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.

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On November 7, 2016, the Third District Court of Appeal filed a published opinion mostly upholding the EIR for a 48.75-acre, 328-unit residential infill project (known as McKinley Village) against various CEQA challenges, and finding the Project to be consistent with the City of Sacramento’s general plan.  East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City v. City of Sacramento (Encore McKinley Village, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (3d Dist. 2016) 5 Cal.App.5th 281.  In a pointed reminder that a perfectly CEQA-compliant EIR for a large infill project is difficult to prepare, however, the Court found merit in a single argument of the petitioner and appellant neighborhood group, ESPLC – its argument that “the EIR ignored [certain] significant traffic impacts.”  Specifically, the EIR failed to adequately support its less-than-significant (LTS) impact conclusion concerning such impacts, in light of a substantial project-caused degradation in level of service (LOS) at affected intersections and streets that was nonetheless compliant with the General Plan’s policy that LOS F was acceptable for the area.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment upholding the EIR, and ordered it to issue a writ directing the City to set aside its certification and correct this lone deficiency prior to considering recertification.

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In a published opinion filed August 31, 2016, the Sixth Appellate District Court of Appeal rejected claims under CEQA and the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (“SMARA”; Pub. Resources Code, §§ 2700, et seq.), and affirmed the denial of a writ petition challenging Santa Clara County’s 2012 EIR and related approval of a reclamation plan amendment for the Permanente Quarry. Bay Area Clean Environment, Inc. v. Santa Clara County (Lehigh Southwest Cement Company, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 1197, 2016 WL 9540085.  The plan amendment governs (over a 20-year period) the closing and reclaiming of the Quarry, which has conducted limestone and aggregate surface mining operations since 1903 in the unincorporated County.  The Quarry has expanded from about 1,300 acres when the Permanente Corporation purchased it in 1939 to its current 3,510 acres.  It includes a central rock/limestone mining pit, a rock crushing area, and administrative offices all located within the upper portion of the Permanente Creek watershed; the creek flows east and borders the Quarry pit’s south side before leaving the Quarry property and running to the bay.

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In a published decision filed October 31, 2014 (Paulek v. California Department of Water Resources (4th Dist., Div. 2, 2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 35, Case No. E060038), the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the Riverside County Superior Court’s judgment denying a petition for a writ of mandate challenging an EIR for the Perris Dam Remediation Project.  The Department of Water Resources’ (“DWR”) DEIR proposed three activities:  (1) remediating the dam’s structural seismic deficiencies; (2) replacing its outlet tower; and (3) creating a new “Emergency Outlet Extension.”  The FEIR addressed a modified project including only the first two components and splitting the emergency outlet extension into a separate project and environmental review process.
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While CEQA actions are statutorily designed as special proceedings with priority over other civil actions, and thus mandated to be heard and resolved expeditiously, when complex or controversial projects with dedicated opposition are involved this salutary statutory scheme sometimes goes off track.  A prominent example is the ongoing CEQA challenge to the environmental review for the Central Valley to San Francisco route of the High-Speed Rail Project, which involves lawsuits that have stretched over parts of 7 years and are not yet concluded — although a recent appellate decision appears to have brought them a step closer to the driving of the final CEQA litigation spike.
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On July 7, 2014, the First District Court of Appeal filed its published opinion affirming the trial court’s judgment upholding the EIR for the Treasure Island/Yerba Buena Island Project.  Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island v. City and County of San Francisco, et al. (Treasure Island Community Development LLC, RPI), 227 Cal.App. 4th 1036 (1st Dist. 2014).
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Harmonizing CEQA’s rules and principles is, to say the least, not always easy, and is often quite challenging.  The relevant concepts are often in tension, or are so malleable that they can be argued or construed to conflict.  For example, environmental review must commence at the earliest “practicable” time, in order to make fully informed decisions at a project’s formative stages and avoid undue project “momentum” or “post-hoc rationalizations”; yet it should not occur so early that it would be “speculative” or not “meaningful” due to lack of sufficient data from a crystallized development project proposal.  To cite another example, a “project” refers to the “activity being approved,” but also to the “whole of an action” and not just individual discretionary permits that trigger CEQA review.  And, a “project approval” occurs at the lead agency’s earliest commitment to a “definite course of action” regarding a proposed project.  Fuzzy concepts like these can be difficult to apply, and supply ample fodder for CEQA litigation.  They tend to produce heavily fact-specific decisions offering unclear guidance to lead agencies and project proponents.
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