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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On May 15, 2019, the California Supreme Court announced it would hear oral argument in Union of Medical Marijuana Patients v. City of San Diego (California Coastal Commission), Case No. S238563, on June 4, 2019, at 2:00 p.m. in its Los Angeles courtroom.  This is a long-awaited development as review was unanimously granted in this case on January 11, 2017, and the case was fully briefed by the parties in October 2017.  My prior blog post on the case, which presents the important legal issue whether an amendment to a zoning ordinance is, categorically, a “project” under CEQA (see Pub. Resources Code, §§ 21065, 21080(a)), can be found here.

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Save Lafayette Trees Litigation Update:  The Beat Goes On

We last posted on this decision (currently published as Save Lafayette Trees v. City of Lafayette (Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Real Party in Interest) (1st Dist. 2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 148) and its significant CEQA/Planning and Zoning Law statute of limitations holdings in my February 26, 2019 post, which can be found here.  In that post, it was noted (among other things) that the Court’s opinion after rehearing was issued on February 8, 2019, following the January 29, 2019 bankruptcy filing of real party PG&E, but that it did not address the effect (if any) of the automatic stay.


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The California Legislature has enacted new Public Resources Code § 21159.25, effective as of January 1, 2019 (Stats. 2018, c. 670 (A.B. 1804)), which extends much of the substance of the existing CEQA Guidelines’ Class 32 categorical exemption for “infill development” (14 Cal. Code Regs., § 15332) to certain multi-family housing projects in urbanized, unincorporated county areas.  While largely patterned after the Class 32 exemption, the statute thus has a few unique and significant twists and limitations, as explained below.

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Spring now being practically “in the air,” a bit of CEQA “spring cleaning” seems appropriate – so here’s a brief look at the status of some significant CEQA-related cases that are now pending before our Supreme Court, or in which its review has been sought:

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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 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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