Salmon Protection and Watershed Network v. County of Marin (1st Dist. April 20, 2012) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. CIV1004866)
On April 20, 2012, the First Appellate District affirmed a lower court’s holding that a public agency and a private party may agree to toll the limitations period for challenging the adequacy of an EIR under CEQA.
The project at issue in this litigation was the adoption of the Marin Countywide General Plan Update. Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging certification of an EIR for the plan. In an attempt to reach a settlement, SPAWN and Marin County entered a series of “tolling” agreements. These agreements extended the 30-day limitation period under Public Resources Code section 21167 for the filing of challenges to EIRs. Settlement discussions were ultimately unsuccessful, and SPAWN proceeded to file a petition to challenge the County’s EIR.
A group of property owners was granted leave to allege that SPAWN’s petition was untimely because CEQA does not permit tolling of the statute of limitations. The trial court sustained demurrers by the County and SPAWN, holding tolling agreements are not prohibited by either CEQA or Government Code section 65009. Instead, the court declared “CEQA encourages parties to avoid litigation through pretrial settlements and negotiated dispositions, which may include the use of tolling agreements.” The interveners appealed.
The Court of Appeal noted the challenge invoked potentially conflicting public policies. While CEQA favors the prompts disposition of CEQA challenges, there is an equally strong public policy, recognized by the California Supreme Court, encouraging settlement. The court noted CEQA itself contains provisions encouraging settlement. (See Public Resources Code sections 21167.8, 21167.9, 21167.10) Based on these observations, the court determined tolling agreements promote the public interest by permitting settlement discussions to proceed without the distraction of litigation.
Interestingly, both the County and SPAWN joined in opposition of the interveners’ attack on the tolling agreement. In addition, numerous amicus offered arguments, cited by the court, in support of tolling agreements as commonplace under CEQA. The court also offered examples of numerous other cases recognizing both the validity and desirability agreements tolling other limitation periods. In addition, the court determined that the limitation period in section 21167 is primarily intended to protect project proponents from extended delay, uncertainty and other disruptions. Therefore, Civil Code section 3513, which bars contravention by private agreement of laws established for a public purpose, does not prevent tolling agreements under CEQA. Ultimately, the court found both public policy and the law allow for agreements tolling the statute of limitations for filing petition under CEQA.
RMM partner Jim Moose and associates Jennifer Holman and Jeannie Lee represented Marin County in the litigation.