintiff’s contention that the County’s inadequate record requires a judgment on the merits as premature. On remand, the plaintiffs are allowed to complete discovery. The court also granted the consolidation of the writ petitions and overturned many of the discovery referee and superior court’s findings. The court directed the trial court to vacate its order denying Golden Door’s motion to augment the record because the County’s long-standing e-mail retention and deletion policy is unlawful. Finally, once discovery is complete, Petitioner should be afforded a reasonable period of time to augment the record.

MODIFIED DECISION ON DENIAL OF REHEARING

On August 25, 2020, the Fourth District issued an order denying three petitions for rehearing filed by Golden Door, the County, and Newland, and modifying the court’s July 30, 2020 opinion. Notably, the order expanded the original opinion’s analysis of the “common-interest”/“joint defense” doctrine. The court reiterated that the discovery referee properly applied the doctrine to communications between the County and Newland because Golden Door’s Vallecitos and PRA lawsuits sought to “defeat” or “mortally wound” the Project before it had been approved. In a subsequent footnote, the court explained that the common-interest doctrine may keep the attorney-client and work-product privileges in-tact for the purposes of defending against those two lawsuits. However, that common interest does not absolve the County of its duties as a lead agency under CEQA.

– Mina Arasteh, Bridget McDonald

First District Court of Appeal Holds U.C. Regents Not Exempt from Analyzing Impacts of Student Enrollment Increases that Exceed Projections in Long Range Development Plan EIRs

In a partially published opinion issued on June 25, 2020, the First District Court of Appeal in Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods v. Regents of the University of California (2020) 51 Cal.App.5th 226 reversed a trial court judgment on a demurrer and held that Public Resources Code section 21080.09 does not exempt the U.C. Regents from analyzing the environmental impacts of decisions to increase student enrollment at U.C. Berkeley in exceedance of projected enrollment numbers in their long range development plan EIRs.

Background

In 2005, the U.C. Regents adopted a long range development plan to guide the growth and development of the U.C. Berkeley campus through the year 2020. As is required under Public Resources Code section 21080.09, which pertains specifically to long range development plans at public higher education campuses, the Regents certified a program EIR for the plan. The 2005 development plan projected that, by the year 2020, U.C. Berkeley’s enrollment would increase by 1,650 students and that the university would add 2,500 new beds for students, and the EIR analyzed the potential environmental impacts based on these figures.

In 2018, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, a California non-profit formed “to improve Berkeley’s quality of life and protect its environment,” filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging that, beginning in 2007, the U.C. regents made a series of discretionary decisions that would increase the university’s enrollment well beyond the projections in the 2005 EIR. Under CEQA, Save Berkeley argued, student enrollment projections were part of the project description, and the U.C. Regents changed the project when they approved enrollment increases beyond the 2005 projections. Furthermore, Save Berkeley argued, such increases in student enrollment caused and will continue to cause new significant environmental impacts, including increased use of off-campus housing, displacement of tenants, traffic impacts, noise, and increased reliance on public services. As a result, Save Berkeley argued that CEQA requires the preparation of a new or subsequent EIR. Notably, Save Berkeley alleged it did not learn of the decisions to increase enrollment until October 2017.

In the trial court, the U.C. Regents demurred on grounds that under section 21080.09 enrollment increases are not the “project” or a change in the project that might trigger subsequent environmental review. The Regents also argued the claims were time barred by the statute of limitations or were moot because a Notice of Preparation had recently been issued for a new project that would include analyze impacts from current and foreseeable campus population levels. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend on grounds that the petition was time barred and that the “project” for purposes of CEQA is the development and land use plan, thus, changes in enrollment are not project changes requiring subsequent CEQA review. Save Berkeley appealed.

Appellate Decision

The First District Court of Appeal reversed, finding the petition sufficient to state a cause of action and survive a demurrer. While the court began by noting that nobody disputes that the 2005 EIR could no longer be challenged because the statute of limitations expired, it then framed the issue as whether changes to the project—i.e., decisions to increase enrollment—required some form of CEQA review.

The U.C. Regents primarily argued that section 21080.09 effectively exempts analysis of increases in enrollment until a plan or physical development project is approved because there is no mention of the word “enrollment” in section 21080.09’s  definition of a “long range development plan.”. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument and pointed to CEQA’s broad definition of a “project” in Public Resources Code section 21065.. As the court explained, while section 21080.9 instructs that the effects of enrollment increases are to be considered in an EIR for a long range development plan, the statute does not state that enrollment changes need only be analyzed in the context of an EIR for a development plan or physical development. In short, section 21080.09 “does not address subsequent enrollment decisions, much less exempt them from CEQA,” and “a public university’s decision to increase enrollment levels can be a ‘project’ subject to CEQA whether or not it is related to a development plan.”

The court had no trouble concluding that Save Berkeley had stated a valid cause of action under CEQA. Accepting the allegations in the petition as true, as is required for a demurrer, Save Berkeley had plead that discretionary decisions since the 2005 EIR to increase enrollment have caused and continue to cause significant environmental impacts not analyzed in the 2005 EIR, which is sufficient to trigger the need for subsequent review under CEQA. The court’s opinion left open how such review could be accomplished, such as through the use of tiering from the 2005 EIR or the preparation of a subsequent or supplement EIR depending on the magnitude of the revisions necessary.

Collin McCarthy

Fourth District Court of Appeal Finds San Diego County Climate Action Plan and Supplemental EIR Inadequate Under CEQA

On June 12, 2020, the Fourth District Court Appeal issued a decision in Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego (2020) 50 Cal.App.5th 467 invalidating San Diego County’s approval of a Climate Action Plan and related Guidelines for Determining Significance of Climate Change, and holding that the County’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Report failed to comply with CEQA. In what is now the third published decision dealing with San Diego County’s 2011 general plan update process, the Fourth District panel largely affirmed the trial court’s judgment in the three consolidated cases challenging the County’s adoption of the CAP and SEIR, including with respect to the primary issue in the case—whether the County’s GHG mitigation measure allowing for the purchase of out-of-County carbon offset credits complied with CEQA. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment on some issues, however, finding the CAP to be sufficiently consistent with the County’s general plan update and the County’s responses to comments on the SEIR adequate under CEQA.

Background

In 2011, San Diego County prepared a Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) and adopted a general plan update (GPU) for the unincorporated areas of the County. In order to mitigate GHG emissions that would result from buildout of the general plan update to a level consistent with State-mandated GHG emissions reductions targets, the PEIR included a mitigation measure requiring that the County prepare a climate action plan (CAP). The County began preparing the CAP following the adoption of the GPU, which generally entailed establishing a baseline inventory of known and foreseeable GHG emissions in the County and developing 26 GHG emissions reduction measures for future development projects to implement. The County also prepared a checklist and Guidelines for Determining the Significance of GHG Emissions so that future projects’ consistency with the CAP could be assessed as part of the CEQA process.

In 2018, in order to evaluate the environmental impacts of implementing the CAP, the County prepared a Supplemental EIR (SEIR). The SEIR acknowledged that more than 20 projects proposing general plan amendments were in-process but not approved at the time the SEIR was prepared, and that such projects could result in significant GHG emissions not accounted for in the CAP. To mitigate these potentially significant GHG emissions, the County devised a mitigation measure, M-GHG-1, requiring that any projects that would increase the density or intensity of land use above what is permitted under the GPU to mitigate emissions to a level consistent with the CAP assumptions (i.e., net zero or no new emissions). Under M-GHG-1, mitigation of GHG-emissions was to be accomplished first by incorporating all feasible onsite design features, such as measures to prioritize transit, biking, and walking. Then, in the event project design features were unavailable or insufficient to fully mitigate the additional GHG emissions, M-GHG-1 allowed for the use of offsite mitigation, including the purchase of carbon offset credits, which could be obtained from certain qualifying registries relying on offsets located virtually anywhere in the world.

Following the County’s adoption of the SEIR, CAP, and related Guidelines for Determining the Significance of GHG Emissions, Sierra Club and Golden Door Properties filed separate petitions for a writ of mandate challenging the County’s approvals, alleging multiple violations arising under CEQA and Planning and Zoning Law. After consolidating the two actions (along with a third, previously-stayed case), the trial court granted a peremptory writ of mandate, ordering the County to set aside its approvals. The trial court determined that the CAP was inconsistent with the General Plan, and that mitigation measure M-GHG-1’s reliance on out-of-County carbon offsets violated CEQA. The trial court also determined that the SEIR violated CEQA by inadequately analyzing cumulative impacts, impacts to energy and environmental justice, and project alternatives, and that the County failed to adequately respond to comments on the draft SEIR.

Following the entry of judgment and issuance of the writ, the County appealed.

Court of Appeal

While the appellate court’s 123-page decision addresses a host of legal issues, the primary issue on appeal was whether the SEIR mitigation measure M-GHG-1 violated CEQA’s requirements for mitigation due to the standards imposed, or lack thereof, for the use of out-of-County offsets to mitigate GHG emissions in projects requiring a general plan amendment. Citing CEQA Guidelines section 15126.4, subdivision (c)(3), the court explained that while it is well-established that the use of offsets can be part of a GHG mitigation strategy, the use of such offsets must be “properly restricted” with “verified offsets” that ensure GHG reductions in fact occur. Here, the appellate court held, M-GHG-1 failed to satisfy CEQA’s requirements for adequate GHG mitigation.

Relying heavily on the standards governing the State Cap-and-Trade Program and related California Air Resources Board regulations, the court of appeal agreed with the trial court that the County’s GHG mitigation measure M-GHG-1 lacked sufficient performance standards to ensure the offsets relied on are “real, permanent, verifiable, and enforceable.” Specifically, the court noted that while M-GHG-1 contained some standards governing the entities through which offsets may be purchased, namely, a CARB-approved registry or “any other reputable registry or entity that issues carbon offsets consistent with … [Health and Safety Code] section 38562 [subdivision] (d)(1),” M-GHG-1 did not include any standards or protocols that such qualifying registries must implement to ensure the validity of the offset credits claimed. In the absence of such standards or safeguards, the court found that M-GHG-1 failed to adequately ensure offsets are real, additional, and enforceable and for that reason was inadequate under CEQA.

In addition to the lack of sufficient standards for out-of-County carbon offsets, the court of appeal also held that M-GHG-1 violated CEQA as the measure improperly deferred mitigation. Under M-GHG-1, the County planning director was afforded discretion to approve the use of particular offsets, including determinations such as whether the issuing entity is “reputable” and whether there are no other “financially feasible” offsets “available” in a closer location. On this issue, the court explained that while CEQA allows the specific details of a mitigation measure to be developed after project approval where it is impractical or otherwise infeasible to do so during the environmental review process, in such instances that agency must (1) commit itself to the mitigation, (2) adopt specific performance standards the mitigation will achieve, and (3) identifies the type(s) of potential action(s) that can feasibly achieve that performance standard and that will be considered, analyzed, and potentially incorporated in the mitigation measure.n this case, the court held that M-GHG-1 failed to meet these requirements.

In holding M-GHG-1 violated CEQA as an improper deferral of mitigation, the court of appeal emphasized that M-GHG-1 contained no objective standards for the director to apply in determining whether offsets originating in foreign countries are real, permanent, verifiable, enforceable, and additional. As the court explained, M-GHG-1 entrusted the planning director with making several determinations such as whether the proposed offset registry is “reputable” or whether other offsets are “financially feasible,” however, the measure lacked objective criteria to govern such determinations. Further, the court held that because M-GHG-1 failed to comply with CEQA, the County’s CAP was also inadequate, because, to the extent the CAP assumed that in-process and future projects requiring a general plan amendment would not result in significant GHG impacts based on compliance with M-GHG-1, the County’s finding was not supported by substantial evidence.

In addition to the court’s lengthy analysis of M-GHG-1, the court of appeal’s decision also considered the plaintiff’s arguments that the County’s SEIR failed to comply with CEQA on several other grounds. The appellate court largely agreed with the plaintiffs and affirmed the trial court’s decision, including finding that the SEIR’s cumulative impact analysis was inadequate by failing to analyze impacts other than GHG emissions; that the County’s finding of consistency with the SANDAG Regional Transportation Plan was not supported by substantial evidence; and that the County’s alternatives analysis was inadequate for failing to consider a project alternative aimed at reducing vehicle miles traveled or “VMT”. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment on two issues, however, finding the County’s determination the CAP was consistent with the general plan update was adequately supported under the highly deferential standard of review and that the County’s responses to comments on the draft SEIR were sufficient under CEQA.

Fourth District Reverses Dismissal, Holds Streets and Highway Code Does Not Exempt Caltrans Project from CEQA Review, and Petition Adequately Pled Equitable Estoppel

In Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans Decision v. Department of Transportation (March 24, 2020, D074374) __Cal.App.5th__, the Fourth District Court of Appeal overturned the San Diego County Superior Court’s judgment sustaining the California Department of Transportation’s (Caltrans) demurrer and dismissal of Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans Decision’s (CRCD) petition for writ of mandate. The petition claimed Caltrans improperly exempted a highway interchange project from CEQA review and engaged in misconduct that precluded Petitioner from timely filing the action. The Court of Appeal found that Streets and Highway Code section 103 did not exempt the project from CEQA review, and the petition sufficiently plead facts about Caltrans’ misrepresentation of the review process to establish a factual dispute about whether Caltrans was equitably estopped from asserting the 35-day statute of limitations defense.

Background

In 2005, Caltrans filed a notice of preparation (NOP) for an EIR analyzing construction of two freeway interchange ramps that would connect the I-5 and SR 56 highways in San Diego (the I-5/SR56 Project). The I-5/SR56 Project was part of the larger North Coastal Corridor (NCC) project — a multi-project effort proposed by Caltrans and the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to improve transportation in the La Jolla and Oceanside area.

Streets and Highway Code section 103 went into effect in January 2012. The section provides the California Coastal Commission with integrated regulatory review of a “public works plan” (PWP) for NCC projects, rather than traditional project-by-project review and approval. Four months later, Caltrans circulated a Draft EIR for the I-5/SR56 Project. The Draft EIR explained that “following circulation of the FEIR, if the decision is made to approve the Project, a Notice of Determination (NOD) will be published for compliance with CEQA and a Record of Decision will be published for compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).”

In October 2013, Caltrans issued an FEIR for a separate NCC highway-widening project. The report explained that section 103 did not eliminate project-specific CEQA or NEPA review—rather, it provided the Coastal Commission with streamlined review. In 2014, Caltrans and SANDAG issued, and the Coastal Commission approved, the PWP for the 40-year NCC project. The PWP explained that it did not supplant CEQA, NEPA, or other regulatory review schemes for individual projects proposed under the NCC.

In June 2017, Caltrans released a Final EIR for the I-5/SR56 Project. The report reiterated that, if it approves the Project, the agency will publish a NOD to comply with CEQA and a Record of Decision to comply with NEPA. However, in contradiction to the language above, the Final EIR also added that the passage of section 103, together with Public Resources Code section 21080.5, “mandate that instead of being analyzed under CEQA, the [NCC Project] and all of the projects included therein, shall be addressed under the CCC’s review per its certified regulatory program.” The FEIR reasoned that because the I-5/SR56 Project was identified in the PWP, and the Coastal Commission approved it in 2013, CEQA review was no longer required.

Though Caltrans concluded CEQA no longer applied to the I-5/SR56 Project, it maintained that public disclosure of the Project’s impacts was “still desirable.” Therefore, it released the Final EIR to satisfy CEQA’s analytical and disclosure requirements, and provided the public with a 30-day review and comment period from July 14, 2017 to August 14, 2017. However, before this period commenced, Caltrans approved a “project report” for the I-5/SR56 Project on June 30, 2017, and filed a Notice of Exemption (NOE) on July 12, 2017. The NOE concluded that the Project was exempt from CEQA and its impacts were analyzed pursuant to the Coastal Commission’s certified regulatory program.

CRCD’s counsel first became aware of the NOE on September 28, 2017. After Caltrans refused CRCD’s request to rescind the NOE or agree to a 180-day statute of limitations, CRCD filed a petition for writ of mandate and declaratory relief 35 days later on November 1, 2017. Caltrans filed a demurrer to the petition and the trial court sustained it without leave to amend. The trial court entered a judgment dismissing the petition with prejudice. CRCD appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Fourth District reviewed the trial court’s decision denying CRCD leave to amend and sustaining Caltrans’ demurrer de novo, and considered: (1) whether Streets and Highway Code section 103 exempts the I-5/SR56 Project from CEQA review; and (2) whether CRCD’s petition sufficiently alleged facts showing Caltrans was equitably estopped from raising the 35-day statute of limitations. The Court treated Caltrans’ demurrer as having admitted all of the properly pled material facts in the petition. The Court stated that a demurrer brought on statute of limitations grounds will be overruled if the relevant facts do not clearly establish that the action is time-barred.

Section 103 Does Not Exempt Caltrans from Conducting CEQA Review of the I-5/SR56 Project

First, the Court applied traditional rules of statutory construction to interpret section 103 as a matter of first impression. The Court held that the section did not statutorily exempt Caltrans from conducting CEQA review of the I-5/SR56 Project because it only exempted the Coastal Commission’s approval of the PWP. The Court reasoned that the Legislature intended the PWP to function as a “long range development plan” that could be approved under a certified regulatory program, pursuant to Public Resources Code sections 21080.09 and 21080.5. This certified regulatory program only provided the Coastal Commission with approval authority. Further, section 103 only authorizes the Coastal Commission to prepare substitute documents when certifying or approving the PWP; it did not exempt Caltrans from conducting project-level CEQA review and preparing an EIR for the I-5/SR56 Project.

Finally, the Court rejected Caltrans’ argument that the Coastal Commission’s approval of the PWP implicitly approved the I-5/SR56 Project. The Court explained that the PWP included numerous alternative projects for the NCC, but did not include the I-5/SR56 Project, as defined in the Final EIR. Had the Legislature intended to exempt Caltrans from preparing an EIR for the Project, or provide Caltrans with a certified regulatory program, it would have expressly done so. Because the plain language of section 103 does not provide for such exemptions, Caltrans was required to conduct individual, project-level CEQA review of the Project.

Petitioner Alleged Sufficient Facts Showing Caltrans Was Equitably Estopped from Relying on the Statute of Limitations Defense to Overcome Caltrans’ Demurrer

The Court’s independent review of the petition indicated that CRCD pled facts that sufficiently showed Caltrans was equitably estopped from relying on the 35-day statute of limitations for actions challenging notices of exemptions. A government agency may be estopped from asserting a statute of limitations defense if the petition indicates that the agency’s fraudulent or misrepresentative conduct prevented a reasonably prudent person from timely seeking legal advice or commencing litigation. Here, Caltrans informed the public in its Draft and Final EIRs that Caltrans would file a NOD if it decided to approve the I-5/SR56 Project. However, Caltrans did not inform the public, commenters, or interested parties about its decision to file a NOE instead of a NOD. Caltrans’ statements and conduct further suggested that it would not approve the Project until mid-August 2017, after the public comment and review period closed. The Court held that there was, at minimum, a disputed question of fact whether, by approving the Project in early July after repeatedly stating that project approval would follow the announced Final EIR circulation and review period, Caltrans misled CRCD about facts Caltrans intended to be acted on. CRCD’s petition adequately pled that CRCD was ignorant of the true state of facts, which precluded CRCD from commencing the instant action before the 35-day statute of limitations period expired.

For these reasons, the Court held that Caltrans’ demurrer must be overruled and the trial court’s judgment dismissing CRCD’s petition must be reversed and vacated.

Bridget K. McDonald

Second District Court of Appeal Upholds Ruling that Mitigation Measures are Inadequate and EIR is Required for Mixed-Use Development Project in Agoura Hills

On February 24, 2020, the Second Appellate District in Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll et al. v. City of Agoura Hills et al. (2020) 46 Cal.App.5th 665 affirmed the trial court’s decision to require an EIR instead of an MND for a mixed-use development on 8.2 acres because the adopted mitigation measures deferred action, lacked performance criteria, and/or were otherwise inadequate.

Background

The “Cornerstone Mixed-Use Project,” proposed by Agoura and Cornell Roads, LP, and Doron Gelfand (“Appellants”), consists of 8.2 acres of development, including 35 residential apartment units, retail, a restaurant, and office space on an undeveloped hillside in the City of Agoura Hills. The project site is covered mostly by the Agoura Village Specific Plan (adopted in 2008 after its final EIR was certified) with a small portion located within a Significant Ecological Area. After Appellants submitted applications for a development permit, conditional use permit, oak tree permit, and tentative parcel map, the City prepared and finalized an MND for the project in November 2016. The Planning Commission voted to approve the project and adopt the MND. The local chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) appealed the Planning Commission’s decision, but the City Council approved the project and adopted the MND. The City Council found “no substantial evidence that the project would have a significant effect on the environment” because the project included feasible mitigation measures, reducing all effects to less than significant.

Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll filed a petition for writ of mandate followed by a first amended petition on August 10, 2017, adding CNPS as a petitioner (“Petitioners”), alleging multiple CEQA violations, a violation of planning and zoning law, and a violation of the City’s oak tree ordinance. The trial court granted the petition as to the CEQA and oak tree ordinance claims, denied the planning and zoning law claim, and issued a peremptory writ of mandate directing the City to set aside its project and permit approvals, and to set aside the MND to make way for preparation of an EIR. The project applicants appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s CEQA Decision

The Court reviewed Appellants’ claims under the “fair argument” standard, which requires finding that a lead agency abused their discretion if substantial evidence in the record supports a fair argument that that the project may have a significant effect on the environment. This standard creates a relatively low threshold for requiring an EIR pursuant to “‘legislative preference for resolving doubts in favor of environmental review.’” Three CEQA resource areas were litigated—cultural, biological, and aesthetic. Appellants asserted, repeatedly, that mitigation was adequate and an EIR was not required, and the Court repeatedly disagreed. Overall, the Court found that certain mitigation measures set forth in the MND were “not feasible,” “improperly defer[] mitigation,” or were “inadequate to mitigate the project’s potentially significant impacts.” Affected resource areas are briefly discussed below.

Cultural Resources

The project site contains an identified prehistoric archaeological site that was previously determined to be eligible for inclusion in the California Register of Historical Resources. Three mitigation measures were included in the MND to address potential impacts to the site: (1) construction monitoring, notification of finds, and preservation in place of any resources (i.e., avoidance); (2) notification if human remains are encountered; and (3) a data-recovery excavation program if the site cannot be avoided. The Court found this mitigation constituted improper deferral because, pursuant to an expert opinion on the record, the site could not be avoided as prescribed in the first measure without a project redesign and therefore the third measure would be necessary. The Court also found that the third measure delayed “formulation of several components of the data recovery plan until some future time.” For example, the third measure called for the preparation of a Mitigation Monitoring and Reporting Plan (MMRP), yet did not explain how this MMRP would actually mitigate impacts, and there was no evidence in the record that inclusion of such information was impractical or infeasible prior to project approval. Appellants challenged the “evidentiary value” of the expert opinion, but the Court noted that any “conflict in the evidence” should be resolved in an EIR and that there was no debate as to whether the project would have a significant effect on a cultural resource, just on how it might be mitigated.

Biological Resources

The project site contains three special-status plant species that could be significantly impacted by project grading, landscaping, and fuel modification activities: Agoura Hills Dudley, Lyon’s pentachaeta, and Ojai navarretia. Again, three mitigation measures were included in the MND to reduce impact significance: (1) avoidance if feasible for two of the species, but if not, preparation of a restoration plan that includes plant surveys, onsite restoration, and offsite preservation; (2) the same measure for the third species; and (3) locating and flagging of all three species within the fuel modification zone and the use of buffers, other protocols, and monitoring for protection. The Court found the first two measures inadequately mitigated impacts and were infeasible, largely because of statements on the record asserting that restoration of “‘rare plants is next to impossible’” and “‘experimental’” and because the City relied on outdated surveys conducted during the drought in adopting the measure. The measures called for updated surveys but the record provided no evidence as to why such surveys could not be conducted prior to project approval. The measures also failed to provide performance criteria for determining the feasibility of avoidance or in the alternative, maintenance plans. The third measure was found to be inadequate because it did not properly consider the full expanse of fuel modification zones nor did it account for ongoing fuel modification activities, as it applied only to construction.

The project site also contains native oak trees, 35 of which would be removed by the project. Two mitigation measures were included in the MND to reduce significant impacts: (1) replacement of oak trees either onsite or via in-lieu fees paid to the City to acquire land for new tress; and (2) submittal of an oak tree survey, report, and preservation program to the City for approval. The Court found the first measure to be inadequate because mass grading required for the project would cause a loss of subsurface water to any onsite replacement trees, which could result in failure; yet this water deficit was not addressed in the measure. Also, substantial evidence existed showing that oak woodlands are “‘impossible to recreate’” or at least “‘often unsuccessful.’” Lastly this measure was inadequate because the in-lieu fees to be paid to the City would not be not part of a program that has undergone its own CEQA review, which is required “‘to provide a lawful substitute for the “traditional” method of mitigating CEQA impacts.’” The second mitigation measure was found to potentially lack effectiveness because that same subsurface water deficit was not considered, thereby calling into question any claims of long-term survival of preserved oak trees.

Aesthetic Resources

The project site contains a “distinct” knoll of oak trees that likely would be removed for project development. The MND acknowledged the potential loss of this scenic resource but claimed mitigation reduced the impact to less than significant. This mitigation included some avoidance measures and also pointed to the oak tree measures (discussed above) for restoration and preservation. The trial court found this mitigation to be inadequate. Although Appellants claimed the Petitioners failed to properly exhaust this issue (discussed below), the Court found that evidence in the record demonstrated that the knoll may not be preserved under project design and that, even if it were, the subsurface water deficit would jeopardize its continued existence, and no in-lieu fee could “reduce the impacts on aesthetic resources” of this loss.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision on Appellants’ Other Claims

Administrative Remedies Were Exhausted

Appellants repeatedly contended that Petitioners did not exhaust their administrative remedies and therefore forfeited their claims. They also contended that Petitioners did not address the issue of exhaustion in their first opening brief, and therefore could not submit supporting evidence. Addressing the second claim first, the Court found that Petitioners did preserve the general issue of exhaustion because there is no requirement that the issue must be argued in an opening brief and, nevertheless, their opening brief cited evidence that was later used in Petitioners’ reply brief to show exhaustion. This evidence demonstrated that exhaustion was “not a new legal theory raised for the first time” on reply. The Court also found that Petitioners expressly alleged exhaustion in their petition and “lodged the complete administrative record” as part of the writ proceedings. Further, the trial court’s rejection of Appellants’ supplemental brief on this issue was warranted because in filing it they had directly violated a court order stating that “the issue of exhaustion was thoroughly argued.”
As to the first contention, appellants raised exhaustion as a defense to each of Petitioners’ CEQA claims. The Court considered “the totality of [the] record” by looking to various portions demonstrating that most of Petitioners’ claims were preserved. It looked specifically to public comments, City Council hearing transcripts, other correspondence from environmental groups and experts, and documentation from the City’s own consultants to find again and again that the City was “‘fairly apprised’” of the “underlying concerns behind Petitioners’’ claims and thereby had the “‘opportunity to decide matters [], respond to objections, and correct any errors before the courts intervene.’”

Court Rejected Standing and Statute of Limitations Defenses

Appellants asserted both that Petitioner Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll lacked standing because Petitioners failed to show that they timely objected to project approval and that Petitioner CNPS was barred from the action because they joined the suit after the statute of limitations had run. The Court declined to consider the merits of either claim. It found that Appellants had forfeited their statute of limitations argument by not properly asserting it “‘in a general demurrer or pleaded in answer’” and, therefore, without a statute of limitation violation, CNPS remained a petitioner with uncontested standing. The Court was quick to point out that Appellants claims on these points were made for the first time in their appellate reply brief “[n]otwithstanding their [own] arguments on forfeiture.”

Attorney’s Fees Are Recoverable and Appellants Are Jointly and Severally Liable

The trial court awarded attorneys’ fees to Petitioners and assigned joint and several liability to both the developer Agoura and Cornell Road and its representative Doron Gelfand. Appellants first argued against the award by asserting that Petitioners did not provide notice of the CEQA action to the Attorney General “in accordance with section 21167.7 [of the Public Resources Code] and Code of Civil Procedure section 388” that requires notice be served within 10 days of filing a pleading. On this point, the Court found that, although Petitioners did not serve the Attorney General notice of the first amended petition, they did properly notice their original petition, which was not materially different than the first amended, thereby giving the Attorney General “ample time to intervene.” The Court further pointed to case law emphasizing that a lack of strict compliance with the 10-day notice rule “was not an absolute bar to attorney’s fees.” It further concluded that a declaration from Petitioners’ attorney attesting to notice could stand as evidence in lieu of formal proofs of service of that notice. Appellants then argued that Gelfand could not be held personally liable because he was neither the applicant nor the property owner. But, in utilizing the test articulated in Connerly v. State Personnel Bd. (2006) 37 Cal.4th 1169, 1181, the Court found that Gelfand was a “real party who pursued a direct interest in the project that gave rise to the CEQA action and actively participated in the litigation” and, therefore, was liable. The record contained ample evidence showing that Gelfand was, at one time, “‘the owner of the property’” and had personally made several requests to the City regarding the project, and was listed “as the sole project applicant” on City resolutions approving project entitlements.

Oak Tree Ordinance Was Violated

The City’s oak tree ordinance allows the cutting of oak trees with a permit but disallows removal of more than 10 percent of a subject property’s total estimated canopy or root structure. The project would result in removal of up to 36 percent of oak trees on site in violation of this ordinance. Appellants did not argue against that fact but did assert Petitioners failed to exhaust their administrative remedies on this claim. The Court addressed both the merits of the claim and exhaustion (see above) and agreed with the trial court in finding that, in approving the oak tree permit for the project, the City violated its own “‘duly adopted law’” and therefore the permit must be vacated.

Casey Shorrock