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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 more than 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).

Just a few updates/items of possible interest as we head toward the end of this short (but very cold and wet) month:

Regulatory Developments

The close of OPR’s public comment period on its Discussion Draft of the CEQA Climate Change Advisory is March 15, 2019, at 5:00 p.m.

OPR also released in late December 2018 its Technical Advisory on Evaluating Transportation Impacts Under CEQA, containing its technical recommendations on VMT assessment, thresholds of significance, and mitigation measures, as well as incorporating Guidelines changes and more recent feedback since release of the April 2018 technical advisory. Details on these and related developments can be found in OPR’s February 21, 2019 email and on its website.


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In a published opinion filed February 13, 2019, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Division 3) reaffirmed the need for a CEQA litigant challenging a coastal development permit to appeal to the Coastal Commission before suing.  Fudge v. City of Laguna Beach (Hany Dimitry; Real Party in Interest) (2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 193.  The Court refused plaintiff’s invitation to make the simple complex, and followed published precedents requiring a plaintiff to exhaust the statutory administrative remedy of an appeal to the Commission to ripen a litigation challenge.

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In a partially published opinion filed January 30, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 1) affirmed a judgment denying a writ petition challenging the City of Berkeley’s approval of use permits for three single-family homes on three contiguous hillside parcels.  The Court upheld the City’s use of the CEQA Guidelines § 15303(a) (Class 3) categorical exemption for new construction of small structures, including “up to three single-family residences” in “urbanized areas.”  Berkeley Hills Watershed Coalition v. City of Berkeley (Matthew Wadlund, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 880.

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Most real estate developers would likely agree that, even when correctly applied and complied with, CEQA can be an onerous law which can significantly complicate, delay, increase the cost of, and in some cases (particularly where CEQA litigation is involved) even preclude projects.  But what recourse does a project applicant have under the law when CEQA is misapplied – and blatantly so – by a local agency which denies approval of a project that is clearly exempt from CEQA on the meritless basis that extensive (and expensive) CEQA review is required?  When the developer’s only recourse is time-consuming and expensive litigation to obtain a writ of mandate setting aside the agency’s illegal action subjecting the project to CEQA, can the developer who succeeds in obtaining the writ recover from the public agency compensation and damages resulting from the temporary “taking” of all reasonable economic use of its property?

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In an opinion filed December 27, 2018, and later ordered published on January 15, 2019, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. 1) affirmed the trial court’s judgment rejecting CEQA and other challenges to the City of San Diego’s (City) approval of an amended and restated lease of City-owned land containing an oceanfront amusement park in its Mission Beach neighborhood (Belmont Park), which restated lease potentially extends the prior lease term for a significant period.  San Diegans For Open Government v. City of San Diego (Symphony Asset Pool XVI, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 349.

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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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Late last month the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) released two documents of interest to CEQA practitioners.  One is a discussion draft of a “CEQA and Climate Change Advisory.”  The other is an update to its previous “Technical Advisory on Evaluating Transportation Impacts in CEQA.”

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In a unanimous 33-page opinion authored by Justice Ming Chin and issued on December 24, 2018, the California Supreme Court addressed the standard of review for claims challenging the legal sufficiency of an EIR’s discussion of environmental impacts, and also CEQA’s rules regarding deferral and adequacy of mitigation measures.  Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (Friant Ranch, L.P.) (2018) 6 Cal.5th 502, Case No. S219783.  In affirming in part and reversing in part the Court of Appeal’s judgment, the Supreme Court held that the EIR for the Friant Ranch Project – a 942-acre master-planned, mixed-use development with over 2,500 senior residential units, 250,000 square feet of commercial space, and extensive open space/ recreational amenities on former agricultural land in north central Fresno County – was deficient in its informational discussion of air quality impacts as they connect to adverse human health effects.  In doing so, the decision provides guidance in an area – the legal adequacy of an EIR’s discussion on a topic required by CEQA – that it held does not fit neatly within CEQA’s usual standard of review dichotomy, which provides for de novo review and exacting judicial scrutiny of alleged procedural errors (e.g., an EIR’s complete omission of a required topic area) and deferential substantial evidence review of an EIR’s or agency’s factual determinations and conclusions.

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) issues licenses needed to construct and operate hydroelectric dams pursuant to the Federal Power Act (“FPA”; 16 U.S.C. § 791a, et seq).  Under long-standing law, and with the limited exception of state-issued water quality certifications, the FPA “occupies the field” of licensing a hydroelectric dam, and bars environmental review of the federal licensing procedure in state courts; this preemption is necessary because recognizing a “dual final authority” for such projects would be “unworkable.”  (First Iowa Hydro-Electric Cooperative v. Federal Power Com. (1946) 328 U.S. 152.)  States have limited authority under the Clean Water Act (33 U.S.C. § 1341) to impose stricter water quality conditions than are federally required on a FERC license, through the section 401 water quality certification process, but must act on a project applicant’s certification request within one year or certification is deemed waived.  (33 U.S.C. § 401(a)(1); Alcoa Power Generating Inc. v. FERC (D.C. Cir. 2011) 643 F.3d 963, 972.)  Further, any disputes concerning the Federal licensing process or the adequacy of “required studies” for that process (including “environmental studies” serving as the predicate for the state’s water quality certification conditions) are subject to FERC’s review.  (18 C.F.R. part 4, 34(i)(b)(vii) (2003).)

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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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