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) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.
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) ___ Cal.App.5th _____. 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
The First District Court of Appeal has issued another published decision applying the “substantial evidence” standard of review to a local agency’s decision not to prepare an EIR for approval of revisions to a project for which a Mitigated Negative Declaration was initially prepared. Coastal Hills Rural Preservation v. County of Sonoma (Jack Petranker, et al., Real Parties In Interest) (1st Dist., Div. One, 8/31/16) ___Cal.App.5th___, 2016 WL 4538384. The project at issue was “the third in a series of master use permits (MUPs) for … the Tibeten Nyingma Meditation Center[’s] (TNMC)” Buddhist retreat center (Ratna Ling) located on a 120-acre property, designated as Resources and Rural Development (RRD) in County’s general plan, in a rural area of western Sonoma County. A citizens group opposed to retreat expansion, Coastal Hills Rural Preservation (CHRP), sued under CEQA claiming an EIR was required because the project greatly expanded an existing “industrial” printing press operation on the property (used by retreatants to print sacred Buddhist texts for free distribution in Asia to Buddhists whose libraries have been destroyed by Chinese authorities). The most recent MUP application sought to: authorize as permanent four (4) previously temporary steel-frame, fire-retardant membrane storage tents totaling approximately 40,000 square feet (equipped with automatic sprinklers and used to store the texts); add to the property’s extensive existing facilities a six-bedroom residence and eight tent cabins for volunteers; and increase the retreat’s total occupancy limit to 98 persons with 24 additional persons allowed on a seasonal basis (apparently fluctuating with the intensity of the volunteer printing activities).
Continue Reading First District Applies CEQA’s “Subsequent Review” Rules, Substantial Evidence Standard of Review; Upholds Subsequent Mitigated Negative Declaration and Modified Master Use Permit for Remote Buddhist Retreat
In a March 4, 2016 published opinion, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment requiring an EIR for a small 12-home rural subdivision project based on the “psychological and social” impacts of the proponent’s related closure of a public horse boarding facility (the “Stock Farm”) which he had operated pursuant to a CUP for 20 years on the 11.6-acre property. Preserve Poway v. City of Poway (Harry A. Rogers, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 560, 2016 WL 891405. In addition to its primary holding that psychological, social and economic impacts are not cognizable under CEQA, the Court rendered a few other interesting rulings, including its application of the Supreme Court’s recent “CEQA-in-reverse” decision (California Building Industry Ass. v. Bay Area Air Quality Management Dist. (2015) 62 Cal.4th 369 (“CBIA”)) in holding that asserted impacts of an existing equestrian events facility (located across the street from the project) on future project residents were also beyond CEQA’s scope.
With the February 13 passing of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, American jurisprudence lost an intellectual giant. But Justice Scalia will not be forgotten; the legacy of his life’s work lives on.
While much has been and will be written about his landmark opinions and the originalist and textualist methods of constitutional and statutory interpretation he brought to bear in them, Justice Scalia’s significant legal contributions to CEQA, land use and environmental law merit special recognition.