In a lengthy opinion filed February 22, and belatedly ordered published on March 25, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 1) affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a petition for writ of mandate challenging the EIR for a mixed use business and residential project (the “5M Project”) on 4 acres in downtown San Francisco.  South of Market Community Action Network v. City and County of San Francisco (Forest City California Residential Development, Inc., et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2019) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  The 5M Project includes a general plan amendment and development agreement, and would provide “office, retail, cultural, educational, and open-space uses …, primarily to support the region’s technology industry and provide spaces for co-working, media, arts, and small-scale urban manufacturing” on a site bounded by Mission, Fifth, Howard, and Sixth Streets.  The project site is currently occupied by eight buildings with approximately 317,700 gross square feet (gsf) of office and commercial uses (including the Chronicle Building, which the project would renovate), and seven surface parking lots.

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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 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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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.

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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 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.

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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.)


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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.


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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.


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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.


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