In an opinion filed September 5, and later certified for partial publication on October 3, 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment upholding the City of Chico’s EIR and related statement of overriding considerations for Walmart’s project to expand an existing store, add a gas station, and create two new outparcels for future commercial development.  Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy v. City of Chico (Walmart Inc., Real Party in Interest) (2019) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  The published portion of the Court’s opinion rejects plaintiff/appellant CARE’s challenges to the EIR’s “robust 43-page urban decay analysis,” holding as a matter of law that “the potential loss of close and convenient shopping is not an environmental issue that must be reviewed under CEQA” and that the EIR’s methodology for analyzing urban decay was supported by substantial evidence.  The unpublished portion of the opinion (which won’t be further discussed in detail) held that the City’s statement of overriding considerations was supported by substantial evidence, did not need to “describe in detail the weight accorded to the various aspects of the agency’s balancing of competing public objectives,” and did not need to include findings “reconciling” the project approval with the CIty’s rejection of an earlier, materially different expansion project in 2009.

Continue Reading Third District Rejects CEQA Challenges To Chico Walmart Expansion Project EIR’s Urban Decay Analysis And City’s Statement Of Overriding Considerations

In a 68-page published opinion filed September 27, 2019, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. One) affirmed the trial court’s judgment rejecting a plaintiff group’s numerous challenges to the California Coastal Commission’s (CCC) certification of a port master plan amendment by the San Diego Unified Port District (Port).  The amendment allows expansion of the San Diego Convention Center by the City of San Diego (City) and of the adjacent Hilton San Diego Bayfront hotel by One Park Boulevard, LLC (One Park).  San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition v. California Coastal Commission, et al. (City of San Diego, et al., Interveners and Appellants) (2019) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  While the trial court had rejected the statute of limitations defense of indispensable parties/interveners City and One Park and ruled against plaintiff’s Coastal Act and CEQA-based challenges to the CCC’s findings on the merits, the Court of Appeal disagreed with the statute of limitations ruling, and based its affirmance on the primary ground that the claims were time-barred by the Coastal Act’s applicable 60-day statute of limitations because interveners were not timely joined within that limitations period.  It also held plaintiff’s claims lacked substantive merit in any event.

Continue Reading Fourth District Rejects Coastal Act/CEQA-Based Challenges To Commission’s Certification of San Diego Port Plan Amendment As Time-Barred For Failure To Join Indispensable Parties Within Limitations Period

In a short published opinion filed September 13, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a historic preservation group’s mandate petition seeking to compel preparation of an EIR by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR or department).  Plaintiff The Lake Norconian Club Foundation (foundation) argued CDCR was required to analyze its decision not to repair and maintain the Lake Norconian Club, an unoccupied and severely deteriorated former luxury resort hotel that sits on CDCR’s property adjacent to a medium-security prison.  The hotel, which once catered to Hollywood stars and sports celebrities, was opened in 1929, closed in 1941, and was thereafter variously used as a military hospital, drug rehabilitation center, and CDCR administrative offices; now vacant, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The trial court denied the writ on statute of limitations grounds, but the First District affirmed “on the ground that the department’s inaction is not a project subject to CEQA.”  The Lake Norconian Club Foundation v. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (City of Norco, Real Party in Interest) (2019) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.

Continue Reading CDCR’s Inaction In Failing To Maintain Historic Former Hotel Not A “Project” Subject To CEQA, Holds First District

In an opinion originally filed on July 31, and belatedly ordered published on August 22, 2019, the Second District Court of Appeal (Division 3) affirmed a judgment granting a CEQA writ petition invalidating the final EIR and project entitlements for the Millennium Project, a controversial proposed mixed-use development on a 4.47-acre parcel straddling Vine Street and surrounding the historic Capital Records Building in Hollywood.  Stopthemillenniumhollywood.com, et al. v. City of Los Angeles, et al. (Millennium Hollywood LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2019) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  The Court upheld the trial court’s finding that the EIR violated CEQA’s requirement for a stable and finite project description as a matter of law.  Reasoning that “the project description is at the heart of the EIR process in this case,” the Court found it “not necessary to reach appellants’ [the City and developer Millennium]” challenges to several other grounds upon which the trial court issued its writ, including findings that the EIR’s transportation analysis improperly failed to use responsible agency Caltrans’ methodology, that its analysis of cumulative traffic impacts was unsupported by substantial evidence, and that a condition of approval improperly expanded the approved project uses beyond those actually analyzed in the EIR.  It also declined to address plaintiff/cross-appellant’s claim that the City failed to notice and consult with the California Geological Survey regarding potential seismic hazards.

Continue Reading Are Urban Land Uses And Project Design Components Fungible For CEQA Project Description Purposes As Long As Maximum Possible Environmental Impacts Are Disclosed And Analyzed? Second District Doesn’t Think So, Holds Controversial Millennium Hollywood Project EIR’s “Blurry” Project Description Violates CEQA

Introduction And Overview

On August 19, 2019, the California Supreme Court issued its unanimous 38-page opinion, authored by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, in the CEQA “project definition” case we’ve been tracking with interest.  Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego (California Coastal Commission, Real Party in Interest) (2019) ____ Cal.5th ____, Case No. S238563.  As anticipated based on the high court’s questioning and remarks at oral argument (see “Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in CEQA Project Definition Case,” posted June 6, 2019), it reversed the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s decision that the City’s approval of the medical marijuana dispensary ordinance at issue was not a CEQA “project”; accordingly, it held that the City was required to treat it as such and “proceed to the next steps of the CEQA analysis.”

Continue Reading Not A CEQA “Project”? Not So Fast, Lead Agency! Supreme Court Reverses Fourth District’s Decision That San Diego’s Adoption of Medical Marijuana Dispensary Ordinance Was Not A Project Requiring CEQA Review

Background

A long time ago, in a legal galaxy far, far away, Emperor Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) into law.  For many years, the “dark forces” that had wrought the adverse environmental impacts giving rise to CEQA – land developers and the public agencies granting their approvals – labored under its ever-expanding yoke.  Many litigation battles were fought, and many won by the heroic Jedi of the environmental plaintiffs’ bar and their NGO clients, firmly establishing the preeminence and vast reach of CEQA’s seemingly beneficent empire into the far-flung corners of the legal universe.  CEQA’s “force” was such that no project with the potential to effect a physical change in the environment, unless granted legislative or magisterial exemption, escaped its watchful eye and mitigating powers.

Continue Reading CEQA Wars: The Developer Strikes Back (In Federal Court)

In an opinion originally filed June 28, and later certified for partial publication on July 22, 2019 (upon the request of the California Building Industry Association), the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying a CEQA writ petition challenging a project converting a vacant former apartment building into a boutique hotel in Los Angeles’ Hollywood area.  Hollywoodians Encouraging Rental Opportunities (HERO) v. City of Los Angeles et al. (Millennium Settlement Consulting/1850 North Cherokee, LLC et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2019) 37 Cal.App.5th 768.  The MND for the project was legally adequate, and the City did not err in failing to prepare an EIR to analyze loss of affordable housing and tenant displacement impacts, because the former apartment building had been withdrawn from the rental market for years and was vacant at the time environmental review for the hotel project commenced.  Because the relevant CEQA baseline when review commenced in 2015 was a vacant building already withdrawn from the rental market, the record did not support a fair argument that conversion of the building to hotel use would have significant impacts on Hollywood’s stock of rent-controlled housing or displacement of residents.

Continue Reading “Baseline” Basics: Second District Rejects CEQA Challenge To Hollywood Hotel Project MND Alleging Unanalyzed Human/Housing Displacement Impacts Because Plaintiffs Relied On Incorrect Environmental Baseline

In a 30-page opinion originally filed July 3, and certified for publication on July 18, 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition challenging, on zoning law and CEQA grounds, the City of Sacramento’s approval of a high-rise infill housing project in its midtown area.  Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento (2500 J Owners, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2019) 37 Cal.App.5th 698.  The project, known as the Yamanee project, calls for construction of a mixed-use condominium building 15 stories (and 178-1/2-feet) high on a .44-acre site at the southeast corner of 25th and J streets.  It would total 177,032 square feet of space on the 19,200 square foot site, consisting of one floor of commercial uses, three levels of parking, one floor of resident amenities, and 10 floors containing 134 residential condominiums.

Continue Reading Third District Upholds Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment (SCEA) Used Instead Of Traditional CEQA Document To Approve High-Rise, High-Density Mixed-Use Condo Housing Project In Sacramento’s Midtown

A lawsuit filed June 10, 2019, in the U.S. District Court for California’s Central District, and conspicuously reported on last month in Law360, takes dead aim at defendants who are alleged to have filed and threatened frivolous CEQA suits for the sole purpose of extorting monetary settlements – in this case, from plaintiffs alleging they are economically vulnerable Hollywood hotel project developers who were forced to capitulate to defendants’ extortionate demands.

Continue Reading CEQA Meets RICO: True Stories Of Extortion And Litigation Abuse In Tinseltown

In a 38-page opinion filed on May 16, and belatedly ordered published on June 14, 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment rejecting all of plaintiff/appellant Center for Biological Diversity’s (“CBD”) CEQA and statutory challenges to the EIR that the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (“DOGGR”) was required by S.B. 4 (Stats. 2013, ch. 13, § 2) to prepare “pursuant to [CEQA], to provide the public with detailed information regarding any potential environmental impacts of well stimulation in the state.”  (Pub. Resources Code, § 3161(b)(3)(A).)  The Court’s opinion addresses and disposes of CBD’s CEQA and other challenges in a highly unusual, and even unprecedented, context – that of a statutorily required program EIR addressing the statewide impacts of oil and gas well-stimulation treatments (including the controversial treatment known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) prepared in the absence of any “project” being approved or undertaken by the ostensible “lead agency” (DOGGR).  Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, et al. (3d Dist. 2019) 36 Cal.App.5th 210.

Continue Reading The Curious Case of the EIR Without A “Project”: Third District Rejects CEQA, Statutory Challenges To DOGGR’s “Unique” S.B. 4-Mandated EIR Analyzing Statewide Fracking/Well Stimulation Impacts