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) ___ Cal.App.5th _____.   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

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!

Continue Reading Governor Brown Vetoes Flawed AB 890, Signals Preference for More Comprehensive CEQA Reform

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.

Continue Reading The Opposite of CEQA Reform: Legally Flawed AB 890 Would Expand Opportunities for CEQA Litigation Abuse While Abridging Constitutional Local Initiative Rights

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) 3 Cal.5th 677.  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

A new year often brings fresh perspective.  With 2016 still in its infancy, it is natural to reflect back on what has been and also to contemplate what is yet to come.  The California Supreme Court’s recent CEQA decisions, and its current docket of CEQA cases awaiting decision, provide ample opportunity for both of these basic human impulses.

Continue Reading Supreme Engagement: CEQA’s Continuing Saga In California’s High Court

Controversy has dogged the California high speed rail project since before its inception with the 2008 passage of Proposition 1A, the bond measure providing the project’s initial funding.  The controversy has not abated in the years since, and the project has been subject to ever-escalating cost estimates and almost constant second-guessing.  It has also been the target for multiple CEQA lawsuits.  Recent developments in this area demonstrate just how complex the legal landscape can get when it comes to CEQA’s application to large and long-term public railway projects.  Two very different bodies – the California Supreme Court and the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) – have just waded into this legal thicket to try to provide some clarity.  But things could get worse before they get better in that regard, as the stage is set for potentially conflicting rulings on the application of federal preemption law to CEQA.

Continue Reading “Making CEQA A Federal Case? Recent Actions of California’s Supreme Court and the Federal Surface Transportation Board Set Up A Preemption Showdown”

Perhaps foremost among the judicially recognized fundamental constraints on lead agencies’ power to impose various types of mitigation measures on project approvals in the CEQA process is the “doctrine of unconstitutional conditions” explicated in the Nollan/Dolan cases and their progeny.

The CEQA Guidelines explicitly acknowledge applicable constitutional requirements that mitigation measures must have an “essential nexus” to a legitimate government interest, and that those imposed as ad hoc exactions must bear a “rough proportionality” to the project’s adverse impacts.  (14 Cal. Code Regs., § 15126.4(a)(4)(A), (B), citing Nollan v. California Coastal Com’n (1987) 483 U.S. 825, 837; Dolan v. City of Tigard (1994) 512 U.S. 374, 391; Ehrlich v. City of Culver City (1996) 12 Cal.4th 854, 866-877.)

Continue Reading The Limits of CEQA Mitigation – Recent Judicial Applications of Nollan and Dolan

The North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA), a public agency established by state law, contracted with Northwestern Pacific Railroad Company (NWPRC) to allow NWPRC to conduct freight services on tracks controlled by NCRA.  Petitioner groups Friends of The Eel River (FOER) and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CAT) filed mandate petitions under CEQA challenging NCRA’s EIR and approval of the operations.  In affirming the trial court’s judgment denying the petitions, the First District Court of Appeal – in addressing what it termed “an issue of first impression in California” — followed uniform Federal law in holding the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA; 49 U.S.C. § 10101 et. seq.) grants the Surface Transportation Board (STB) exclusive jurisdiction over rail operations and broadly exempts state and local laws that impose “permitting or preclearance requirements (including environmental requirements)” on railroad operations or activities.  Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority (1st Dist., Div. 5, 2014) ___Cal.App.4th ___, 2014 WL 4809456 (opn. filed 9/29/14).  In so holding that the ICCTA preempted CEQA’s application to a project involving railroad operations and thus barred Petitioners’ actions, the Court rejected Petitioners’ arguments that NCRA and NWPRC were estopped to assert federal preemption as a defense by NCRA’s agreement to conduct CEQA review, their positions in prior proceedings, and/or NCRA’s (later-rescinded) certification of an EIR.

Continue Reading First District Holds CEQA’s Application To Public Agency’s Approval of Railroad Operations Is Preempted By Federal Law Despite Agency’s Agreement To Conduct CEQA Review And Preparation of EIR