On September 13, 2011, I began the endeavor of writing Miller Starr Regalia’s CEQA Developments blog.  Ten years and 358 blog posts later, it continues to be a challenging and rewarding task.  Since my inaugural post (which can be viewed here) was a “top ten” list of CEQA litigation mistakes to avoid, I thought an appropriate tenth anniversary post might be a list of the ten most significant CEQA case law developments over the past decade.  My “top ten” list is definitely subjective, is limited to Supreme Court decisions, and (by its very nature) fails to include many important judicial developments.  Nonetheless, here it is (with the decisions listed in no particular order):

Continue Reading A Decade of CEQA Developments

In a published decision filed August 17, 2021, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment directing issuance of a writ of mandate ordering Inyo County to vacate three resolutions of necessity that authorized its condemnation of three Owens Valley landfill properties, including appurtenant water rights, owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).  City of Los Angeles etc. v. County of Inyo (2021) __ Cal.App.5th__. The County operates three landfills on the properties pursuant to leases from LADWP.  In the published part of the opinion, the Court of Appeal held that CEQA’s issue exhaustion requirement did not apply to LADWP’s challenge to the County’s exemption determinations because the County failed to provide adequate notice of them, thus depriving LADWP of an opportunity to be heard on the issue.  As a matter of law, the Court also held the County improperly relied on the existing facilities exemption for the project.

Continue Reading Fifth District Holds Issue Exhaustion Not Required Where Agency Gave No Notice of Intent To Rely On CEQA Exemption Prior to Hearing, And Existing Facilities Categorical Exemption Does Not Apply to Unlined Landfills As A Matter of Law

In a published opinion filed August 19, 2021, the Second District Court of Appeal reversed a judgment of the Los Angeles County Superior Court that found fault with the EIR for an improvement project within the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument portion of the Angeles National Forest.  Save Our Access – San Gabriel Mountains v. Watershed Conservation Authority (2021) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  The trial court had rejected plaintiff’s claims that CEQA required the EIR to analyze alternatives beyond the “no project” alternative, and that the project was inconsistent with applicable land use and management plans, but issued a writ requiring additional analysis of the project’s parking reduction “impacts.”  In resolving the ensuing appeals of both parties, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment on the parking issue, finding that reduction in parking is a social not environmental, impact and that plaintiff had failed to identify any secondary adverse physical effects on the environment resulting from the reduction.  It affirmed the remainder of the judgment denying plaintiff’s other claims, and reversed the trial court’s fee award to plaintiff as compelled by its disposition of the merits.

Continue Reading Second District Confirms Parking Is (Still) Not A CEQA Impact, Reverses Judgment That Found EIR For San Gabriel Mountains Wilderness Recreation And Preservation Project Deficient For Not Sufficiently Analyzing “Impact” Of Reducing Recreational Parking

In a partially published unanimous opinion filed June 16, 2021, authored by a jurist who is also a noted CEQA expert (Acting Presiding Justice Ronald Robie), the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition challenging El Dorado County’s mitigated negative declaration (MND) for and approval of the Newtown Road Bridge at South Fork Weber Creek Replacement Project.  Newtown Preservation Society, et al. v. County of El Dorado, et al. (3d Dist. 2021) ____ Cal.App.5th ____.  In the published portion of its opinion, the Court of Appeal held that petitioners/appellants erroneously framed the “fair argument” test in terms of the project having “potentially significant impacts on resident safety and emergency evacuation,” whereas the correct test is “whether the record contains substantial evidence that the project may have a significant effect on the environment or may exacerbate existing environmental hazards.”  It held appellants “failed to carry their burden of showing substantial evidence supports a fair argument of significant environmental impact in that regard.”  (In the unpublished portion of its opinion, which won’t be analyzed in further detail in this post, the Court held the County did not impermissibly defer mitigation, and it declined to consider two other arguments because they added nothing to the fair argument analysis and/or constituted new theories or arguments raised for the first time on appeal.)

Continue Reading Flunking CEQA’s “Fair Argument” Test: Third District Affirms Judgment Upholding MND for El Dorado County Bridge Replacement Project, Rejects Arguments Based on Alleged Significant Impacts on Fire Evacuation Routes During Construction As Insufficient To Require EIR

Pursuant to Governor Newsom’s June 11, 2021 Executive Order N-08-21, the conditional suspension of certain public agency requirements related to the filing and posting of CEQA notices (i.e., NOEs, NODs, and notices of intent and availability) will end on September 30, 2021.  The COVID-related suspension had previously been ordered in April 2020 by Executive Order N-54-20; it was later indefinitely extended by Executive Order N-80-20, as discussed in a prior October 12, 2020 post by Arielle Harris and me that can be accessed here.  The Governor’s new EO means that, as of September 30, the conditionally authorized alternative procedures for publicizing the relevant CEQA documents will no longer be authorized or available to public agencies, and the normal filing, noticing and posting requirements will resume and again apply with full force.

Continue Reading COVID-Related Conditional Suspension of CEQA Public Filing, Posting, Notice, and Other Requirements To Sunset On September 30, 2021 Under New Executive Order

In a lengthy opinion filed April 8, and ordered published on May 7, 2021, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment rejecting a number of CEQA challenges to the California State Land Commission’s (Lands Commission) supplemental EIR for and related approval of a lease modification to facilitate a desalination plant in Huntington Beach.  California Coastkeeper Alliance v. State Lands Commission (Poseidon Resources (Surfside) LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2021) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  In holding that the Commission properly elected to prepare a supplemental (rather than subsequent) EIR, did not err in refusing to assume lead agency status, and did not unlawfully piecemeal environmental review, the Court provided guidance on a number of significant CEQA issues.

Continue Reading Third District Affirms Judgment Upholding State Lands Commission’s Supplemental EIR For Desalination Plant Lease Modification, Rejects CEQA Claims That Commission Piecemealed Review And Should Have Assumed Lead Agency Status And Prepared A Subsequent EIR

In an 85-page opinion filed March 25, and modified and certified for partial publication on April 23, 2021, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the Napa County Superior Court’s judgment denying a writ petition challenging the County’s EIR and approvals for an expansion of Syar Industries, Inc.’s (Syar) aggregate mining operations at a quarry that has existed since the 1800s.  Stop Syar Expansion v. County of Napa (1st Dist. 2021) ____ Cal.App.5th ____.  The Court belatedly published about 25 pages of its lengthy opinion, which portions addressed basic CEQA principles, including standard of review and exhaustion principles, and the interplay of CEQA and general plan consistency issues.

Continue Reading First District Affirms Judgment Rejecting CEQA and General Plan Consistency Challenges to Napa County’s EIR for Syar Quarry Expansion Project, Addresses Significant Exhaustion and Land Use Issues

Falling more into the category of “spring cleaning” than “breaking news,” readers should note that a Second District decision, published last spring and covered in this blog, was ordered depublished by the California Supreme Court late last summer.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Denies Review of And Depublishes Second District Refinery Project Case Addressing CEQA Baseline Issues

“The more I know, the less I understand/All the things I thought I’d figured out, I have to learn again” – Don Henley, “The Heart of the Matter”

One of CEQA’s bedrock principles is that environmental review must precede project approval.  (E.g., POET, LLC v. California Air Resources Board (2013) 217 Cal.App.4th 1214; CEQA Guidelines, § 15004(a).)  To reverse the order and “put the cart before the horse” would be anathema, i.e., to sanction uninformed and undemocratic lead agency decision making, and to encourage irretrievable commitments of resources and post-hoc rationalizations that foreclose mitigations and alternatives and sweep environmental considerations under the rug.  Right?  Well …  maybe not.  In the area of State Water Resources Control Board (“SWRCB” or the “State Board”) water quality certifications (“WQCs”) under the Federal Clean Water Act (“CWA”; 33 U.S.C § 1251 et seq), this bedrock principle appears to have been watered down, and it may be significantly eroding under pressure from a preemptive federal law deadline.


Continue Reading Must CEQA Compliance Precede Project Approval? When State Water Board Water Quality Certifications Are Involved, The Answer Is As “Clear as Mud”

In a published opinion filed December 29, 2020, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying a petition for writ of mandate filed by the Santa Clara Valley Water District (District) challenging waste discharge requirements (WDRs) belatedly imposed by a responsible agency, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (Board), on lead agency District’s flood control project.  Santa Clara Valley Water District v. San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (2020) 59 Cal.App.5th 199.  The case involved highly unique facts, and a number of interesting legal issues concerning the Board’s authority under the Federal Clean Water Act (CWA), the state Porter-Cologne Act, and CEQA.

Continue Reading Can a Responsible Agency Get A Second Bite At The CEQA Apple? First District Says “Sometimes, Yes,” Upholds Regional Water Board’s Imposition of Additional Mitigation On Flood Control Project Through “Independent” Porter-Cologne Act Authority Exercised Subsequent To Grant Of CWA § 401 Water Quality Certification Based On Lead Agency’s Unchallenged Final EIR