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) _____ Cal.App.5th _____, 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) ____ Cal.App.5th ____.
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) ___ Cal.5th ___. 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) _____ Cal.App.5th ______. 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.
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.
On January 17, 2017, the California Supreme Court denied the losing appellants’ petition for writ of supersedeas, stay request, and petition for review of the First District Court of Appeal’s decision in Mission Bay Alliance v. Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, et al. (GSW Arena LLC, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2016) 6 Cal.App.5th 160; Supreme Court Case No. S239371. This action effectively ends the CEQA challenge to the Golden State Warriors San Francisco Arena project brought by a coalition of its opponents and removes the major legal hurdle to its construction. Consistent with the required “fast track” CEQA review of and litigation over this Governor-certified “environmental leadership development project,” the high court’s action came relatively quickly – just a month and a half after the filing of the Court of Appeal’s decision. My detailed post on the Court of Appeal’s published decision in the case, which now stands undisturbed as legal precedent, can be found here.
On January 11, 2017, the California Supreme Court by unanimous order granted review in yet another CEQA case, Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 103, Supreme Court Case No. S238563.
In an opinion filed December 7, and later ordered published on December 16, 2016, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying a writ petition on the “single legal issue” whether plaintiffs were entitled under Public Resources Code § 21151(c) (and a municipal code section with essentially the same content) to an appeal of a planning commission’s “substantial conformance review” (SCR) determination to the city council. (San Diegans for Open Government et al v. City of San Diego (Sunroad Enterprises et al, Real Parties in Interest) (4th Dist., Div. 1, 2016 ) __ Cal.App.5th__, 2016 WL ______.) The SCR decision found that changes in an already CEQA-reviewed and approved mixed-use development project were consistent with previous CEQA documents and did not require a new environmental document. Because such a determination was not one of the decisions expressly listed in Section 21151(c) as appealable of right to the lead agency’s elected decision making body, and there was no independent right to such an appeal order the City’s municipal code, the City properly refused to process plaintiffs’ attempted administrative appeal of the planning commission’s decision.
In a lengthy published opinion filed November 29, 2016, the First District Court of Appeal rejected all legal challenges to the City of San Francisco’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (FSEIR) and related land use approvals for a 488,000-square-foot multipurpose event center project on 11 acres in the City’s Mission Bay South redevelopment plan area (the “Project”). Mission Bay Alliance, et al. v. Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, et al. (GSW Arena LLC, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2016 1st Dist., Div. 3) _____ Cal.App.5th ____, 2016 WL 6962504. The event center would host home games of the Golden State Warriors NBA basketball team, concerts, conferences, conventions and other sporting and cultural events, and the overall Project would also include “a variety of mixed-use structures, including two 11-story office and retail buildings, parking facilities, and 3.2 acres of open space.”
On November 22, 2016, the California Supreme Court issued a significant Order granting review in Coastal Hills Rural Preservation v. County of Sonoma (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 1234, and also transferring the matter back to the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Div. 1) for reconsideration in light of Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937, 957-959, fn. 6, and CEQA Guidelines § 15384. The high court further ordered the First District’s opinion to be depublished, and it is therefore no longer citable as binding legal precedent. Both orders were unanimous.
Continue Reading Wither Subsequent Review? Supreme Court Again Weighs In On CEQA Subsequent Review Standards Following Negative Declarations – Grants, Retransfers, and Depublishes First District’s Coastal Hills Rural Preservation Decision