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to analyze loss of affordable housing and tenant displacement impacts, because the former apartment building had been withdrawn from the rental market for years and was vacant at the time environmental review for the hotel project commenced.  Because the relevant CEQA baseline when review commenced in 2015 was a vacant building already withdrawn from the rental market, the record did not support a fair argument that conversion of the building to hotel use would have significant impacts on Hollywood’s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.

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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.

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The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments in an important case we’ve been following involving CEQA’s definition of a “project” on the afternoon of June 4, 2019, and took the matter under submission.  The case – Union of Medical Marijuana Patients v. City of San Diego (California Coastal Commission, Real Party in Interest), No. S238563 – involves a City of San Diego ordinance authorizing (as a new use in industrial/commercial zones) and restricting the location and manner of operation of medical marijuana dispensaries within the City, and plaintiff’s challenge to the City’s determination that its adoption of the ordinance was not a “project” for purposes of having to undergo CEQA review.  The Court’s grant of review encompassed the issues whether the particular ordinance is a CEQA project and also whether zoning ordinances in general are CEQA projects.

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In a lengthy opinion filed February 22, and belatedly ordered published on March 25, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 1) affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a petition for writ of mandate challenging the EIR for a mixed use business and residential project (the “5M Project”) on 4 acres in downtown San Francisco.  South of Market Community Action Network v. City and County of San Francisco (Forest City California Residential Development, Inc., et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2019) 33 Cal.App.5th 321.  The 5M Project includes a general plan amendment and development agreement, and would provide “office, retail, cultural, educational, and open-space uses …, primarily to support the region’s technology industry and provide spaces for co-working, media, arts, and small-scale urban manufacturing” on a site bounded by Mission, Fifth, Howard, and Sixth Streets.  The project site is currently occupied by eight buildings with approximately 317,700 gross square feet (gsf) of office and commercial uses (including the Chronicle Building, which the project would renovate), and seven surface parking lots.

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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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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 September 18, 2018, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. 1) affirmed a judgment granting a writ setting aside the City of San Diego’s (City) decision to subject a coastal development permit (CDP) application for construction of a single family home on a vacant La Jolla lot to CEQA review.  Francis A. Bottini, Jr. v. City of San Diego (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 281.

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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 a published opinion filed June 13, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed a judgment denying a writ of mandate and declaratory relief in an action challenging the California State Lands Commission’s (“Commission”) determination that CEQA Guidelines § 15301’s categorical exemption for “existing facilities” applied to its renewal of PG&E’s leases of state-owned lands needed to operate the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant until federal licensures expire in 2025. World Business Academy v. California State Lands Commission (Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 476.  The Court rejected petitioner/appellant World Business Academy’s arguments that the consolidated lease replacement, which maintains the status quo at the plant until 2025, did not fall within the exemption, or was subject to the “unusual circumstances” exception, and also rejected arguments that it violated the public trust doctrine.

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