Senator Scott Weiner’s Senate Bill (SB) 288 has passed both houses of the California Legislature, and was enrolled for proofing on September 4, 2020, prior to its delivery to the Governor for signature.  The new law’s prefatory declarations reflect a stated intent to expand and enact CEQA exemptions to reduce the time and cost of delivering transit and sustainable transportation projects in California, and thereby boost the COVID-damaged economy while furthering the State’s environmental goals.

Continue Reading Legislature Enacts SB 288 to Provide New and Expanded CEQA Exemptions for Sustainable Public Transportation Projects

On August 27, 2020, the California Supreme Court filed its unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Corrigan, in Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources v. County of Stanislaus (2020) ___ Cal.5th ___ (“POWER”).  The POWER decision is a “mixed bag” for the parties to the litigation themselves:  the Court rejected both (a) the County’s position that all its well permits are ministerial approvals exempt from CEQA, and (b) the environmental plaintiffs’ converse position that all such permits are discretionary approvals subject to CEQA.  For non-parties, the case’s significance lies in its elucidation of the legal rules and principles governing the key distinction between discretionary and ministerial projects – a fundamental distinction that determines CEQA’s threshold applicability to agency approvals and actions.  In following appellate precedent focusing not on permitting ordinances and regulations as a whole and in the abstract, but more granularly on the specific regulatory controls applicable to a particular permit application, the high Court in POWER eschews the “all or nothing” approach urged by the parties and endorses a more nuanced and contextual analysis that is both reasonable and fully consonant with CEQA and its objectives.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Holds Stanislaus County Well Permit Decisions Under State Standards Are Neither Categorically Ministerial Nor Categorically Discretionary In Nature; Rather, Whether CEQA-Triggering Discretion Exists Must Be Determined On Case-By-Case Basis

In a detailed 6-page order, issued by Presiding Justice McConnell and filed on August 25, 2020, the Fourth District Court of Appeal denied three petitions for rehearing, and “polished up” its lengthy published opinion filed at the end of last month in Golden Door Properties, LLC et al v. Superior Court of San Diego (County of San Diego, et al, Real Parties in Interest) (4th Dist. 2010) ____ Cal.App.5th ____.  (My August 5, 2020 post on the case can be found here.)  Most of the Court’s changes were minor and technical in nature, pertaining more to issues of concern to the parties on remand, rather than its major precedential holdings, but a few were noteworthy.

Continue Reading Burnishing the “Golden Door”: Fourth District Modifies Recent Opinion Requiring Lead Agency Preservation of CEQA Administrative Record Documents, Denies Petitions for Rehearing and Leaves Judgment Unchanged

In a 77-page published opinion filed on July 30, 2020, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. One) issued a writ of mandate largely overturning San Diego Superior Court rulings denying plaintiffs’ motions to compel discovery and to augment the administrative record in a CEQA case; the disputes arose from Real Party San Diego County’s admitted deletion of email documents as “non-official records” pursuant to its records retention policies.  Golden Door Properties, LLC et al. v. Superior Court of San Diego (County of San Diego, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (4th Dist. 2020) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.

Continue Reading “For the Record”: Fourth District Holds CEQA’s “Mandatory” And “Broadly Inclusive” Administrative Record Statute Requires Lead Agency To Retain Documents Within Its Scope And Not Destroy Them Prior To Record Preparation

In a mammoth 132-page published opinion (with an additional five pages of appendices) filed on June 12, 2020, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Division One) mostly affirmed the trial court’s judgment invalidating San Diego County’s approvals of a 2018 Climate Action Plan (CAP), related Guidelines for Determining Significance, and related Supplemental EIR (SEIR).  The opinion – which marked “the third time the County’s attempt to adopt a viable climate action plan and related CEQA documents” had been before the Court – resolved consolidated appeals in three cases, in which the lead plaintiffs were Golden Door Properties, LLC and the Sierra Club.  (Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego (2020) 50 Cal.App.5th 467.)  While the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s findings that the CAP was inconsistent with the County’s General Plan (applying the familiar highly deferential standard of review to the County’s consistency determination), that several of the County’s responses to SEIR comments were inadequate, and that the SEIR’s geographical scope of study for cumulative impacts was inconsistent, it otherwise affirmed the trial court’s findings of significant CEQA violations affecting the CAP and SEIR.

Continue Reading Third Time Is Not The Charm: Fourth District Affirms Judgment Setting Aside San Diego County’s Climate Action Plan And Related Supplemental EIR Approvals Due To CEQA Violations

In a published opinion filed May 18, 2020, the Sixth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial of a historic preservation group’s writ petition that challenged the City of San Jose’s (City) entry into a Streambed Alteration Agreement (SAA) with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), which agreement was needed to implement the City’s pedestrian bridge project involving demolition of the historic Willow Glen Railroad Trestle.  Willow Glen Trestle Conservancy v. City of San Jose (6th Dist. 2020) ____ Cal.App.5th ____.

Continue Reading Sixth District Holds City Of San Jose’s Action In Seeking And Accepting Streambed Alteration Agreement From California Department Of Fish And Wildlife Is Not New Discretionary Approval For City’s Historic Trestle Demolition/Bridge Construction Project, And Thus Does Not Trigger Subsequent CEQA Review

In a published 2-1 majority opinion filed April 7, 2020, written by Justice Wiley and joined by Presiding Justice Bigelow, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 8) affirmed a judgment upholding the EIR for Tesoro’s “Los Angeles Refinery Integration and Compliance Project.”  Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management District (Tesoro Refining and Marketing Company, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2d Dist. 2020) 47 Cal.App.5th 588.  The project involved Tesoro’s adjacent Carson and Wilmington oil refining facilities, which date from the early 1900s, and sought (1) to better integrate those facilities to increase flexibility in output ratios (e.g., of gasoline and jet fuel) to respond to market demands, and (2) to increase regulatory compliance by reducing air pollution.

Continue Reading Back To CEQA Basics: Second District Teaches That CEQA Requires Judicial Deference To Lead Agency’s Chosen Baseline, Failure To Administratively Exhaust “Exact Issue” Results In Forfeiture, And An EIR Is Not Faulty For Omitting Immaterial Information

On April 2, 2020, the Second Appellate District Court of Appeal (Division 5) filed its published opinion in Coalition for an Equitable Westlake/MacArthur Park v. City of Los Angeles et al. (Adrian Jayasinha et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2020) 47 Cal.App.5th 368, which affirmed a judgment dismissing a CEQA action challenging the City’s project approvals and Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for a mixed-use development project.  The judgment of dismissal was entered after the trial court sustained without leave the City’s and Real Parties’ demurrers on statute of limitations grounds.  In affirming, the Court reaffirmed and followed Supreme Court precedent “ma[king] clear that the filing of a facially valid notice [of determination or notice of exemption] starts the running of the statute of limitations, even where the underlying CEQA determinations may be flawed.”  (Citing Committee for Green Foothills v. Santa Clara County Bd. of Supervisors (2010) 48 Cal.4th 32, 43 [NODs]; Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton (2010) 48 Cal.4th 481, 505 [NOEs].)

Continue Reading Second District Reaffirms Rule That Filing of Facially Valid NOD Triggers Short CEQA Statute of Limitations And Plaintiff May Not “Go Behind” Agency’s Declarations In Document To Challenge Validity of Project Approval

CEQA’s Class 32 categorical exemption for “infill development” applies to proposed developments within city limits on sites of five or fewer acres substantially surrounded by urban uses, where the site has no habitat value for special status species, can be adequately served by all required utilities and public services, and the project would not have significant traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality impacts. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15332(b)-(e).)  But another important qualification is that the project must be “consistent with the applicable general plan designation and all applicable general plan policies as well as with applicable zoning designation and regulations.” (§ 15332(a).)  A recent Fourth District decision addressed this key requirement of the infill exemption, and upheld application of the Class 32 exemption to the City of San Diego’s approval of a project proposing seven (7) detached residential condominium units on a steeply sloped, environmentally sensitive half-acre site –despite general plan minimum density policies that would ordinarily require 16 to 23 dwelling units on a parcel of that size.  Holden v. City of San Diego (IDEA Enterprises, LP, Real Party in Interest) (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 404.

Continue Reading Fourth District Upholds CEQA Class 32 Infill Exemption For Small Residential Condo Project On Environmentally Sensitive Lands As Consistent With San Diego’s General Plan Despite Failure To Meet Recommended Minimum Density

The City of Sacramento received an early Christmas present with the December 18 publication of the Third District Court of Appeal’s opinion in Citizens for Positive Growth & Preservation v. City of Sacramento (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 609, which was originally filed on November 26, 2019.  The decision affirmed a trial court judgment upholding the City’s 2035 General Plan against the plaintiff group’s Planning and Zoning Law and CEQA challenges.  The opinion’s most significant CEQA holding was that plaintiff’s challenge to the EIR’s transportation impacts analysis was moot because the applicable law currently in effect at the time of judgment in the appellate court – specifically, Public Resources Code § 20199(b)(2) (enacted as part of SB 743) – provides that auto delays measured by LOS or similar measures shall not be considered significant environmental impacts.  The Court of Appeal also rejected all of plaintiff’s other CEQA challenges, including those to the City’s non-adoption of the no-project alternative, its decision not to recirculate the EIR after adding numerous supplemental changes to the draft 2035 General Plan, and its Final EIR’s GHG and cyclist safety analyses.

Continue Reading Out With The Old (And In With The New … Next Year)! – Third District Rejects CEQA And General Plan Consistency Challenges to Sacramento’s 2035 General Plan Update And Related EIR, Holds Traffic Analysis Challenge Based On Lowering of Acceptable LOS Is Mooted By Public Resources Code § 20199, But New VMT Standard Doesn’t Yet Apply