In a published decision filed August 8, 2017, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial Court’s judgment dismissing a CEQA action brought by two individuals (“Appellants”) against the Mt. San Jacinto Community College District (“District”).  Bridges v. Mt. San Jacinto Community College District (Riverside County Regional Park & Open- Space District, Real Party in Interest) (4th Dist. 2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 104.  Appellants challenged the District’s entry into a purchase agreement to buy from a regional park district a plot of vacant land for potential future use as a new campus, alleging this action violated CEQA because the District had not yet prepared an EIR for the potential new campus project.  (The District was in the process of preparing an EIR, during the pendency of other litigation over an earlier option agreement on the property, but it “paused” that process due to the other litigation while determining it would complete the EIR before entering into escrow on the property.)  Appellants also claimed the District violated CEQA by failing to adopt local CEQA implementing guidelines.

The Court of Appeal held Appellants failed to exhaust their administrative remedies prior to filing suit or to demonstrate any excuse for not doing so; alternatively, it held that their claims lacked substantive merit.

Continue Reading Fourth District Rejects CEQA Challenge to College District’s Entry into Land Acquisition Agreement Prior to Preparing EIR Due to Plaintiffs’ Failure to Exhaust and Based on Merits

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

“You may say I’m a dreamer.”  – John Lennon, “Imagine

“Son she said / Have I got a little story for you…”

Pearl Jam, “Alive

CEQA, our state’s landmark environmental protection act, is a venerable law with an illustrious history now spanning over 45 years.  But it’s also being abused every day, distorted for non-environmental ends not worthy of it – and our legislature refuses to sit up and take note.  It’s as if Lady Justice had grown warts, been disrobed and had her scales smashed by vandals – yet those who could help, sit idly by and don’t seem to care.

CEQA reform has been a hot topic, on and off, over the years.  Governor Brown has called it “the Lord’s work.”  Calls for it wax and wane with the economy and perceived need to get development projects approved and built.  While many CEQA practitioners, politicians, and members of the regulated community have acknowledged the need for reform, many others have denied it; some insist CEQA works “just fine” as it is, or even advocate further expansion of its reach.  Proposals for meaningful legislative reform have been largely unsuccessful and have been criticized by opponents as proposals to “weaken” the state’s “signature” environmental law.  It’s often said that the first step to recovery is acknowledging a problem exists.  It’s difficult to build consensus for CEQA reform when there is not even consensus about the existence of CEQA abuses requiring reform.

Continue Reading Standing Against Environmental Injustice: Some Thoughts On Facing The Need For CEQA Litigation Reform

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

In a short opinion filed May 17, 2017, and belatedly ordered published (for unknown reasons) just six days later, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment granting a writ of mandate that set aside the City of San Diego’s denial (on administrative appeal) of a small residential subdivision project in its low density La Playa neighborhood. Kutzke v. City of San Diego (4th Dist., Div. 1, 2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1034. The Court of Appeal applied well established law in holding that if any substantial evidence in the record supports a City’s finding which requires denial of a subdivision, or that a related mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) is inadequate under CEQA, the City’s decision denying the Project must be upheld. Simply put, Courts may not substitute their judgment for a City’s on such matters or weigh competing substantial evidence, but instead must defer to and uphold the City’s decision unless no reasonable person could have reached the same conclusion.

Continue Reading Fourth District Holds Substantial Evidence Supports City of San Diego’s Rejection of MND and Denial of Minor Residential Subdivision In Low Density La Playa Neighborhood