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 ___.
A fundamental prerequisite to a viable lawsuit is a plaintiff possessing standing to bring it, and in writ of mandate proceedings that generally means a person or entity actually possessing a beneficial interest in the legal relief being sought. Nonetheless, CEQA’s broad statutory standing provisions, the “public interest exception” to beneficial interest standing, constitutional associational privacy claims, and the general unavailability of civil discovery (due to the general irrelevance of extra-record evidence) in administrative mandamus actions have all conspired to allow CEQA litigation standing abuses to become a large – and largely unchecked – problem. Indeed, I have previously analyzed and written about this particular CEQA litigation abuse in depth. (See, e.g., “Standing Against Environmental Injustice: Some Thoughts On Facing The Need For CEQA Litigation Reform,” by Arthur F. Coon, posted July 18, 2017.) I am thus happy to be able to report that, in an opinion filed November 28, and ordered published on December 19, 2017, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has now done something about it. Specifically, it properly upheld the use of civil discovery directed to the issue of a plaintiff organization’s standing in a CEQA writ proceeding, and also affirmed the trial court’s judgment of dismissal after granting a terminating sanction for plaintiff’s discovery abuse in attempting to thwart such discovery. This important new decision is Creed-21 v. City of Wildomar (Walmart Real Estate Business Trust, Real Party in Interest) (4th Dist., Div. 2, 2017) _____ Cal.App.5th _____.
In a partially published opinion filed December 4, 2017, the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s post-remand judgment and held that CEQA’s remedies statute – Public Resources Code § 21168.9 – allows a court issuing a writ in a CEQA proceeding to partially decertify an EIR, and to leave unaffected project approvals in place when doing so. Center for Biological Diversity, et al. v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (The Newhall Land and Farming Company, Real Party in Interest) (2017) ____ Cal.App.5th _____.
The opinion resulted from the second appeal in long-running litigation challenging approvals for the controversial Newhall Ranch development project in northwest Los Angeles County. (I won’t reiterate the underlying facts and legal issues raised in the merits litigation, but my post on the Supreme Court’s November 30, 2015 opinion in the matter can be found here, and my post on the Court of Appeal’s July 11, 2016 partially published opinion on remand can be found here).
In a lengthy, partially published opinion filed November 21, 2017, the Fifth District Court of Appeal addressed four CEQA challenges asserted by plaintiffs and appellants (“AIR”) to the sufficiency of Kern County’s 2014 Final EIR for Real Parties’ (“Alon Energy”) project to modify an existing Bakersfield oil refinery. Association of Irritated Residents v. Kern County Board of Supervisors, et al. (Alon USA Energy, Inc., et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 708. The proposed modification would allow the refinery, which has existed and operated at the site through various ownerships since 1932, to unload two unit trains (104 cars) of crude oil (150,000 barrels) per day. The trains would carry potentially more volatile crude oil (i.e., likely to explode in a rail accident) transported from the Bakken formation in North Dakota. The refinery would process 70,000 barrels of crude oil per day, its currently authorized maximum level, and pipe the balance of the unloaded crude to other refineries to be processed.
Continue Reading Fifth District Holds Cap-And-Trade Program Compliance Supports Refinery Project EIR’s Conclusion That GHG Emissions Are Less Than Significant, Also Addresses Important CEQA Baseline and Railroad Operation Preemption Issues
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.
In a published opinion filed September 28, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the Alameda County Superior Court’s judgment denying appellant Living Rivers Council’s (LRC) writ petition challenging the State Water Resources Control Board’s (the “SWRCB” or “Board”) approval of a policy designed to maintain instream flows in coastal streams north of San Francisco. Living Rivers Council v. State Water Resources Control Board (1st Dist., Div. 5, 2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 991. The Court of Appeal upheld the SWRCB’s Revised Substitute Environmental Document (RSED) against LRC’s CEQA challenges, which related to the RSED’s analysis of potential indirect environmental effects of surface water users switching to groundwater pumping as a result of the policy.
As relevant legal background, the SWRCB administers the State’s water resources and has permitting authority over diversions from surface waters and subterraneous streams that flow through known and definite channels, but it lacks permitting authority over percolating groundwater. It has authority to prevent unreasonable or wasteful water use regardless of source. Legislation enacted in 2004 (Wat. Code, § 1259.4) requires the SWRCB to adopt principles and guidelines for maintaining instream flows of Northern California coastal streams.
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
On July 7, 2017, the California Supreme Court filed its 69-page opinion, written by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and joined by five other justices, in Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority, et al. (2017) 3 Cal.5th 677. The Court held that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995 (“ICCTA”; 49 U.S.C., § 10101 et seq.) does not exempt the application of CEQA to a railroad project undertaken by a state public entity, defendant North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA), on a rail line also owned by that entity. The Court acknowledged that ICCTA’s federal regulatory scheme would preempt a state’s imposition of environmental regulation such as CEQA on a privately owned railroad. That is because settled federal law holds ICCTA preempts a state’s imposition of “environmental preclearance requirements” that have the effect of preventing or delaying the operation of a privately owned railroad. But the Court also held that, as applied to govern the conduct of subdivisions of the sovereign state, the CEQA process constitutes an act of “self-governance” and not preempted “regulation” within the meaning of ICCTA.
Continue Reading California Supreme Court Holds CEQA Applies to State Entity’s Railroad Project on State-Owned Rail Line as Act of “Self-Governance”, Not “Regulation” That Would Be Preempted by Federal Law
On July 26, 2017, the California Supreme Court issued its order denying the losing appellants’ (Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity) request for depublication of the opinion in Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 11, and also declined to review the case on its own motion, bringing the litigation to a final conclusion. The Court’s docket entry reflects that Justice Kruger was absent and did not participate in the matter.
My post analyzing the Court of Appeal’s opinion, which remains a published precedent as a result of the Supreme Court’s action, can be found here, and my post on the depublication request and related letter briefing can be found here.
On July 13, 2017, the California Supreme Court rendered a 6-1 decision holding that the San Diego Association of Governments’ (SANDAG) 2011 EIR for its Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS) issued pursuant to SB 375 did not violate CEQA “by declining to explicitly engage in an analysis of the consistency of projected 2050 greenhouse gas emissions with the goals in [a 2005] executive order [the “2005 EO”].” (Cleveland National Forest Foundation, et al v. San Diego Association of Governments (2017) 3 Cal. 5th 497, Supreme Court Case No. 5223603.) This conclusion is not surprising, and it is undoubtedly correct. But it is disappointing that the majority’s opinion lacks significant practical or legal guidance for conducting CEQA-compliant GHG analysis for long term regional plans.
Maybe I expect too much. Maybe the nature of the opinion is just a result of the narrowly-framed issue on which the Court chose to grant review. Maybe the interrelationship between CEQA and SB 375 is so complex that hope for greater clarity and simplicity in this area is unrealistic. Perhaps, by its very nature, CEQA is inherently ill-suited to “analyzing” the global-scale environmental impacts of GHG emissions on a project-by-project basis. Or perhaps the case’s narrow holding flows from the strong flavor of mootness that permeates it. In this last vein, it seems somewhat odd for our Supreme Court to decide the legal validity of one discrete aspect of SANDAG’s 2011 EIR despite the facts that (1) the 2011 RTP/SCS which that EIR analyzed has now long been superseded by an updated 2015 RTP/SCS (“San Diego Forward: The Regional Plan”); (2) SANDAG did conduct a 2005 EO consistency analysis in connection with the updated plan; and (3) no one has challenged the updated plan or its EIR.