Tag: CEQA

Second District Holds That Labor Union’s Interest in CEQA Action Was Not Sufficiently Direct and Immediate for Permissive Intervention

In South Coast Air Quality Management District v. City of Los Angeles (2021) 71 Cal.App.5th 314, the Second District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision to deny a labor union’s motion for permissive intervention in a CEQA case.

Background

This case involved the City of Los Angeles’s issuance of a permit authorizing a shipping company owned by the Chinese government to construction of a terminal within the Port of Los Angeles. In 2008, the City completed an EIR that concluded that the project would have significant and unavoidable environmental impacts. The EIR incorporated over 50 mitigation and lease measures to reduce these impacts.

In 2020, the City prepared a revised EIR that eliminated some of the mitigation measures required in the 2008 EIR. The revised EIR also concluded that the project would have significant, unavoidable, and increased impacts on air quality, and that it would exceed a threshold for cancer risk. The 2020 EIR did not contain enforcement provisions for the mitigation measures, did not require a lease amendment, and did not require the project applicant to implement or pay for the mitigation measures.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District filed a petition for writ of mandate, claiming that the City violated CEQA by failing to enforce the measures required by the 2008 EIR, and certifying the 2020 EIR, allowing the project to operate under allegedly inferior measures.

The petition named the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles City Council, the Los Angeles Harbor Department, and the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners as respondents, and several shipping companies as real parties in interest.

The California Attorney General and the California Air Resources Board sought permissive intervention pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 387, subdivisions (d)(1) and (d)(2). The trial court granted both parties’ motions.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Locals 13, 63, and 94 also sought permissive intervention, arguing that no existing party could advocate for its members’ interests adequately. Specifically, the Union claimed that it was the only party that could properly protect the 3,075 jobs at stake. The trial court denied the Union’s motion, determining that its interest was speculative and consequential, rather than direct and immediate, as required for permissive intervention. The Union appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s denial of the Union’s motion for permissive intervention. The court explained that pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 387, the statute for permissive intervention, there must be a balancing of the interests of those affected by a judgment against the interests of the original parties in pursuing their case unburdened by others. It also emphasized that trial courts are afforded broad discretion to strike this balance, and that the reviewing court reviews for abuse of discretion—reversing only if the appellant establishes the decision results in a miscarriage of justice or exceeds the bounds of reason.

The court further explained that the Union failed to articulate any unique interest that was not already represented by the other parties. The court found that the Union’s position on the merits was duplicative, that it had no concerns with the actual environmental analysis in the 2020 EIR, and that it was not the only party advocating for a remedy that did not result in a shut down of the project or rescission of its permits. Therefore, the Court of Appeal concluded that it was reasonable for the trial court to determine that the Union’s participation in the case would be largely cumulative and would unduly complicate an already complex case involving numerous parties, and to accordingly deny the Union’s motion for permissive intervention.

Third District Holds Order Requiring a Limited EIR Is Not an Appropriate Remedy Where a Project May Have Significant Impacts

In the published portions of Farmland Protection Alliance v. County of Yolo (2021) 71 Cal.App.5th 300, the Third District Court of Appeal held that a limited environmental impact report (“EIR”) is not an appropriate remedy where a court finds that substantial evidence supports a fair argument that the project might have a significant environmental impact.

Background

The Yolo County Board of Supervisors adopted a mitigated negative declaration and issued a conditional use permit for a bed and breakfast and commercial event facility on agriculturally-zoned property. Project opponents filed a lawsuit alleging, among other claims, that the MND was inadequate under CEQA. The trial court rejected most of petitioners’ claims but found substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the project may have a significant impact on three special-status species, and as the remedy, (1) ordered the County to prepare a limited EIR addressing only the project’s impacts on the three species, and (2) allowed the project to continue operations pending further environmental review.

Petitioners appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the court violated CEQA by ordering preparation of a limited EIR after its finding of potentially significant impacts, and allowing the project to continue operating while further environmental review was pending.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal held that Public Resources Code section 21168.9 does not authorize a court to split a project’s environmental review across two types of documents, such as a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration and an EIR. The court noted that while section 21168.9 is designed to provide a trial court with flexibility in crafting remedies to ensure compliance with CEQA, it does not authorize a court to circumvent CEQA’s mandatory provisions. According to the court, CEQA requires an agency to prepare a full EIR when substantial evidence supports a fair argument that any aspect of the project may have a significant effect on the environment. The Court of Appeal therefore found that the trial court erred by ordering preparation of a limited EIR after finding the fair argument test had been met as to impacts to the three species.

The Court of Appeal declined to consider petitioners’ argument that the trial court erred in allowing the project to operate while the limited EIR was being prepared. While the appeal was pending, the County filed a return to the peremptory writ of mandate stating the limited EIR ordered by the trial court had been certified.  As a result, the Court of Appeal determined the portion of the judgment allowing the project to continue to operate no longer had any effect, and therefore, the issue was moot.

Fourth District Upholds City of Tustin’s Reliance on CEQA’s Infill Exemption for a Costco Gas Station and Parking Lot

In Protect Tustin Ranch v. City of Tustin (2021) 70 Cal.App.5th 951, Division Three of the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the City of Tustin’s reliance on CEQAs’ categorical exemption for infill projects, holding that the petitioner failed to show that the project did not meet the requirements for the exemption or that an exception to the exemption applied.

Background

This case involves a proposal by Costco Wholesale Corporation to build a gas station next to an existing Costco warehouse in the Tustin Ranch area of the City of Tustin. The project site is already developed with a shopping center and is surrounded by commercial uses, as well as some residential development.

The project includes two components: (1) a 16-pump gas station with a canopy and landscaping, and (2) the demolition of an existing Goodyear Tire Center and parking lot, which would be replaced with a new 56-stall parking lot.

The planning commission voted to approve the project and adopted a resolution finding that the project is categorically exempt from CEQA under CEQA Guidelines section 15332 (Class 32, Infill Development Projects).

Members of the public appealed the planning commission’s decision to the city council. The staff report for the city council hearing explained why staff believed the project fell within the infill exemption. It also explained that, although Costco’s initial application indicated that the project site is 11.97 acres, the project site (i.e., the portion of the site to be developed) is actually only 2.38 acres.

The city council agreed with the planning commission and staff that the project is exempt under the infill exemption. The city council adopted a resolution finding the project categorically exempt and approved the project. In doing so, the city council expressly found that the project did not present any unusual circumstances as compared to other projects that would qualify for the exemption.

The trial court upheld the city’s determination that the project is categorically exempt from CEQA review. Petitioner appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

To qualify for the Class 32 infill exemption, a project must meet five criteria: (1) the project must be consistent with the general plan and with the zoning code, including all applicable general plan policies and zoning regulations; (2) the project must be located within city limits on a site that is no larger than five acres and is surrounded by urban uses; (3) the site must have no value as habitat for special-status species; (4) approval of the project must not cause any significant impacts related to air quality, noise, traffic, or water quality, and (5) the site must be adequately served by utilities and public services. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15332.)

Petitioner challenged the city’s reliance on the infill exemption only with respect to the size of the project, arguing that the project does not qualify for the exemption because the project site is larger than five acres. The court explained that the city’s conclusion that the project site is five acres or less is a factual determination to which the court applies the deferential “substantial evidence” standard of review. Under this standard, the court does not weigh conflicting evidence. Rather, the court must uphold the agency’s determination if it is supported by any substantial evidence in the record as a whole. In the case before it, explained the court, multiple documents in the administrative record confirmed that the size of the project site is 2.38 acres. For instance, Costco’s revised development application states that the “area of work” would be 2.38 acres, inclusive of the new gas station and parking at the demolished Goodyear site. A water quality management plan and maps of the project also showed that the site is 2.38 acres.  Additionally, at the city council’s hearing on the project, city staff clarified that the total project site was calculated by adding together the acreages of both components of the project—1.74 acres for the gas station and 0.64 acres of new surface parking where the Goodyear center would be demolished. Thus, held the court, substantial evidence supports the city’s determination that the project fits within the requirements of the infill exemption.

The court next considered whether the “unusual circumstances” exception to the categorical exemption applies. CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2, subdivision (c), provides that “[a] categorical exemption shall not be used for an activity where there is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.” If a project meets the requirements of a categorical exemption, the burden is on the party challenging the exemption to produce evidence supporting an exception. The Supreme Court, in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, explained that this showing may be made in two ways. First, the challenger may identify evidence that the project will have a significant environmental impact. Alternatively, the challenger may show that the project is unusual because its features distinguish it from others in the exempt class, and that there is a “reasonable possibility” that the project will result in a significant environmental impact due to that unusual circumstance. The substantial evidence standard applies to an agency’s determination that there are no unusual circumstances. But the less deferential “fair argument” standard applies to the question of whether there is a reasonable possibility that the unusual circumstances may cause a significant effect.

Petitioner argued that the unusual circumstances exception applied for three reasons. First, the project is located on a former Goodyear Tire Center where tires were installed and oil and other fluids were changed. Second, the proposed gasoline fueling station with 16 pumps is unusually large. And third, Costco proposed to re-route traffic during peak hours. The court summarily rejected these arguments, however, because petitioner had failed to explain why these features made the project unusual compared to other projects qualifying for the infill and exemption. In fact, evidence in the record showed that the project is similar to other Costco gas stations in California and is not unusually large—as evidenced by the fact that the project is less than five acres in size. The court went so far as to question whether the size of a project can be a characteristic that makes an otherwise exempt infill project unusual, since the infill exemption is expressly limited to projects less than five acres in size.

Petitioner further argued that the city’s reliance on the exemption was improper because the city should undertake studies to determine whether the project would contaminate soils. The court rejected this argument, however, explaining that unsupported assumptions and speculation are not enough to require the city to conduct CEQA review. By law, a categorically exempt project is deemed not to have potentially significant impacts unless the project’s administrative record shows that an exception to the exemption applies. Here, petitioner failed to show an exception applies. The fact that the project may have a significant environmental impact is not a sufficient basis to require CEQA review for a categorically exempt project.

Implications

This case highlights the standard of review that the courts will apply to an agency’s determination that a project is categorically exempt from CEQA. The burden of showing that the “unusual circumstances” exception applies is on the petitioner. In this case, the petitioner did not offer any concrete reasons or evidence showing that the project is distinct from other projects qualifying for the in-fill exemption. Therefore, the court upheld the city’s reliance on the exemption.

THIRD DISTRICT FINDS EIR FOR OLYMPIC VALLEY RESORT PROJECT FAILED TO ADEQUATELY CONSIDER IMPACTS TO LAKE TAHOE’S UNIQUE ENVIRONMENTAL RESOURCES

In Sierra Watch v. County of Placer (2021) 69 Cal.App.5th 86, the Third District Court of Appeal found that the EIR for a resort development project in Olympic Valley violated CEQA because it contained an inadequate description of the environmental setting and failed to adequately consider the project’s potential air quality, water quality, and noise impacts on Lake Tahoe and the surrounding Basin.

FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In 1983, Placer County adopted the Squaw Valley General Plan and Land Use Ordinance to guide development and growth within the Olympic Valley (formerly Squaw Valley) area. The 4,700-acre area lies a few miles northwest of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

In 2011, Real Party in Interest Squaw Valley Real Estate LLC proposed the first project under the general plan and ordinance—the Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan—which included two components to be built over a 25-year timeframe: (1) an 85-acre parcel that included 850 lodging units, approximately 300,000 square feet of commercial space, and 3,000 parking spaces (“the Village”); and (2) an 8.8-acre parcel that included housing for up to 300 employees (“the East Parcel”).

The County approved the project and certified its associated EIR in 2016. Following the County’s approval, Sierra Watch filed a petition for writ of mandate, alleging the County violated CEQA in numerous ways. The trial court rejected Sierra Watch’s claims. Sierra Watch appealed.

COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION

In the published portion of the opinion, the Third District considered whether the EIR sufficiently described the project’s environmental setting and adequately considered water quality, air quality, and noise impacts.

EIR’s Description of the Environmental Setting

The court first considered whether the EIR’s discussion of the environmental setting adequately addressed Lake Tahoe and the Lake Tahoe Basin, particularly with respect to the settings for water and air quality.

Water Quality Setting

As to water quality, the Court of Appeal agreed with Sierra Watch’s assertion that the EIR’s hydrology and water quality analysis failed to adequately describe the regional setting specific to Lake Tahoe. Though the Draft EIR explained that the project would be “located within the low elevation portion of the approximately eight square mile Squaw Creek watershed, a tributary to the middle reach of the Truckee River (downstream of Lake Tahoe),” it concluded that VMT generated by the project would not exceed TRPA’s cumulative VMT threshold, and thus, would not affect the Lake’s water quality. The court rejected this rationale by noting that the EIR’s description failed to discuss the importance of the Lake’s current condition or the relationship between VMT and the Lake’s water clarity and quality, thereby depriving the public of an ability to evaluate and assess impacts on the Lake.

Air Quality Setting

As to air quality, the court found that the EIR’s description of the air quality setting and baseline was more substantial, and thus, adequate. The EIR properly explained the applicable air quality standards and presented data on the current concentrations and sources of criteria air pollutants in the area.

EIR’s Analysis of Impacts

Air Quality Impacts

The court agreed with Sierra Watch’s assertion that the EIR failed to meaningfully assess the project’s traffic impacts on Lake Tahoe’s air quality. The EIR concluded the project would not exceed TRPA’s cumulative VMT threshold but acknowledged it would likely exceed TRPA’s project-level VMT threshold for basin traffic. Nevertheless, the EIR ultimately concluded that TRPA’s VMT significance thresholds did not apply because the project was not located in the Tahoe Basin. The court found this rationale “provided mixed messages.” Rather than summarizing and declaring TRPA’s VMT thresholds as inapplicable, the court held that the EIR should have determined whether the Project’s impacts on Lake Tahoe and the Basin were potentially significant.

The court also agreed that the EIR underestimated the Project’s expected cumulative VMT in the Basin by failing to consider expected VMT from other anticipated projects. Even though the County addressed this issue in post-FEIR responses to comments, the court held that the public was denied an opportunity to “test, assess, and evaluate the newly revealed information and make an informed judgment as to the validity of the conclusions to be drawn therefrom.”

Construction Noise Impacts

The court rejected Sierra Watch’s initial assertion that the EIR failed to adequately disclose the duration of construction noise at any specific location, particularly at the Village parcel. The EIR properly explained that that portion of the Project would be constructed over 25 years based on market conditions, and thus, it would be too speculative to identify specific noise levels for every single receptor.

The court agreed, however, with Sierra Watch’s assertion that the EIR failed to analyze the project’s full geographic range of noises by ignoring activities occurring farther than 50 feet from sensitive receptors. The court reasoned that a “lead agency cannot ignore a project’s expected impacts merely because they occur…’outside an arbitrary radius.’” The EIR only considered impacts to sensitive receptors within 50 feet of construction—yet, according to the court, “ignore[d] potential impacts to a receptor sitting an inch more distant[,] even though the noise levels at these two distances would presumably be the same.” Though the County explained this analysis was standard practice, the court contended that an agency “cannot employ a methodological approach in a manner that entirely forecloses consideration of evidence showing impacts to the neighboring region [and] beyond a project’s boundaries.”

Finally, the court agreed that mitigation requiring “operations and techniques … be replaced with quieter procedures where feasible and consistent with building codes and other applicable laws and regulations” was too vague because “in effect, [it] only tells construction contractors to be quieter than normal when they can.” The court concluded that the measure improperly deferred which construction procedures can later be modified to be quiet but did not explain how these determinations are to be made.

– Bridget McDonald

*RMM Attorneys Whit Manley, Andee Leisy, Chip Wilkins, and Nathan George represented Real Party in Interest Squaw Valley Real Estate LLC in this litigation. 

Fourth District Court of Appeal Upholds Denial of Anti-SLAPP Motion to Strike Malicious Prosecution Claim in CEQA Lawsuit with Respect to Defendants, but Not Their Attorneys

In Dunning v. Johnson (2021) 64 Cal.App.5th 156, a project developer (“Cal Coast”) sued defendant Clews Horse Ranch (“the Ranch”) and its attorneys (“attorney defendants”) for malicious prosecution in response to the Ranch’s earlier lawsuit alleging that the City of San Diego violated CEQA by approving and adopting a mitigated negative declaration for Cal Coast’s project. In response, the defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which the trial court denied. The Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the motion’s denial with respect to the Ranch, but reversed the denial with respect to the attorney defendants.

Background

In the underlying action, Clews Land and Livestock, LLC v. City of San Diego (2017) 19 Cal.App.5th 161 (“Clews”), Cal Coast sought approval from the city to build and operate a school on its property, adjacent to Ranch property. Concluding that significant environmental impacts either were not present or would be mitigated, the city did not prepare an EIR. Instead, it adopted a MND and approved the project. The Ranch argued that the project would adversely affect the surrounding environment, that it would interfere with the Ranch’s operations, and that the city’s use of a MND was improper. The attorney defendants, on behalf of Ranch, appealed the approval of the project, but failed to timely appeal the city’s adoption of the MND. The city rejected the appeal.

The Ranch then sought a writ of mandate to compel the city to abandon the project and set aside the MND, arguing that the city’s procedure for preparing and adopting the MND violated CEQA. Additionally, it challenged the city’s appeal process for environmental findings. The trial court denied recovery on both procedural and substantive grounds, and the court of appeal affirmed.

Upon the conclusion of Clews, Cal Coast brought a malicious prosecution action against the Ranch and the Ranch’s attorneys, alleging that the CEQA action had been brought for an improper purpose. Cal Coast alleged that the Ranch simply sought to prevent or delay the project and preserve the Ranch owner’s privacy to enable criminal activity on the premises. (The Ranch owner pled guilty and was sentenced to prison in 2018 for child pornography charges.) Cal Coast also argued that the attorney defendants had maintained the case in an effort to force the Project’s abandonment, hoping to avoid a legal malpractice claim or a complaint to the State Bar for their failure to timely appeal the adoption of the MND. The defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion to strike the malicious prosecution claim. The trial court denied the anti-SLAPP motion and the defendants appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Opinion

To defeat the anti-SLAPP motion, Cal Coast simply needed to show minimal merit in its malicious prosecution claims that the CEQA action in Clews was brought without probable cause and with malice. This court held that Cal Coast met its burden with respect to the probable cause question. However, it concluded that Cal Coast could only point to evidence of malicious action by the Ranch, and not by the attorney defendants.

The court emphasized evidence in the administrative record showing that the Ranch’s concerns about the project were rooted in its potential impacts on the Ranch specifically, rather than on the environment. The Ranch’s concerns were therefore not within the scope of CEQA. The court additionally noted that the Ranch generally did not point to substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project could have a significant environmental impact. Under Preserve Poway v. City of Poway (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 560, this showing is required to establish a MND’s insufficiency. The speculation, arguments, and opinions posited by the Ranch did not constitute substantial evidence. The court therefore concluded that Cal Coast established a probability for prevailing on the question of probable cause.

The court also noted the Ranch’s aggressive and consistent efforts to oppose any use of the proposed project site, including by prior owners of the property. It thus concluded that Cal Coast introduced sufficient evidence of the Ranch’s malice to survive the anti-SLAPP motion with respect to the Ranch. However, the court determined that there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that the attorney defendants acted maliciously, as there was no indication that the attorneys were actually aware of either the Ranch’s improper motives or the untenability of the Ranch’s claim. Cal Coast’s speculation that the attorney defendants were merely acting to avoid a malpractice claim or a State Bar complaint was insufficient to support a finding that the attorney defendants acted maliciously in maintaining the CEQA claims in Clews.

– Louisa I. Rogers

SB 7 – Jobs and Economic Improvement Through Environmental Leadership Act of 2021

On May 20, 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill (SB) 7, known as the Housing + Jobs Expansion & Extension Act. SB 7 extends the provisions of legislation enacted in 2011 (Assembly Bill 900) that created an expedited judicial review process under CEQA for large development projects that met certain criteria. AB 900 was repealed by its own terms on January 1, 2021.

SB 7 reenacts and updates AB 900 in order to “expedite the development and construction of urgently needed housing, clean energy, low carbon, and environmentally-beneficial projects, and the jobs they create.” The bill notes that numerous large projects under consideration in California have the potential to create thousands of high-skill, high-wage jobs. Many of these projects will replace old and outdated facilities with newer, cleaner, and innovative facilities that will lead the nation in environmental impact mitigation and reduction.

Thus the bill streamlines and facilitates development projects in a number of ways. First, the Governor may certify a project before the lead agency certifies a final EIR. Second, the environmental review, administrative process, and record of proceedings may be prepared concurrently. Third, the project applicant must agree to pay trial court costs if the lead agency’s certification is challenged. Fourth, to the extent feasible, judicial review of lead agency action must conclude within 270 days once commenced. Finally, the Bill extends the benefits of AB 900 to those projects that were certified by the Governor before AB 900’s expiration and by the lead agency within one year of AB 900’s expiration.

In order to be eligible for streamlined certification, a project must fall into at least one of the following categories. It must be on an infill site, certified as LEED Gold (or better), and able to achieve a 15% improvement in transportation efficiency. Or it must be a clean energy project that either generates power exclusively through wind or solar energy or manufactures equipment used in renewable energy production. Or it must be a housing project on an infill site that will dedicate at least 15% of the development to affordable and low-income housing. Although it may include mixed-use development—assuming at least two-thirds is residential—or transitional housing, no part of a certified housing project may be used for transient lodging, manufacturing, or industrial uses.

Regardless of the category it falls into, the project must meet certain criteria. First, it must result in at least $100 million in investment in California (except for housing projects, which must result in an investment of between $15 million and $100 million). It must also create high-wage and high-skill jobs that help reduce unemployment and encourage apprenticeship training. And, at a minimum, it must not lead to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions, including from employee transportation. Finally, the project applicant must agree to monitoring and enforcement of its mitigation efforts by the lead agency.

SB 7 aims to boost California’s economic recovery by creating more and better housing and jobs, and doing so in an environmentally sustainable way. As Governor Newsom noted when he signed the legislation, “California’s recovery from the pandemic must tackle the housing shortage that threatens our economic growth and long-term prosperity. Cutting red tape to save time and remove barriers to production helps us meet the urgent need for more housing while creating good jobs and preserving important environmental review.” Indeed, AB 900 had already led to roughly twenty major clean energy and housing projects, 10,000 housing units, and thousands of high paying jobs. Proponents of SB 7 hope its passage will continue this trend.

The Governor’s press release is available here: https://www.gov.ca.gov/2021/05/20/in-san-jose-governor-newsom-signs-legislation-to-fast-track-key-housing-economic-development-projects-in-california/

– Blake C. Hyde

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 (2020) 10 Cal.5th 479, 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.