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) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  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).

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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.

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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.”


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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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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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In a published opinion filed February 13, 2019, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Division 3) reaffirmed the need for a CEQA litigant challenging a coastal development permit to appeal to the Coastal Commission before suing.  Fudge v. City of Laguna Beach (Hany Dimitry; Real Party in Interest) (2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 193.  The Court refused plaintiff’s invitation to make the simple complex, and followed published precedents requiring a plaintiff to exhaust the statutory administrative remedy of an appeal to the Commission to ripen a litigation challenge.

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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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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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