On September 7, 2018, Governor Brown signed two bills amending CEQA in relatively minor ways that will become effective January 1, 2019.

AB 2341 (Chapter 298) (Mathis) adds Public Resources Code § 21081.3 to provide that “a lead agency is not required to evaluate the aesthetic effects of a project and aesthetic effects shall not be considered significant effects on the environment if the project involves the refurbishment, conversion, repurposing, or replacement of an existing building that meets … [five specified] requirements[.]”  To fall within this new partial statutory exemption, (1) the building must be abandoned, dilapidated (defined as “decayed, deteriorated, or fallen into such disrepair through neglect or misuse so as to require substantial repair for safe and proper use”), or have been vacant for over a year; (2) the site must be immediately adjacent to parcels developed with qualified urban uses or 75 percent of its perimeter must adjoin such parcels (with the remainder adjoining parcels previously so developed); (3) the project must include housing construction; (4) any new structure must “not substantially exceed the height of the existing structure”; and (5) the project must “not create a new source of substantial light or glare.”


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In an opinion filed June 28, and later ordered published on July 27, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 6) affirmed the trial court’s judgment dismissing on demurrer a writ petition seeking to compel the County of San Luis Obispo to comply with CEQA in issuing well construction permits to four agricultural enterprises, mostly for vineyard irrigation.  The Court held County’s governing local ordinance, which addresses only water quality issues and incorporates fixed technical standards for well construction from relevant Department of Water Resources (DWR) Bulletins, established a ministerial scheme for issuing such permits and does not confer “discretion to shape a well permit to mitigate environmental damage arising from groundwater overuse.”  California Water Impact Network v. County of San Luis Obispo (Justin Vineyards and Winery, LLC et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 666.

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In a published opinion filed June 13, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed a judgment denying a writ of mandate and declaratory relief in an action challenging the California State Lands Commission’s (“Commission”) determination that CEQA Guidelines § 15301’s categorical exemption for “existing facilities” applied to its renewal of PG&E’s leases of state-owned lands needed to operate the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant until federal licensures expire in 2025. World Business Academy v. California State Lands Commission (Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 476.  The Court rejected petitioner/appellant World Business Academy’s arguments that the consolidated lease replacement, which maintains the status quo at the plant until 2025, did not fall within the exemption, or was subject to the “unusual circumstances” exception, and also rejected arguments that it violated the public trust doctrine.

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In a published decision filed June 12, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 6) held that the same broad definition of a “project” that mandates more extensive CEQA review of activities undertaken or approved by public agencies also applies in determining the scope of statutory exemptions that serve to exempt certain projects from CEQA review.  County of Ventura v. City of Moorpark, Broad Beach Geologic Hazard Abatement District (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 377.  The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment to the extent it rejected Ventura County’s CEQA, preemption, and extraterritorial regulation challenges to a settlement agreement between the City of Moorpark and the Broad Beach Geologic Hazard Abatement District (BBGHAD), a state law entity created to carry out a Malibu beach restoration project.  But it reversed with directions to declare void (as unlawful abdications of BBGHAD’s police power) certain of the settlement agreement’s provisions which severely limited BBGHAD’s authority to modify project haul routes in the event of changed circumstances.

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On June 6, 2018, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) announced that it had issued a new technical advisory listing legislative CEQA exemptions located in statutes outside of Division 13 of the Public Resources Code.  The advisory contains bullet point citations to more than 50 statutes and includes an Appendix A setting forth the full text of these exemptions, most of which are not contained in the CEQA Guidelines.  The advisory notes that its list – which contains statutes codified in the Public Resources, Water, Penal, Government, Business and Professions, Education, Fish and Game, Health and Safety, Military and Veterans, and Welfare and Institutions Codes – is not exhaustive.

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On April 30, 2018, the United States Supreme Court denied the petition for writ of certiorari filed in North Coast Railroad Authority v. Friends of the Eel River, U.S. Supreme Ct. Case No. 17-915, which presented this issue:  “Whether citizen suits that seek to enforce state environmental approval requirements against a state-owned railroad by enjoining activities subject to the [Surface Transportation Board]’s exclusive jurisdiction are categorically preempted by [the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995].”  The high court’s denial of review left undisturbed the California Supreme Court’s novel decision holding state public entity NCRA’s railroad project on its own line was subject to CEQA (and also onerous and delay-producing CEQA litigation) as an act of “self-governance”, whereas private rail carriers are exempt from these “regulatory” burdens by virtue of federal preemption under ICCTA.  (My post on the California Supreme Court’s decision can be found here.)

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SB 743 was enacted in 2013 to further California’s efforts to reduce GHG emissions by encouraging transit-oriented, infill development – a strategy announced in SB 375, the “Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008.”  As part of SB 743, the Legislature enacted Public Resources Code § 21099(d)(1), which provides:  “Aesthetic and parking impacts of a residential, mixed-use residential, or employment center project on an infill site within a transit priority area shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment.”  In an opinion filed February 28, and subsequently certified for publication on March 22, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal (Division 7) applied § 21099(d)(1) and held that it exempted from CEQA review alleged parking impacts of a 68-acre, mixed-use, infill project, located a quarter-mile from the Covina Metrolink commuter rail station, which the City approved via Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) three months after the statute’s effective date.  Covina Residents for Responsible Development v. City of Covina (City Ventures, Inc., et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 712.  In addition to rejecting plaintiff/appellant CRRD’s CEQA challenges to the project, the Court of Appeal rejected its Subdivision Map Act (SMA) arguments and affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying its writ petition.

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In a published opinion filed March 15, 2018, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Division One) affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition and complaint challenging the City of San Diego’s approvals of a wireless telecommunications facility to be constructed by real party Verizon Wireless in Ridgewood Neighborhood Park, a dedicated park.  Don’t Cell Our Parks v. City of San Diego (Verizon Wireless, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 338.

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In an opinion filed February 5 and later ordered published on February 27, 2018, the Sixth District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying Aptos Residents Association’s (“ARA”) writ petition challenging Santa Cruz County’s approval, as categorically exempt from CEQA, of real party Crown Castle’s (“Crown”) project to extend Verizon’s wireless coverage by installing a 13-microcell Distributed Antenna System (“DAS”) in Aptos’ Day Valley area.  Aptos Residents Association v. County of Santa Cruz (Crown Castle, Inc., Real Party in Interest (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 1039.

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As another year draws near its close, a number of notable recent CEQA developments in both the legislative and regulatory arenas have occurred that bear mention.  Below are some highlights of new CEQA legislation that will be in effect in the new year, as well as significant regulatory changes in process.

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