In a 5-2 opinion filed August 1, 2022, a divided California Supreme Court held the Federal Power Act (“FPA”; 16 U.S.C. § 791a et seq.) does not “occupy the field” and entirely preempt CEQA’s application to the state’s participation, as applicant and hydroelectric facility owner/operator, in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) licensing process the FPA requires to operate such facilities.  County of Butte v. Department of Water Resources (2022) ___ Cal.5th ___, Case No. S258574.  Acknowledging the result would likely be different if a private party were the license applicant, the Court applied a narrower type of direct conflict preemption, based on a state entity being the facility owner/operator/applicant.  The majority did agree with the Third District Court of Appeal that the Counties challenging the State Department of Water Resources’ (“DWR”) EIR, prepared in connection with its application to renew a 50-year license to operate its Butte County Oroville dam and related hydroelectric facilities, could not seek to unwind a settlement agreement prepared as part of FERC’s application process and proceedings; nor could they seek to enjoin DWR from operating under the proposed (but not yet issued) license – a request for relief the Counties initially pursued, but apparently abandoned at oral argument before the Supreme Court.  The Court’s majority acknowledged such actions would contravene FERC’s “sole jurisdiction” over licensing process disputes and be preempted under longstanding federal law.  (18 C.F.R. § 4.34 (i)(6)(vii); First Iowa Coop. v. Federal Power Comm’n (1946) 328 U.S. 152, 164 (“First Iowa”).)

Continue Reading California Supreme Court Holds In 5-2 Decision, Over Chief Justice’s Strong Dissent, That Federal Power Act Does Not Fully Preempt CEQA’s Application to FERC’s Licensing Process for State-Owned and Operated Hydroelectric Projects

In an opinion filed on December 29, 2021, and later ordered published on January 25, 2022, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed a judgment upholding the City of Newark’s (City) use of Government Code § 65457’s CEQA exemption for a 469-lot residential subdivision on land adjacent to San Francisco Bay.  Plaintiffs unsuccessfully challenged the City’s 2019 subdivision map approval based on the claim that a subsequent EIR was required due to changes in the project and circumstances allegedly showing it would have new significant impacts on the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse (“harvest mouse”) and its wetlands habitat.  Citizens’ Committee to Complete the Refuge, et al. v. City of Newark et al., (SI XVII, LLC, et al, Real Parties in Interest) (2021) 74 Cal.App.5th 460.

Continue Reading First District Affirms Judgment Upholding Statutory CEQA Exemption For Housing Project Consistent With EIR-Reviewed Specific Plan, Rejects Claims That Changes In Project Or Circumstances Required Subsequent EIR

In a published opinion filed December 15, 2021, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 5) affirmed a trial court’s judgment entered after sustaining a demurrer to a writ petition in a CEQA action without leave to amend.  Mission Peak Conservancy, et al. v. State Water Resources Control Board (Christopher George, et al, Real Parties in Interest) (2021) 72 Cal.App.5th 873.

Continue Reading First District Holds SWRCB Small Domestic Water Use Registration Is CEQA-Exempt Ministerial Act: “CEQA Does Not Regulate Ministerial Decisions – Full Stop.”

In an opinion filed September 28, and certified for publication on October 26, 2021, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. 3) affirmed a judgment denying a writ petition challenging the City of Tustin’s finding that a Costco gas station/ancillary facilities project in an existing shopping center was categorically exempt from CEQA.  Protect Tustin Ranch v. City of Tustin (Costco Wholesale Corporation, Real Party in Interest) (2021) 70 Cal.App.5th 951.  As did the trial court, the Court of Appeal rejected Petitioner/Appellant’s arguments that the project exceeded the 5-acre size limit of the Class 32 infill exemption (CEQA Guidelines, § 15332) and that the “unusual circumstances” exception precluded the City’s use of the exemption.

Continue Reading Fourth District Affirms Judgment Upholding CEQA Class 32 Infill Exemption For Costco Gas Station/Parking Lot Project Within Existing Shopping Center

In a 53-page published opinion filed October 8, 2021, the Fourth District Court of Appeal mostly affirmed, but reversed in part, a judgment in a CEQA action challenging two sets of projects of the City of San Diego to underground overhead utility wires in several neighborhoods.  McCann v. City of San Diego (2021) 70 Cal.App.5th 51.  The opinion addressed and resolved a number of significant and interesting CEQA claims and issues involving the exhaustion doctrine; procedures for administratively appealing CEQA exemption determinations (and related due process notice issues); piecemealing; project description; aesthetics; and proper methodology for determining the significance of GHG emissions impacts through assessing a project’s consistency with a local Climate Action Plan (CAP).

Continue Reading Fourth District Addresses Numerous Significant CEQA Issues In Action Challenging City of San Diego’s Utility Undergrounding Projects

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).  Los Angeles Dept. of Water & Power v. County of Inyo (2021) 67 Cal.App.5th 1018. 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 June 30, 2021, the First District Court of Appeal applied well-established CEQA statute of limitations rules, and a “persuasive dictum” from one of its prior decisions addressing the requirements for valid tolling agreements, to affirm a judgment dismissing a CEQA claim as time-barred.  The Court also upheld the dismissal for failure to state any viable cause of action as to all of plaintiffs’ other claims challenging respondent East Bay Regional Park District’s (“EBRPD” or the “Park District”) approval of a Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) with Pacific Gas and Electric Company (“PG&E”); the MOU set forth contractual terms of PG&E’s tree removal for safety purposes within its natural gas pipeline easements on EBRPD lands.  Save Lafayette Trees, et. al v. East Bay Regional Park District (Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Real Party in Interest) (1st Dist., Div. 3, 2021) 66 Cal.App.5th 21.  (In keeping with this blog’s practice, this post’s analysis will focus on the CEQA issues; it will not cover in detail the case’s significant non-CEQA holdings, which disposed of plaintiffs’ claims against EBRPD for alleged (1) violation of the City of Lafayette’s local Tree Protection Ordinance (on state law preemption grounds); (2) violation of EBRPD’s own Ordinance No. 38; and (3) due process, all as a matter of law.  For purposes of full disclosure, I represented real party PG&E in this litigation.)

Continue Reading First District Addresses CEQA Statute of Limitations And Tolling Agreement Rules In Affirming Judgment Upholding EBRPD’s Approval of Tree Removal MOU With PG&E

In a published opinion filed on February 1, 2021, in an action arising from plaintiffs/appellants’ (“plaintiffs”) “potpourri” of unsuccessful legal challenges to the City of San Francisco’s decision to remove a controversial public monument celebrating California’s pioneer era, the First District Court of Appeal upheld dismissal of a CEQA claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.  Schmid v. City and County of San Francisco (2021) 60 Cal.App.5th 470.

Continue Reading Failure to Pursue and Exhaust Administrative Appeal Remedy Results In Forfeiture of CEQA Challenge To Categorical Exemption Despite Lower Body’s Defective Hearing Notice

“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”