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  The unpublished portion of the opinion (which won’t be further discussed in detail) held that the City’s statement of overriding considerations was supported by substantial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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In a 38-page opinion filed on May 16, and belatedly ordered published on June 14, 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment rejecting all of plaintiff/appellant Center for Biological Diversity’s (“CBD”) CEQA and statutory challenges to the EIR that the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (“DOGGR”) was required by S.B. 4 (Stats. 2013, ch. 13, § 2) to prepare “pursuant to [CEQA], to provide the public with detailed information regarding any potential environmental impacts of well stimulation in the state.”  (Pub. Resources Code, § 3161(b)(3)(A).)  The Court’s opinion addresses and disposes of CBD’s CEQA and other challenges in a highly unusual, and even unprecedented, context – that of a statutorily required program EIR addressing the statewide impacts of oil and gas well-stimulation treatments (including the controversial treatment known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) prepared in the absence of any “project” being approved or undertaken by the ostensible “lead agency” (DOGGR).  Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, et al. (3d Dist. 2019) 36 Cal.App.5th 210.

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The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments in an important case we’ve been following involving CEQA’s definition of a “project” on the afternoon of June 4, 2019, and took the matter under submission.  The case – Union of Medical Marijuana Patients v. City of San Diego (California Coastal Commission, Real Party in Interest), No. S238563 – involves a City of San Diego ordinance authorizing (as a new use in industrial/commercial zones) and restricting the location and manner of operation of medical marijuana dispensaries within the City, and plaintiff’s challenge to the City’s determination that its adoption of the ordinance was not a “project” for purposes of having to undergo CEQA review.  The Court’s grant of review encompassed the issues whether the particular ordinance is a CEQA project and also whether zoning ordinances in general are CEQA projects.

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On May 15, 2019, the California Supreme Court announced it would hear oral argument in Union of Medical Marijuana Patients v. City of San Diego (California Coastal Commission), Case No. S238563, on June 4, 2019, at 2:00 p.m. in its Los Angeles courtroom.  This is a long-awaited development as review was unanimously granted in this case on January 11, 2017, and the case was fully briefed by the parties in October 2017.  My prior blog post on the case, which presents the important legal issue whether an amendment to a zoning ordinance is, categorically, a “project” under CEQA (see Pub. Resources Code, §§ 21065, 21080(a)), can be found here.

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Save Lafayette Trees Litigation Update:  The Beat Goes On

We last posted on this decision (currently published as Save Lafayette Trees v. City of Lafayette (Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Real Party in Interest) (1st Dist. 2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 148) and its significant CEQA/Planning and Zoning Law statute of limitations holdings in my February 26, 2019 post, which can be found here.  In that post, it was noted (among other things) that the Court’s opinion after rehearing was issued on February 8, 2019, following the January 29, 2019 bankruptcy filing of real party PG&E, but that it did not address the effect (if any) of the automatic stay.


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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) 33 Cal.App.5th 321.  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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