Most real estate developers would likely agree that, even when correctly applied and complied with, CEQA can be an onerous law which can significantly complicate, delay, increase the cost of, and in some cases (particularly where CEQA litigation is involved) even preclude projects. But what recourse does a project applicant have under the law when CEQA is misapplied – and blatantly so – by a local agency which denies approval of a project that is clearly exempt from CEQA on the meritless basis that extensive (and expensive) CEQA review is required? When the developer’s only recourse is time-consuming and expensive litigation to obtain a writ of mandate setting aside the agency’s illegal action subjecting the project to CEQA, can the developer who succeeds in obtaining the writ recover from the public agency compensation and damages resulting from the temporary “taking” of all reasonable economic use of its property?
In a published opinion filed in consolidated appeals on September 28, 2018, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. 1) affirmed the trial court’s judgment invalidating San Diego County’s adoption of a 2016 Guidance Document that established a generally applicable threshold of significance for GHG analysis of 4.9 metric tons of CO2e per service population per year. Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego/Sierra Club, LLC v. County of San Diego (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 892. The Court held the case was ripe because the 2016 Guidance Document’s GHG “Efficiency Metric” set forth the threshold of significance as generally applicable to project proposals; it held the document violated CEQA because it was not formally adopted by ordinance, rule, resolution or regulation through a public review process, and was not supported by substantial evidence adequately explaining how its service population number derived from statewide data constituted an appropriate GHG metric to use for all projects in unincorporated San Diego County. (CEQA Guidelines, §§ 15064.7(b), (c); Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (2015) 62 Cal.4th 204, 227 (“CBD”).) The Court also held County’s adoption of the threshold of significance in advance of its required Climate Action Plan (CAP) constituted improper “piecemealing [of] environmental regulations” in violation of the Court’s earlier decision and the trial court’s second supplemental writ in the same litigation, which treated the CAP and thresholds of significance based on it as a single CEQA project and required completion of the CAP prior to the adoption of the thresholds of significance.
In a published opinion filed September 18, 2018, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. 1) affirmed a judgment granting a writ setting aside the City of San Diego’s (City) decision to subject a coastal development permit (CDP) application for construction of a single family home on a vacant La Jolla lot to CEQA review. Francis A. Bottini, Jr. v. City of San Diego (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 281.
Continue Reading Fourth District Holds City Violated CEQA By Refusing To Recognize Exemption For Single Family Residence Project And Attempting To Subject Owner’s Already Authorized And Completed Demolition Action To Retroactive Environmental Review (Yet Absolves City From Liability For Regulatory Taking)
In a lengthy published opinion filed August 23, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment, and upheld the City of Los Angeles’ addendum to a prior project-level EIR for a Target Superstore as legally sufficient CEQA compliance for a revised plan-level project which amended a specific plan so as to authorize that same development. Citizens Coalition Los Angeles v. City of Los Angeles (Target Corporation, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 561. The Court further held the specific plan amendment was not impermissible “spot zoning,” even if approved only to authorize the site-specific Superstore project, because there was a “reasonable basis” for the City to find it was in the public interest. While these holdings are not surprising, some of the analysis used to reach the Court’s clearly correct CEQA holding – which analogizes subsequent review rules to piecemealing concepts – is novel and potentially confusing, as discussed below.
In an opinion filed February 5 and later ordered published on February 27, 2018, the Sixth District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying Aptos Residents Association’s (“ARA”) writ petition challenging Santa Cruz County’s approval, as categorically exempt from CEQA, of real party Crown Castle’s (“Crown”) project to extend Verizon’s wireless coverage by installing a 13-microcell Distributed Antenna System (“DAS”) in Aptos’ Day Valley area. Aptos Residents Association v. County of Santa Cruz (Crown Castle, Inc., Real Party in Interest (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 1039.
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.
In a detailed 66-page published opinion filed April 10, 2017, the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order discharging a writ of mandate that was issued to compel the California Air Resources Board (“CARB”) to correct CEQA violations in connection with its 2009 adoption of low carbon fuel standards (“LCFS”) regulations. POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (National Resources Defense Council, Inc., Intervenor and Respondent) (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 764, Case No. F073340 (“POET II”). The CEQA violations resulting in the writ were discussed in the Court of Appeal’s earlier published opinion, POET, LLC. V. State Air Resources Bd. (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 68 (“POET I”), which was summarized in my blog post here.
Like the fable of the blind men and the elephant, CEQA’s prohibition on “piecemealing” of environmental review is animated by a basic recognition that the “whole” of an action under review is greater than its individual parts viewed separately. (The same important insight also underlies CEQA’s requirement to analyze a project’s cumulative impacts.) But CEQA’s expansive and rather amorphous definition of what constitutes a “project” ensures that its piecemealing rule shares another similarity with the famous fable: what conduct constitutes improper piecemealing often appears to be in the “eye of the beholder” and individual perceptions can differ greatly based on more-or-less subjective factors. Appellate courts have long wrestled with application of the relevant legal principles, which essentially attempt to prohibit a lead agency’s “chopping up” of a project into smaller components so that it can turn a “blind eye” to reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts of the “whole” action.
On March 30, 2017, the Sixth District Court of Appeal issued a published opinion that rejected piecemealing and other CEQA challenges raised by the plaintiff/appellant group Aptos Council to several zoning ordinance amendments separately adopted and reviewed for CEQA purposes by the County of Santa Cruz; the enactments addressed discrete topics, but were all initiated by County as part of its general “regulatory reform” effort to “modernize, clarify, streamline and/or provide [clear] standards” for its land use regulations. Aptos Council v. County of Santa Cruz (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 266.
In a unanimous 29-page opinion authored by Associate Justice Carol Corrigan, and filed on March 30, 2017, the California Supreme Court held the City of Newport Beach’s EIR for a large mixed-use development project proposed on a 400-acre coastal zone site failed to comply with CEQA. Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (Newport Banning Ranch LLC, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918. The EIR improperly failed to identify areas of the site that might qualify as “environmentally sensitive habitat areas” (ESHA) – unique areas receiving special legal protections under the California Coastal Act – and take such areas into consideration in its analysis of project alternatives and mitigation measures. In light of its reversal of the Court of Appeal’s judgment upholding the EIR and project approvals on CEQA grounds, the high court stated it did not need to reach plaintiff and appellant’s independent claim that the City also violated a general plan “strategy” requiring it to “[w]ork with appropriate state and federal agencies to identify wetlands and habitats to be preserved and/or restored and those on which development will be permitted.”
Continue Reading California Supreme Court Holds Banning Ranch EIR Violates CEQA by Failing to Identify and Analyze Coastal Zone Project’s Impacts on Potential Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHA); Declines to Reach General Plan Issues
On December 14, 2016, the California Supreme Court denied review and ordered depublished the Sixth District Court of Appeal’s opinion in Bay Area Clean Environment, Inc. v. Santa Clara County, which was previously filed on August 31, 2016 and published at 2 Cal.App.5th 1197. (See, Supreme Court’s Orders of 12/14 and 12/21/16 in Case No. S237709.) Accordingly, the result in the case remains the same and is final and binding on the parties, but the Court of Appeal’s opinion is no longer published or citable as precedent in other cases.