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Arthur F. Coon is the Co-Chair of Miller Starr Regalia’s Land Use Practice Group and Chair of its Appellate Practice Group. Art has distinguished himself over a nearly 30-year career as a top CEQA and land use law litigator at the trial and appellate levels of both federal and state courts, including an appearance as counsel of record before the U.S. Supreme Court. His areas of expertise include land use, environmental law, the law of public agencies, extraordinary writs, and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

In a published opinion filed November 15, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal (Division 5) affirmed the trial court’s order granting a petition for writ of mandate setting aside the California Department of Parks and Recreation’s (Department) approvals and EIR for the “Upper Truckee River Restoration and Golf Course Reconfiguration Project” (the “Project”).  Washoe Meadows Community v. Department of Parks and Recreation (1st Dist. 2017) _____ Cal.App.5th _____.  The Court agreed with the trial court’s determination that “the DEIR’s failure to provide the public with an accurate, stable and finite” project description “prejudicially impaired the public’s ability to participate in the CEQA process by setting forth a range of five very different alternatives and by declining to identify a preferred alternative.”

As relevant background, the project involved 777 acres of state-owned land encompassing a 2.2-mile stretch of the Upper Truckee River in the Lake Tahoe Basin.  The land was divided into two units: 608 acres of state park land (Washoe Meadows State Park), and the remainder designated as Lake Valley State Recreation Area to allow continuing operation of an existing golf course (a use not allowed in state parks).  Since at least the 1990s, the golf course layout had altered the river’s course and flow, raising environmental concerns of river bed erosion that threatened habitat and water quality in and around Lake Tahoe through deposition of substantial sediment.

Continue Reading Power to the Public: DEIR’s Failure to Identify Proposed Project Among Handful of Vastly Different Analyzed Alternatives Violates CEQA’s Requirement to Contain “Accurate, Stable and Finite” Project Description, Vitiates Intelligent Public Participation, Holds First District

On October 15, 2017, Governor  Brown vetoed SB 80 (Wieckowski), a bill that would have added to CEQA’s already detailed notice requirements.

Specifically, SB 80 would have amended Public Resources Code §§ 21092.2, 21092.3, 21108 and 21152 so as to require, inter alia, that state and local lead agencies:  (1) offer to provide scoping notices, notices of preparation, and notices of determination by email to persons so requesting; (2) post all such notices on the agency’s website (if any); and (3) file with OPR or the County Clerk, as applicable, all Notices of Exemption (NOEs) for approved projects found exempt pursuant to the categorical exemptions contained in the CEQA Guidelines (as opposed to other possible bases for exemption).

Continue Reading Leaving Well Enough Alone: Governor Brown Vetoes CEQA Bill That Would Mandate Lead Agencies To File NOEs For Projects Approved As Categorically Exempt

In 15-page opinion filed on September 15, and later certified for publication on October 16, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition challenging the Judicial Council of California’s (“Judicial Council”) EIR for its project to relocate and consolidate El Dorado County Superior Court operations into a single new building on the outskirts of Placerville.  Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California (County of El Dorado, et al., Real Parties In Interest) (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 187.  The Court of Appeal held that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that “the possible economic impact of moving judicial activities from the downtown courthouse … was not likely to be severe enough to cause urban decay in downtown Placerville.”  It also held that the Council did not need to adopt mitigation mandating re-use of the courthouse to support this conclusion.

Continue Reading Keeping CEQA In Its Lane: First District Holds Substantial Evidence Supports EIR’s Conclusion That “Urban Decay” Is Not Reasonably Foreseeable Indirect Effect Of Project Relocating Trial Court Operations From Historic Placerville Courthouse

While “agree[ing] with appellant that Telegraph Hill is outstanding and unique in a city of outstanding and unique places[,]” the First District Court of Appeal nonetheless affirmed the trial court’s order denying plaintiff/appellant neighborhood group’s mandamus petition challenging the City of San Francisco’s approval of a 3-unit condominium project there on CEQA and general plan consistency grounds.  Protect Telegraph Hill v. City and County of San Francisco (2017) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  In a 15-page opinion originally filed September 14, but belatedly ordered published on October 13, 2017, the Court upheld the City’s findings that the project, which involved renovation of an existing deteriorated small cottage and construction of a new 3-dwelling unit residential structure, was categorically exempt from CEQA and consistent with the City’s general plan and planning code.

Continue Reading Unique, But Not Unusual: First District Affirms CEQA Exemptions and General Plan Consistency Finding For Three-Unit Infill Condo Project on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill

On October 15, 2017, Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. sent a veto letter to California State Assembly Members, returning a controversial and flawed proposed land use bill – AB 890 – without his signature.  My partner Bryan Wenter and I authored a post here last month detailing the many problems we saw with the bill.  (SeeThe Opposite of CEQA Reform: Legally Flawed AB 890 Would Expand Opportunities For CEQA Litigation Abuse While Abridging Constitutional Local Initiative Rights,” by Arthur F. Coon and Bryan W. Wenter, AICP, posted September 19, 2017.)

Fortunately, Governor Brown was receptive to the bill’s many critics, and struck a blow for local land use control, local initiative rights, CEQA reform and commence sense by vetoing it.  His short letter to Assembly members, which can be found here, states in pertinent part that “[i]nstead of the piecemeal approach taken in this bill, I prefer a more comprehensive CEQA review, which takes into account both the urgent need for more housing and thoughtful environmental analysis.  Hear, hear!

Continue Reading Governor Brown Vetoes Flawed AB 890, Signals Preference for More Comprehensive CEQA Reform

In a published opinion filed September 28, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the Alameda County Superior Court’s judgment denying appellant Living Rivers Council’s (LRC) writ petition challenging the State Water Resources Control Board’s (the “SWRCB” or “Board”) approval of a policy designed to maintain instream flows in coastal streams north of San Francisco.  Living Rivers Council v. State Water Resources Control Board (1st Dist., Div. 5, 2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 991.  The Court of Appeal upheld the SWRCB’s Revised Substitute Environmental Document (RSED) against LRC’s CEQA challenges, which related to the RSED’s analysis of potential indirect environmental effects of surface water users switching to groundwater pumping as a result of the policy.

As relevant legal background, the SWRCB administers the State’s water resources and has permitting authority over diversions from surface waters and subterraneous streams that flow through known and definite channels, but it lacks permitting authority over percolating groundwater.  It has authority to prevent unreasonable or wasteful water use regardless of source.  Legislation enacted in 2004 (Wat. Code, § 1259.4) requires the SWRCB to adopt principles and guidelines for maintaining instream flows of Northern California coastal streams.

Continue Reading First District Rejects CEQA Challenges to SWRCB’s Revised Environmental Document and Approval of Northern California Coastal Stream Policy

In a published opinion filed September 19, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s denial of a writ petition challenging defendant California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s (“Department”) approval of label amendments for two pesticides containing an active ingredient toxic to honeybees.  The Court held the Department’s environmental review was deficient in failing to adequately address feasible alternatives, lacking adequate baseline information, and lacking an adequate cumulative impacts analysis, and that its public reports were so inadequate and conclusory as to render public comment effectively meaningless and require recirculation.  Pesticide Action Network North America v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation (Valent U.S.A. Corporation, et al., Real Parties In Interest) (1st Dist., Div. 3, 2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 478.

Continue Reading First District Holds CEQA’s Substantive Requirements Apply to Environmental Documentation of State Agency Acting Under Certified State Regulatory Program, Directs Issuance of Writ Setting Aside Inadequately Reviewed Pesticide Label Approvals

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

AB 890 (Medina – D), recently sent to Governor Brown for action by October 15, seeks to amend Government Code § 65867.5 and to add §§ 65363 and 65850.10 to prevent development agreements and certain types of land use planning and zoning legislation from being enacted by local voter-sponsored land use initiatives.  The bill would substantially abridge the local electorate’s constitutionally guaranteed and reserved initiative power by purporting to exclusively “delegate” specified exercises of legislative authority to local governing bodies – city councils and county boards of supervisors – and thus concomitantly eliminating local voters’ long-held and until now unassailable rights to directly legislate in such areas pursuant to California Constitution, Article II, Section 11, and the procedures of the Elections Code.

The bill’s stated purpose is to ensure the enumerated types of local development proposals are subjected to CEQA review – and, implicitly, to provide expanded opportunities for litigation under a flawed CEQA statute the legislature continues to refuse to meaningfully reform – by annulling the constitutional right of local voters to directly legislate in these areas, a presently enjoyed and “jealously guarded” right the exercise of which is not currently subject to CEQA review.  Long story short:  AB 890 is a bad bill that proposes a cure far worse than the perceived disease.  As will be apparent from the discussion of its provisions below, the proposed law is deeply flawed, of doubtful constitutionality, and the opposite of CEQA reform.

Continue Reading The Opposite of CEQA Reform: Legally Flawed AB 890 Would Expand Opportunities for CEQA Litigation Abuse While Abridging Constitutional Local Initiative Rights

In an opinion originally filed on July 31, and belatedly ordered partially published on August 24, 2017, the Sixth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition brought by a citizens group (Highway 68) on CEQA and Planning and Zoning Law grounds, and upheld the Monterey County Board of Supervisors’ 2012 approval of a shopping center project.  The Highway 68 Coalition v. County of Monterey, et al. (Omni Resources LLC, Real Party in Interest) (6th Dist. 2017)  _____ Cal.App.5th _____ .

In relevant (published) part, the Court upheld the trial court’s interlocutory remand to the County’s Board of Supervisors to clarify or make further findings required to demonstrate the project’s consistency with certain provisions of County’s General Plan requiring express, evidence-supported findings that the project has “a long-term sustainable water supply”; in so doing it rejected arguments that this procedure violated CEQA’s remedies statute (Public Resources Code, § 21168.9), which generally prescribes writ relief for CEQA violations.  (The much lengthier, unpublished portion of the Court’s opinion, which will not be addressed in detail in this post, rejected Highway 68’s remaining non-general plan CEQA arguments alleging:  violations of due process in the remand proceedings; CEQA violations in the EIR’s analysis of the Project’s water rights, and water balance, demand and recharge scheme, groundwater/soil contamination, and traffic analysis methodology; and violation of CEQA’s prohibition on “segmentation” or “piecemealing” of environmental review.)

Continue Reading Sixth District Holds Project’s Consistency with General Plan Is Not a CEQA Issue, Upholds Trial Court’s Interlocutory Remand for County Board to Clarify Consistency Findings, and Affirms Judgment Denying Writ Petition Alleging General Plan and CEQA Challenges to Shopping Center Project