Tag: exemption

The First District Court of Appeal Affirmed a Judgment Holding that CEQA Review Was Not Required for a Multifamily Residential Project Subject Only to Design Review

In a decision published on January 10, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying two local groups’ petition for writ of mandate seeking to overturn the City of St. Helena’s approval of a multifamily residential project. McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group, et al. v. City of St. Helena, et al. (2019) ___Cal.App.5th ___. In this case, the city’s approval authority for the project was limited to design review under the local zoning ordinance. The court held that because the city lacked any discretion to address the project’s environmental effects, the city properly determined CEQA review was not required.

Between 2015 and 2016, the City of St. Helena amended its general plan and zoning ordinance to eliminate the requirement to obtain a conditional use permit for multifamily projects in High Density Residential (HDR) districts. Since this change, multifamily residential projects are a permitted use in HDR districts and require only design review approval. Real Party in Interest Joe McGrath applied for design review approval to construct an 8-unit residential project within an HDR district. McGrath also applied for a demolition permit to demolish an existing single family home on the site.

In October 2016, the city’s planning staff prepared a report that concluded (1) the project was exempt from CEQA under the Class 32 infill exemption (CEQA Guidelines § 15332); and (2) the project met the design review criteria. At the planning commission hearing for the project, several neighbors and community members opposed the project on various environmental grounds, including that the project site is contaminated, the street has inadequate drainage, the area lacks open space, and the project would cause cumulative impacts with another proposed development. Opponents of the project also contended that the project design was inconsistent with the design of the neighboring historical homes.

During the planning commission hearing, the city attorney advised the members of the commission that, under the city’s zoning ordinance, the commission was required to approve the project if it met the city’s design review criteria. The city attorney added that while he was confident the Class 32 infill exemption applied, CEQA also did not apply because it was a non-discretionary project. The planning commission approved the project, and adopted findings that the project was exempt from CEQA and would not cause any significant environmental effects.

At the city council appeal hearing, the city attorney similarly advised the members of the council that the project was exempt from CEQA under the Class 32 infill exemption, but at any rate their review was limited to the project design. The council voted 3-2 to deny the appeal and uphold the planning commission’s approval. The council adopted a resolution containing numerous detailed findings to support the design review approval. The council also found that the Class 32 infill exemption applied, but, even if some level of CEQA review was required, the city was limited to reviewing design-related issues and not the use-related environmental impacts the project opponents had raised.

The McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group and St. Helena Residents for an Equitable General Plan filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the city council’s approval as a violation of CEQA and local zoning laws. The trial court denied the petition. The groups’ appeal followed.

The primary issue on appeal was whether the city abused its discretion by approving the project without requiring an environmental impact report (EIR). The appellants argued that the Class 32 infill exemption requires the city council to determine that the project would not result in any significant environmental effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, and water quality. According to the appellants, the city council could not properly have done so because it reviewed only the project design.

The court disagreed and held that, irrespective of the Class 32 exemption, the city council correctly determined that the scope of its discretion was limited to design review and no CEQA review was required. As the court explained, under the city’s design review ordinance, the city council could not disapprove the project for non-design related reasons. In this case, the court found that substantial evidence supported the city council’s findings that the project met the design review criteria and would not result in any design-related impacts.

With regard to the Appellants’ design-related concerns, the court rejected the notion that CEQA review was required for those concerns alone, at least for the project at issue. Quoting from the First District’s decision in Bowman v. City of Berkeley (2004) 122 Cal.App.4th 572, 592 (Bowman), the court stated, “[W]e do not believe that our Legislature in enacting CEQA . . . intended to require an EIR where the sole environmental impact is aesthetic merit of a building in a highly developed area.” Furthermore, the court added, “[w]hile local laws do not preempt CEQA, ‘aesthetic issues like the one raised here are ordinarily the province of local design review, not CEQA.’ ‘Where a project must undergo design review under local law, that process itself can be found to mitigate purely aesthetic impacts to insignificance . . . .’” (Quoting Bowman at p. 594.) While the court recognized that St. Helena is not as urban as Berkeley, the location of the Bowman project, it nonetheless found that “the principles of that case apply to the design review in this case, which cannot be used to impose environmental conditions.”

The court next rejected the appellants’ argument that the mere fact the city had some discretionary authority in the design review process made the project subject to CEQA. According to the court, the rule that a project will be deemed discretionary for purposes of CEQA if it requires both discretionary and ministerial approvals “applies only when the discretionary component of the project gives the agency the authority to mitigate environmental impacts.”
Finally, the court found that it was unnecessary for the city to rely on the Class 32 infill exemption because the city lacked any discretion to address the project’s non-design related environmental effects. The court also found it was unnecessary to address the appellants’ argument that the Class 32 exemption did not apply based on the “unusual circumstances” exception. According to the court, “[b]ecause CEQA was limited in scope to design review whether or not the Class 32 exemption applied, any exception to the exemption was irrelevant.”

-Collin McCarthy

Fourth District Court of Appeal Holds City’s Use of Historical Baseline Legally Erroneous

In Bottini v. City of San Diego (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 281* the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s ruling ordering the City of San Diego to set aside its determination that the construction of a single-family home required full environmental review.
In February 2011, the Bottini family purchased Windemere Cottage (“Windemere”). At that time, Windemere’s designation as a historical resource was pending before the city’s historical resources board. Shortly thereafter, the board declined to grant historical status to Windemere. In November 2011, the city’s neighborhood code compliance division determined that Windemere constituted a public nuisance and ordered the Bottinis to demolish the structure. They complied. Then in August 2012, the Bottinis applied for a coastal development permit for the construction of a single-family home on the vacant lot. City staff determined that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA, but on an appeal of the determination, the city council ordered a fuller evaluation of the project using a January 2010 baseline, concluding that the demolition of Windemere was part of the project. The council further concluded that the project was not exempt because the unusual circumstances and historic resources exceptions to the exemption applied. In response to the city council’s decision, the Bottinis filed a petition for writ of administrative mandamus seeking to compel the city council to set aside its decision, as well as a complaint alleging constitutional causes of action. The trial court granted the CEQA petition finding that the demolition of Windemere was not a component of the project and therefore the city’s determination that the project is not categorically exempt lacked substantial evidentiary support. It granted summary judgment in favor of the city as to the constitutional claims. The Bottinis and the city cross-appealed.

CEQA
The court of appeal held that an environmental baseline that presumed the existence of the Windemere cottage, which in reality no longer existed at the time the project was proposed, did not accurately reflect the environmental conditions that would be affected by the project. The court dismissed the city’s allegations that the Bottinis “strong-armed” the city into making a public nuisance determination because there was no evidence to support such an allegation. Moreover, the court found that the public nuisance determination confirmed that the demolition permit served a purpose distinct from and not part of the single-family home under review. Thus, the court concluded that the demolition of the cottage could not properly be considered part of the project.

Using the appropriate baseline, the court held that city erred in concluding that the Class 3 exemption did not apply to the project. The construction of a single-family home on a vacant lot is typically categorically exempt. The court further determined that no exceptions to the exemption applied.

Constitutional Violations
The Bottinis alleged three causes of action for violation of the California Constitution’s takings, equal protection, and due process clauses. Regarding the takings claim, the court applied the test set forth in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City (1978) 438 U.S. 104, 124, concluding that the Bottinis did not have a “reasonable investment-backed expectation” because there was no evidence they intended to demolish the cottage when they purchased the property. Even if they had articulated a distinct expectation to do so, there was no basis to conclude that they had a reasonable expectation that they could demolish the cottage to construct a new residence without undertaking any form of environmental review. The court further found that the Bottinis could not sustain a claim for due process because they did not identify any property interest or statutorily conferred benefit of which the city had deprived them. Finally, with respect to equal protection, the court held that the Bottinis did not meet their burden to show that the city’s decision was not rationally related to a legitimate government interest.

  • Review granted, December 19, 2018.

Second District Court of Appeal Applies Broad Definition of “Project” and Upholds Determination that Settlement Agreement Exempt as Part of Beach Restoration Project

The Second District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s determination that a beach restoration project, including incorporation of a settlement agreement entered into by the Broad Beach Geologic Hazard Abatement District (BBGHAD) and the City of Moorpark, constituted a single project that is statutorily exempt from CEQA review. The court also held that BBGHAD abdicated its police power in parts of the settlement agreement, rendering certain provisions void. (County of Ventura v. City of Moorpark (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 377)

BBGHAD was formed to restore a 46-acre stretch of beach in Malibu. The restoration project, which was determined to be statutorily exempt from CEQA, required deposits of large quantities of sand at five-year intervals. Each deposit would generate 44,000 one-way truck trips over the course of three to five months. Moorpark officials were concerned that the haul trucks would negatively impact the city’s residents. Moorpark and BBGHAD ultimately entered into a settlement agreement to resolve these concerns. The settlement agreement contained restrictions on the haul routes that BBGHAD could use for the project.

The County of Ventura challenged the project. The trial court denied Ventura’s petition for writ of mandate and request for injunctive relief, and denied in part and granted in part the request for declaratory relief. This appeal followed.

CEQA Exemption Claim

Ventura argued that the settlement agreement was distinct from the beach restoration project, and was therefore not exempt from CEQA. The court disagreed, finding that the settlement agreement was part of the whole of the action because it was one piece of a single, coordinated endeavor to address erosion. The court applied CEQA’s broad definition of “project” in the context of the statutory exemption. The court considered the test for “separate projects” from Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 1209: (i) both respondents were proponents of the settlement agreement; (ii) the agreement and beach restoration served a single purpose, to abate a geologic hazard; and (iii) even if the beach agreement could be completed without the agreement, the two became inextricably linked when the agreement was incorporated into the coastal development permit. Thus, the court found, the agreement was not a separate project under Banning Ranch.

The court also determined that the settlement agreement, as part of the restoration project, was exempt from CEQA as an “improvement” (Pub. Resources Code, § 26505) undertaken by a geologic hazard abatement district “necessary to prevent or mitigate an emergency” (Pub. Resources Code, § 26601). CEQA provides a statutory exemption for such actions. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21080, subd. (b)(4).) The court emphasized that statutory exemptions cannot necessarily be harmonized with CEQA’s general purpose of protecting the environment.

Preemption Claim

Ventura argued the settlement agreement was void because Vehicle Code section 21 preempts Moorpark’s ability to control project traffic. The court disagreed. The court explained that, under the state constitution, cities may only enact and enforce laws that do not conflict with state law. The court further explained that Vehicle Code section 21, subdivision (a), preempts local traffic control ordinances and resolutions. Applying the independent review standard, the court determined that the settlement agreement is an ordinance rather than a contract or resolution, and therefore Vehicle Code section 21 did not apply. Thus, the court found, there was no preemption problem with the settlement agreement.

Extraterritorial Regulation Claim

Ventura argued the settlement agreement was an unlawful attempt by Moorpark to exercise its regulatory powers outside of city limits. Again, the court disagreed. The court explained that the prohibition against extraterritorial regulation does not apply to a local authority’s contracting power. In addition, the court said, a city has authority to enter into contracts to enable it to carry out its necessary functions. Applying the independent review standard, the court explained that trucks’ use of roads can create a public nuisance, and Moorpark appropriately entered into the settlement agreement in an attempt to abate that nuisance.

Police Power Claim

Ventura argued BBGHAD abdicated its police power when it granted Moorpark the power to dictate sand hauling routes that BBGHAD’s contractors were required to use. Ventura also argued this rendered the settlement agreement void in its entirety. The court explained that BBGHAD is allowed under state law to exercise a portion of the state’s police power, but it may not contract away its right to exercise its police power in the future. The court explained that the determination of hauling routes is a police power, and therefore the portions of the settlement agreement that surrendered BBGHAD’s discretion to alter those routes in the future were void.

The court next considered whether the settlement agreement was invalid in its entirety. The court determined the settlement agreement had at least two purposes: (i) to determine permissible and prohibited sand hauling routes, and (ii) to describe the duration of and limited discretion to modify the route restrictions. Only the second purpose was unlawful, the court found, and because that could be extirpated from the agreement, the court determined the remainder of the agreement could remain in force. Thus, the court declined to find the agreement void in its entirety. (Elizabeth Pollock)

First District Rules that State Lands Commission’s Approval of a Land Exchange Agreement Not Exempt from CEQA; Exhaustion Requirement Did Not Apply.

The First District, in Defend Our Waterfront v. California State Lands Commission (Sept. 17, 2015) ___Cal.App.4th___, Case Nos. A1496 & 141697,  upheld the trial court’s grant of a petition for writ of mandate challenging a land exchange between the City and County of San Francisco and the project applicants for the 8 Washington Street Project.

The 8 Washington Street Project is a plan to develop waterfront land near the San Francisco Ferry Building. The project site includes the “Seawall Lot 351” parcel, which is currently owned by the City and County of San Francisco through its Port Commission (the City), subject to the public trust for uses benefiting the people of California. The public trust restriction on the use of the Seawall Lot 351 is inconsistent with the development proposed by the 8 Washington Project. To remove this inconsistency, the applicants and the City proposed to transfer Seawall Lot 351 out of the public trust and replace it with a different parcel of property pursuant to a land exchange agreement with the State Lands Commission (SLC). In August 2012, SLC approved the land exchange agreement, finding, among other things, that the agreement is a statutorily exempt activity under CEQA.

Defend Our Waterfront (DOW), argued that SLC abused its discretion in determining that the land exchange agreement was exempt from CEQA. SLC, the City, and the project applicants argued that DOW had not exhausted its administrative remedies on this issue. The trial court held the exhaustion requirement was inapplicable because there was no effective notice of a public hearing on a CEQA matter prior to the SLC ruling. The Court of Appeal affirmed. The appellate court explained that the only notice provided by the agenda for the SLC meeting was that the SLC was considering a land exchange agreement proposed by the City. The agenda made no reference to CEQA.

The applicants argued that although the agenda itself did not specify that staff considered the project exempt from CEQA, the staff report, which was available online through a link provided in the agenda, set forth this information. The Court of Appeal held, however, that the staff report did not provide legally sufficient public notice of SLC’s CEQA decision for two reasons. First, someone would have to take the additional step of clicking on the agenda’s link to the staff report to learn that a CEQA issue would be decided at the SLC meeting. Second, the hyperlink to the staff report was added after the 10-day notice requirement under Government Code section 11125, subdivision (a), so could not provide adequate notice.

The applicants alternatively argued that DOW had actual notice that the SLC was going to consider the CEQA exemption at the meeting. To support this argument, the applicants pointed to an e-mail from a member of DOW that referred to the staff report. The e-mail, however, did not mention CEQA, so the court refused to assume that the e-mail’s author had read the section of the staff report regarding the CEQA exemption. Furthermore, even if the e-mail’s author had read the entire report, the staff report still did not provide adequate notice because it was not provided until after the 10-day notice period, discussed above.

Moving to the CEQA issue, the Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that the land exchange agreement was not exempt from CEQA review. SLC had found that land exchange agreement was statutorily exempt under Public Resources Code section 21080.11, which states: “This division shall not apply to settlements of title and boundary problems by the State Lands Commission and to exchanges or leases in connections with those or leases in connection with those settlements.” Applying principles of statutory construction, the Court of Appeal held that the statutory exemption for “settlements and title boundary problems” did not apply as a matter of law because there was neither a title or a boundary dispute nor settlement of any such dispute relating to Seawall Lot 351. Instead, the express purpose of the exchange is to further the 8 Washington Street Project. In reaching this conclusion, the Court of Appeal declined to defer to the public agencies’ interpretation of Public Resources Code section 21080.11.

RMM Attorneys Whit Manley, Chip Wilkins, and Chris Stiles represented Real Parties in Interest in the matter.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Holds Removal of Conservation Overlay on Land Is a Project and Is Not Exempt from CEQA

Paulek v. Western Riverside County (June 17, 2015) __ Cal.App.4th __, Case No. E059133

In a decision reversing the trial court, Division Two of the Fourth District held that the removal of a conservation overlay constituted a project under CEQA and that the project did not fall within the identified exemptions. The decision involves a Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to maintain open spaces in western Riverside County. The HCP identified a “criteria area” broken down into cells, each about 160 acres in size, that were to be evaluated to determine what portions of the criteria area should be included in the conservation area. Part of the criteria area included the Warm Springs Ranch owned by Anheuser-Bush; a conservation overlay had been placed upon the ranch.

In 2005, Anheuser submitted applications to develop the Ranch. The County informed Anheuser that all but 71 acres of the Ranch would be acquired for conservation under the HCP, and in 2011 the parties reached a settlement agreement whereby the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority (the Agency) would purchase the Ranch from Anheuser. The property was to be purchased in 9 phases, and phase 9, which consisted of a 200-acre area, would cost $11 million. One of the purchasing conditions for the phase-9 property was that the conservation overlay would be removed.

Paulek asserted that the Agency should have considered whether removing the conservation overlay would have a significant environmental impact, and contended possible development on that area had the potential to affect wildlife by reducing habitat. The Agency contended that because, as part of the agreement with Anheuser, 1,064 acres would be acquired by the Agency and protected as open space, and because the phase-9 property was highly degraded habitat, the conservation transfer would result in more and better land being protected. Therefore, the Agency reasoned, the action was not a project under CEQA, and if even it was, it was exempt from CEQA.

The court rejected the Agency’s arguments, holding that the removal of the conservation overlay from the phase-9 property constituted a project under CEQA. Among other things, the court reasoned that removing the overlay was analogous to amending a general plan or changing a zoning ordinance, which are projects under CEQA. Removing the conservation overlay embodied a fundamental land use decision that had the potential to cause physical changes in the environment in that the land protected for conservation purposes would no longer be subject to such protections. Therefore, the Agency’s decision to remove the overlay was a project under CEQA.

The court was unpersuaded by the Agency’s arguments concerning the protection of 1,064 acres of more environmentally pristine land in exchange for the 200-acre phase-9 property. The court explained that the decision to remove the overlay was a separate decision from the decision to put 1,064 acres of other land in conservation. But even if the removal of the overlay and addition of overlay elsewhere was considered part of the same project, the fact remained that the 200 acres of the phase-9 property would no longer be protected by the conservation overlay. The court characterized the Agency’s argument as “essentially washing over any negative changes to the phase 9-property by highlighting the positive changes to the [other] properties.” For instance, noted the court, there are two species present on the phase-9 property that are not present on the 1,064 acres, so the land swap would not protect these two species.

The court also rejected the Agency’s argument that the project fell within certain exemptions from CEQA. The court held that a Class 7 exemption, which exempts projects that consist of actions taken by regulatory agencies to assure the maintenance, restoration, or enhancement of a natural resource, did not apply because a fair argument existed that removing the overlay could adversely affect certain species. Although the phase-9 property was not “prime” habitat for those species, there was no indication that it was so superfluous to those species that removing it from conservation would not adversely affect the species.

With respect to the Class 8 exemption, which is nearly identical to a Class 7 exemption except that it applies to the “environment” rather than natural resources, the court held that because there was uncertainty as to whether there would be a significant impact on the environment, the Class 8 exemption did not apply. Evidence in the administrative record demonstrated that the loss of the conservation overlay could affect the neighboring conservation area, and the effects could be significant such that there would need to be an attempt to lessen the effects.

The court also rejected the Agency’s claim that the project fell within the common sense exemption, which applies where it is certain that there is no possibility that an activity will have a significant effect on the environment. The change in designation of the phase-9 property from protected to unprotected had the potential for causing ultimate physical environmental changes, which was sufficient to take the project outside the purview of the exemption.

In addition to rejecting the Agency’s arguments on the merits, the court rejected various procedural arguments made by the Agency, holding that Paulek had standing, that Paulek’s action was timely, and that Paulek did not fail to join an indispensable party.

 

 

Fifth District Holds Interim Renewal Contracts for Central Valley Project Water are Exempt from CEQA

Even though the renewal contracts have expired, and thus the case was moot, the Court of Appeal nevertheless resolved the case, finding the renewal contracts both statutorily and categorically exempt from CEQA. In North Coast Rivers Alliance v. Westlands Water District, Case No. F067383 (July 3, 2014), the Fifth District Court of Appeal upheld the Westlands Water District’s interim renewal contracts with the United States Bureau of Reclamation, which continued the existing terms for water delivery from the Central Valley Project (CVP.) The court upheld the District’s findings that the interim contracts fell under the statutory exemption for ongoing pre-CEQA projects as well as the categorical exemption for the continued operation of existing facilities.

Westlands Water District and its related distribution districts serve more than 600,000 acres of farmland in San Joaquin Valley, and have a right to receive over one million acre-feet of water per year from the CVP, due to water service contracts that have been in place with the Bureau of Reclamation since the 1960s. In 2012, the Bureau and the water districts entered into two-year contracts to renew the districts’ contractual rights to receive CVP water, during which time the Bureau was set to complete the environmental review required for 25-year renewal contracts.

The water districts found that the renewals were statutorily and categorically exempt from CEQA because they involved ongoing receipt and delivery of water on identical terms as the prior water service contracts, with no expansion of service and no new facilities, and any changes related solely to minor administrative matters.

The court first rejected the water districts’ assertion that the renewal contracts were statutorily exempt under the statutory exemption for rate-setting activities under Public Resources Code section 21080, subdivision (b)(8). The court found no evidence that the renewal contracts involved any rate-setting activity.

But the court did uphold the water districts’ conclusion that the renewal contracts were statutorily exempt as ongoing projects approved before CEQA was enacted. (See CEQA Guidelines, § 15261 subd. (a).) The court found that the original contracts and construction of facilities predated CEQA’s enactment in November of 1970. Any assignment agreements and renewals entered into after CEQA’s enactment, the court found, did not result in an expansion or material modification of the underlying activity that was initially approved; rather, the agreements merely facilitated the districts’ ability to receive a stable and adequate water supply within the scope of the original project.

The court found that the renewal projects also came within the categorical exemption for operation of existing facilities. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15301.) Categorical exemptions, unlike statutory exemptions, are subject to exceptions. While the courts of appeal disagree on whether a fair argument standard or substantial evidence standard applies to exceptions, the court here found the disagreement irrelevant because it would reach the same conclusion under either standard.

Petitioners first argued that “unusual circumstances” exception applied. The court, however, agreed with the water districts that the project did not involve unusual circumstances because it was not uncommon for utility-type public agencies to have large-scale facilities operating at a large volume and to impact the environment to some extent simply by existing and functioning as utilities. The court noted that even if the large scale of the water diversion at issue constituted unusual circumstances, as petitioners argued, petitioners would still have to establish that there was a reasonable possibility the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to such circumstances. Using the established levels of operations as the baseline, the court concluded there was insufficient evidence that there would be a substantial adverse change from the environmental baseline, and thus the exception did not apply. The court also rejected petitioners claim that the renewal contracts fell within cumulative impacts exception to the exemption. The court stated that the present litigation was not the proper time for petitioners to raise the cumulative-impact claim because the short-term interim renewal contracts did not constitute “successive projects of the same type” and therefore did not fit within the definition of the exception.

Second District Court of Appeal Finds Museum Remodel Exempt from CEQA

Highland Park Heritage Trust v. City of Los Angeles, Case No. B242930 (Feb. 18, 2014), unpublished

On February 18, 2014, in an unpublished decision, the Second District Court of Appeal denied petitioners’ request to set aside approval of the Autry Museum’s internal remodeling project. The court held the city of Los Angeles did not abuse its discretion in determining the project was exempt from CEQA.

In 2003, the Autry Museum merged with the Southwest Museum and thereafter discovered that the Southwest site was unsuitable for housing the museum collection. Autry decided to move the collection from the Southwest’s Arroyo Campus in Mount Washington to Autry’s Griffith Park Campus. At first, Autry intended to expansively extend the external footprint of its museum, but withdrew the plan after it was met with public controversy and delays. Autry replaced this proposal with a less ambitious plan to replace 18,000 square feet of the first floor of the museum. The City of Los Angeles approved this new project and determined it was categorically exempt from CEQA. The state later awarded Autry a $6.6 million grant to redesign the interior of the Griffith Park Museum.

Local residents and preservationists sought to set aside the approved collection relocation, claiming that the city had a duty to support the Southwest Museum as a cultural resource and preserve the Arroyo Campus location. Petitioners claimed that the project was not exempt under CEQA, and that the project was improperly piecemealed from a greater project. The trial court held for the city, and petitioners appealed.

The Court of Appeal held that whether the project could be considered a piecemealed section of a larger project was irrelevant where the project was exempt from CEQA. Under Class 1 exemptions, certain projects involving interior alterations to an existing facility are categorically exempt from CEQA, unless they fall under an exception whereby there are unusual circumstances creating a reasonable probability that the activity would have a significant impact on the environment. The court found no such exception here. The court held that moving the artifacts from the Southwest collection to the Autry Museum would not have a significant impact on the geographic environment of that museum or its surroundings, and the objects themselves were not site-specific to the Arroyo location. The court also held that the project was not inconsistent with the Northeast Los Angeles Community Plan because the plan’s goal to preserve and protect the Southwest museum pertained to the building itself rather than its contents. Thus, the city had not abused its discretion in approving the project.

Sixth District Finds CEQA Action Barred by 30-Day Statute of Limitations in Government Code Section 65457, Which Prevails Over an Earlier-Enacted and Less-Specific Statute of Limitations in CEQA That May Conflict

In May v. City of Milpitas (2013) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. H038338), a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) challenge was found time-barred by a 30-day statute of limitations in the Government Code even though appellants argued that a 35-day statute of limitations in CEQA should control.  The Sixth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision to sustain the city’s demurrer on the basis that the later-enacted and more-specific statute of limitations in Government Code section 65457, which provided an exemption applicable to the residential development project, must prevail over a statute of limitations in CEQA that may conflict.

Facts and Procedural Background

The City of Milpitas certified a programmatic Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Transit Area Specific Plan on June 3, 2008.  Three years later, a 732-unit condominium project was proposed within the area covered by the Transit Area Specific Plan.  On November 1, 2011, the city adopted a resolution approving amendments to permits and a tentative map for the residential development project.  The city’s resolution also found the project to be exempt from CEQA review because it was consistent with the 2008 specific plan and did not have any significant effects on the environment.  On November 3, 2011, the city filed a Notice of Exemption (NOE) for the project.  Both the resolution and the NOE expressly reference CEQA Guidelines section 15168, subdivision (c)(2), and section 15061, subdivision (b)(3).

On December 7, 2011, petitioners Michael May and Carpenters’ Local Union No. 405 filed a CEQA challenge to the city’s approval of the resolution on November 1, 2011. The city and real parties in interest demurred on the ground that the action was time-barred by the 30-day statute of limitations under Government Code section 65457, subdivision (b), and CEQA Guidelines section 15182. The petitioners argued that the action was not time-barred because the filing of the NOE triggered the 35-day statute of limitations in Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (d), and CEQA Guidelines sections 15112 and 15062 instead. The trial court sustained the demurrer, finding that Government Code section 65457 governed, and the November 1, 2011 approval had triggered the 30-day limitation period in section 65457.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

The court began its discussion with an overview of CEQA, the application of exemptions to projects, and the “usual limitations periods for CEQA challenges” provided by Public Resources Code section 21167.  In particular, the court emphasized that even meritorious lawsuits may be time-barred because the legislative intent behind CEQA and section 21167 was to ensure “extremely prompt resolution” of legal challenges brought under CEQA.

Proceeding to the merits, first the court explained why the 30-day statute of limitations in Government Code section 65457 controls. Enacted in 1984 as part of the Planning and Zoning Law, Government Code section 65457 provides an exemption from CEQA for residential development projects that are consistent with a specific plan for which an EIR was certified after January 1, 1980.  Section 65457 only provides a qualified exemption, however, because a supplemental EIR for the specific plan must be prepared if any event listed in Public Resources Code section 21166 occurs.  Therefore, if substantial changes to the specific plan occur, or substantial changes to the circumstances surrounding the specific plan occur, or new information that could not have been known at the time the specific plan’s EIR was certified becomes available and major revisions to the EIR are required, then a supplemental EIR for the specific plan must be certified before section 65457’s exemption may be used for the residential development project.

Under subdivision (b) of Government Code section 65457, where a public agency approves a project using the exemption in section 65457, a legal challenge alleging that a supplemental EIR for the relevant specific plan was required must be filed within 30 days of the agency’s decision to “carry out or approve the project.”  This limitations period is mirrored in CEQA Guidelines section 15182, subdivision (e).

The court found that the City’s resolution factually invoked Government Code section 65457’s exemption and that the petition essentially alleged that a supplemental EIR for the 2008 specific plan is required because substantial changes to the circumstances have occurred and new information has come to light.  Although neither the resolution nor the NOE explicitly references section 65457, the court concluded that the resolution invoked section 65457’s exemption because it stated that the project was “consistent with the certified EIR for the Transit Area Specific Plan.”  The court also found that the resolution’s reference to CEQA Guidelines section 15168, subdivision (c)(2), implied that the City had concluded no events listed in Public Resources Code section 21166 had occurred.  Similarly, the court found that the resolution’s reference to CEQA Guidelines section 15061, subdivision (b)(3), reflected the City’s conclusion that the residential development project would not cause any new environmental effects.

Having established that Government Code section 65457 applied, the court found that the 30-day statute of limitations under subdivision (b) of section 65457 had started running upon the City’s decision to approve the project on November 1, 2011. Consequently, the trial court properly sustained the demurrer because the action filed on December 7, 2011 was time-barred.

Then, the court turned to the reasons why it rejected appellants’ arguments.  The court noted that appellants’ argument that they are requesting a “free-standing EIR” or a mitigated negative declaration (MND) for the development project, not a supplemental EIR for the 2008 specific plan, was in conflict with their petition’s factual allegations and ignored the appropriate use of tiering allowed by CEQA.  To support its conclusion, the court provided a brief examination of the legislative history of Government Code section 65457 and its predecessor former section 65453 to establish that the purpose of section 65457 is to excuse residential development projects from having to do a “free-standing EIR” or MND if they are consistent with a prior-approved specific plan.

The court also set forth reasons why Public Resources Code section 21167, and CEQA Guidelines sections 15062 and 15112 do not apply.  Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (d), provides a 35-day statute of limitations that runs from the filing of a NOE in actions alleging that a public agency has improperly determined that a project is not subject to CEQA pursuant to section 21080.  The court found section 21167 did not apply because the exemptions listed in section 21080 do not include Government Code section 65457.  In particular, the court noted that the exemption applied in this case was not one of the 33 categorical exemptions designated pursuant to of Public Resources Code section 21084 and specifically referenced by section 21080, subdivision (b)(9).  Therefore, the 35-day statute of limitations in section 21167 could not be controlling.

Regarding CEQA Guidelines section 15062, which provides a 35-day statute of limitations triggered by the filing of a NOE where a public agency finds a project exempt pursuant to section 15061, the court similarly concluded that section 15062 did not apply because Government Code section 65457 does not fall within the scope of exemptions described by CEQA Guidelines section 15061.  Concluding that section 15062 did not apply, the court also rejected the argument that the 35-day limitations period in CEQA Guidelines section 15112, subdivision (c)(2), applied because section 15112, subdivision (c)(2), only applies to situations where a NOE is filed in compliance with section 15062.

Finally, the court held that, to the extent any conflict existed between the statute of limitations in Government Code section 65457 and statutes of limitations in CEQA, the later-enacted and more specific statute of limitations controls.  Since Government Code section 65457 and Public Resources Code section 21167 both apply to CEQA challenges, they are equally specific to CEQA claims.  Therefore, because Government Code section 65457 was enacted after Public Resources Code section 21167, the statute of limitations in the former must prevail.

First District Court Of Appeal Upholds City’s Application of Exemption for Residential Development Consistent with a Specific Plan for Which an EIR Was Certified

On March 28, 2013, following a publication request submitted by James G. Moose, of Remy Moose Manley, LLP, the First District Court of Appeal ordered published its decision in Concerned Dublin Citizens v. City of Dublin (2013) ___Cal.App.4th___, Case No. A13570. The case is the first published decision to address the exemption from environmental review set forth in Government Code section 65457. That section provides an exemption from environmental review for a residential development that is consistent with a broader specific plan for which an EIR has been certified.

Background: In 2002, the City of Dublin approved the Eastern Dublin Specific Plan for the Dublin Transit Village Center development, a high-density mixed-use, transit and pedestrian-oriented development adjacent to the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s East Dublin/Pleasanton Station. The specific plan includes a “stage 1” development plan that establishes the permitted land uses and development standards for future development projects within the transit center. The city also certified a final EIR for the project.

The EIR for the specific plan was prepared as a program EIR, pursuant to CEQA Guidelines section 15168. It described general impacts and mitigation measures for, among other things, the specific plan stage 1 development plan. Under the stage 1 development plan, the parcel at issue in this case was designated as “site C” and was to include a maximum of 405 high density residential dwelling units and up to 25,000 square feet of retail space.

In 2011, following rescission of two previous proposals, Avalon Bay Communities submitted a proposal for development of site C. The planning commission approved the proposed site development review and map and recommended the city council approve the stage 1 development plan amendment, a stage 2 development plan, and a development agreement. The planning commission found the project was exempt from CEQA under Government Code section 65457, as a residential project that is consistent with a specific plan for which an EIR was certified. The organization Concerned Dublin Citizens (CDC) appealed the planning commission’s decision to the city council and the city council affirmed. CDC thereafter filed a petition for writ of mandate in the Alameda Superior Court challenging the exemption from environmental review. The superior court denied the petition and CDC appealed.

Residential Development. The Court of Appeal first considered CDC’s argument that the project is not a “residential development” and therefore the exemption under Government Code section 65457 could not apply. CDC acknowledged that the development as then-proposed included only residential units, but contended that the project is nonetheless a mixed-use development because the specific plan, the development plans, and the development agreement authorize up to 25,000 square feet of commercial usage in site C.

CDC argued that because Avalon Bay retains the option to convert 25,000 square feet of residential uses to retail space, the project falls outside the scope of the exemption. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument, explaining that the city code approval process for the project makes it clear that any future retail use on the project site will be subject to further discretionary review in the form of an amendment to the site development review approved for the project. As such, the only project that has been approved by the city for site C at this time is the development of residential uses.

The court further explained that the fact that the property is zoned for mixed-use does not convert the otherwise purely residential project into a mixed-use project. Avalon Bay is not entitled to develop retail property simply because such use would be consistent with zoning requirements. Further, the specific plan contemplates that before any use of the property is approved, there will be compliance with the site development process, which includes compliance with applicable environmental review. Therefore, approval of the project did not constitute approval of retail uses within site C, and the city properly characterized the project as “residential development” within the meaning of section 65457.

Specific Plan Consistency. CDC argued that in two respects the project is inconsistent with the transit center specific plan for which the EIR was certified. First, it contended that because the specific plan calls for mixed-use, the project must also be a mixed-use plan. According to CDC, the inclusion of ground-floor retail is integral to the transit center’s goal of creating a pedestrian-friendly environment, and if the city deleted the retail uses from area C, then the project would be inconsistent with the specific plan. The court disagreed.

The court explained that while the transit center is designed for mixed-use, commercial development in site C is not required by the specific plan. Further, the specific plan states only that retail uses are encouraged, not required. Thus, the absences of retail space did not render the project inconsistent with the specific plan.

Second, CDC contended that because the EIR for the specific plan was a program-level EIR, a tiered-project-specific EIR necessarily was required to follow the program EIR. The court found this argument to be without legal support. Contrary to CDC’s contention, nothing in the CEQA statute or Guidelines mandates a particular level of environmental review in evaluating later projects within the scope of a certified program EIR. Although in some cases, it will be necessary to prepare a negative declaration and in others to prepare a full EIR, in others, the analysis will be completed by determining that the subsequent project is exempt from further analysis under CEQA—as was the case here.

Section 65457 Qualification to the Exemption. Lastly, the court held that the qualification to the Government Code section 65457 exemption did not apply. Government Code section 65457 provides that the exemption does not apply if, after certification of the program EIR, an event specified in Public Resources Code section 21166 (requiring preparation of a supplemental EIR) has occurred, “‘unless and until a supplemental environmental impact report for the specific plan is prepared and certified.’” Thus, explained the court, the qualification to the section 65457 exemption turns on whether, after certification of the EIR, circumstances have changed to the extent that reliance on the EIR is unwarranted. Here, the court found that substantial evidence supported the city’s determination that the circumstances requiring additional environmental review of the transit project were not present. Therefore, the qualification to the application of the Government Code section 65457 did not apply.