Tag: Statute of Limitations

Sixth District Holds City’s Failure to Send Notice of Determination Did Not Excuse Plaintiff’s Failure to Name Indispensable Party Within Limitations Period

The Sixth District Court of Appeal in Organizacion Comunidad de Alviso v. City of San Jose (Feb. 9, 2021) 60 Cal.App.5th 783, held that the City of San Jose’s failure to send a Notice of Determination to a member of the petitioner organization, in violation of Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (f), did not excuse the petitioner’s failure to name an indispensable party in a CEQA action before the statute of limitations expired.

BACKGROUND

A light industrial center project was planned for construction on a primarily fallow farmland site in San Jose. Mark Espinoza, a member of the petitioner organization, Organizacion Comunidad de Alviso, requested that the City’s environmental project manager place him on the list to receive the Notice of Determination (NOD) for the Project.
Later that month, Microsoft Corporation purchased land from the original owner and took over as the project applicant. The San Jose City Council initially approved the project and associated EIR at an October 2017 meeting. The meeting agenda incorrectly referenced the previous landowner instead of Microsoft. Microsoft was, however, correctly referred to as the project applicant at the hearing. A second meeting was held to reconsider the project approval and EIR in December 2017. The notice for that hearing correctly identified Microsoft as the property owner, but the resolution approving the project incorrectly referenced the previous owners.

The City filed two NODs for the project. The first NOD, which was sent to Espinoza, listed the wrong project applicant. The City later realized the mistake and issued a second NOD that correctly listed Microsoft as the applicant. The City did not send Espinoza the second NOD.

The petitioner filed a petition for writ of mandate within 30 days of the first NOD, alleging violations of CEQA and the Planning and Zoning Law. The petition named the previous property owners as real party in interest, based on the information in the first NOD. Two weeks after the 30-day statute of limitations for the CEQA cause of action expired, the previous owners’ attorney notified the petitioner’s counsel that Microsoft had acquired the property and was named as the applicant in the second NOD. A month after receiving this notice—and well after the 30-day limitations period had run—the petitioner filed an amended petition naming Microsoft as a real party in interest.

Microsoft and the City demurred to the CEQA action in the amended petition, arguing that it was time-barred because petitioner failed to name Microsoft as the real party in interest before the limitations period expired. The trial court determined that the initial petition was defective for failing to join Microsoft, and consequently dismissed the CEQA cause of action as untimely.

COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION

Failure to Name Applicant in NOD as Real Party in Interest
Under Public Resources Code section 21167.6.5, subdivision (a), in addition to naming as a defendant the agency that approved the project, a petitioner must name as a real party in interest the “person or persons identified by the public agency” in the NOD. Here, the petitioner did not dispute that Microsoft was a necessary and indispensable party under CEQA because it was named as the applicant in the NOD. Instead, the petitioner argued that its failure to name Microsoft should be excused because the NOD sent by the City named the wrong party and the City did not resend the new NOD after the error was corrected. The court disagreed.

Although the court acknowledged the City violated Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (f), by failing to send the second, corrected NOD to Espinoza, it concluded that CEQA contains no relief for the City’s violation. The court ruled that the City’s violation could not excuse or cure the amended petition’s untimeliness because Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (f), itself provides that the “date upon which [the NOD] is mailed shall not affect” the statute of limitations. The court also cited the Supreme Court’s emphasis that potential CEQA litigants must pay close attention to NOD filings before initiating litigation.

Additionally, the court reasoned that the second NOD was properly filed with the county clerk, posted at the county clerk’s office, and made available for review by all potential litigants—thereby providing constructive notice of the correct parties to name in a potential action. The court further noted that petitioner had actual notice of Microsoft’s status as the applicant because it had participated in the public hearings at which Microsoft was identified and the public notice for the City’s re-approval hearing listed Microsoft as the owner.

Because the petitioner failed to name Microsoft within the 30-day statute of limitation period after the corrected NOD was filed, the court held that the trial court’s dismissal was appropriate.

Material Defect
The petitioner also argued that the 30-day statute of limitations was not triggered because the NOD was materially defective, and therefore, the 180-day limitations period should apply. The court easily rejected this argument because the petitioner did not claim that the second NOD was insufficient or incorrect. The petitioner only claimed that the posting of two contradictory NODs essentially amounted to an NOD defect. The court disagreed, determining that the second NOD contained all required information and was therefore not defective.

Relation-Back Doctrine
The court also disagreed with the petitioner’s argument that the relation back doctrine under Code of Civil Procedure section 474 should apply. The court determined the petitioner’s ignorance of Microsoft’s status as the project applicant was unreasonable because the second NOD was correct and provided constructive notice of Microsoft’s identity. Additionally, the petitioner had received actual notice of the second NOD from the former owners’ attorney and still proceeded to wait two months to file its amended petition—a delay, which the court pointed out, was longer than even the initial limitations period.

Estoppel
Finally, the court rejected the petitioner’s argument that the City and Microsoft should have been equitably estopped from asserting the statute of limitations defense. It concluded that even if the City’s failure to send Espinoza the second NOD was intentional, the petitioner’s reliance on that failure would be unreasonable. Again, the City’s timely filing of the second NOD with the county clerk’s office gave all potential litigants constructive notice of the correct parties to name in a CEQA action.

– Veronika Morrison

Second District Court of Appeal Upholds Dismissal of CEQA Action as Untimely

On April 2, 2020, the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District in Coalition for an Equitable Westlake/Macarthur Park v. City of Los Angeles (2020) 7 Cal.App.5th 368 affirmed the trial court’s decision sustaining a demurrer without leave to amend because the petitioner’s claims were barred by the famously short statute of limitations for actions brought under CEQA. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.)

On March 3, 2017, after holding a public hearing, the advisory agency for the City of Los Angeles approved a vesting tentative tract map for the Lake on Wilshire Project, a mixed-use project consisting of a hotel, a residential tower, and a multi-purpose center with a theater. Prior to approving the tentative map, the advisory agency adopted a mitigated negative declaration. The city filed a notice of determination (NOD) on March 15, 2017.

Subsequently, on October 12, 2017, the planning commission approved conditional use permits for the project—finding that no subsequent review was required. Two tenants of an existing building on the project site appealed the planning commission’s decision. The city council denied the appeals on January 31, 2018, and further adopted a resolution approving general plan amendments in connection with the project.

On March 2, 2018, the petitioner filed a petition for writ of mandamus challenging the approval of the MND as violating CEQA. The city and real parties in interest filed a demurrer. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend on the grounds that the petitioner’s claims were time-barred under CEQA for failure to seek relief within 30 days after the NOD was filed on March 15, 2017.

In holding that the petitioner’s suit was untimely, the court found that application of the statute of limitations bar to the petitioner’s challenge was straightforward. The petitioner did not bring the CEQA action until March 2, 2018, nearly a year after the city approved the tentative map and posted the NOD. The court explained that there were only two situations where the filing of a NOD would not trigger CEQA’s statute of limitations—if the NOD is invalid on its face because the information required by the CEQA Guidelines is missing or incorrect, or where the NOD is filed before a decision-making body has approved the project. The court found neither of those circumstances existed.

Rather, the petitioner had attacked the validity of the NOD based on the advisory agency’s authority to make CEQA finding, including that: (1) the planning commission (not the advisory agency) was responsible for initial project approval and CEQA review; (2) the advisory agency lacked authority under the municipal code to make CEQA findings; (3) the advisory agency’s CEQA decisions were not properly appealable to an elected body; and (4) the authority to approve the project was improperly bifurcated from the authority for CEQA approval. In rejecting this argument, the court, quoting the California Supreme Court’s decision in Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton (2010) 48 Cal.4th 481, 499, stated that the petitioner ‘confuses the timeliness of a lawsuit with its merits.’” To the extent a petitioner wished to challenge the advisory agency’s authority to make the initial project approval or adopt the MND, the court held that those arguments needed to be made within the applicable statute of limitations period. Because they were not, the petitioner was precluded from raising such arguments.

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

In Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans Decision v. Department of Transportation (2020) 46 Cal.App.5th 1103, the Fourth District Court of Appeal overturned the San Diego County Superior Court’s judgment sustaining the California Department of Transportation’s (Caltrans) demurrer and dismissal of Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans Decision’s (CRCD) petition for writ of mandate. The petition claimed Caltrans improperly exempted a highway interchange project from CEQA review and engaged in misconduct that precluded Petitioner from timely filing the action. The Court of Appeal found that Streets and Highway Code section 103 did not exempt the project from CEQA review, and the petition sufficiently plead facts about Caltrans’ misrepresentation of the review process to establish a factual dispute about whether Caltrans was equitably estopped from asserting the 35-day statute of limitations defense.

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridget K. McDonald

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

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

Background

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

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

The Court of Appeal’s CEQA Decision

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

Cultural Resources

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

Biological Resources

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

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

Aesthetic Resources

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

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

Administrative Remedies Were Exhausted

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

Court Rejected Standing and Statute of Limitations Defenses

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

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

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

Oak Tree Ordinance Was Violated

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

Casey Shorrock

Fourth District Court of Appeal Holds City’s Scenic View Ordinance Is Considered a Zoning Ordinance under Gov. Code Section 65901 and Therefore Subject to 90-Day Service Deadline for Petition in Section 65009

In a unanimous opinion, the court in Weiss v. City of Del Mar (2019) 39 Cal.App. 5th 609, upheld the trial court and found that the 90-day service deadline in Government Code section 65009 applied to a planning commission action on a municipal scenic view ordinance. As a result, the court held that a petition for writ of mandate that was served on the City three months after the deadline was time barred.

Background

In August 2016, Petitioner Shirli Weiss submitted an application to the City of Del Mar under its Scenic View Ordinance requesting that Torrey Pacific Corporation, her neighboring property owner, trim its “‘wildly overgrown’” vegetation and trees to restore the ocean view from her property. The Planning Commission held a hearing on the application and, though divided, denied her request. The City Council issued a 2-2 split decision on her appeal in July 2017 which, under the City’s rules, reinstated the Planning Commission’s decision to deny her request.

Weiss filed a petition for writ of mandate against the City and Torrey Pacific in September 2017, but did not serve the City with the petition until December 2017. The respondents jointly moved to dismiss under the 90-day service requirement in Government Code section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(E). The trial court granted the motion and found it was “‘undisputed’” that this statutory deadline was not met. Weiss appealed. In her appeal, she acknowledged that she served the City more than 90 days after the City Council denied her appeal but contended that section 65009’s deadline did not govern her action.

Time Barred by Section 65009

The Court of Appeal considered the “‘usual and ordinary meanings’” of the plain language in section 65009 within the context of the entire statute. Section 65009, subdivision c, plainly states that a “challenger must file and serve the public entity within 90 days of the challenged decision.” This statute of limitations, the court explained, applies to adoption or amendments of specific plans, general plans, zoning ordinances, development agreements, and regulations attached to specific plans, and all actions “‘done or made prior to any of these decisions.’” (Gov. Code, § 65009, subd. (c)(1).) The service requirement also applies to “‘any decision on the matters listed in Sections 65901 and 65903.’” (Id.) Sections 65901 and 65903 primarily apply to actions related to a zoning ordinance, such as a conditional use permit, variance, or “‘any other powers granted by local ordinance’” to the board of zoning adjustment or zoning administrator. (Id. at § 65901, subd. (a).) The court noted that section 65903 includes zoning board of appeals decisions.

Weiss argued that the City’s Scenic View Ordinance is not a zoning ordinance because it is not within the Municipal Code zoning rules and regulations. The court disagreed, and determined that the Planning Commission was “functionally acting in a zoning board capacity” when it ruled on Weiss’s application. The court explained that the substance of the Scenic View Ordinance required the City to “undertake[] zoning and planning responsibilities,” and therefore it did not matter whether the ordinance was within the City’s Municipal Code. The court cited to Save Lafayette Trees v. City of Lafayette (2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 148, where the court held that a tree ordinance was a zoning ordinance. The court noted that any decision made under the Scenic View Ordinance is “quintessentially a public entity decision involving…a land use and zoning determination.” But, the court said, even if it were not a zoning/land use determination, the “‘any other powers’” clause in section 65901 is broad and includes decisions on “a range of issues outside” the categories listed in sections 65901 and 65903.

Weiss also argued that sections 65009 and 65901 only apply to planning or zoning decisions on a project or development, but do not apply to enforcement of an ordinance. Weiss cited section 65009’s stated purpose—to provide “’certainty regarding decisions’” so that owners and governments can “‘proceed with projects.’” The court disagreed with this argument because, particularly where statutory language is “clear and unambiguous,” general statements of statutory purpose “do[] not override the substantive portion” of a statute.  Weiss also argued that the 90-day deadline in section 65009 had only ever been applied to projects or development and never in circumstances like those at issue here. The court agreed with Weiss, but explained that there was no authority stating that section 65009 is triggered only for challenges to projects or developments.

The court also rejected several final arguments from Weiss. First, she argued that the court’s decision to apply the 90-day service rule here would render the statute applicable to all of the Planning Commission’s actions. The court disagreed, pointing back to statutory language that limits 65009 to “zoning and similar land use determinations.” Next, Weiss claimed that the lack of urgency of the current dispute, unlike the expedience necessary for development, precluded applicability of section 65009. The court rejected this argument as an attempt to add language that does not exist in the statute. Additionally, the court explained that tree removal and maintenance issues do need to be resolved promptly. Lastly, Weiss argued that the Scenic View Ordinance specifically mentions Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.6, but does not mention section 65009, so that section must not apply. The court explained that Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.6 addresses filing deadlines but is silent on service of a petition. Both regulations, the court said, can therefore apply simultaneously.

First District Finds CEQA Claim Timely Filed in Case Challenging Approval of Tree Removal

In Save Lafayette Trees v. City of Lafayette (Oct. 23, 2018, A154168)* ___ Cal.App.5th___, the First District Court of Appeal held that the 90-day statute of limitations period set forth in the Planning and Zoning Law did not apply to petitioners’ CEQA cause of action. Therefore, although the trial court correctly granted the demurrer to petitioners’ Planning and Zoning Law claim, the trial court erred in dismissing petitioners’ CEQA claim.

The case involves the City of Lafayette’s approval of an agreement with Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) authorizing the removal of up to 272 trees within PG&E’s natural gas pipeline rights-of-way. City staff and PG&E disagreed as to whether PG&E was required to comply with the city’s tree protection ordinance. Rather than requiring PG&E to comply with the city’s tree protection ordinance, however, the city agreed to allow PG&E to remove the trees under a provision of the Lafayette Municipal Code allowing removal of protected trees “to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of the community.”

Petitioners filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s approval of the tree-removal agreement. The petition alleged that the city failed to comply with the Planning and Zoning Law and CEQA in approving the agreement. It also alleged that the city violated the petitioners’ due process rights by failing to give sufficient notice of the hearing at which the agreement was approved.

PG&E filed a demurrer, in which the city joined, asserting that the petition was barred by Government Code section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(E), which requires that an action challenging a zoning permit be filed and served within 90 days of the decision. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend, finding that the petition had not been served within the 90-day filing and service period. Based on this, the trial court dismissed the petition in full.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that petitioners’ Planning and Zoning Law claim was time-barred because petitioners had not served the petition within 90 days, as required by Government Code section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(E). Government Code section 65009 applies to “any decision” by a legislative body regarding a permit. Although the approval of the agreement was not labeled a “permit,” it was, in effect, a permit authorizing the removal of trees, so section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(E) applied. Although section 65009’s legislative findings discuss the need for a short limitations period to provide certainty to housing developers, nothing in section 65009 restricts its application to decisions involving houses. The longer statute of limitations found in the city’s Municipal Code did not apply because the shorter limitations period of the Government Code preempted that of the city’s code. Because the due process cause of action derived from the Planning and Zoning Law, the 90-day statute of limitations under the Planning and Zoning Law also barred petitioners’ due process claim.

The 180-day statute of limitations found in Public Resources Code section section 21167.6, subdivision (a), applied to the CEQA cause of action. Because the petition had been filed and served within that time, the trial court erred in dismissing the CEQA claim. Because the CEQA limitations period was twice as long as that of the Government Code, the two statutes of limitations could not be reconciled. Therefore, the statute of limitations under the Planning and Zoning Law did not control the CEQA cause of action.

*Previously published at: 28 Cal.App.5th 622, Rehearing Granted, Opinion Not Citeable November 26, 2018.

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 Holds County Violated CEQA by Increasing Project Building Height without Issuing a Supplemental EIR

The Second District Court of Appeal held the County of Ventura violated CEQA when it increased the height of a proposed building by 15 feet without filing a supplemental EIR. The county had filed an addendum considering the impact of the building’s change in location, but the addendum neglected to mention a change in building height from 75 feet to 90 feet. The court considered this a substantial change in the project requiring major revisions to the EIR. Ventura Foothill Neighbors v. County of Ventura, Case No. B254120 (Dec. 15, 2014).

In 1993, the County Board of Supervisors decided to construct a five-story ambulatory care clinic on the county’s Medical Center campus. The 1993 EIR stated that the building would be up to 75 feet tall. The county delayed construction until 2005, when the board decided the clinic should be relocated a few hundred feet northwest of the original location to reduce environmental impacts and to utilize a more parking-centric location. The county prepared an addendum for the relocation and filed a notice of determination (NOD). Neither the addendum nor the NOD stated that the clinic would exceed 75 feet. In 2008, a nearby resident inquired about the presence of a rig on the site, and learned that the relocated clinic was to be 90 feet tall. The height difference, petitioners claimed, would “significantly diminish the superior ocean view setting” of the Foothill residences. The trial court held in favor of the residents, and the court of appeal affirmed.

The court of appeal denied the county’s argument that the Ventura Foothill Neighbors were time-barred from challenging the decision to proceed with an addendum because the challenge fell outside CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations. The court distinguished the California Supreme Court decision in Committee For Green Foothills v. Santa Clara County Bd. of Supervisors (2010) 48 Cal.4th 32, in which the Court held that filing of a valid NOD triggers a 30-day statute of limitations. Since the neither the addendum or the NOD made any mention of the increase in the building’s height, the timeline ran from the time of the neighbor’s inquiry.

Court Holds Petition Over Tree Removal in Community College Expansion Project Came Too Late

A published opinion by the First District Court of Appeal emphasizes the importance of filing timely CEQA lawsuits. In Citizens for a Green San Mateo v. San Mateo Community College District, the court determined that, even under the most generous interpretation of CEQA’s statute of limitations, a petitioner’s lawsuit was time-barred under Public Resources Code section 21167.

The controversy arose when the San Mateo Community College District removed and pruned over 200 invasive eucalyptus trees on the northern edge of the community college campus. The district began removing trees on December 28, 2010. On January 5, 2011, a member of Citizens for a Green San Mateo contacted the district expressing concern over the tree removal and pruning. Citizens for a Green San Mateo filed a petition for writ of mandate on July 1, 2011, alleging that the district violated CEQA and was required to prepare an EIR to study the tree removal. The trial court determined the challenge was timely and granted the petition, finding the district had violated CEQA. The district appealed.

The Appellate Court’s Decision

On appeal, the district argued the 30-day statute of limitations period established by Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivisions (b) or (e) applied to bar the CEQA lawsuit because the district filed a Notice of Determination. The NOD described the mitigated negative declaration prepared by the district when it approved the Facility Improvements at College of San Mateo project, or the “CSM Project,” in 2007.

The CSM Project included renovation, demolition, replacement, or new construction of about 25 buildings, numerous pedestrian and automobile circulation enhancements, and other improvements to modernize the campus. The negative declaration also determined that the proposed project would result in the removal and pruning of an unknown number of trees, but tree plantings proposed as part of the project would mitigate any unavoidable tree removal, resulting in a less than significant impact. At the hearing, a district trustee expressed concern regarding campus-wide tree removal proposed as part of the CSM Project, but noted that, due to the mitigation required by the negative declaration, “the number of newly planted trees will be greater than that of removed trees.” No public comments were offered at the hearing.

The appellate court rejected the petitioner’s claim that the tree removal was “materially different” from the activities discussed in the mitigated negative declaration and subsequent NOD that the community college district filed for the CSM Project. The court emphasized that the term “project,” for the purposes of CEQA, does not mean each separate governmental approval that may ultimately be required to complete the proposed action. The court concluded that the record demonstrated the tree removal was a subsequent activity encompassed within the scope of the CSM Project. Since the district filed an NOD recording its approval of the CSM Project, and the public was on notice that trees could be removed anywhere on campus as a result of the CSM Project, the 30-day statute of limitations established by section 21167, subdivisions (b) and (e) applied to bar the lawsuit.

Even if the 180-day limitations period, which applies when no NOD is filed, applied to this case, the appellate court determined the lawsuit was still time-barred. Assuming, for the purposes of analysis, that the district failed to adequately notify the public of the tree removal, any challenge would need to be filed within 180 days from the date of the district’s decision to carry out or approve the project, according to section 21167, subdivision (a). Here, the district committed to the tree removal at the public trustee meeting on November 17, 2010. The appellate court emphasized that section 21167, subdivision (a), does not require any special notice requirement to start the 180-day clock; all that is required is a formal decision by a public agency to carry out or approve the project. Therefore, the petition was time-barred, even assuming the tree removal was not described in the mitigated negative declaration certified for the CSM Project.

Finally, the appellate court was not persuaded by the efforts of Citizens for a Green San Mateo to avoid the result of filing its complaint outside CEQA’s statute of limitations. Citizens asserted it had no notice of the potential for tree removal activities until a neighbor/member observed the trees being cut down on January 5, 2011. To support this argument, the citizens cited the California Supreme Court’s opinion in Concerned Citizens of Costa Mesa, Inc. v. 32nd District Agricultural Association (1986) 42 Cal.3d 929. But the appellate court noted that the citizens interpreted the test established in that case incorrectly. In Concerned Citizens, the agency approved a fairground on six acres that would have seated 5,000. As constructed, the theater actually seated 7,000 across 10 acres, so the project constructed was materially different than the project the agency initially approved. Further, the agency never alerted the public to these changes. Therefore, the Supreme Court determined the 180-day statute of limitations ran from when the public reasonably should have known the project being constructed was different than the project approved. In contrast, the mitigated negative declaration prepared by the community college district notified the public that the district intended extensive landscaping improvements across campus that could require the removal of mature trees. Further, the tree removal activities conducted were not materially different from those approved by the district at an open hearing in November 2010. So even under the most generous interpretation of section 21167 and the case law established by the Supreme Court, Citizens for a Green San Mateo’s petition was time-barred.

RMM partners James Moose and Sabrina Teller represented the San Mateo Community College District.