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 partially published opinion filed June 25, 2020, the First District Court of Appeal (Division 5) reversed the trial court’s judgment entered after sustaining a demurrer without leave to amend; it held that a non-profit group’s petition and complaint for declaratory relief adequately stated a cause of action on the basis that U.C. Berkeley’s approval of student enrollment increases far beyond those projected in its 2005 Long Range Development Plan (“LRDP”), and analyzed in the related 2005 Program EIR (“PEIR”), constituted a “project” requiring CEQA review and mitigation.  (Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods v. The Regents of the University of California, et al. (2020) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.)  The published portion of the opinion also held that the enrollment increases were not statutorily exempt under Public Resources Code § 21080.09, which requires an EIR for LRDPs.  (In the unpublished  part of the opinion, the Court held Petitioner had alleged sufficient facts to overcome Respondents’ statute of limitations argument for purposes of demurrer, that the case was not shown to be moot on the basis of the record before the Court, and that Petitioner had failed to show the trial court erred in denying its motion to compel production of documents pursuant to requests the trial court had found overbroad in scope.)

Continue Reading First District Holds U.C. Berkeley Campus’s Decision To Increase Student Enrollment Above Maximum Projected Level Analyzed In EIR for Long Range Development Plan Is A “Project” Under CEQA And Not Exempt Under Public Resources Code § 21089.09

On December 11, 2019, the California Supreme Court by a 7-0 vote granted the petition for review of Butte and Plumas Counties and the Plumas County Flood Control and Water Conservation District in County of Butte v. Department of Water Resources (State Water Contractors), Case No. S258574 (formerly published at (3d Dist. 2019) 39 Cal.App.5th 708).  The order granting review, which also directed that the Third District’s opinion be depublished at the request of defendant and respondent Department of Water Resources (which interestingly filed no answer to the petition for review), specified the following two issues for briefing:

Continue Reading California Supreme Court Grants Review of Third District Decision Involving FERC Relicensing of State’s Oroville Hydroelectric Dam Project To Decide Extent To Which Federal Power Act Preempts CEQA; Merits Briefing Underway

In a published opinion filed March 24, 2020, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Division One) reversed a judgment of dismissal with prejudice, entered by the San Diego County Superior Court after sustaining a demurrer without leave on statute of limitations grounds to a group’s action challenging the CEQA review for Caltrans’ Interstate 5 (I-5)/State Route 56 (SR 56) freeway interchange project (the “Project”).  Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans Decision v. Department of Transportation (2020) 46 Cal.App.5th 1103.  The opinion (1) interprets, as a matter of first impression, the scope and operation of the statutory CEQA exemption in Streets and Highways Code § 103 (“Section 103”), and (2) holds that Caltrans’ repeated misrepresentations and misleading conduct during and concerning the Project’s CEQA and approval process precluded the trial court from finding as a matter of law that Caltrans was not estopped to assert the ban of the 35-day statute of limitations based on its filing of a Notice of Exemption (NOE) with the State Clearinghouse (SCH).

Continue Reading Once More Into the “Brambled Thicket”: Fourth District Reverses Ruling Sustaining Demurrer to Action Challenging Caltrans’ Claim of Statutory CEQA Exemption For Freeway Interchange Project, Holds Streets and Highways Code § 103’s Coastal Commission Exemption Does Not Apply And That Petition Adequately Pleaded Estoppel Against Caltrans to Assert 35-Day Statute of Limitations Based on NOE Filing

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

Introduction And Overview

On August 19, 2019, the California Supreme Court issued its unanimous 38-page opinion, authored by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, in the CEQA “project definition” case we’ve been tracking with interest.  Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego (California Coastal Commission, Real Party in Interest) (2019) 7 Cal.5th 1171, Case No. S238563.  As anticipated based on the high court’s questioning and remarks at oral argument (see “Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in CEQA Project Definition Case,” posted June 6, 2019), it reversed the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s decision that the City’s approval of the medical marijuana dispensary ordinance at issue was not a CEQA “project”; accordingly, it held that the City was required to treat it as such and “proceed to the next steps of the CEQA analysis.”


Continue Reading Not A CEQA “Project”? Not So Fast, Lead Agency! Supreme Court Reverses Fourth District’s Decision That San Diego’s Adoption of Medical Marijuana Dispensary Ordinance Was Not A Project Requiring CEQA Review

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.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument In CEQA Project Definition Case

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.

Continue Reading Legislature Enacts New Statutory CEQA Exemption, Modeled After Class 32 Categorical Exemption, For Certain Infill Multifamily Housing Developments In Urbanized, Unincorporated County Areas