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
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 November 7, 2016, the Third District Court of Appeal filed a published opinion mostly upholding the EIR for a 48.75-acre, 328-unit residential infill project (known as McKinley Village) against various CEQA challenges, and finding the Project to be consistent with the City of Sacramento’s general plan. East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City v. City of Sacramento (Encore McKinley Village, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (3d Dist. 2016) 5 Cal.App.5th 281, 2016 WL 6581170. In a pointed reminder that a perfectly CEQA-compliant EIR for a large infill project is difficult to prepare, however, the Court found merit in a single argument of the petitioner and appellant neighborhood group, ESPLC – its argument that “the EIR ignored [certain] significant traffic impacts.” Specifically, the EIR failed to adequately support its less-than-significant (LTS) impact conclusion concerning such impacts, in light of a substantial project-caused degradation in level of service (LOS) at affected intersections and streets that was nonetheless compliant with the General Plan’s policy that LOS F was acceptable for the area. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment upholding the EIR, and ordered it to issue a writ directing the City to set aside its certification and correct this lone deficiency prior to considering recertification.
In a published opinion filed August 31, 2016, the Sixth Appellate District Court of Appeal rejected claims under CEQA and the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (“SMARA”; Pub. Resources Code, §§ 2700, et seq.), and affirmed the denial of a writ petition challenging Santa Clara County’s 2012 EIR and related approval of a reclamation plan amendment for the Permanente Quarry. Bay Area Clean Environment, Inc. v. Santa Clara County (Lehigh Southwest Cement Company, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2016) ___ Cal.App.5th ___, 2016 WL 9540085. The plan amendment governs (over a 20-year period) the closing and reclaiming of the Quarry, which has conducted limestone and aggregate surface mining operations since 1903 in the unincorporated County. The Quarry has expanded from about 1,300 acres when the Permanente Corporation purchased it in 1939 to its current 3,510 acres. It includes a central rock/limestone mining pit, a rock crushing area, and administrative offices all located within the upper portion of the Permanente Creek watershed; the creek flows east and borders the Quarry pit’s south side before leaving the Quarry property and running to the bay.
In a published decision filed October 31, 2014 (Paulek v. California Department of Water Resources (4th Dist., Div. 2, 2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 35, Case No. E060038), the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the Riverside County Superior Court’s judgment denying a petition for a writ of mandate challenging an EIR for the Perris Dam Remediation Project. The Department of Water Resources’ (“DWR”) DEIR proposed three activities: (1) remediating the dam’s structural seismic deficiencies; (2) replacing its outlet tower; and (3) creating a new “Emergency Outlet Extension.” The FEIR addressed a modified project including only the first two components and splitting the emergency outlet extension into a separate project and environmental review process.
Continue Reading Fourth District Addresses CEQA Issues Concerning Standing, Mitigation,Baseline, Piecemealing, And Responses To Comments In Affirming Judgment Upholding Perris Dam Remediation Program EIR
While CEQA actions are statutorily designed as special proceedings with priority over other civil actions, and thus mandated to be heard and resolved expeditiously, when complex or controversial projects with dedicated opposition are involved this salutary statutory scheme sometimes goes off track. A prominent example is the ongoing CEQA challenge to the environmental review for the Central Valley to San Francisco route of the High-Speed Rail Project, which involves lawsuits that have stretched over parts of 7 years and are not yet concluded — although a recent appellate decision appears to have brought them a step closer to the driving of the final CEQA litigation spike.
Continue Reading Of High Speed Rails and Litigation Snails: The Train Rolls On As Third District Rejects Additional CEQA Challenges To High-Speed Rail Authority’s Revised Final Program EIR Analyzing Central Valley To San Francisco Bay Area Track Route
On July 7, 2014, the First District Court of Appeal filed its published opinion affirming the trial court’s judgment upholding the EIR for the Treasure Island/Yerba Buena Island Project. Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island v. City and County of San Francisco, et al. (Treasure Island Community Development LLC, RPI), 227 Cal.App. 4th 1036 (1st Dist. 2014).
Harmonizing CEQA’s rules and principles is, to say the least, not always easy, and is often quite challenging. The relevant concepts are often in tension, or are so malleable that they can be argued or construed to conflict. For example, environmental review must commence at the earliest “practicable” time, in order to make fully informed decisions at a project’s formative stages and avoid undue project “momentum” or “post-hoc rationalizations”; yet it should not occur so early that it would be “speculative” or not “meaningful” due to lack of sufficient data from a crystallized development project proposal. To cite another example, a “project” refers to the “activity being approved,” but also to the “whole of an action” and not just individual discretionary permits that trigger CEQA review. And, a “project approval” occurs at the lead agency’s earliest commitment to a “definite course of action” regarding a proposed project. Fuzzy concepts like these can be difficult to apply, and supply ample fodder for CEQA litigation. They tend to produce heavily fact-specific decisions offering unclear guidance to lead agencies and project proponents.