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.

Continue Reading First District Rejects CEQA Challenges to SWRCB’s Revised Environmental Document and Approval of Northern California Coastal Stream Policy

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) __ Cal.5th ___.  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.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Denies Depublication Request, Declines To Review CEQA Decision Addressing Discretionary/Ministerial Project Approval Distinction

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.

Continue Reading Supreme Disappointment: High Court’s Narrow Opinion In SANDAG RTP/SCS EIR Case Offers Little Guidance On CEQA GHG Analysis

On June 16, 2017 – without seeking either rehearing in the First District Court of Appeal or review by the Supreme Court – losing appellants Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity filed a letter asking the Supreme Court to depublish the First District’s (Division 1) recent opinion in Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 11 (“Sierra Club”).  The Supreme Court on the same day extended its otherwise soon-to-expire time to order review of the case on its own motion to August 21, 2017.

In a well-researched and well-reasoned opinion resulting from extensive briefing (including supplemental briefing) from all parties, Sierra Club affirmed the trial court’s denial of appellants’ writ petition challenging the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner’s issuance of a 54-acre vineyard development permit, as a ministerial approval without CEQA review, under the detailed standards and controls of the County’s vineyard development and erosion control (aka “VESCO”) ordinance.  My blog post analyzing this significant case (in which I represent real party Ohlson Ranch) can be found here.

Continue Reading Sierra Club/CBD Seek Depublication of CEQA Decision Addressing Discretionary/Ministerial Project Approval Distinction

On May 2, 2017, the Fifth District Court of Appeal vacated its earlier order and writ, and on May 5 it granted Respondents’ request for rehearing in the CEQA litigation entitled Poet, LLC v. State Air Resources Board, et al. (“POET II”) (5th Dist. 2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 52, Case No. F073340.  Upon granting various requests for judicial notice of the parties, the Court resubmitted the cause without further briefing on May 24, and issued its modified published opinion (with no change in the result) on May 30, 2017.

Continue Reading Fifth District Grants Rehearing, Vacates Prior Published Opinion, and Issues Slightly Modified Published Opinion in POET II CEQA Litigation

In a 38-page opinion filed May 4, and belatedly ordered published on May 25, 2017, the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed a judgment dismissing a writ petition filed by three environmental groups alleging CEQA violations against the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) in connection with its issuance of 214 individual permits for new oil wells in the long-established South Belridge Oil Field in Kern County.  Association of Irritated Residents, et al. v. Department of Conservation (Aera Energy, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (5th Dist. 2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1202 (Case No. F073018).  The Court reversed the Kern County Superior Court’s judgment dismissing the action after that court sustained a demurrer without leave to amend based on the asserted res judicata effect on an earlier Alameda County Superior Court judgment.  The Court of Appeal held that the Alameda judgment was based on mootness and ripeness grounds, not the merits, and thus did not have res judicata effect so as to bar the Kern County action.  The opinion contains extensive discussions of res judicata, collateral estoppel, mootness, ripeness and the application of these legal doctrines to the facts and issues of the case before it.

Continue Reading Fifth District Holds CEQA Action Challenging Individual DOGGR Oil Well Permits Not Barred By Res Judicata Based On Prior Judgment Rendered On Mootness/Ripeness Grounds

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.

Continue Reading First District Holds CEQA Action Can Be Brought Directly Against Local Air District to Challenge “Authority to Construct” Issued for Mendocino County Asphalt Production Operation

When all was said and done, it was a case of “same wine, different bottle” for Defendant and Appellant San Mateo Community College District (“District”) after the First District Court of Appeal’s published May 5, 2017 decision, following remand from the California Supreme Court, in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo Community College District, et al. (1st Dist., Div. 1, 2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 596.  While the District’s project changes to demolish its San Mateo College Building 20 complex, which was formerly slated for renovation, were held not to result in an “entirely new” project for CEQA review purposes because the original MND retained informational relevance, the District’s Addendum to that MND was again held by the Court of Appeal to constitute an inadequate environmental review document for the modified project under CEQA “because there is substantial evidence to support a fair argument that the project changes might have a significant effect on the environment.”

As this is my seventh blog post on this important litigation, I won’t reiterate the case’s facts.  My post on the Supreme Court’s opinion ((2016) 1 Cal.5th 937) can be found here.  The facts and other relevant information concerning the case can be found in my posts dated July 8, May 12, May 4 and April 26, 2016, and March 25, 2014.

Continue Reading No Surprises Here: First District Applies CEQA Subsequent Review Standards Mandated by Supreme Court on Remand, Again Affirms Judgment for Petitioner in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens Litigation