Tag: Exemptions

Streamlined Yet Underutilized: CEQA’s Class 32 Urban Infill Exemption

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

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

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

Class 32 and the Balancing Act of Senate Bill 226

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

Exemption Usage…or Lack Thereof

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

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

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

Taking Exception: How Unusual Are Unusual Circumstances?

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

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

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


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

By: Casey Shorrock Smith

Use It or Lose It? CEQA’s Bicycle Transportation Exemptions and Legislative Efforts to Preserve Them

CEQA and the Guidelines’ statutory and categorical exemptions streamline the environmental review process, and can play a key role in project planning and development. The philosophical underpinning of many exemptions is that the environmental impacts for some types of projects are known to be less-than-significant and the public would benefit from having them expeditiously implemented.

Public Resources Code sections 21080.2 and 21080.20.5 typify this philosophy. Comprised of two bills, A.B. 417 and A.B. 2245 (chaptered together as Stats.2013 Chapter 613), they created exemptions for bicycle transportation plans and certain bicycle projects. However, Chapter 613 will sunset in 2018, unless the Legislature acts. Assembly Bill 1218 (2016–2017) seeks to preserve the exemptions. However, Chapter 613 has been underutilized, in favor of older, more time-tested categorical and statutory exemptions. This underutilization may influence the Legislature’s decision whether to extend the sunset provision, remove it, or allow Chapter 613 to simply expire.

Legislative History of Chapter 613: “One petitioner had the power to delay something good from happening for several years.”

The published legislative history of Chapter 613 reflects that it was passed in reaction to a lengthy and expensive CEQA suit against the City and County of San Francisco. In 2005, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a bicycle transportation plan (Plan). The Plan’s purpose was to promote bicycle transportation and create safe, interconnected routes throughout the city. It called for upgrades to bicycle infrastructure, including separated lanes, painted lanes, and bike parking. It sought to reduce risks to cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists in areas where the data reflected frequent bicycle-involved collisions. In June 2005 the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Commission adopted the Network Improvement Document (Document), a five-year plan to fund and implement the Plan. Believing that there was no possibility that the Plan could have a significant effect on the environment, the agencies proceeded under the “common sense” exemption of CEQA Guidelines, section 15061. (See generally Assem. Com. on Natural Resources, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 417, (2013–2014 Reg. Sess.).)

A CEQA petition followed, spearheaded by an individual, Rob Anderson. The petition alleged that the Plan and Document together formed a “project” under CEQA, that there was a legitimate question that the project could have an effect on the environment, and that environmental review should be conducted. It took nearly two years for the court to rule in Anderson’s favor, and ultimately enjoin the city proceeding, pending compliance with CEQA. Subsequently, the city prepared a draft EIR in 2008. The EIR was finalized, certified, and a Notice of Determination posted in August 2009. Anderson immediately appealed, alleging deficiencies in the EIR. A year later, in August 2010, the court ruled in favor of the city, upholding the EIR. (Ibid.). In short, it took five years to travel from Plan adoption to implementation. When one considers that the Plan and Document themselves likely took years to draft, the planning and implementation horizon for implementing upgrades to urban bikes lanes spanned close to a decade – half of which was spent in CEQA litigation.

Summarizing public frustration, a legislator noted that “one petitioner had the power to delay something good from happening for several years.” (Senate Rules Comm. Analysis of A.B. 416 (2013–2014 Reg. Sess.), p. 4).

To prevent the San Francisco scenario from repeating throughout the state, the Legislature passed Chapter 613. The legislation garnered overwhelming support from both houses – passing unanimously in the Senate and with only three no votes in the Assembly.

Chapter 613’s Provisions and Underutilization

Chapter 613 seemingly strikes a careful balance between the benefits of environmental review and the public interest in promoting bicycle transportation, by exempting qualified bicycle transportation plans from CEQA (§ 21080.20), but only exempting one limited class of bicycle project (§ 21080.20.5.)

Regarding bike plans, Public Resources Code section 21080.20 states that CEQA does not apply to bicycle transportation plans, as defined. To qualify for the exemption, the plan must be prepared pursuant to the Streets and Highways Code section 891.2; be situated in an urban area; and relate to bicycle transportation. The exemption expressly includes plans that have provisions for the restriping of roadways for bike lanes, bicycle parking and storage, signal timing, and related signage.

For bike projects, Public Resources Code section 21080.20.5 only explicitly exempts highway restriping for bike lanes, done pursuant to a bicycle transportation plan. Presumably, other projects implemented under bicycle transportation plans are not exempt.

Under both sections, the lead agency must hold public hearings, solicit input from local residents, and prepare an assessment of the plan or restriping project’s and traffic and safety impacts, including mitigation measures. If the project or plan is approved, the government must file notice with the state and county clerk. Because traffic and safety impacts were the focus in the San Francisco litigation, by mandating disclosure and mitigation measures the exemption directly and proactively addresses the key concerns that a CEQA environmental review process, or lawsuit, would raise. And by only exempting restriping, projects that are more likely to negatively impact the environment are still required to complete an environmental review process.

Despite the promise of Chapter 613, according to OPR data cited by the Natural Resources Committee in its analysis, the bike plan provision it has never been used, and the bike lane project provision has only been utilized three times. (Comm. Analysis, supra., pp. 3–4.) All three times were by the City of Los Angeles, the provision’s original proponent. (It is worth noting that bill’s author statement cites a different statistic, and states that 17 bike projects have utilized the exemptions, although it is not clear if the bill’s author is referring to Chapter 613, or all of CEQA’s exemptions that have been applied to bike projects. (Id. at p. 4.) The underutilization of the exemption is significant for two reasons: 1) five years after passage, it is uncertain as to how it would be applied by local government and interpreted by the courts; and 2) given its lack of use, begs the question of whether the community considers the exemptions to be necessary or if agency staff are aware of or feel encouraged to use them.

A New Hope? A.B. 1218

Chapter 613 will sunset on January 1, 2018. There is legislative momentum in continuing the exemptions, through A.B. 1218. At issue is whether to: renew the exemptions, but strike the sunset provision; to extend the sunset provision for another term; or allow Chapter 613 to sunset, citing its underutilization.

As originally drafted, A.B. 1218 would have removed the sunset provision entirely, and allowed the law to be codified permanently. However, the current version (as of May 2017, amended in Assembly) preserves the exemptions, but only until 2021. The Assembly Natural Resources Committee addressed this issue in its March 30, 2017 Committee Analysis, citing the exemption’s potential utility, but lack of actual use, and recommending that the bill be amended to sunset in 2021.

The Committee seemed to imply that underutilization does not evince a lack of interest in bicycle plans or projects. Rather, government entities have been relying on other, more “established and frequently used categorical exemptions” in CEQA and the Guidelines. CEQA section 21080.19, passed in 1984, exempts projects that restripe streets to relieve traffic congestion. The Committee notes that the CEQA Guidelines have two applicable categorical exemptions: Guidelines section 15301(c), the Class 1 exemption, for development of existing facilities, where there is negligible expansion of an existing use, which specifically includes existing bicycle trails; and Guidelines section 15304 (h), the Class 4 exemption, for minor alternations to land that do not involve removing mature and scenic trees, and specifically includes the creation of bicycle lanes on existing roadways.

A.B. 1281 passed the Assembly in May 2017, and given its overwhelming support in the Senate in 2013, is likely to pass muster there, too.


Within weeks of the court upholding San Francisco’s bike transportation EIR, bike lanes began sprouting up around the city. Areas that had never had bike lanes became connected to established routes. Established routes on prominent streets, many of which were identified as high collision risks in the Plan, were widened, separated, or re-routed to increase safety. Cal. Bike, an advocacy organization, and SFMTA state that bike usage in San Francisco has increased 10% since 2013. Whether one enjoys cycling or not, this infrastructure is heavily utilized, and cycling is becoming an increasingly important segment of our urban transportation mix. Yet, despite the increase in popularity of urban cycling, the future vitality of the bicycle lane exemptions remain in doubt. Supporters of the exemptions should take heed of the Committee Analysis, and be on notice that may face challenges in the Legislature in 2021 if Chapter 613’s muscle does not start getting flexed on the local level.

First District Rules That Issuing Erosion-Control Permit Under Sonoma County Ordinance Was Ministerial Act Exempt From CEQA

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

Sonoma County allows for the development or replanting of commercial vineyards, subject to issuance of an erosion-control permit from the County Agricultural Commissioner. In December 2013, the commissioner issued a permit to the Ohlson Ranch to establish a 108-acre vineyard. Several months later, the commissioner issued a notice of exemption indicating that issuance of the permit was ministerial and therefore did not require environmental review. The Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity filed suit challenging the commissioner’s determination and the trial court denied the petition.

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision that the county’s determination was ministerial and the approval was exempt from CEQA. In determining whether granting the permit was ministerial, the court applied the “functional distinction” test from Friends of Westwood, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 259. Under Friends of Westwood, an action is ministerial when the agency does not have the power to deny or condition the permit, or otherwise modify the project, in ways which can mitigate the environmental impacts identified in an EIR.

The court was unpersuaded by the petitioners’ key argument—that the ordinance’s terms were broad and vague, and therefore the entire permit process conferred discretion on the county. In reaching this decision, the court emphasized that CEQA analysis is project-specific. That discretion could conceivably be exercised in one project does not mean that the particular project at issue was discretionary. Here, many of the terms and conditions in the ordinance that may have conferred discretion to the county did not apply to the Ohlson Ranch permit application, because they were factually inapplicable; expressly excluded from consideration by the commissioner with regard to this project; or there was no evidence in the record to suggest that they played any role in issuing the permit.

Second, even where some of the applicable provisions could have conferred discretion on the commissioner, under the functional distinction test, the county could not have modified the project or denied the permit to mitigate the environmental impacts. Rather, county decision-making was guided by nearly 50 pages of technical guidance documents. A required wetland setback conferred discretion only to the extent that the distance of the setback would be determined by the biologist’s report, but did not confer discretion on the agency to modify the biologist’s recommendations. A requirement to divert storm water to the nearest “practicable” disposal location was similarly ministerial, in that the permit application provided a means of water diversion, and petitioner failed to establish that other diversion methods were even available. If other methods had been available, it may have granted discretion to the commissioner to select an option or otherwise mitigate impacts.  The petitioners’ reliance on a provision to incorporate natural drainage features “whenever possible” was flawed for the same reasons, as petitioners failed to identify the types of features present on the site and the commissioner’s ability to choose the least environmentally significant option.

Third, the court declined to hold that issuing a permit, an otherwise ministerial act, becomes discretionary because the applicant “offers” to mitigate potential impacts. The ordinance does not require mitigation measures and the commissioner has no authority to condition granting the permit application on them.

Similarly, the commissioner’s request for corrections and clarifications on the permit application did not demonstrate discretion, but rather was a simple request for information in order to complete an otherwise non-discretionary act. These corrections and clarifications were not significant enough to have alleviated any adverse environmental consequences.

First District Publishes Decision Upholding San Francisco’s Expansion of Plastic Bag Restrictions

On January 3, 2014, the First District Court of Appeal ordered publication of Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City and County of San Francisco. We previously wrote about the case here.

The League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties jointly submitted a request for publication. In support of this request, the groups pointed out that: no other published decision has applied the rules of preemption to single-use plastic bag bans; the opinion suggests that if environmentally beneficial components are an integral aspect of a project from its inception, they may be considered when determining that a categorical exemption from CEQA applies to the project; the opinion clarifies that local agencies can use the Class 7 and Class 8 categorical exemptions and operate in a regulatory capacity; and the opinion provides helpful guidance regarding what qualifies as substantial evidence under the fair argument standard. The court did not state which, if any, of these arguments influenced its decision to publish the opinion.