A fundamental prerequisite to a viable lawsuit is a plaintiff possessing standing to bring it, and in writ of mandate proceedings that generally means a person or entity actually possessing a beneficial interest in the legal relief being sought. Nonetheless, CEQA’s broad statutory standing provisions, the “public interest exception” to beneficial interest standing, constitutional associational privacy claims, and the general unavailability of civil discovery (due to the general irrelevance of extra-record evidence) in administrative mandamus actions have all conspired to allow CEQA litigation standing abuses to become a large – and largely unchecked – problem. Indeed, I have previously analyzed and written about this particular CEQA litigation abuse in depth. (See, e.g., “Standing Against Environmental Injustice: Some Thoughts On Facing The Need For CEQA Litigation Reform,” by Arthur F. Coon, posted July 18, 2017.) I am thus happy to be able to report that, in an opinion filed November 28, and ordered published on December 19, 2017, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has now done something about it. Specifically, it properly upheld the use of civil discovery directed to the issue of a plaintiff organization’s standing in a CEQA writ proceeding, and also affirmed the trial court’s judgment of dismissal after granting a terminating sanction for plaintiff’s discovery abuse in attempting to thwart such discovery. This important new decision is Creed-21 v. City of Wildomar (Walmart Real Estate Business Trust, Real Party in Interest) (4th Dist., Div. 2, 2017) 18 Cal.App.5th 690.
In a partially published opinion filed December 4, 2017, the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s post-remand judgment and held that CEQA’s remedies statute – Public Resources Code § 21168.9 – allows a court issuing a writ in a CEQA proceeding to partially decertify an EIR, and to leave unaffected project approvals in place when doing so. Center for Biological Diversity, et al. v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (The Newhall Land and Farming Company, Real Party in Interest) (2017) ____ Cal.App.5th _____.
The opinion resulted from the second appeal in long-running litigation challenging approvals for the controversial Newhall Ranch development project in northwest Los Angeles County. (I won’t reiterate the underlying facts and legal issues raised in the merits litigation, but my post on the Supreme Court’s November 30, 2015 opinion in the matter can be found here, and my post on the Court of Appeal’s July 11, 2016 partially published opinion on remand can be found here).
As another year draws near its close, a number of notable recent CEQA developments in both the legislative and regulatory arenas have occurred that bear mention. Below are some highlights of new CEQA legislation that will be in effect in the new year, as well as significant regulatory changes in process.
In a lengthy, partially published opinion filed November 21, 2017, the Fifth District Court of Appeal addressed four CEQA challenges asserted by plaintiffs and appellants (“AIR”) to the sufficiency of Kern County’s 2014 Final EIR for Real Parties’ (“Alon Energy”) project to modify an existing Bakersfield oil refinery. Association of Irritated Residents v. Kern County Board of Supervisors, et al. (Alon USA Energy, Inc., et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 708. The proposed modification would allow the refinery, which has existed and operated at the site through various ownerships since 1932, to unload two unit trains (104 cars) of crude oil (150,000 barrels) per day. The trains would carry potentially more volatile crude oil (i.e., likely to explode in a rail accident) transported from the Bakken formation in North Dakota. The refinery would process 70,000 barrels of crude oil per day, its currently authorized maximum level, and pipe the balance of the unloaded crude to other refineries to be processed.
Continue Reading Fifth District Holds Cap-And-Trade Program Compliance Supports Refinery Project EIR’s Conclusion That GHG Emissions Are Less Than Significant, Also Addresses Important CEQA Baseline and Railroad Operation Preemption Issues
When it comes to CEQA cases, some courts don’t seem to know when to stop beating a dead horse. So it may be with the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s 43-page, published, 2-1 majority decision, accompanied by a 4-page dissent, filed on November 16, 2017, after remand from the California Supreme Court in Cleveland National Forest Foundation, et al. v. San Diego Association of Governments, et al. (4th Dist., Div. 1, 2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 413. My previous blog post on the Supreme Court’s disappointingly narrow opinion, which decided only the issue whether SANDAG’s 2011 EIR for its Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Community Strategy (RTP/SCS) violated CEQA by not explicitly engaging in an analysis of consistency of projected 2050 GHG emissions with a 2005 executive order (holding it didn’t), can be found here.
The Court of Appeal’s previous published decision, of course, reached that narrow GHG analysis issue and a lot more – it held SANDAG’s EIR was deficient in literally all respects argued by plaintiffs and intervenor/appellant the People, i.e., failure to analyze consistency with the 2005 Executive Order; failure to adequately address GHG mitigation; failure to analyze a reasonable range of project alternatives; failure to adequately analyze and mitigate air quality and particulate matter pollution impacts; and understating agricultural land impacts. In supplemental briefing following the Supreme Court’s remand, Cleveland and the People requested the Court to issue a revised published opinion essentially the same as Cleveland I, albeit slightly revised to acknowledge the Supreme Court’s partial reversal.
In a published opinion filed November 15, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal (Division 5) affirmed the trial court’s order granting a petition for writ of mandate setting aside the California Department of Parks and Recreation’s (Department) approvals and EIR for the “Upper Truckee River Restoration and Golf Course Reconfiguration Project” (the “Project”). Washoe Meadows Community v. Department of Parks and Recreation (1st Dist. 2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 277. The Court agreed with the trial court’s determination that “the DEIR’s failure to provide the public with an accurate, stable and finite” project description “prejudicially impaired the public’s ability to participate in the CEQA process by setting forth a range of five very different alternatives and by declining to identify a preferred alternative.”
As relevant background, the project involved 777 acres of state-owned land encompassing a 2.2-mile stretch of the Upper Truckee River in the Lake Tahoe Basin. The land was divided into two units: 608 acres of state park land (Washoe Meadows State Park), and the remainder designated as Lake Valley State Recreation Area to allow continuing operation of an existing golf course (a use not allowed in state parks). Since at least the 1990s, the golf course layout had altered the river’s course and flow, raising environmental concerns of river bed erosion that threatened habitat and water quality in and around Lake Tahoe through deposition of substantial sediment.
Continue Reading Power to the Public: DEIR’s Failure to Identify Proposed Project Among Handful of Vastly Different Analyzed Alternatives Violates CEQA’s Requirement to Contain “Accurate, Stable and Finite” Project Description, Vitiates Intelligent Public Participation, Holds First District
On October 15, 2017, Governor Brown vetoed SB 80 (Wieckowski), a bill that would have added to CEQA’s already detailed notice requirements.
Specifically, SB 80 would have amended Public Resources Code §§ 21092.2, 21092.3, 21108 and 21152 so as to require, inter alia, that state and local lead agencies: (1) offer to provide scoping notices, notices of preparation, and notices of determination by email to persons so requesting; (2) post all such notices on the agency’s website (if any); and (3) file with OPR or the County Clerk, as applicable, all Notices of Exemption (NOEs) for approved projects found exempt pursuant to the categorical exemptions contained in the CEQA Guidelines (as opposed to other possible bases for exemption).
In 15-page opinion filed on September 15, and later certified for publication on October 16, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition challenging the Judicial Council of California’s (“Judicial Council”) EIR for its project to relocate and consolidate El Dorado County Superior Court operations into a single new building on the outskirts of Placerville. Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California (County of El Dorado, et al., Real Parties In Interest) (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 187. The Court of Appeal held that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that “the possible economic impact of moving judicial activities from the downtown courthouse … was not likely to be severe enough to cause urban decay in downtown Placerville.” It also held that the Council did not need to adopt mitigation mandating re-use of the courthouse to support this conclusion.
Continue Reading Keeping CEQA In Its Lane: First District Holds Substantial Evidence Supports EIR’s Conclusion That “Urban Decay” Is Not Reasonably Foreseeable Indirect Effect Of Project Relocating Trial Court Operations From Historic Placerville Courthouse
While “agree[ing] with appellant that Telegraph Hill is outstanding and unique in a city of outstanding and unique places[,]” the First District Court of Appeal nonetheless affirmed the trial court’s order denying plaintiff/appellant neighborhood group’s mandamus petition challenging the City of San Francisco’s approval of a 3-unit condominium project there on CEQA and general plan consistency grounds. Protect Telegraph Hill v. City and County of San Francisco (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 261. In a 15-page opinion originally filed September 14, but belatedly ordered published on October 13, 2017, the Court upheld the City’s findings that the project, which involved renovation of an existing deteriorated small cottage and construction of a new 3-dwelling unit residential structure, was categorically exempt from CEQA and consistent with the City’s general plan and planning code.
On October 15, 2017, Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. sent a veto letter to California State Assembly Members, returning a controversial and flawed proposed land use bill – AB 890 – without his signature. My partner Bryan Wenter and I authored a post here last month detailing the many problems we saw with the bill. (See “The Opposite of CEQA Reform: Legally Flawed AB 890 Would Expand Opportunities For CEQA Litigation Abuse While Abridging Constitutional Local Initiative Rights,” by Arthur F. Coon and Bryan W. Wenter, AICP, posted September 19, 2017.)
Fortunately, Governor Brown was receptive to the bill’s many critics, and struck a blow for local land use control, local initiative rights, CEQA reform and commence sense by vetoing it. His short letter to Assembly members, which can be found here, states in pertinent part that “[i]nstead of the piecemeal approach taken in this bill, I prefer a more comprehensive CEQA review, which takes into account both the urgent need for more housing and thoughtful environmental analysis. Hear, hear!