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) ____ Cal.App.5th _____.  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.

Continue Reading Second District Holds CEQA’s Existing Facilities Categorical Exemption Applies To State Lands Commission/PG&E Lease Extension For Operation Of California’s Last Active Nuclear Power Plant Until 2025 Closure

A development project’s potential noise impacts can implicate complex and technical issues under CEQA, particularly where those impacts are asserted, in litigation by project opponents challenging a negative declaration, as the sole basis an EIR should have been required.  Such was certainly the case in Charles T. Jensen v. City of Santa Rosa (Social Advocates For Youth, Real Party in Interest) (1st Dist. 2018) 23 Cal.App.5th 877, a dense 24-page opinion filed by the Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District (Division 4) on May 1, and later ordered certified for publication on May 24, 2018.

Continue Reading Filtering The CEQA Noise: First District Upholds Santa Rosa’s Negative Declaration For “Dream Center” Youth Housing Project, Holds Non-Expert Predictions Of Significant Noise Impacts Failed To Raise “Fair Argument” Supported By Substantial Evidence

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.

Continue Reading Fourth District Upholds San Diego’s CEQA Class 3 Categorical Exemption Determination For Verizon’s Faux Tree Wireless Telecommunications Facility In Dedicated Public Park, Rejects City Charter Inconsistency Arguments

In a lengthy, partially published opinion filed January 12, 2018, the First District Court of Appeal (Division 3) partly affirmed, but in large part reversed, the trial court’s judgment granting a writ of mandate directing the City of Los Angeles to set aside its FEIR certification and approval of BNSF Railway Company’s (“BNSF”) project to construct a new intermodal railyard facility, near the Port of Los Angeles, to handle containerized cargo transported through the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.  City of Long Beach, et al., Xavier Becerra (Attorney General, as Intervener) v. City of Los Angeles, (BNSF Railway Company, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 19 Cal.App.5th 465.

Continue Reading First District Holds CEQA Exhaustion Requirements Don’t Apply to Attorney General, Upholds Adequacy of Most of EIR’s Analysis for BNSF Railyard Project Near Port of Los Angeles

In a lengthy opinion filed December 20, 2017, and belatedly ordered published on January 8, 2018, the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division 1, affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition asserting CEQA and land use law challenges to the City of San Diego’s (“City”) approval of a small high school on previously developed, open-space designated lands adjacent to a commercial equestrian facility. Clews Land and Livestock, LLC v. City of San Diego (Jan Dunning, et al, Real Parties In Interest) (2017) 19 Cal.App.5th 161.  The opinion underscores the critical importance of correctly interpreting and scrupulously following a local lead agency’s administrative appeal procedures in order to exhaust administrative remedies and preserve CEQA claims for judicial review.  (The non-CEQA, land use law aspects of the opinion will not be analyzed here but will be covered in a subsequent blog post by my partner, Bryan Wenter.)

Continue Reading Fourth District Rejects CEQA Challenge to MND for Small Rural High School Project Based on Challenger’s Failure to Exhaust Available Administrative Appeal and on Merits

When it comes to CEQA cases, some courts don’t seem to know when to stop beating a dead horse.  So it may be with the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s 43-page, published, 2-1 majority decision, accompanied by a 4-page dissent, filed on November 16, 2017, after remand from the California Supreme Court in Cleveland National Forest Foundation, et al. v. San Diego Association of Governments, et al. (4th Dist., Div. 1, 2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 413.  My previous blog post on the Supreme Court’s disappointingly narrow opinion, which decided only the issue whether SANDAG’s 2011 EIR for its Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Community Strategy (RTP/SCS) violated CEQA by not explicitly engaging in an analysis of consistency of projected 2050 GHG emissions with a 2005 executive order (holding it didn’t), can be found here.

The Court of Appeal’s previous published decision, of course, reached that narrow GHG analysis issue and a lot more – it held SANDAG’s EIR was deficient in literally all respects argued by plaintiffs and intervenor/appellant the People, i.e., failure to analyze consistency with the 2005 Executive Order; failure to adequately address GHG mitigation; failure to analyze a reasonable range of project alternatives; failure to adequately analyze and mitigate air quality and particulate matter pollution impacts; and understating agricultural land impacts.  In supplemental briefing following the Supreme Court’s remand, Cleveland and the People requested the Court to issue a revised published opinion essentially the same as Cleveland I, albeit slightly revised to acknowledge the Supreme Court’s partial reversal.

Continue Reading SANDAG RTP/SCS EIR Redux: Is Fourth District’s Published Opinion on Remand Constructive CEQA Compliance Lesson or Moot Exercise?

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

In a published decision filed August 8, 2017, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial Court’s judgment dismissing a CEQA action brought by two individuals (“Appellants”) against the Mt. San Jacinto Community College District (“District”).  Bridges v. Mt. San Jacinto Community College District (Riverside County Regional Park & Open- Space District, Real Party in Interest) (4th Dist. 2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 104.  Appellants challenged the District’s entry into a purchase agreement to buy from a regional park district a plot of vacant land for potential future use as a new campus, alleging this action violated CEQA because the District had not yet prepared an EIR for the potential new campus project.  (The District was in the process of preparing an EIR, during the pendency of other litigation over an earlier option agreement on the property, but it “paused” that process due to the other litigation while determining it would complete the EIR before entering into escrow on the property.)  Appellants also claimed the District violated CEQA by failing to adopt local CEQA implementing guidelines.

The Court of Appeal held Appellants failed to exhaust their administrative remedies prior to filing suit or to demonstrate any excuse for not doing so; alternatively, it held that their claims lacked substantive merit.

Continue Reading Fourth District Rejects CEQA Challenge to College District’s Entry into Land Acquisition Agreement Prior to Preparing EIR Due to Plaintiffs’ Failure to Exhaust and Based on Merits

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

In an opinion filed December 7, and later ordered published on December 16, 2016, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying a writ petition on the “single legal issue” whether plaintiffs were entitled under Public Resources Code § 21151(c) (and a municipal code section with essentially the same content) to an appeal of a planning commission’s “substantial conformance review” (SCR) determination to the city council.  (San Diegans for Open Government et al v. City of San Diego (Sunroad Enterprises et al, Real Parties in Interest) (4th Dist., Div. 1, 2016 ) 6 Cal.App.5th 995.)  The SCR decision found that changes in an already CEQA-reviewed and approved mixed-use development project were consistent with previous CEQA documents and did not require a new environmental document.  Because such a determination was not one of the decisions expressly listed in Section 21151(c) as appealable of right to the lead agency’s elected decision making body, and there was no independent right to such an appeal order the City’s municipal code, the City properly refused to process plaintiffs’ attempted administrative appeal of the planning commission’s decision.

Continue Reading CEQA Does Not Require Local Lead Agency To Provide For Administrative Appeal To Elected Body of Nonelected Body’s Decision That Project Changes Require No Subsequent Review