In a 38-page opinion filed May 4, and belatedly ordered published on May 25, 2017, the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed a judgment dismissing a writ petition filed by three environmental groups alleging CEQA violations against the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) in connection with its issuance of 214 individual permits for new oil wells in the long-established South Belridge Oil Field in Kern County. Association of Irritated Residents, et al. v. Department of Conservation (Aera Energy, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (5th Dist. 2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1202 (Case No. F073018). The Court reversed the Kern County Superior Court’s judgment dismissing the action after that court sustained a demurrer without leave to amend based on the asserted res judicata effect on an earlier Alameda County Superior Court judgment. The Court of Appeal held that the Alameda judgment was based on mootness and ripeness grounds, not the merits, and thus did not have res judicata effect so as to bar the Kern County action. The opinion contains extensive discussions of res judicata, collateral estoppel, mootness, ripeness and the application of these legal doctrines to the facts and issues of the case before it.
In an opinion filed March 23, and belatedly modified and ordered published on May 25, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s dismissal of a plaintiff environmental group’s (“Friends”) CEQA action against a local air quality district (“District”). (Friends of Outlet Creek v. Mendocino County Air Quality Management District (Grist Creek Aggregates, LLC, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (1st Dist., Div. 1, 2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1235.) Friends’ action challenged District’s 2015 issuance of an “Authority to Construct” to Real Party Grist Creek for asphalt plant-operations on a site used, at various times since 1972, for aggregate and asphalt production. The trial court had sustained District’s and Grist Creek’s demurrer on the ground that CEQA relief was unavailable against a local air district in this context and that Friends’ exclusive remedy was an action under Health and Safety Code § 40864.
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) 11 Cal.App.5th 1034. 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.
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) 11 Cal.App.5th 11. (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
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.
On February 15, 2017, the California Supreme Court denied numerous requests for depublication and declined to review on its own motion the decision in East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City v. City of Sacramento (3d Dist. 2016) 5 Cal.App. 5th 281. In relevant (and controversial) part, that decision held that the EIR for a large residential infill project violated CEQA by basing its less-than-significant traffic impact finding on the project’s compliance with an applicable traffic level of service (LOS) standard in the City’s general plan; my blog post analyzing the Court of Appeal’s published opinion in detail can be found here.
On December 14, 2016, the California Supreme Court denied review and ordered depublished the Sixth District Court of Appeal’s opinion in Bay Area Clean Environment, Inc. v. Santa Clara County, which was previously filed on August 31, 2016 and published at 2 Cal.App.5th 1197. (See, Supreme Court’s Orders of 12/14 and 12/21/16 in Case No. S237709.) Accordingly, the result in the case remains the same and is final and binding on the parties, but the Court of Appeal’s opinion is no longer published or citable as precedent in other cases.