Spring now being practically “in the air,” a bit of CEQA “spring cleaning” seems appropriate – so here’s a brief look at the status of some significant CEQA-related cases that are now pending before our Supreme Court, or in which its review has been sought:

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On November 20, 2018, in response to a petition for review filed by the Target Superstore project’s opponent, plaintiff (and respondent on appeal) Citizens Coalition Los Angeles, the California Supreme Court denied review and ordered the Court of Appeal’s opinion depublished.  My September 7, 2018 blog post analyzing and critiquing the Court of Appeal’s decision, which was previously published at Citizens Coalition Los Angeles v. City of Los Angeles (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 561, can be found here.

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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?

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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.

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In a published decision filed June 12, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 6) held that the same broad definition of a “project” that mandates more extensive CEQA review of activities undertaken or approved by public agencies also applies in determining the scope of statutory exemptions that serve to exempt certain projects from CEQA review.  County of Ventura v. City of Moorpark, Broad Beach Geologic Hazard Abatement District (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 377.  The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment to the extent it rejected Ventura County’s CEQA, preemption, and extraterritorial regulation challenges to a settlement agreement between the City of Moorpark and the Broad Beach Geologic Hazard Abatement District (BBGHAD), a state law entity created to carry out a Malibu beach restoration project.  But it reversed with directions to declare void (as unlawful abdications of BBGHAD’s police power) certain of the settlement agreement’s provisions which severely limited BBGHAD’s authority to modify project haul routes in the event of changed circumstances.

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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.  (SeeThe 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!


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AB 890 (Medina – D), recently sent to Governor Brown for action by October 15, seeks to amend Government Code § 65867.5 and to add §§ 65363 and 65850.10 to prevent development agreements and certain types of land use planning and zoning legislation from being enacted by local voter-sponsored land use initiatives.  The bill would substantially abridge the local electorate’s constitutionally guaranteed and reserved initiative power by purporting to exclusively “delegate” specified exercises of legislative authority to local governing bodies – city councils and county boards of supervisors – and thus concomitantly eliminating local voters’ long-held and until now unassailable rights to directly legislate in such areas pursuant to California Constitution, Article II, Section 11, and the procedures of the Elections Code.

The bill’s stated purpose is to ensure the enumerated types of local development proposals are subjected to CEQA review – and, implicitly, to provide expanded opportunities for litigation under a flawed CEQA statute the legislature continues to refuse to meaningfully reform – by annulling the constitutional right of local voters to directly legislate in these areas, a presently enjoyed and “jealously guarded” right the exercise of which is not currently subject to CEQA review.  Long story short:  AB 890 is a bad bill that proposes a cure far worse than the perceived disease.  As will be apparent from the discussion of its provisions below, the proposed law is deeply flawed, of doubtful constitutionality, and the opposite of CEQA reform.


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On September 9, 2016, the First District Court of Appeal (Division 5) filed an “Order Modifying Opinion and Denying Rehearing [No Change In Judgment]” in California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Case. Nos. A135335 & A136212.  My post on the Court of Appeal’s published opinion in the case, which was filed on August 12, 2015 following remand from a landmark Supreme Court decision holding that “CEQA does not generally require an agency to consider the effects of existing environmental conditions on a proposed project’s future users or residents” (California Building Industry Assn. v. Bay Area Air Quality Management Dist. (2015) 62 Cal.4th 369, 392), can be found here. 

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With the February 13 passing of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, American jurisprudence lost an intellectual giant. But Justice Scalia will not be forgotten; the legacy of his life’s work lives on.

While much has been and will be written about his landmark opinions and the originalist and textualist methods of constitutional and statutory interpretation he brought to bear in them, Justice Scalia’s significant legal contributions to CEQA, land use and environmental law merit special recognition.


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CEQA and land use law in California go together like a hand in a glove. Due to CEQA’s broad scope and exacting substantive and procedural requirements, it is relatively easy to plead a cause of action for CEQA violations in most instances where land use approvals or entitlements for a development project are challenged.  CEQA claims thus play a prominent, and often leading, role as petitioners’ litigation “weapon of choice” in most such land use disputes.
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