On October 15, 2017, Governor  Brown vetoed SB 80 (Wieckowski), a bill that would have added to CEQA’s already detailed notice requirements.

Specifically, SB 80 would have amended Public Resources Code §§ 21092.2, 21092.3, 21108 and 21152 so as to require, inter alia, that state and local lead agencies:  (1) offer to provide scoping notices, notices of preparation, and notices of determination by email to persons so requesting; (2) post all such notices on the agency’s website (if any); and (3) file with OPR or the County Clerk, as applicable, all Notices of Exemption (NOEs) for approved projects found exempt pursuant to the categorical exemptions contained in the CEQA Guidelines (as opposed to other possible bases for exemption).

Continue Reading Leaving Well Enough Alone: Governor Brown Vetoes CEQA Bill That Would Mandate Lead Agencies To File NOEs For Projects Approved As Categorically Exempt

While “agree[ing] with appellant that Telegraph Hill is outstanding and unique in a city of outstanding and unique places[,]” the First District Court of Appeal nonetheless affirmed the trial court’s order denying plaintiff/appellant neighborhood group’s mandamus petition challenging the City of San Francisco’s approval of a 3-unit condominium project there on CEQA and general plan consistency grounds.  Protect Telegraph Hill v. City and County of San Francisco (2017) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  In a 15-page opinion originally filed September 14, but belatedly ordered published on October 13, 2017, the Court upheld the City’s findings that the project, which involved renovation of an existing deteriorated small cottage and construction of a new 3-dwelling unit residential structure, was categorically exempt from CEQA and consistent with the City’s general plan and planning code.

Continue Reading Unique, But Not Unusual: First District Affirms CEQA Exemptions and General Plan Consistency Finding For Three-Unit Infill Condo Project on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill

On October 15, 2017, Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. sent a veto letter to California State Assembly Members, returning a controversial and flawed proposed land use bill – AB 890 – without his signature.  My partner Bryan Wenter and I authored a post here last month detailing the many problems we saw with the bill.  (SeeThe Opposite of CEQA Reform: Legally Flawed AB 890 Would Expand Opportunities For CEQA Litigation Abuse While Abridging Constitutional Local Initiative Rights,” by Arthur F. Coon and Bryan W. Wenter, AICP, posted September 19, 2017.)

Fortunately, Governor Brown was receptive to the bill’s many critics, and struck a blow for local land use control, local initiative rights, CEQA reform and commence sense by vetoing it.  His short letter to Assembly members, which can be found here, states in pertinent part that “[i]nstead of the piecemeal approach taken in this bill, I prefer a more comprehensive CEQA review, which takes into account both the urgent need for more housing and thoughtful environmental analysis.  Hear, hear!

Continue Reading Governor Brown Vetoes Flawed AB 890, Signals Preference for More Comprehensive CEQA Reform

When a lead agency finds a project approval to be categorically exempt from CEQA, this determination at the initial step of CEQA’s multi-tiered process necessarily includes an implied finding that no exceptions to the categorical exemption are applicable.  A party challenging an agency’s categorical exemption determination on the basis that the “unusual circumstances” exception applies generally has the burden to show both (1) unusual circumstances (i.e., the project has some feature distinguishing it from others in the exempt class, such as size or location), and (2) “a reasonable possibility of a significant effect [on the environment] due to [those] unusual circumstance[s].”  (Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, 1105, 1115.)

But how does a court review an “unusual circumstances” challenge to a categorical exemption where the agency has made no express findings on these elements and must thus rely on implied findings to uphold its determination?  In a published opinion filed September 18, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal answered this important question in the course of affirming a judgment denying a writ petition that challenged the City of South San Francisco’s (City) conditional-use permit (CUP) for conversion of an office building to a Planned Parenthood medical clinic.  Respect Life South San Francisco v. City of South San Francisco (Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, Inc., Real Party In Interest) (1st Dist., Div. 1, 2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 449.  While the City’s categorical exemption in this case was upheld based on an implied finding, the opinion’s most important takeaway for local agencies (and project proponents) is that reliance on such a finding presents far more litigation risk than if appropriate express findings are made.

Continue Reading First District Upholds CEQA Categorical Exemption for Approval of Planned Parenthood Clinic in City of South San Francisco, Clarifies Implied Finding of No Exceptions is Analyzed for Record Support on Narrowest Possible Ground

AB 890 (Medina – D), recently sent to Governor Brown for action by October 15, seeks to amend Government Code § 65867.5 and to add §§ 65363 and 65850.10 to prevent development agreements and certain types of land use planning and zoning legislation from being enacted by local voter-sponsored land use initiatives.  The bill would substantially abridge the local electorate’s constitutionally guaranteed and reserved initiative power by purporting to exclusively “delegate” specified exercises of legislative authority to local governing bodies – city councils and county boards of supervisors – and thus concomitantly eliminating local voters’ long-held and until now unassailable rights to directly legislate in such areas pursuant to California Constitution, Article II, Section 11, and the procedures of the Elections Code.

The bill’s stated purpose is to ensure the enumerated types of local development proposals are subjected to CEQA review – and, implicitly, to provide expanded opportunities for litigation under a flawed CEQA statute the legislature continues to refuse to meaningfully reform – by annulling the constitutional right of local voters to directly legislate in these areas, a presently enjoyed and “jealously guarded” right the exercise of which is not currently subject to CEQA review.  Long story short:  AB 890 is a bad bill that proposes a cure far worse than the perceived disease.  As will be apparent from the discussion of its provisions below, the proposed law is deeply flawed, of doubtful constitutionality, and the opposite of CEQA reform.

Continue Reading The Opposite of CEQA Reform: Legally Flawed AB 890 Would Expand Opportunities for CEQA Litigation Abuse While Abridging Constitutional Local Initiative Rights

On July 7, 2017, the California Supreme Court filed its 69-page opinion, written by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and joined by five other justices, in Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority, et al. (2017) __ Cal.5th ___.  The Court held that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995 (“ICCTA”; 49 U.S.C., § 10101 et seq.) does not exempt the application of CEQA to a railroad project undertaken by a state public entity, defendant North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA), on a rail line also owned by that entity.  The Court acknowledged that ICCTA’s federal regulatory scheme would preempt a state’s imposition of environmental regulation such as CEQA on a privately owned railroad.  That is because settled federal law holds ICCTA preempts a state’s imposition of “environmental preclearance requirements” that have the effect of preventing or delaying the operation of a privately owned railroad.  But the Court also held that, as applied to govern the conduct of subdivisions of the sovereign state, the CEQA process constitutes an act of “self-governance” and not preempted “regulation” within the meaning of ICCTA.

Continue Reading California Supreme Court Holds CEQA Applies to State Entity’s Railroad Project on State-Owned Rail Line as Act of “Self-Governance”, Not “Regulation” That Would Be Preempted by Federal Law

On July 26, 2017, the California Supreme Court issued its order denying the losing appellants’ (Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity) request for depublication of the opinion in Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 11, and also declined to review the case on its own motion, bringing the litigation to a final conclusion.  The Court’s docket entry reflects that Justice Kruger was absent and did not participate in the matter.

My post analyzing the Court of Appeal’s opinion, which remains a published precedent as a result of the Supreme Court’s action, can be found here, and my post on the depublication request and related letter briefing can be found here.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Denies Depublication Request, Declines To Review CEQA Decision Addressing Discretionary/Ministerial Project Approval Distinction

In an opinion filed March 23, and belatedly modified and ordered published on May 25, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s dismissal of a plaintiff environmental group’s (“Friends”) CEQA action against a local air quality district (“District”).  (Friends of Outlet Creek v. Mendocino County Air Quality Management District (Grist Creek Aggregates, LLC, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (1st Dist., Div. 1, 2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1235.)  Friends’ action challenged District’s 2015 issuance of an “Authority to Construct” to Real Party Grist Creek for asphalt plant-operations on a site used, at various times since 1972, for aggregate and asphalt production.  The trial court had sustained District’s and Grist Creek’s demurrer on the ground that CEQA relief was unavailable against a local air district in this context and that Friends’ exclusive remedy was an action under Health and Safety Code § 40864.

Continue Reading First District Holds CEQA Action Can Be Brought Directly Against Local Air District to Challenge “Authority to Construct” Issued for Mendocino County Asphalt Production Operation

On April 21, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal filed a 22-page published opinion providing significant guidance and analysis concerning the critical, but sometimes elusive, distinction between “discretionary” project approvals that are subject to CEQA and “ministerial” ones that are exempt from it.  Sierra Club, et al. v. County of Sonoma (Ronald and Ernest Ohlson, dba Ohlson Ranch, Real Parties in Interest) (1st Dist., Div. 1, 2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 11. (As a matter of disclosure, I represent the real parties, the Ohlsons, in this action.)
Continue Reading First District Holds Sonoma County Vineyard Development (VESCO) Permit was Ministerial Approval Exempt from CEQA

Like the fable of the blind men and the elephant, CEQA’s prohibition on “piecemealing” of environmental review is animated by a basic recognition that the “whole” of an action under review is greater than its individual parts viewed separately.  (The same important insight also underlies CEQA’s requirement to analyze a project’s cumulative impacts.)  But CEQA’s expansive and rather amorphous definition of what constitutes a “project” ensures that its piecemealing rule shares another similarity with the famous fable:  what conduct constitutes improper piecemealing often appears to be in the “eye of the beholder” and individual perceptions can differ greatly based on more-or-less subjective factors.  Appellate courts have long wrestled with application of the relevant legal principles, which essentially attempt to prohibit a lead agency’s “chopping up” of a project into smaller components so that it can turn a “blind eye” to reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts of the “whole” action.

On March 30, 2017, the Sixth District Court of Appeal issued a published opinion that rejected piecemealing and other CEQA challenges raised by the plaintiff/appellant group Aptos Council to several zoning ordinance amendments separately adopted and reviewed for CEQA purposes by the County of Santa Cruz; the enactments addressed discrete topics, but were all initiated by County as part of its general “regulatory reform” effort to “modernize, clarify, streamline and/or provide [clear] standards” for its land use regulations.  Aptos Council v. County of Santa Cruz (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 266.

Continue Reading Sixth District Rejects “Piecemealing” and Other CEQA Challenges to Ordinances Enacted Pursuant to Santa Cruz County’s Zoning Modernization Effort