CEQA’s Class 32 categorical exemption for “infill development” applies to proposed developments within city limits on sites of five or fewer acres substantially surrounded by urban uses, where the site has no habitat value for special status species, can be adequately served by all required utilities and public services, and the project would not have significant traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality impacts. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15332(b)-(e).)  But another important qualification is that the project must be “consistent with the applicable general plan designation and all applicable general plan policies as well as with applicable zoning designation and regulations.” (§ 15332(a).)  A recent Fourth District decision addressed this key requirement of the infill exemption, and upheld application of the Class 32 exemption to the City of San Diego’s approval of a project proposing seven (7) detached residential condominium units on a steeply sloped, environmentally sensitive half-acre site –despite general plan minimum density policies that would ordinarily require 16 to 23 dwelling units on a parcel of that size.  Holden v. City of San Diego (IDEA Enterprises, LP, Real Party in Interest) (2019) ____ Cal.App.5th ____.

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In an opinion filed November 26, and ordered published on December 23, 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal partially reversed a judgment rejecting a labor union’s CEQA challenges to the EIS/EIR for a geothermal power plant project on federal land in Mono County.  Russel Covington, et al v. Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, et al. (Orin 50 LLC, et al, Real Parties in Interest) (2019) ____ Cal.App.5th ____.

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The City of Sacramento received an early Christmas present with the December 18 publication of the Third District Court of Appeal’s opinion in Citizens for Positive Growth & Preservation v. City of Sacramento (2019) ___ Cal.App.5th ___, which was originally filed on November 26, 2019.  The decision affirmed a trial court judgment upholding the City’s 2035 General Plan against the plaintiff group’s Planning and Zoning Law and CEQA challenges.  The opinion’s most significant CEQA holding was that plaintiff’s challenge to the EIR’s transportation impacts analysis was moot because the applicable law currently in effect at the time of judgment in the appellate court – specifically, Public Resources Code § 20199(b)(2) (enacted as part of SB 743) – provides that auto delays measured by LOS or similar measures shall not be considered significant environmental impacts.  The Court of Appeal also rejected all of plaintiff’s other CEQA challenges, including those to the City’s non-adoption of the no-project alternative, its decision not to recirculate the EIR after adding numerous supplemental changes to the draft 2035 General Plan, and its Final EIR’s GHG and cyclist safety analyses.

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Despite well-reasoned requests for depublication made by the City of Los Angeles, the California Building Industry Association (CBIA), the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) and the League of California Cities (League), the Second District’s questionable and controversial decision in Stopthemillenniumhollywood.com, et al. v. City of Los Angeles, et al. (2019) 39 Cal.App.5th 1 remains “on the books” as published precedent.  The California Supreme Court on November 26, 2019 entered its order denying the depublication requests and declining to review the matter on its own motion.  Justice Corrigan and Justice Kruger voted to depublish the opinion, about which I previously blogged here.

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By October 21, 2019 letter – a decision on which is due by December 20, 2019 – the California State Association of Counties (“CSAC”) and the League of California Cities (“League”) have requested the California Supreme Court to depublish the Second District’s decision in a CEQA case involving a controversial Hollywood development project. Stopthemillenniumhollywood.com, et al. v. City of Los Angeles, et al. (2019) 39 Cal.App.5th 1.  A copy of the CSAC/League letter can be accessed here; I previously blogged on this case here.

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In an opinion filed September 5, and later certified for partial publication on October 3, 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment upholding the City of Chico’s EIR and related statement of overriding considerations for Walmart’s project to expand an existing store, add a gas station, and create two new outparcels for future commercial development.  Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy v. City of Chico (Walmart Inc., Real Party in Interest) (2019) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  The published portion of the Court’s opinion rejects plaintiff/appellant CARE’s challenges to the EIR’s “robust 43-page urban decay analysis,” holding as a matter of law that “the potential loss of close and convenient shopping is not an environmental issue that must be reviewed under CEQA” and that the EIR’s methodology for analyzing urban decay was supported by substantial evidence.  The unpublished portion of the opinion (which won’t be further discussed in detail) held that the City’s statement of overriding considerations was supported by substantial evidence, did not need to “describe in detail the weight accorded to the various aspects of the agency’s balancing of competing public objectives,” and did not need to include findings “reconciling” the project approval with the CIty’s rejection of an earlier, materially different expansion project in 2009.

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In an opinion originally filed on July 31, and belatedly ordered published on August 22, 2019, the Second District Court of Appeal (Division 3) affirmed a judgment granting a CEQA writ petition invalidating the final EIR and project entitlements for the Millennium Project, a controversial proposed mixed-use development on a 4.47-acre parcel straddling Vine Street and surrounding the historic Capital Records Building in Hollywood.  Stopthemillenniumhollywood.com, et al. v. City of Los Angeles, et al. (Millennium Hollywood LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2019) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  The Court upheld the trial court’s finding that the EIR violated CEQA’s requirement for a stable and finite project description as a matter of law.  Reasoning that “the project description is at the heart of the EIR process in this case,” the Court found it “not necessary to reach appellants’ [the City and developer Millennium]” challenges to several other grounds upon which the trial court issued its writ, including findings that the EIR’s transportation analysis improperly failed to use responsible agency Caltrans’ methodology, that its analysis of cumulative traffic impacts was unsupported by substantial evidence, and that a condition of approval improperly expanded the approved project uses beyond those actually analyzed in the EIR.  It also declined to address plaintiff/cross-appellant’s claim that the City failed to notice and consult with the California Geological Survey regarding potential seismic hazards.

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Introduction And Overview

On August 19, 2019, the California Supreme Court issued its unanimous 38-page opinion, authored by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, in the CEQA “project definition” case we’ve been tracking with interest.  Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego (California Coastal Commission, Real Party in Interest) (2019) ____ Cal.5th ____, Case No. S238563.  As anticipated based on the high court’s questioning and remarks at oral argument (see “Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in CEQA Project Definition Case,” posted June 6, 2019), it reversed the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s decision that the City’s approval of the medical marijuana dispensary ordinance at issue was not a CEQA “project”; accordingly, it held that the City was required to treat it as such and “proceed to the next steps of the CEQA analysis.”


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Background

A long time ago, in a legal galaxy far, far away, Emperor Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) into law.  For many years, the “dark forces” that had wrought the adverse environmental impacts giving rise to CEQA – land developers and the public agencies granting their approvals – labored under its ever-expanding yoke.  Many litigation battles were fought, and many won by the heroic Jedi of the environmental plaintiffs’ bar and their NGO clients, firmly establishing the preeminence and vast reach of CEQA’s seemingly beneficent empire into the far-flung corners of the legal universe.  CEQA’s “force” was such that no project with the potential to effect a physical change in the environment, unless granted legislative or magisterial exemption, escaped its watchful eye and mitigating powers.


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A lawsuit filed June 10, 2019, in the U.S. District Court for California’s Central District, and conspicuously reported on last month in Law360, takes dead aim at defendants who are alleged to have filed and threatened frivolous CEQA suits for the sole purpose of extorting monetary settlements – in this case, from plaintiffs alleging they are economically vulnerable Hollywood hotel project developers who were forced to capitulate to defendants’ extortionate demands.

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