Tag: Ministerial


In Mission Peak v. State Water Resources Control Board (2021) 72 Cal.App.5th 873, the First District Court of Appeal held that the State Water Resources Control Board’s (Board’s) registration process is ministerial and therefore exempt from CEQA.


The Water Rights Permitting Reform Act of 1988 permits eligible persons to acquire a right to appropriate up to 10 acre-feet per year of  water for domestic or other specified uses by completing a registration process with the Board. Pursuant to this Act, the State Water Resources Control Board granted a small domestic use registration to two Alameda County property owners without conducting environmental review on the premise that the action was ministerial and thereby did not trigger CEQA.

Mission Peak Conservancy and Kelly Abreau (collectively, Mission Peak) sued the Board, alleging that it violated CEQA by approving the registration without conducting CEQA review. Mission Peak contended that the Board’s approval was discretionary and that it should have denied the registration because the property owners did not qualify for small domestic use and also because their registration form contained false information. The Board filed a demurrer, which the trial court sustained without leave to amend. Mission Peak appealed.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal determined that the Board’s registration process was indeed a ministerial act, not discretionary, and was therefore exempt from CEQA pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21080, subdivision (b)(1). As the court explained, “[m]inisterial projects involve ‘little or no personal judgment by the public official as to the wisdom or manner of carrying out the project.’ (Guidelines, § 15369.) . . . The test is whether the law governing the agency’s decision to approve the project gives it authority to require changes that would lessen the project’s environmental effects.”

The court determined the Board did not have such authority here. Although the Board has statutory authority to impose general conditions applicable to all registrations, it did not have authority “to place conditions on the . . . registration to lessen its environmental effects.” The Board determines whether a registration is compliant by applying a checklist of fixed criteria, and the registration is automatically deemed complete if it meets these criteria. Accordingly, there is no discretion involved in the registration, and it is therefore not subject to CEQA.

Specifically, the Court rejected Mission Peak’s argument that “a different agency, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, has discretion to impose conditions that could ameliorate the project’s environmental impacts” and therefore the the process is discretionary. Not so. As the court explained, another agency’s discretionary authority for its review cannot be imputed to the Board. Mission Peak then argued that “the project did not satisfy the requirements for a small domestic use registration because the [applicant] misrepresented facts,” and thereby the Board did have discretion in that it could deny the project or request changes to meet program requirements. But, “the test is whether the Board had the legal authority to impose environmentally beneficial changes as conditions of the project,” not whether the agency could request changes on an application or deny it.  Lastly, Mission Peak argued that the Board violated CEQA because the project did not meet program requirements. The court pointed out that “this is simply an argument that the Board made an erroneous ministerial decisions.” And such an error is not the basis for a CEQA claim. Plainly stated, “CEQA does not regulate ministerial decisions—full stop.”

– Veronika S. Morrison

First District Holds City of San Mateo’s Denial of an Application for a Multifamily Building Violated California’s Housing Accountability Act

In a landmark decision, California Renters Legal Advocacy & Education Fund v. City of San Mateo (2021) 68 Cal.App.5th 820, the First District Court of Appeal held that the City of San Mateo violated the Housing Accountability Act (HAA) in denying a proposed multi-family housing project based on the city’s concerns that the project’s height and scale conflicted with the city’s design standards. The court held that because the city’s design standards are subjective, rather than objective, those standards could not serve as a basis to deny the application under the HAA. The court also upheld the HAA against challenges that it infringed upon the city’s and neighboring property owners’ rights under the California Constitution.


Nearly 40 years ago, the Legislature passed the Housing Accountability Act (HAA), also known as the “Anti-NIMBY” law with the goal of “meaningfully and effectively curbing the capability of local governments to deny, reduce the density for, or render infeasible housing development projects.” (Gov. Code, § 65589.5, subd. (a)(2)(K).) The HAA provides that local governments may only deny an application to build housing if the proposed housing project does not comply with “objective” general plan, zoning, and design review standards. (Gov. Code, § 65589.5, subd. (j)(i).) In 2017, the Legislature added weight to this requirement by specifying that a housing development is deemed to comply with a municipality’s objective standards if “substantial evidence … would allow a reasonable person to conclude” that the project is consistent with those standards. (Gov. Code, § 65589.5, subd. (f)(4).)

In 2015, a developer applied to the City of San Mateo to build a ten-unit, multifamily residential building on a site surrounded by single-family residences. The site is designated for high-density multifamily residential in the city’s general plan and zoning code. The city’s planning staff concluded that the project was consistent with the city’s general plan and zoning code standards for multifamily dwellings and with the city’s design guidelines. Staff recommended the planning commission approve the project.

The application came before the planning commission in August, 2017. At the hearing, several city residents objected to the project, opining that it was too large for the surrounding single-family residential neighborhood. After continuing the hearing, the planning commission voted to deny the application, agreeing with neighboring residents that the building was out of scale with neighboring single-family homes. The commission directed staff to prepare findings that the project is inconsistent with the city’s design guidelines because it is not in scale and not in harmony with the character of the neighborhood and that the building is too tall and bulky for the site. More specifically, the commission observed that there is a two-story differential between the project and adjacent single-family dwellings, which is inconsistent with the requirement in the design guidelines that there be a “transition or step in height” between the buildings.

At its next meeting, the planning commission adopted the proposed findings in full and voted to deny the project. The plaintiffs, a group of housing advocates, appealed to the city council. The city council upheld the planning commission’s decision. The plaintiffs then filed a lawsuit seeking a writ of administrative mandamus on the ground that the city’s denial of the project violated the HAA.

The trial court denied the petition. The trial court held the city’s design guidelines were objective for the purposes of the HAA and that the city properly denied the application because the project was inconsistent with the guidelines. The court also denied the petition on the ground that the HAA conflicted with the California Constitution. In particular, the court held that to the extent the HAA conflicted with otherwise enforceable provisions of the city’s municipal code regarding housing development, the HAA is unenforceable as an intrusion into the city’s municipal affairs under the “home rule” doctrine of the California Constitution. (Cal. Const. Art. IX, § 5(a).) In addition, the trial court found that the HAA violates the prohibition on delegation of municipal affairs to private parties (Cal. Const. Art. XI, § 11(a)). The plaintiffs appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Application of the HAA to the City of San Mateo’s Design Standards

The appellate court first considered whether the city properly denied the application for the multifamily housing project under the HAA. The court explained that the key question in its application of the HAA is whether the city’s design guidelines qualify as “applicable, objective general plan, zoning, and subdivision standards and criteria, including design review standards, which would allow the city to disapprove the project under Government Code section 65589.5, subdivision (j)(1), if they are not satisfied. The court concluded that the portions of the design guidelines addressing height are not objective for the purposes of the HAA.

The court explained that the question of whether the design standards are “objective” within the meaning of the HAA is a question of law to which the court owes the city no deference. The court determined that the language in the city’s design guidelines requires subjective judgment, and is therefore not objective. For example, the design guidelines provide that if building height varies by more than one story, the city may require a “transition or a step in height.” The fact that the guidelines allow a choice in how to address the height differential shows that the standard is not entirely objective. Moreover, the terms “transition” and “step in height” are open to interpretation. For instance, some might view the placement of large trees in between buildings, or the addition of trellises, as providing a transition or a step in height. Indeed, under the city planning staff’s original interpretation of the design guidelines, the question was treated as one of design choice which could be resolved in a variety of ways, depending on which form the designer viewed as most “compatible” with adjacent buildings. Furthermore, even assuming the guidelines require a setback in height, the guidelines do not state how large the setback must be, leaving that determination open to subjective determination. Based on these and similar considerations, the court held that the city’s design standards are subjective, rather than objective, so those standards cannot be a basis to deny a housing project under the HAA.

California Constitutional Challenges

The court next considered whether the HAA violates the California Constitution—specifically, whether subdivision (f)(4) of the HAA violates the “home rule” doctrine for charter cities, and the prohibition on delegation of municipal functions, and whether the HAA denies neighboring property owners of procedural due process rights. The court concluded that the HAA does not violated the California Constitution on any of these grounds.

The “Home Rule”

The California Constitution’s “home rule” provides that charter cities may govern themselves without legislative intrusion into municipal affairs. (See Cal. Const., Art. XI, § 5.) The courts apply a four-part test to determine whether the Legislature may exert control over a charter city’s action, despite its right to home rule: (1) whether the ordinance at issues regulates a “municipal affair”; (2) whether the case presents an actual conflict between local and state law; (3) whether the state law addresses a matter of statewide concern; and (4) whether the state law is “reasonably related” to resolving the concern at issue and is “narrowly tailored” to avoid unnecessary interference with local governance. Under this test, if the court determines that the subject of the state statute is of statewide concern and that the statute is reasonably related to its resolution and not unduly broad, then the conflicting charter measure is deemed not to be a “municipal affair” and the Legislature may pass legislation addressing it.

Applying these factors to the HAA and the city’s design review ordinance, the court held that the first two prongs were met because planning and zoning laws are a traditional municipal affair and, to the extent the city’s ordinances allow the city to reject applications for housing developments based on subjective standards, the ordinances conflict with the HAA. As to the third prong, the parties agreed that the provision of housing is a matter of statewide concern. The city argued, however, that subdivision (f)(4) of the HAA does not itself address a matter of statewide concern because local governments’ denial of housing projects is not the sole cause of the housing crisis. Other factors, such as high construction costs, a shortage of construction labor, and delays caused by the need to comply with CEQA, also contribute to the shortage. The court rejected this argument, explaining that the fact that local government’s denials of housing permits are not the only cause of the state’s housing crisis is immaterial. The question is whether the problem the Legislature is trying to solve is a statewide problem, not whether the solution is the only possible solution.

As to the fourth and final prong – whether the statute is reasonably related to the resolution of the identified statewide concern and is narrowly tailored to avoid unnecessary interference with local government – the court found that the Legislature’s limiting the ability of local governments to deny new development based on subjective criteria is reasonably related to providing additional housing. Furthermore, the statute is narrowly tailored in that it leaves local governments free to establish and enforce policies and development standards, as long as those standards are objective, and do not otherwise interfere with the jurisdiction’s ability to meet its share of regional housing needs. Additionally, the HAA does not bar local governments from imposing conditions on projects to meet subjective standards; the HAA only prohibits local governments from reducing a project’s density or denying the project altogether based on subjective standards. The HAA also allows local governments to deny a proposed housing project if the project would have an unavoidable adverse impact on health and safety. (See Gov. Code, § 65589.5, subd. (j)(1)(A) and (B).) Accordingly, the statute is not only reasonably related to a statewide concern, but also narrowly tailored to avoid undue interference with local control over zoning and design decisions. Therefore, section (f)(4) of the HAA does not violate California Constitution’s “home rule.”

Delegation of Municipal Functions

The court next considered whether subdivision (f)(4) of the HAA violates the California Constitution’s prohibition on “delegate[ing] a private person or body power to … perform municipal functions.” (Cal. Const. Art. XI, § 11, subd. (a).) The court held that it does not. Although subdivision (f)(4) of the HAA lowers the burden to show a project is consistent with objective standards, the statute does not cede municipal authority to private persons. For example, local agencies maintain the authority and discretion to determine whether the record contains substantial evidence that a reasonable person would find the project is consistent with applicable objective standards, and to impose conditions of approval on the project, provided that they do not reduce the project’s density where applicable objectives are met.

The city argued that subdivision (f)(4) of the HAA would allow anyone, even the project proponent, to place in the record evidence that a project is consistent with objective standards and thereby force a local agency to approve the project. The court rejected this argument, however, because the “substantial evidence” standard provides a sufficient degree of scrutiny such that not just any self-serving evidence will support the conclusion that a project is consistent with applicable objective standards. Furthermore, subdivision (f)(4) requires that the evidence to allow a reasonable person to consider the project in conformity with the objective standards. Therefore, the statute does not require a local agency to approve a project based on the unsupported opinion of a single person, or upon evidence that a reasonable person would not find credible.

Due Process

Lastly, the city argued that subdivision (f)(4) of the HAA violates the rights of neighboring landowners by depriving them of the opportunity to be heard before a housing project is approved. More specifically, the city argued, subdivision (f)(4) renders local government review a useless exercise because if anyone submits evidence that the project is consistent with applicable objective standards, the project is deemed consistent and must be approved.

The court rejected this argument. Even assuming that due process protections apply to a municipality’s determination that a project is consistent with objective standards under subdivision (f)(4), there is no due process violation. The substantial evidence standard requires evidence that is of “ponderable legal significance” and is reasonable, credible, and of solid value. Nothing in the HAA prevents neighbors from presenting evidence to the agency that the substantial evidence standard is not met. Furthermore, neighbors can also present evidence that the agency should impose conditions on the project to minimize adverse effects or even deny the project if it would have an unavoidable “specific, adverse impact upon the public health or safety.” (Gov. Code, § 65589.5, subd. (j).) Therefore, although subdivision (f)(4) may affect which arguments carry the day, it does not deprive opposing neighbors with a meaningful opportunity to be heard.


The Court of Appeal in this case strictly interpreted what is meant my “objective” in the meaning of the HAA. The case makes clear that if there is room for personal judgment in deciding whether a proposed project complies with a given design standard, the standard is “subjective” and cannot be a basis to deny the housing project. The case serves as a warning to local agencies to heed the HAA’s limits on the ability to deny a proposed housing project. In the words of the court: “As the Legislature has steadily strengthened the statute’s requirements, it has made increasingly clear that those mandates are to be taken seriously. …The HAA is today strong medicine precisely because the Legislature has diagnosed a sick patient.”

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.

Second District Holds that Well Construction Permit is a Ministerial Act, Exempt from CEQA

In California Water Impact Network v. County of San Luis Obispo (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 666, the Second Appellate District upheld the decision of the lower court, finding that issuing a permit to construct a well is a ministerial act under the county’s code and thus exempt from CEQA.

Real parties in interest are vineyards who received permits in 2016 to dig irrigation wells on their property, drawing from the underlying Arroyo Grande Basin. The county did not conduct environmental review prior to issuing the permits. Petitioner filed a writ of mandate, alleging that the decision was a discretionary action, and review under CEQA was required in order to analyze direct and cumulative impacts to groundwater supply. The county argued that the ordinance only regulates water quality issues as they relate to well construction, that depletion of groundwater supply is not covered by the code, and that the permit process is exempt as a ministerial act. The county prevailed on demurrer and this appeal followed.
The court reviewed the county’s actions de novo. Under general state water policy principles, water resources must be used reasonably and put to beneficial use, which includes domestic consumption and irrigation. Groundwater use is subject to local control, based on a permit system.

CEQA expressly applies only to projects subject to discretionary approval; it does not apply to ministerial acts. As the CEQA Guidelines state, discretionary actions are those that require the exercise of judgment or deliberation, and not situations where the agency merely determines whether there has been conformity with applicable statutes, ordinances, or regulations. A ministerial action is one involving little or no personal judgment by the public official as to the wisdom or manner of carrying out the project. The public official merely applies the law to the facts as presented, but uses no special discretion or judgment in reaching a decision. Even if an EIR would reveal environmental consequences, a ministerial approval is not subject to CEQA review because the agency lacks the legal authority to shape the project to respond to any environmental concerns raised in an EIR. The issuance of a building permit is presumed ministerial. A well-building permit is a type of building permit.

The local agency determines which acts are ministerial by analyzing its own laws. Its view of the scope and meaning of its own ordinances are entitled to great weight, unless that view is clearly erroneous or unauthorized. Here, under the county’s well construction ordinance, well permits “shall be issued” if they are consistent with the Department of Water Resource’s minimum, statewide well construction standards. The purpose of these standards is to protect groundwater quality when constructing, repairing, or closing wells. For example, wells must be dug by licensed engineers at specified distances from potential sources of contamination.

Petitioner cited no case law where a landowner who sought to construct a well was subject to any environmental review. Here, based on its review of the ordinance, the court found that as long as the technical standards and objective measurements are met, the county must issue a well permit to any applicant. This process leaves scant room for the public agency to impose its personal judgment and discretion.
Petitioner’s argument that DWR standards grant the county discretion were unavailing, as those standards relate to preserving groundwater quality, not depletion from overuse. By its very terms, DWR standards are not designed for conservation purposes. Petitioner did not contend that the applicants failed to satisfy the ordinance’s technical requirements, nor that the county enacted any standards in addition to those imposed by DWR.

The court also rejected petitioner’s contention that the county could impose additional conditions, such as pump limits and subsidence monitoring, because the ordinance does not authorize the county to do so. Additionally, the court determined that an instruction to applicants to include all necessary information to ensure that groundwater resources are protected did not transform the inquiry into a discretionary review. The subcontext of this provision is whether groundwater will be protected from contamination or pollution during well construction, not from depletion by overuse.

The court noted that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act does regulate groundwater supply and seeks to prevent groundwater depletion. However, SGMA is not incorporated into the county’s well construction ordinance. The petitioner could address their environmental goals regarding groundwater depletion as the county implements SGMA.


In its succinct decision (not originally certified for publication) the court reiterated basic principles of CEQA jurisprudence concerning ministerial and discretionary projects. The court relied on CEQA’s express terms and key cases, including Friends of Westwood v. City of Los Angeles (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 259. The opinion builds on this foundation, and is also consistent with the recent previous decision in Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 11, where the First District found that issuing an erosion-control permit was a ministerial act under Sonoma County’s applicable ordinance. This line of cases certainly strengthens the presumption that building permits, if issued under carefully crafted ordinances that do not vest discretion with the agency, will be determined exempt from CEQA review.

(Sara Dudley)

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 Court of Appeal Holds that the Discovery Rule Does Not Apply to Challenges Brought Under Public Resources Code § 21167

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

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

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

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

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

Second District Court of Appeal Holds That CEQA Is Inapplicable to Water Replenishment District’s Declaration of a “Water Emergency” in the Central Basin Groundwater Basin, and Even If CEQA Did Apply, the Court Adjudicated “Physical Solution” in the Central Basin Trumps CEQA

On December 10, 2012, the California Second District Court of Appeal, in Central Basin Municipal Water District v. Water Replenishment District of Southern California (2012) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. B235039) upheld the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s order sustaining a demurrer to the Central Basin Municipal Water District’s (CBMWD’s) petition for writ of mandate, which alleged that defendant Water Replacement District of Southern California (WRD) improperly failed to conduct CEQA review before declaring a “water emergency” in the Central Basin.


Groundwater management in the Central Basin groundwater basin is governed by a court ordered judgment. The judgment provides a comprehensive framework for water use in the Central Basin and imposes a “physical solution” described as “an equitable remedy designed to alleviate overdrafts and the consequential depletion of water resources in a particular area, consistent with the constitutional mandate to prevent waste and unreasonable water use and to maximize the beneficial use of water, with recognition that it is a limited resource.” (Hillside Memorial Park & Mortuary v. Golden State Water Co. (2011) 205 Cal.App.4th 534, 538, fn. 2.)

The judgment empowers WRD to declare a “water emergency” when the Central Basin resources risk degradation.  Declaring a water emergency alters the portions of a pumper’s allocation of water that the pumper may “carryover” to another year, meaning the entity retains the right to that water longer than it otherwise would. It also permits a longer period to replace a pumper’s over-extraction of groundwater (i.e., an extraction of an amount greater than the pumper’s annual allotment). The judgment imposes a limit of one year on a declared water emergency, though the term may be less than one year. The judgment also reserves continuing jurisdiction to the court.   

In November 2010, WRD declared a water emergency, which by later resolution expired on June 30, 2011. On December 29, 2010, CBMWD challenged the declared water emergency in a petition for writ of mandate, contending that WRD was required to follow CEQA prior to declaring a water emergency. WRD demurred, and the trial court sustained the demurrer, finding that CBMWD could not state a cause of action under CEQA. The trial court court explained that WRD’s declaration was under the authority granted by the judgment and that although WRD was a public agency in most respects, it was acting as an agent of the court in this situation, and was therefore not subject to CEQA. CBMWD appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The court of appeal concluded that the trial court properly sustained WRD’s demurrer to CBMWD’s petition for writ of mandate because CEQA does not apply, and even if it did, it would be trumped by the physical solution governing the Central Basin.

The court explained that CEQA is inapplicable to WRD’s declaration of a water emergency for two separate reasons. First, the declaration of a water emergency by itself has no environmental impact and therefore is not a project within the meaning of CEQA. Instead, the court found the declaration is “a mere statement” that the resources of the Central Basin risk declaration. CBMWD argued that other provisions of the Judgment may trigger significant environmental effects, but the court found that this argument is irrelevant because WRD’s only role was to declare the water emergency. Second, WRD had no discretion to alter the terms of the judgment even if it prepared an EIR and determined that the carryover and delayed replacement would have significant environmental effects. Thus, even if the declaration of the water emergency should be viewed together with its consequences, WRD’s decision was a ministerial act, rather than a discretionary approval triggering CEQA review.  

The court then explained that even if CEQA were applicable, it is trumped by the physical solution imposed in the basin. The court explained that where a court-imposed judgment is in place establishing a physical solution to a groundwater issue, the public agency has no judgmental controls to exercise, i.e. the power to act is reserved to the court. Here, the appellate court explained, the trail court properly denied CBMWD’s petition to mandate compliance with CEQA as it sought to “frustrate the physical solution in the Central Basin.” In particular, through its petition for writ of mandate, CBMWD sought to have WRD exercise its authority in contravention of the judgment by requesting WRD study consequences of the carryover and five-year replenishment, which are terms of the judgment establishing a physical solution (and not subject to WRD’s modification).   

The court declined to consider CBMWD’s remaining arguments because they were not properly raised in the appeal. (Laura Harris)

First District Determines Local Land Use Ordinance Does Not Violate Map Act and Properly Characterized Certain Approvals as Ministerial Acts Exempt from CEQA.

Sierra Club v. Napa County Bd. of Supervisors (1st Dist. April 20, 2012) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. A130980)

Sierra Club challenged an ordinance adopted by the Napa County Board of Supervisors clarifying lot line adjustments. Sierra Club argued the ordinance violated the Subdivision Map Act (Map Act) and CEQA. The appellate court disagreed, rejecting Sierra Club’s facial attack on the ordinance and upholding the county’s interpretation that lot line adjustments could be ministerial approvals and therefore exempt from CEQA.

Background and Procedure

In 1976, amendments to section 66412 of the Map Act exempted from the act any lot line adjustment between two or more adjacent parcels. Thus, land could be taken from one parcel and added to an adjacent parcel, but no additional parcels could be created. This exemption was later restricted to four or fewer existing adjoining parcels. This amendment also required lot line adjustments to be approved by the local agency or advisory agency. Further, the agency’s review was limited to a determination of whether the parcels resulting from an adjustment conformed with the local general plan, any applicable specific or coastal plan, and any zoning or building ordinances.

In 2002, Napa County revised its local ordinance governing lot line adjustments to reflect the amendments limiting the scope of section 66412. The revised ordinance also prohibited lot line adjustments that transformed non-building parcels into buildable ones. The ordinance did not comment on whether sequential adjustments affecting four or fewer parcels would be permitted.

Around 2007, Napa County addressed this issue, as it had pending applications from one owner for lot line adjustments affecting 16 contiguous parcels. Each application affected only four parcels, but were sequential in that a lot adjusted under one application was further adjusted under a following application. Napa County determined some counties prohibited this approach to lot line adjustments while others required a waiting period between each application.  A final option would be to allow all of the application to be processed without a waiting period. The Board directed that an ordinance be prepared addressing sequential applications for lot line adjustments.

In 2009, a draft ordinance was presented to the Board that distinguished between major and minor lot line adjustments. Major adjustments depended on discretionary approval subject to CEQA, while minor adjustments were considered ministerial and outside CEQA’s purview. The final ordinance adopted by the county continued the existing administrative practice of allowing lot line adjustments impacting four or fewer parcels to re-adjust lots included in a prior application if the prior adjustments had been completed and recorded. Approval of these adjustments remained characterized as ministerial acts not subject to CEQA. The Board determined approval of the ordinance itself was exempt from CEQA based on a class 5 categorical exemption and the “general rule” exempting actions with no possibility of adverse impact to the environment (CEQA Guidelines, § 15061(b)(3)).

Sierra Club challenged the approval of the ordinance, claiming it violated the Map Act’s lot line adjustment exemption and violated the Map Act and CEQA by classifying adjustments as ministerial. Sierra Club requested that the county stipulate to a court order extending the time to prepare the administrative record. The county agreed and the court ordered the deadline extended. The county later argued that Sierra Club failed to effect summons within 90 days as required by section 66499.37 of the Map Act. The trial court held that the county’s stipulation to extend time to prepare the administrative record was a general appearance, and therefore, the county waived any irregularities in the service of summons. The trial court rejected Sierra Club’s other challenges to the ordinance, and Sierra Club appealed.

Sierra Club’s Action Not Time-Barred

The appellate court agreed with the trial court that Sierra Club’s action was not time-barred.  The appellate court determined that the county made a general appearance when it agreed to the stipulation extending the time to prepare the administrative record. California Code of Civil Procedure section 1014 lists acts that constitute an appearance, but the appellate court noted this list is not exclusive. The determining factor is whether the defendant takes a part in the action and in some manner recognizes the authority of the court to proceed. In this case, the county clearly acknowledged the trial court’s authority to proceed when it stipulated to the order granting Sierra Club an extension. As a result of this appearance, the county waived all irregularities in service.

Compliance with the Map Act

Sierra Club argued the county’s ordinance violated the Map Act by circumventing its limited exemption for lot line adjustments. The appellate court interpreted this as an argument that section 66412 preempted the local ordinance, or that the local ordinance facially conflicted with this section.

The appellate court noted the difficult burden Sierra Club faced in making its facial challenge to legislation. Local land use regulations conflict with general laws and are void if the local legislation duplicates, contradicts, or enters an area fully occupied by the general law. The court determined Napa County’s ordinance did not conflict with section 66412, as the ordinance did not conflict with any of the criteria established by the Map Act for procedural exclusions of lot line adjustments.

Further, the court rejected Sierra Club’s argument that the county’s ordinance would reopen the loopholes closed by the amendments to section 66412. Specifically, the ordinance did not allow an unlimited number of lot lines to be adjusted at the same time. The ordinance required landowners to obtain approval of adjustments of no more than four adjoining lots at one time and record the deeds reflecting those adjustments before another application could be processed. The court determined that if the legislature had intended to remove all sequential lot line adjustments from the section 66412 exemption, it could have used language to make this intention clear.

Application of CEQA to Sequential Lot Line Adjustments Under County Ordinance

Sierra Club argued that approval of sequential lot line adjustments is a discretionary action subject to CEQA. Approval of discretionary projects requires the exercise of judgment or deliberation, while ministerial projects involve little or no personal judgment by the relevant public official. The public official merely applies the law to the facts presented.

The ordinance classified lot line adjustments as ministerial and not subject to CEQA except where such adjustments required approval of a variance or were processed concurrently with a related application for a use permit or other discretionary approval. Otherwise, if an application complies with 12 specific standards under the ordinance, a public official must accept the application. The court held fixed approval standards left officials with no ability to exercise discretion to reject or shape the project in any way. Therefore, approvals of lot line adjustments under the ordinance that met these criteria were appropriately classified as ministerial.


This case offers an important civil procedure reminder that if a party makes a general appearance before a court, it waives the ability to later challenge sufficiency of service. Stipulating to a court order extending the deadline for filing the administrative record in a CEQA action was characterized as a general appearance in this case. In addition, the case demonstrates the heavy burden petitioners face when attempting to argue a local land use regulation conflicts with a general law. Finally, the case reiterates past precedent distinguishing discretionary acts subject to CEQA and ministerial acts falling outside the jurisdiction of the act.