In a 74-page opinion filed February 24, and later ordered published on March 17, 2020, the Second District Court of Appeal (Division 7) affirmed judgments (granting the writ petition and awarding fees) in coordinated appeals stemming from a CEQA action successfully challenging the City of Agoura Hills’ (City) project approvals and mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a mixed use development project on an undeveloped 8.2 acre parcel.  Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll v. City of Agoura Hills (Doron Gelfand, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2020) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  The Court rejected the City’s and Real Parties’ procedural arguments that Petitioners and Respondents Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll (STACK) and California Native Plant Society (CNPS) had failed to exhaust administrative remedies, and that their claims were barred by lack of standing and the statute of limitations; on the merits of the CEQA claim, it held that substantial evidence in the record supported a fair argument that even as mitigated the project may have significant impacts on cultural resources (i.e., a Chumash Native American archaeological site), three sensitive plant species, native oak trees, and aesthetic resources, and that an EIR was therefore required; and it further held the trial court properly granted writ relief based on the City’s violation of its own Oak Tree Ordinance by approving a project that would concededly remove 35 to 36 percent of the site’s oak tree canopy when the Ordinance prohibited removal of more than 10 percent.  Finally, the Court held that the trial court properly awarded Petitioners STACK and CNPS $142,148 in attorneys’ fees under Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5, made payable 50% by City and 50% by Real Parties, notwithstanding that Petitioners furnished their first amended petition to the Attorney General (AG) beyond the 10-day statutory period for doing so.

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In an opinion filed September 6, and later ordered published on October 7, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying plaintiff groups’ writ petition challenging Sonoma County’s use permit and related mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a winery project in the County’s rural Knights Valley area.  Maacama Watershed Alliance, et al v. County of Sonoma, et al. (James Bailey, Knights Bridge Vineyards, LLC, Real Parties in Interest) (2019) 40 Cal.App.5th 1007.

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Spring now being practically “in the air,” a bit of CEQA “spring cleaning” seems appropriate – so here’s a brief look at the status of some significant CEQA-related cases that are now pending before our Supreme Court, or in which its review has been sought:

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In an opinion filed December 18, 2018, and later ordered published on January 10, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying appellant citizen groups’ writ petition challenging the City of St. Helena’s approval of an 8-unit, multifamily housing project and related demolition and design review.  McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group, et al. v. City of St. Helena, et al. (2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 80.  The decision applied the basic principle that CEQA does not apply to ministerial project approvals, and further clarified that CEQA does not apply to “mixed” discretionary/ministerial approvals where the “discretionary component” does not give the agency the authority to mitigate environmental impacts.  It held that because the City’s discretion under its local design review ordinance does not extend to addressing environmental effects it does not implicate CEQA, and therefore the City’s reliance on the CEQA Guidelines’ Class 32 exemption was unnecessary.

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In a published opinion filed December 17, 2018, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment granting a writ setting aside El Dorado County’s approval of, and related Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for, construction of a Dollar General Store in the “quaint” downtown area of unincorporated Georgetown, a Gold Rush-era “hamlet” designated as a State Historical Landmark.  Georgetown Preservation Society v. County of El Dorado (Simoncre Abbie, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 30 Cal.App.5th 358.  The Court held lay public commentary on nontechnical issues concerning the project’s size and general appearance constituted substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project may have significant aesthetic impacts, and thus required an EIR, notwithstanding County’s findings that the project complied with its Historic Design Guide.  The Court also held County’s failure to make explicit findings in the record on alleged credibility and foundation issues precluded its “manufacturing after-the-fact findings” to justify its dismissal of the public comments on the ground that they did not constitute “substantial evidence.”

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In an opinion filed August 10, and later ordered published on September 7, 2018, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. 2) affirmed a judgment denying Friends of Riverside’s Hills’ (FRH) writ petition challenging a residential development permit and related Negative Declaration issued by the City of Riverside (City) for a six-home, 11-acre subdivision in an environmentally sensitive area.  Friends of Riverside’s Hills v. City of Riverside (Carlton R. Lofgren, as Trustee, etc., et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 1137.

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On September 7, 2018, Governor Brown signed two bills amending CEQA in relatively minor ways that will become effective January 1, 2019.

AB 2341 (Chapter 298) (Mathis) adds Public Resources Code § 21081.3 to provide that “a lead agency is not required to evaluate the aesthetic effects of a project and aesthetic effects shall not be considered significant effects on the environment if the project involves the refurbishment, conversion, repurposing, or replacement of an existing building that meets … [five specified] requirements[.]”  To fall within this new partial statutory exemption, (1) the building must be abandoned, dilapidated (defined as “decayed, deteriorated, or fallen into such disrepair through neglect or misuse so as to require substantial repair for safe and proper use”), or have been vacant for over a year; (2) the site must be immediately adjacent to parcels developed with qualified urban uses or 75 percent of its perimeter must adjoin such parcels (with the remainder adjoining parcels previously so developed); (3) the project must include housing construction; (4) any new structure must “not substantially exceed the height of the existing structure”; and (5) the project must “not create a new source of substantial light or glare.”


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In a lengthy published opinion filed on August 22, 2018, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed the trial court’s judgment rejecting various CEQA challenges to the City of San Francisco’s (“City”) Program EIR analyzing the environmental impacts of its 2009 General Plan Housing Element, which it adopted on June 29, 2011.  San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods v. City and County of San Francisco (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 596.  San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods (“SFLN”), an unincorporated association comprised of more than a dozen neighborhood organizations, had challenged the EIR – mostly unsuccessfully – in the trial court.  It then appealed from adverse portions of the judgment concerning the EIR’s baseline and impact analyses for traffic, water supply, land use, and visual resources impacts; the City’s decision not to recirculate the EIR; the EIR’s alternatives analysis; and the feasibility of certain proposed mitigation measures.

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In an opinion filed July 16, and belatedly ordered published on August 9, 2018, the First District Court of Appeal (Division 5) affirmed the trial court’s judgment setting aside the City of Fremont’s approvals of a mixed residential/retail project (“Project”) and related Mitigated Negative Declaration (“MND”), and ordering preparation of an EIR based on the Project’s potentially significant aesthetic and traffic impacts on the Niles historical district.  Protect Niles v. City of Fremont (Doug Rich, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 1129.  The opinion is a good reminder of the legal vulnerability of any species of negative declaration under CEQA’s applicable “fair argument” standard of review.  It also provides guidance in the areas of mootness; analysis of aesthetic, historical resources, traffic level of service (“LOS”), and traffic safety impacts; the operation of traffic thresholds of significance; and the nature of substantial evidence sufficient to support a “fair argument,” both generally and in the unique “historical district” context presented by this particular case.

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SB 743 was enacted in 2013 to further California’s efforts to reduce GHG emissions by encouraging transit-oriented, infill development – a strategy announced in SB 375, the “Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008.”  As part of SB 743, the Legislature enacted Public Resources Code § 21099(d)(1), which provides:  “Aesthetic and parking impacts of a residential, mixed-use residential, or employment center project on an infill site within a transit priority area shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment.”  In an opinion filed February 28, and subsequently certified for publication on March 22, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal (Division 7) applied § 21099(d)(1) and held that it exempted from CEQA review alleged parking impacts of a 68-acre, mixed-use, infill project, located a quarter-mile from the Covina Metrolink commuter rail station, which the City approved via Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) three months after the statute’s effective date.  Covina Residents for Responsible Development v. City of Covina (City Ventures, Inc., et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 712.  In addition to rejecting plaintiff/appellant CRRD’s CEQA challenges to the project, the Court of Appeal rejected its Subdivision Map Act (SMA) arguments and affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying its writ petition.

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