“The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Common Law (1881)

“CEQA discourse has become increasingly abstract, almost medieval in its scholasticism.” – former California Governor Edmund G. (“Jerry”) Brown, Jr.

by Arthur F. Coon

On November 24, 2020, the Fifth District Court of Appeal filed its partially published opinion in the latest installment of the long-running CEQA litigation over Fresno County’s approval of the Friant Ranch project.  Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (Friant Ranch, L.P., Real Party in Interest) (2020) 57 Cal.App.5th 979.  The litigation involves a 942-acre mixed-use development project (2500 residential units, 250,000 square feet of commercial space, 460 acres of open space) for which the Notice of Preparation (NOP) of the EIR was issued in 2007; it has generated an earlier appellate opinion (see my 6/16/14 post here) and a Supreme Court opinion (see my 12/28/18 post here) addressing important standard of review issues centered on the adequacy of the project EIR’s air quality impacts discussion.


Continue Reading Remedial Legal Logic: Fifth District Doubles Down On Split with Other Districts in Holding CEQA Doesn’t Allow Limited Writ Remedy of Partial EIR Decertification – But Does It Really Matter?

On November 10, 2020, the California Supreme Court – after briefly raising Petitioners’ hopes by extending the time to consider granting review – finally slammed the door shut on further litigation over a recent Fourth District Court of Appeal decision, issuing an order denying the three petitions for review filed by the parties, as well as a request for depublication filed by non-party City of Los Angeles.  Golden Door Properties v. S.C (County of San Diego) Case No. S264324.  The Court of Appeal’s Golden Door decision, which held lead agencies must retain and not destroy writings within the scope of CEQA’s mandatory and broadly inclusive administrative record statute (Pub. Resources Code, § 21167.6), notwithstanding assertedly contrary record-retention policies, will thus remain intact as published precedent.

Continue Reading Closing the “Golden Door”: California Supreme Court Denies Petitions for Review and Depublication Request in CEQA Administrative Record Case

On October 23, 2020, the California Supreme Court issued an order extending until December 7, 2020, or the date upon which review is either granted or denied, the time for granting or denying review in Golden Door Properties, LLC, et. al. v. Superior Court (County of San Diego et. al., Real Parties in Interest) (4th Dist. 2020) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  The Court of Appeal’s decision, originally published on July 30, and modified upon denial of rehearing on August 25, 2020, held that a lead agency is required to retain, and may not  destroy, writings within the scope of CEQA’s mandatory and broadly-inclusive administrative record statute, Public Resources Code § 21167.6.

Continue Reading Keeping the “Golden Door” Cracked Open: California Supreme Court Extends Period to Consider Review of CEQA Administrative Record Case

In a detailed 6-page order, issued by Presiding Justice McConnell and filed on August 25, 2020, the Fourth District Court of Appeal denied three petitions for rehearing, and “polished up” its lengthy published opinion filed at the end of last month in Golden Door Properties, LLC et al v. Superior Court of San Diego (County of San Diego, et al, Real Parties in Interest) (4th Dist. 2010) 52 Cal.App.5th 837.  (My August 5, 2020 post on the case can be found here.)  Most of the Court’s changes were minor and technical in nature, pertaining more to issues of concern to the parties on remand, rather than its major precedential holdings, but a few were noteworthy.

Continue Reading Burnishing the “Golden Door”: Fourth District Modifies Recent Opinion Requiring Lead Agency Preservation of CEQA Administrative Record Documents, Denies Petitions for Rehearing and Leaves Judgment Unchanged

In a 77-page published opinion filed on July 30, 2020, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. One) issued a writ of mandate largely overturning San Diego Superior Court rulings denying plaintiffs’ motions to compel discovery and to augment the administrative record in a CEQA case; the disputes arose from Real Party San Diego County’s admitted deletion of email documents as “non-official records” pursuant to its records retention policies.  Golden Door Properties, LLC et al. v. Superior Court of San Diego (County of San Diego, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (4th Dist. 2020) 52 Cal.App.5th 837.

Continue Reading “For the Record”: Fourth District Holds CEQA’s “Mandatory” And “Broadly Inclusive” Administrative Record Statute Requires Lead Agency To Retain Documents Within Its Scope And Not Destroy Them Prior To Record Preparation

In a published 2-1 majority opinion filed April 7, 2020, written by Justice Wiley and joined by Presiding Justice Bigelow, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 8) affirmed a judgment upholding the EIR for Tesoro’s “Los Angeles Refinery Integration and Compliance Project.”  Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management District (Tesoro Refining and Marketing Company, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2d Dist. 2020) 47 Cal.App.5th 588.  The project involved Tesoro’s adjacent Carson and Wilmington oil refining facilities, which date from the early 1900s, and sought (1) to better integrate those facilities to increase flexibility in output ratios (e.g., of gasoline and jet fuel) to respond to market demands, and (2) to increase regulatory compliance by reducing air pollution.

Continue Reading Back To CEQA Basics: Second District Teaches That CEQA Requires Judicial Deference To Lead Agency’s Chosen Baseline, Failure To Administratively Exhaust “Exact Issue” Results In Forfeiture, And An EIR Is Not Faulty For Omitting Immaterial Information

On December 11, 2019, the California Supreme Court by a 7-0 vote granted the petition for review of Butte and Plumas Counties and the Plumas County Flood Control and Water Conservation District in County of Butte v. Department of Water Resources (State Water Contractors), Case No. S258574 (formerly published at (3d Dist. 2019) 39 Cal.App.5th 708).  The order granting review, which also directed that the Third District’s opinion be depublished at the request of defendant and respondent Department of Water Resources (which interestingly filed no answer to the petition for review), specified the following two issues for briefing:

Continue Reading California Supreme Court Grants Review of Third District Decision Involving FERC Relicensing of State’s Oroville Hydroelectric Dam Project To Decide Extent To Which Federal Power Act Preempts CEQA; Merits Briefing Underway

On April 2, 2020, the Second Appellate District Court of Appeal (Division 5) filed its published opinion in Coalition for an Equitable Westlake/MacArthur Park v. City of Los Angeles et al. (Adrian Jayasinha et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2020) 47 Cal.App.5th 368, which affirmed a judgment dismissing a CEQA action challenging the City’s project approvals and Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for a mixed-use development project.  The judgment of dismissal was entered after the trial court sustained without leave the City’s and Real Parties’ demurrers on statute of limitations grounds.  In affirming, the Court reaffirmed and followed Supreme Court precedent “ma[king] clear that the filing of a facially valid notice [of determination or notice of exemption] starts the running of the statute of limitations, even where the underlying CEQA determinations may be flawed.”  (Citing Committee for Green Foothills v. Santa Clara County Bd. of Supervisors (2010) 48 Cal.4th 32, 43 [NODs]; Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton (2010) 48 Cal.4th 481, 505 [NOEs].)

Continue Reading Second District Reaffirms Rule That Filing of Facially Valid NOD Triggers Short CEQA Statute of Limitations And Plaintiff May Not “Go Behind” Agency’s Declarations In Document To Challenge Validity of Project Approval

In a 74-page opinion filed February 24, and later ordered published on March 17, 2020, the Second District Court of Appeal (Division 7) affirmed judgments (granting the writ petition and awarding fees) in coordinated appeals stemming from a CEQA action successfully challenging the City of Agoura Hills’ (City) project approvals and mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a mixed use development project on an undeveloped 8.2 acre parcel.  Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll v. City of Agoura Hills (Doron Gelfand, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2020) 46 Cal.App.5th 665.  The Court rejected the City’s and Real Parties’ procedural arguments that Petitioners and Respondents Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll (STACK) and California Native Plant Society (CNPS) had failed to exhaust administrative remedies, and that their claims were barred by lack of standing and the statute of limitations; on the merits of the CEQA claim, it held that substantial evidence in the record supported a fair argument that even as mitigated the project may have significant impacts on cultural resources (i.e., a Chumash Native American archaeological site), three sensitive plant species, native oak trees, and aesthetic resources, and that an EIR was therefore required; and it further held the trial court properly granted writ relief based on the City’s violation of its own Oak Tree Ordinance by approving a project that would concededly remove 35 to 36 percent of the site’s oak tree canopy when the Ordinance prohibited removal of more than 10 percent.  Finally, the Court held that the trial court properly awarded Petitioners STACK and CNPS $142,148 in attorneys’ fees under Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5, made payable 50% by City and 50% by Real Parties, notwithstanding that Petitioners furnished their first amended petition to the Attorney General (AG) beyond the 10-day statutory period for doing so.

Continue Reading Second District Affirms Judgment Invalidating City of Agoura Hills’ Mixed-Use Project Approvals and Related MND Based On CEQA and Local Oak Tree Ordinance Violations

In an opinion filed January 30, and later ordered published on March 2, 2020, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying a writ petition filed by plaintiffs Environmental Council of Sacramento and the Sierra Club challenging the EIR for Cordova Hills, a large master planned community project approved by Sacramento County.  Environmental Council of Sacramento v. County of Sacramento (Cordova Hills, LLC, et. al., Real Parties in Interest) (3d Dist. 2020) 45 Cal.App.5th 1020.

Continue Reading Third District Affirms Judgment Rejecting CEQA Challenges To EIR For Cordova Hills Master Planned Community Project