A fundamental prerequisite to a viable lawsuit is a plaintiff possessing standing to bring it, and in writ of mandate proceedings that generally means a person or entity actually possessing a beneficial interest in the legal relief being sought. Nonetheless, CEQA’s broad statutory standing provisions, the “public interest exception” to beneficial interest standing, constitutional associational privacy claims, and the general unavailability of civil discovery (due to the general irrelevance of extra-record evidence) in administrative mandamus actions have all conspired to allow CEQA litigation standing abuses to become a large – and largely unchecked – problem. Indeed, I have previously analyzed and written about this particular CEQA litigation abuse in depth. (See, e.g., “Standing Against Environmental Injustice: Some Thoughts On Facing The Need For CEQA Litigation Reform,” by Arthur F. Coon, posted July 18, 2017.) I am thus happy to be able to report that, in an opinion filed November 28, and ordered published on December 19, 2017, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has now done something about it. Specifically, it properly upheld the use of civil discovery directed to the issue of a plaintiff organization’s standing in a CEQA writ proceeding, and also affirmed the trial court’s judgment of dismissal after granting a terminating sanction for plaintiff’s discovery abuse in attempting to thwart such discovery. This important new decision is Creed-21 v. City of Wildomar (Walmart Real Estate Business Trust, Real Party in Interest) (4th Dist., Div. 2, 2017) _____ Cal.App.5th _____.
When a lead agency finds a project approval to be categorically exempt from CEQA, this determination at the initial step of CEQA’s multi-tiered process necessarily includes an implied finding that no exceptions to the categorical exemption are applicable. A party challenging an agency’s categorical exemption determination on the basis that the “unusual circumstances” exception applies generally has the burden to show both (1) unusual circumstances (i.e., the project has some feature distinguishing it from others in the exempt class, such as size or location), and (2) “a reasonable possibility of a significant effect [on the environment] due to [those] unusual circumstance[s].” (Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, 1105, 1115.)
But how does a court review an “unusual circumstances” challenge to a categorical exemption where the agency has made no express findings on these elements and must thus rely on implied findings to uphold its determination? In a published opinion filed September 18, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal answered this important question in the course of affirming a judgment denying a writ petition that challenged the City of South San Francisco’s (City) conditional-use permit (CUP) for conversion of an office building to a Planned Parenthood medical clinic. Respect Life South San Francisco v. City of South San Francisco (Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, Inc., Real Party In Interest) (1st Dist., Div. 1, 2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 449. While the City’s categorical exemption in this case was upheld based on an implied finding, the opinion’s most important takeaway for local agencies (and project proponents) is that reliance on such a finding presents far more litigation risk than if appropriate express findings are made.
Continue Reading First District Upholds CEQA Categorical Exemption for Approval of Planned Parenthood Clinic in City of South San Francisco, Clarifies Implied Finding of No Exceptions is Analyzed for Record Support on Narrowest Possible Ground
In a published decision filed August 8, 2017, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial Court’s judgment dismissing a CEQA action brought by two individuals (“Appellants”) against the Mt. San Jacinto Community College District (“District”). Bridges v. Mt. San Jacinto Community College District (Riverside County Regional Park & Open- Space District, Real Party in Interest) (4th Dist. 2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 104. Appellants challenged the District’s entry into a purchase agreement to buy from a regional park district a plot of vacant land for potential future use as a new campus, alleging this action violated CEQA because the District had not yet prepared an EIR for the potential new campus project. (The District was in the process of preparing an EIR, during the pendency of other litigation over an earlier option agreement on the property, but it “paused” that process due to the other litigation while determining it would complete the EIR before entering into escrow on the property.) Appellants also claimed the District violated CEQA by failing to adopt local CEQA implementing guidelines.
The Court of Appeal held Appellants failed to exhaust their administrative remedies prior to filing suit or to demonstrate any excuse for not doing so; alternatively, it held that their claims lacked substantive merit.
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.
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
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)
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.
In an opinion filed November 29, and belatedly ordered published on December 22, 2016, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial of a writ petition challenging on CEQA grounds the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s (Muni) approval of a light rail construction contract. The Committee For Re-evaluation of the T-Line Loop, et al v. San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, et al (Mitchell Engineering, Real Party in Interest) (1st Dist., Div. 2, 2016) 6 Cal.App.5th 1237. The contract was to install the final 900 feet of light rail line needed to complete a partially constructed “Loop” around a City block in the Dogpatch neighborhood, so that trains on the T-Third light rail line will be able to turn around and lay over to meet service needs for special events and peak travel periods. In approving the contract, Muni relied on the 1998 EIS/EIR (FEIR) certified for the two-phase Third Street Light Rail Project to connect southeastern San Francisco by light rail to the rest of the City; it also relied on SF Planning Department statements in 2012 and 2014 that the FEIR analyzed the Loop and that no further CEQA analysis was needed because there had been no substantial changes in the project or the area.
Continue Reading Completing the Loop Without Reinventing the Wheel: First District Holds 1998 EIR Adequate Without Further CEQA Review to Analyze Impacts of SF Muni’s Delayed Completion of Dogpatch Area Light Rail Line Loop
It’s always nice not to lose a hard-won prevailing party cost award due to a court’s imprecise use of party designations – which can get confusing where there are multiple appeals at issue. On October 4, 2016, the Fifth Appellate District Court of Appeal issued a two-page Order entitled “Order Modifying Opinion and Denying Rehearing [Includes Change In Judgment]” in the recently decided consolidated appeals in the Citizens for Ceres v. City of Ceres litigation. The minor change made in the last sentence of the opinion’s disposition clarified that: (1) Respondents (City of Ceres and Real Party Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., et al.) were awarded costs as prevailing parties in the merits appeal, which affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying the writ petition challenging the EIR, statement of overriding considerations, and approval of Wal-Mart’s controversial Ceres project; and (2) Appellants (Wal-Mart, et al.) were awarded costs as prevailing parties in the separate costs appeal, which resulted in the published portion of the opinion reversing the trial court’s order taxing costs of $44,889.71 claimed by Wal-Mart for amounts it had to reimburse the City for administrative record preparation. My post on the Court’s partially published September 12, 2016 opinion in the case can be found here.
In the published portion of an opinion filed September 12, 2016, the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order taxing costs in the amount of $44,889.71 which were claimed by prevailing real party in interest Wal-Mart in connection with preparation of the administrative record. The costs were incurred by respondent and lead agency City of Ceres when it directed its outside counsel to prepare the record in a CEQA action challenging a Wal‑Mart Supercenter project, and were reimbursed by real party Wal-Mart pursuant to an agreement with the City that required the project applicant to reimburse it for all expenses arising from legal challenges to the project. Citizens For Ceres v. City of Ceres (Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 237.