The California Legislature has enacted new Public Resources Code § 21159.25, effective as of January 1, 2019 (Stats. 2018, c. 670 (A.B. 1804)), which extends much of the substance of the existing CEQA Guidelines’ Class 32 categorical exemption for “infill development” (14 Cal. Code Regs., § 15332) to certain multi-family housing projects in urbanized, unincorporated county areas.  While largely patterned after the Class 32 exemption, the statute thus has a few unique and significant twists and limitations, as explained below.

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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 in consolidated appeals on September 28, 2018, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. 1) affirmed the trial court’s judgment invalidating San Diego County’s adoption of a 2016 Guidance Document that established a generally applicable threshold of significance for GHG analysis of 4.9 metric tons of CO2e per service population per year.  Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego/Sierra Club, LLC v. County of San Diego (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 892.  The Court held the case was ripe because the 2016 Guidance Document’s GHG “Efficiency Metric” set forth the threshold of significance as generally applicable to project proposals; it held the document violated CEQA because it was not formally adopted by ordinance, rule, resolution or regulation through a public review process, and was not supported by substantial evidence adequately explaining how its service population number derived from statewide data constituted an appropriate GHG metric to use for all projects in unincorporated San Diego County.  (CEQA Guidelines, §§ 15064.7(b), (c); Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (2015) 62 Cal.4th 204, 227 (“CBD”).)  The Court also held County’s adoption of the threshold of significance in advance of its required Climate Action Plan (CAP) constituted improper “piecemealing [of] environmental regulations” in violation of the Court’s earlier decision and the trial court’s second supplemental writ in the same litigation, which treated the CAP and thresholds of significance based on it as a single CEQA project and required completion of the CAP prior to the adoption of the thresholds of significance.

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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 a lengthy published opinion filed on August 22, 2018, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed the trial court’s judgment rejecting various CEQA challenges to the City of San Francisco’s (“City”) Program EIR analyzing the environmental impacts of its 2009 General Plan Housing Element, which it adopted on June 29, 2011.  San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods v. City and County of San Francisco (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 596.  San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods (“SFLN”), an unincorporated association comprised of more than a dozen neighborhood organizations, had challenged the EIR – mostly unsuccessfully – in the trial court.  It then appealed from adverse portions of the judgment concerning the EIR’s baseline and impact analyses for traffic, water supply, land use, and visual resources impacts; the City’s decision not to recirculate the EIR; the EIR’s alternatives analysis; and the feasibility of certain proposed mitigation measures.

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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 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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