In a short opinion filed May 17, 2017, and belatedly ordered published (for unknown reasons) just six days later, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment granting a writ of mandate that set aside the City of San Diego’s denial (on administrative appeal) of a small residential subdivision project in its low density La Playa neighborhood. Kutzke v. City of San Diego (4th Dist., Div. 1, 2017) ____ Cal.App.5th ________. The Court of Appeal applied well established law in holding that if any substantial evidence in the record supports a City’s finding which requires denial of a subdivision, or that a related mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) is inadequate under CEQA, the City’s decision denying the Project must be upheld. Simply put, Courts may not substitute their judgment for a City’s on such matters or weigh competing substantial evidence, but instead must defer to and uphold the City’s decision unless no reasonable person could have reached the same conclusion.
Arthur F. Coon is the Co-Chair of Miller Starr Regalia’s Land Use Practice Group and Chair of its Appellate Practice Group. Art has distinguished himself over a nearly 30-year career as a top CEQA and land use law litigator at the trial and appellate levels of both federal and state courts, including an appearance as counsel of record before the U.S. Supreme Court. His areas of expertise include land use, environmental law, the law of public agencies, extraordinary writs, and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
When all was said and done, it was a case of “same wine, different bottle” for Defendant and Appellant San Mateo Community College District (“District”) after the First District Court of Appeal’s published May 5, 2017 decision, following remand from the California Supreme Court, in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo Community College District, et al. (1st Dist., Div. 1, 2017) ___ Cal.App.5th ___. While the District’s project changes to demolish its San Mateo College Building 20 complex, which was formerly slated for renovation, were held not to result in an “entirely new” project for CEQA review purposes because the original MND retained informational relevance, the District’s Addendum to that MND was again held by the Court of Appeal to constitute an inadequate environmental review document for the modified project under CEQA “because there is substantial evidence to support a fair argument that the project changes might have a significant effect on the environment.”
As this is my seventh blog post on this important litigation, I won’t reiterate the case’s facts. My post on the Supreme Court’s opinion ((2016) 1 Cal.5th 937) can be found here. The facts and other relevant information concerning the case can be found in my posts dated July 8, May 12, May 4 and April 26, 2016, and March 25, 2014.
Continue Reading No Surprises Here: First District Applies CEQA Subsequent Review Standards Mandated by Supreme Court on Remand, Again Affirms Judgment for Petitioner in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens Litigation
On April 21, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal filed a 22-page published opinion providing significant guidance and analysis concerning the critical, but sometimes elusive, distinction between “discretionary” project approvals that are subject to CEQA and “ministerial” ones that are exempt from it. Sierra Club, et al. v. County of Sonoma (Ronald and Ernest Ohlson, dba Ohlson Ranch, Real Parties in Interest) (1st Dist., Div. 1, 2017) ___ Cal.App.5th ___. (As a matter of disclosure, I represent the real parties, the Ohlsons, in this action.)
Continue Reading First District Holds Sonoma County Vineyard Development (VESCO) Permit was Ministerial Approval Exempt from CEQA
In a published opinion filed April 13, 2017, the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District, Division 5, held that Code of Civil Procedure (“CCP”) § 473(b)’s provisions allowing mandatory relief upon an attorney’s sworn affidavit of mistake do not extend beyond the “dismissal[s]” and “default judgment[s]” referenced in the statute’s plain language. Specifically, the Court held they did not extend to a judgment entered in favor of a defendant in a CEQA action because the plaintiff’s attorney failed to lodge the certified administrative record and therefore failed to meet plaintiff’s burden of proof. The Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles, et al. (2d Dist., Div. 5, 2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 993.
Continue Reading Second District Holds Adverse Judgment in CEQA Action Resulting from Plaintiff Attorney’s Failure to Lodge Administrative Record is Not “Dismissal” or “Default Judgment” Subject to Mandatory Relief Provisions of CCP Section 473(b)
In a detailed 66-page published opinion filed April 10, 2017, the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order discharging a writ of mandate that was issued to compel the California Air Resources Board (“CARB”) to correct CEQA violations in connection with its 2009 adoption of low carbon fuel standards (“LCFS”) regulations. POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (National Resources Defense Council, Inc., Intervenor and Respondent) (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 764, Case No. F073340 (“POET II”). The CEQA violations resulting in the writ were discussed in the Court of Appeal’s earlier published opinion, POET, LLC. V. State Air Resources Bd. (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 68 (“POET I”), which was summarized in my blog post here.
Like the fable of the blind men and the elephant, CEQA’s prohibition on “piecemealing” of environmental review is animated by a basic recognition that the “whole” of an action under review is greater than its individual parts viewed separately. (The same important insight also underlies CEQA’s requirement to analyze a project’s cumulative impacts.) But CEQA’s expansive and rather amorphous definition of what constitutes a “project” ensures that its piecemealing rule shares another similarity with the famous fable: what conduct constitutes improper piecemealing often appears to be in the “eye of the beholder” and individual perceptions can differ greatly based on more-or-less subjective factors. Appellate courts have long wrestled with application of the relevant legal principles, which essentially attempt to prohibit a lead agency’s “chopping up” of a project into smaller components so that it can turn a “blind eye” to reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts of the “whole” action.
On March 30, 2017, the Sixth District Court of Appeal issued a published opinion that rejected piecemealing and other CEQA challenges raised by the plaintiff/appellant group Aptos Council to several zoning ordinance amendments separately adopted and reviewed for CEQA purposes by the County of Santa Cruz; the enactments addressed discrete topics, but were all initiated by County as part of its general “regulatory reform” effort to “modernize, clarify, streamline and/or provide [clear] standards” for its land use regulations. Aptos Council v. County of Santa Cruz (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 266.
In a unanimous 29-page opinion authored by Associate Justice Carol Corrigan, and filed on March 30, 2017, the California Supreme Court held the City of Newport Beach’s EIR for a large mixed-use development project proposed on a 400-acre coastal zone site failed to comply with CEQA. Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (Newport Banning Ranch LLC, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918. The EIR improperly failed to identify areas of the site that might qualify as “environmentally sensitive habitat areas” (ESHA) – unique areas receiving special legal protections under the California Coastal Act – and take such areas into consideration in its analysis of project alternatives and mitigation measures. In light of its reversal of the Court of Appeal’s judgment upholding the EIR and project approvals on CEQA grounds, the high court stated it did not need to reach plaintiff and appellant’s independent claim that the City also violated a general plan “strategy” requiring it to “[w]ork with appropriate state and federal agencies to identify wetlands and habitats to be preserved and/or restored and those on which development will be permitted.”
Continue Reading California Supreme Court Holds Banning Ranch EIR Violates CEQA by Failing to Identify and Analyze Coastal Zone Project’s Impacts on Potential Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHA); Declines to Reach General Plan Issues
In a 46-page opinion filed February 14 and ordered published on March 15, 2017, the Fourth District Court of Appeal rejected numerous CEQA challenges to Riverside County’s approval of an EIR for Specific Plan 380, a 200-acre master-planned, mixed-use community in the County’s French Valley region. Residents Against Specific Plan 380 v. County of Riverside (Hanna Marital Trust, Real Party in Interest) (4th Dist., Div. 2, 2017) 9 Cal.App.5th 941. In affirming the trial court’s judgment denying the plaintiff/appellant group’s mandate petition, the Court of Appeal found no merit in any of the group’s arguments that County failed to comply with a number of procedural, informational and substantive CEQA requirements.
Land use litigators know that CEQA provides a potent weapon to challenge local government decisions affecting land use and development. It is often easy to plead a CEQA claim challenging such decisions, and CEQA will normally apply to them regardless of whether they are legislative (e.g., general plan, specific plan, zoning, and development agreement enactments and amendments) or quasi-adjudicatory (e.g., conditional use permit, subdivision map approvals) in nature. When an EIR has not been prepared to analyze the potential environmental effects of the local agency’s action, a CEQA plaintiff with standing who files suit within the law’s short limitations periods will also receive a very favorable standard of judicial review – the “fair argument” test – in the quest to invalidate the local land use action and require further environmental review.
The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that California Supreme Court Justice Kathryn Werdegar, 81, and currently the Court’s longest-serving member, will retire this summer, on August 31, 2017. Justice Werdegar has served as an associate justice on the high court for 23 years, and was quoted as saying “it is time for someone else to have that privilege and opportunity.”