Ministerial/Discretionary Approvals

In a partially published opinion filed March 29, 2024, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) rejected contentions that the pre-judgment completion of construction of a shooting range mooted a CEQA challenge to the project; it held an effective remedy in the form of various mitigation measures alleged in the CEQA petition remained available and reversed the trial court’s judgment entered in favor of respondents and real party after sustaining their demurrers and granting their motions to strike and for judgment on the pleadings.  In addition to applying established mootness principles, the Court resolved a number of other issues in holding petitioner Vichy Springs Resort, Inc. (“Vichy”) had sufficiently alleged a CEQA claim at the pleadings stage against both the City of Ukiah (“City”) and the County of Mendocino (“County”) in a unique factual and legal context presenting novel issues of land use regulatory authority and intergovernmental immunity.  Vichy Springs Resort, Inc. v. City of Ukiah, et al. (Ukiah Rifle and Pistol Club, Inc., Real Party in Interest) (2024) 101 Cal.App.5th 46.Continue Reading First District Holds CEQA Challenge To Shooting Range Project On City-Owned Land In Unincorporated County Was Not Mooted By Project’s Construction During Trial Court Proceedings Despite Petitioner’s Failure To Seek Preliminary Injunction

In a published opinion filed on January 17, 2024, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 5) reversed a trial court judgment overturning a mitigated negative declaration (MND) and requiring an EIR for a 42-single family home project; instead, the Court of Appeal held the petitioners’ action should have been dismissed as time-barred and that the trial court erred in overruling the demurrers of respondent City of Los Angeles and the real party developers on statute of limitations grounds.  Delia Guerrero et al. v. City of Los Angeles (TTLE Los Angeles – El Sereno LLC et al, Real Parties in Interest) (2024) 98 Cal.App.5th 1087.Continue Reading Reversal of Misfortune: Second District Holds CEQA Action Challenging Los Angeles Housing Development Project Barred By Statute of Limitations, Reverses Trial Court Judgment Rejecting MND and Requiring EIR

“I fought the law and the law won” – The Crickets

In an opinion filed July 19, and later ordered published on August 16, 2023, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 6) reversed the trial court’s grant of a preliminary injunction in a CEQA action enjoining the Santa Barbara County Road Commissioner from enforcing public laws by removing unpermitted encroachments from a public right-of-way.  Christopher Anderson, et al. v. County of Santa Barbara, et al. (2023) 94 Cal.App.5th 554. The public officer’s law enforcement actions were held to be exempt from CEQA; to have independent utility apart from any alleged larger, “piecemealed” project evading CEQA review; and not to be subject to the “unusual circumstances” exception to applicable categorical exemptions.  While the Court was careful to fully analyze all of petitioners’ CEQA arguments, its opinion also offered numerous other reasons why the trial court erred and exceeded its lawful authority under applicable legal principles in issuing the preliminary injunction.Continue Reading Second District Reverses Preliminary Injunction, Holds CEQA Cannot Trump Santa Barbara County’s Authority To Remove Unpermitted Encroachments Placed In Public Right-Of-Way By Adjacent Landowners

The 2021-2022 Legislative Session was light on CEQA amendments, and once again did not produce any significant reform.  We saw a continued focus on incentivizing affordable and infill developments on the condition that the project pay prevailing wages (AB 2011), reducing barriers for specified sustainable transit projects (SB 922), and amendments akin to “pet project exemptions” that are targeted to solving a narrower set of concerns (SB 118 and SB 886).  None of the amendments, however, more broadly limit CEQA’s reach.Continue Reading Recap of 2023 CEQA Amendments Now In Effect

On May 12, 2022, the First District Court of Appeal filed a 108-page published opinion affirming a judgment denying a CEQA writ petition that challenged Marin County’s approval of a 43-lot single-family residential subdivision on a 110-acre parcel atop a mountain overlooking the Town of Tiburon and San Francisco Bay.  Tiburon Open Space Committee v. County of Marin (The Martha Company, Real Party in Interest, and Town of Tiburon, Intervenor and Appellant) (2022) 78 Cal.App.5th 700.  Apart from its factual background of nearly a half-century of intense legal battles over (and effectively blocking) the property’s development – which the Court described as “this woeful record before us” – the decision is notable for its legal analysis of how CEQA applies when a lead agency’s discretion in considering a project for approval is constrained by legal obligations.  While in this case the legal obligations stemmed from stipulated federal court judgments mandating that the County approve a minimum level of development on the property, the Court’s reasoning and holdings that the scope of CEQA adjusts and is limited commensurate with legal limitations on an agency’s discretionary authority will clearly apply to other contexts.  Most obviously, and topically, they plainly will apply to housing development projects when state housing laws impose legal obligations that limit local agencies’ legal authority to disapprove or reduce the density of those projects.  (See, e.g., Gov. Code, § 65589.5 (the “Housing Accountability Act”).)
Continue Reading “This Woeful Record”: First District Affirms Judgment Rejecting CEQA Challenges To Marin County’s Approval of 43-Home Mountaintop Subdivision Opposed For Nearly Five Decades By Neighbors And Town of Tiburon

In a published opinion filed December 15, 2021, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 5) affirmed a trial court’s judgment entered after sustaining a demurrer to a writ petition in a CEQA action without leave to amend.  Mission Peak Conservancy, et al. v. State Water Resources Control Board (Christopher George, et al, Real Parties in Interest) (2021) 72 Cal.App.5th 873.
Continue Reading First District Holds SWRCB Small Domestic Water Use Registration Is CEQA-Exempt Ministerial Act: “CEQA Does Not Regulate Ministerial Decisions – Full Stop.”

On September 13, 2011, I began the endeavor of writing Miller Starr Regalia’s CEQA Developments blog.  Ten years and 358 blog posts later, it continues to be a challenging and rewarding task.  Since my inaugural post (which can be viewed here) was a “top ten” list of CEQA litigation mistakes to avoid, I thought an appropriate tenth anniversary post might be a list of the ten most significant CEQA case law developments over the past decade.  My “top ten” list is definitely subjective, is limited to Supreme Court decisions, and (by its very nature) fails to include many important judicial developments.  Nonetheless, here it is (with the decisions listed in no particular order):
Continue Reading A Decade of CEQA Developments

As we rapidly approach the end of a year of COVID-related challenges and uncertainties, CEQA practitioners may want to review the year’s key legislation impacting CEQA and its application, which was contained in the handful of bills summarized below.

  • AB 168 (Aguilar-Curry). This urgency legislation became effective with the Governor’s signature on September 25, 2020.  It amends Government Code §§ 65400, 65913.4 and 65941.1 to correct an “oversight” in SB 35 (Weiner), namely, that 2017 law’s failure to consider potential destruction of tribal cultural resources as a result of the streamlined, ministerial (and thus CEQA-exempt) approval process it authorized for multifamily housing development projects satisfying specified objective planning standards.  (SB 35 is summarized in detail in my 12/7/17 blog post, which can be found here.)

Continue Reading 2020 CEQA Legislative Developments

On August 27, 2020, the California Supreme Court filed its unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Corrigan, in Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources v. County of Stanislaus (2020) 10 Cal.5th 479 (“POWER”).  The POWER decision is a “mixed bag” for the parties to the litigation themselves:  the Court rejected both (a) the County’s position that all its well permits are ministerial approvals exempt from CEQA, and (b) the environmental plaintiffs’ converse position that all such permits are discretionary approvals subject to CEQA.  For non-parties, the case’s significance lies in its elucidation of the legal rules and principles governing the key distinction between discretionary and ministerial projects – a fundamental distinction that determines CEQA’s threshold applicability to agency approvals and actions.  In following appellate precedent focusing not on permitting ordinances and regulations as a whole and in the abstract, but more granularly on the specific regulatory controls applicable to a particular permit application, the high Court in POWER eschews the “all or nothing” approach urged by the parties and endorses a more nuanced and contextual analysis that is both reasonable and fully consonant with CEQA and its objectives.
Continue Reading Supreme Court Holds Stanislaus County Well Permit Decisions Under State Standards Are Neither Categorically Ministerial Nor Categorically Discretionary In Nature; Rather, Whether CEQA-Triggering Discretion Exists Must Be Determined On Case-By-Case Basis