In a partially published unanimous opinion filed June 16, 2021, authored by a jurist who is also a noted CEQA expert (Acting Presiding Justice Ronald Robie), the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition challenging El Dorado County’s mitigated negative declaration (MND) for and approval of the Newtown Road Bridge at South Fork Weber Creek Replacement Project.  Newtown Preservation Society, et al. v. County of El Dorado, et al. (3d Dist. 2021) ____ Cal.App.5th ____.  In the published portion of its opinion, the Court of Appeal held that petitioners/appellants erroneously framed the “fair argument” test in terms of the project having “potentially significant impacts on resident safety and emergency evacuation,” whereas the correct test is “whether the record contains substantial evidence that the project may have a significant effect on the environment or may exacerbate existing environmental hazards.”  It held appellants “failed to carry their burden of showing substantial evidence supports a fair argument of significant environmental impact in that regard.”  (In the unpublished portion of its opinion, which won’t be analyzed in further detail in this post, the Court held the County did not impermissibly defer mitigation, and it declined to consider two other arguments because they added nothing to the fair argument analysis and/or constituted new theories or arguments raised for the first time on appeal.)

Continue Reading Flunking CEQA’s “Fair Argument” Test: Third District Affirms Judgment Upholding MND for El Dorado County Bridge Replacement Project, Rejects Arguments Based on Alleged Significant Impacts on Fire Evacuation Routes During Construction As Insufficient To Require EIR

On May 20, 2021, Governor Newsom signed into law Senate Bill No. 7, the “Jobs and Economic Improvement Through Environmental Leadership Act of 20216” (the “Act”), which repealed and added Chapter 6.5 to Division 13 of the Public Resources Code (sections 21178 through 21189.3).  The new Act, which was immediately effective as an “urgency” statute, essentially modifies and reenacts former 2011 legislation that was repealed by its own terms on January 1, 2021.  Like the former leadership act, the new legislation authorizes the Governor, until January 1, 2024, to certify certain “environmental leadership development projects” (“leadership projects”) that meet specified requirements for streamlining benefits related to CEQA.  (Pub. Resources Code, §§ 21180, 21181.)  To qualify for CEQA streamlining benefits under the new Act, the Governor must certify a project as a leadership project before January 1, 2024.  (§ 21181.)

Continue Reading CEQA Urgency Legislation Reenacts Modified Version of Environmental Leadership Act, Adds Certain Housing Development Projects As Eligible For Governor Certification And Streamlining Benefits

In a published opinion filed December 29, 2020, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying a petition for writ of mandate filed by the Santa Clara Valley Water District (District) challenging waste discharge requirements (WDRs) belatedly imposed by a responsible agency, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (Board), on lead agency District’s flood control project.  Santa Clara Valley Water District v. San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (2020) 59 Cal.App.5th 199.  The case involved highly unique facts, and a number of interesting legal issues concerning the Board’s authority under the Federal Clean Water Act (CWA), the state Porter-Cologne Act, and CEQA.

Continue Reading Can a Responsible Agency Get A Second Bite At The CEQA Apple? First District Says “Sometimes, Yes,” Upholds Regional Water Board’s Imposition of Additional Mitigation On Flood Control Project Through “Independent” Porter-Cologne Act Authority Exercised Subsequent To Grant Of CWA § 401 Water Quality Certification Based On Lead Agency’s Unchallenged Final EIR

Senator Scott Weiner’s Senate Bill (SB) 288 has passed both houses of the California Legislature, and was enrolled for proofing on September 4, 2020, prior to its delivery to the Governor for signature.  The new law’s prefatory declarations reflect a stated intent to expand and enact CEQA exemptions to reduce the time and cost of delivering transit and sustainable transportation projects in California, and thereby boost the COVID-damaged economy while furthering the State’s environmental goals.

Continue Reading Legislature Enacts SB 288 to Provide New and Expanded CEQA Exemptions for Sustainable Public Transportation Projects

In a mammoth 132-page published opinion (with an additional five pages of appendices) filed on June 12, 2020, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Division One) mostly affirmed the trial court’s judgment invalidating San Diego County’s approvals of a 2018 Climate Action Plan (CAP), related Guidelines for Determining Significance, and related Supplemental EIR (SEIR).  The opinion – which marked “the third time the County’s attempt to adopt a viable climate action plan and related CEQA documents” had been before the Court – resolved consolidated appeals in three cases, in which the lead plaintiffs were Golden Door Properties, LLC and the Sierra Club.  (Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego (2020) 50 Cal.App.5th 467.)  While the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s findings that the CAP was inconsistent with the County’s General Plan (applying the familiar highly deferential standard of review to the County’s consistency determination), that several of the County’s responses to SEIR comments were inadequate, and that the SEIR’s geographical scope of study for cumulative impacts was inconsistent, it otherwise affirmed the trial court’s findings of significant CEQA violations affecting the CAP and SEIR.

Continue Reading Third Time Is Not The Charm: Fourth District Affirms Judgment Setting Aside San Diego County’s Climate Action Plan And Related Supplemental EIR Approvals Due To CEQA Violations

In a 74-page opinion filed February 24, and later ordered published on March 17, 2020, the Second District Court of Appeal (Division 7) affirmed judgments (granting the writ petition and awarding fees) in coordinated appeals stemming from a CEQA action successfully challenging the City of Agoura Hills’ (City) project approvals and mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a mixed use development project on an undeveloped 8.2 acre parcel.  Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll v. City of Agoura Hills (Doron Gelfand, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2020) 46 Cal.App.5th 665.  The Court rejected the City’s and Real Parties’ procedural arguments that Petitioners and Respondents Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll (STACK) and California Native Plant Society (CNPS) had failed to exhaust administrative remedies, and that their claims were barred by lack of standing and the statute of limitations; on the merits of the CEQA claim, it held that substantial evidence in the record supported a fair argument that even as mitigated the project may have significant impacts on cultural resources (i.e., a Chumash Native American archaeological site), three sensitive plant species, native oak trees, and aesthetic resources, and that an EIR was therefore required; and it further held the trial court properly granted writ relief based on the City’s violation of its own Oak Tree Ordinance by approving a project that would concededly remove 35 to 36 percent of the site’s oak tree canopy when the Ordinance prohibited removal of more than 10 percent.  Finally, the Court held that the trial court properly awarded Petitioners STACK and CNPS $142,148 in attorneys’ fees under Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5, made payable 50% by City and 50% by Real Parties, notwithstanding that Petitioners furnished their first amended petition to the Attorney General (AG) beyond the 10-day statutory period for doing so.

Continue Reading Second District Affirms Judgment Invalidating City of Agoura Hills’ Mixed-Use Project Approvals and Related MND Based On CEQA and Local Oak Tree Ordinance Violations

In an opinion filed January 30, and later ordered published on March 2, 2020, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying a writ petition filed by plaintiffs Environmental Council of Sacramento and the Sierra Club challenging the EIR for Cordova Hills, a large master planned community project approved by Sacramento County.  Environmental Council of Sacramento v. County of Sacramento (Cordova Hills, LLC, et. al., Real Parties in Interest) (3d Dist. 2020) 45 Cal.App.5th 1020.

Continue Reading Third District Affirms Judgment Rejecting CEQA Challenges To EIR For Cordova Hills Master Planned Community Project

In a partially-published, 150-page slip opinion resolving appeals in consolidated cases, and filed February 25, 2020, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed in part and reversed in part a trial court decision finding CEQA defects in the 1800-plus page EIR prepared for Kern County’s adoption of an ordinance designed to provide a streamlined, ministerial permitting process for new oil and gas wells in the county.  King and Gardiner Farms, LLC v. County of Kern, et al. (California Independent Petroleum Association, et al., Real Parties in Interest); Committee for a Better Arvin, et al. v. County of Kern, et al. (California Independent Petroleum Association, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (5th Dist. 2020) 45 Cal.App.5th 814.  The published portion of the opinion held the EIR improperly deferred the formulation and implementation of mitigation for significant water supply impacts; failed to adequately mitigate farmland conversion impacts due to improper reliance on agricultural conversion easements (ACEs) as offsetting mitigation; and failed to adequately analyze noise impacts by relying solely on an absolute cumulative numerical limit threshold of significance, rather than also analyzing the significance of the magnitude of project noise increases over ambient levels in differently affected settings.  (Approximately 53 pages of the opinion, a portion finding CEQA violations with respect to air quality and related health risks due to failure to adequately discuss PM 2.5 emissions impacts and related mitigation, and failure to recirculate the DEIR after adding significant new information in the form of an appended Cumulative Health Risk Assessment, were not certified for publication; consequently, those portions set no precedent and will not be discussed in further detail in this post.)

Continue Reading Fifth District Holds EIR For Kern County’s Ministerial Oil and Gas Well Permitting Ordinance Violates CEQA Due To Improperly Deferred Mitigation For Water Supply Impacts, Inadequate Mitigation For Farmland Conversion, And Inadequate Analysis of Noise Impacts

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) 43 Cal.App.5th 867.

Continue Reading “ROG Won: A CEQA Wars Story” – Third District Holds Geothermal Energy Project EIR’s Rejection Of Proposed Mitigation Measures For Significant ROG Fugitive Emissions Impact Violated CEQA Where No Substantial Evidence Showed Measures’ Infeasibility