In a published opinion filed on February 23, 2023, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed a judgment of dismissal after the sustaining of a demurrer and held that an amended writ petition challenging a city’s street closure project sufficiently stated claims against the city for Vehicle Code, local ordinance, and CEQA violations.  Committee to Relocate Marilyn v. City of Palm Springs (PS Resorts, Real Party in Interest) (2023) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  As relevant here, it held the operative petition was not time-barred despite its first alleging CEQA violations more than 35 days after the City’s filing of a Notice of Exemption (“NOE”) because the City subsequently changed its project from a street vacation to an allegedly temporary street closure and Petitioner (the “Committee” or “Petitioner”) filed its amended petition alleging a CEQA claim within 180 days of learning of the change.

Continue Reading “Permanent Vacation” In Palm Springs? – Fourth District Holds CEQA’s Short 35-Day Statute of Limitations Does Not Apply Despite City’s Filing of NOE Due To Subsequent Material Change In Street Vacation Project Which Triggered Maximum 180-Day Limitations Period

On February 15, 2023, the California Supreme Court denied the petitions for review and issued an order decertifying the Second District Court of Appeal’s controversial (and previously published) opinion in G.I. Industries v. City of Thousand Oaks (2022) 84 Cal.App.5th 814, rev. den. and depub’d. 2/15/23 (Supreme Ct. Case No. S277439).  (My prior posts on this decision and its subsequent procedural history can be accessed by clicking on their following dates:  10/31/22; 12/5/22; and 1/30/23.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Denies Review And Depublishes Troublesome Brown Act/CEQA Exemption Decision

In an opinion in a much-publicized case, filed December 28, 2022, and later ordered published on January 26, 2023, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 3), upheld the City of Livermore’s (“City”) approval of a 130-unit affordable housing project on a downtown infill site and its accompanying determination that the project was CEQA-exempt under Government Code section 65457 (“Section 65457”).  (Save Livermore Downtown v. City of Livermore (2023) 87 Cal.App.5th 1116 (“SLD”).)  The important opinion was ordered published based on requests submitted by City, Attorney General Rob Bonta, YIMBY, and the California Building Industry Association.

Continue Reading First District Upholds Use of Government Code Section 65457 CEQA Exemption For Downtown Livermore Affordable Housing Project, Roundly Rejects Meritless Arguments of NIMBY Opposition

In a 5-2 opinion filed August 1, 2022, a divided California Supreme Court held the Federal Power Act (“FPA”; 16 U.S.C. § 791a et seq.) does not “occupy the field” and entirely preempt CEQA’s application to the state’s participation, as applicant and hydroelectric facility owner/operator, in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) licensing process the FPA requires to operate such facilities.  County of Butte v. Department of Water Resources (2022) 13 Cal.5th 612, Case No. S258574.  Acknowledging the result would likely be different if a private party were the license applicant, the Court applied a narrower type of direct conflict preemption, based on a state entity being the facility owner/operator/applicant.  The majority did agree with the Third District Court of Appeal that the Counties challenging the State Department of Water Resources’ (“DWR”) EIR, prepared in connection with its application to renew a 50-year license to operate its Butte County Oroville dam and related hydroelectric facilities, could not seek to unwind a settlement agreement prepared as part of FERC’s application process and proceedings; nor could they seek to enjoin DWR from operating under the proposed (but not yet issued) license – a request for relief the Counties initially pursued, but apparently abandoned at oral argument before the Supreme Court.  The Court’s majority acknowledged such actions would contravene FERC’s “sole jurisdiction” over licensing process disputes and be preempted under longstanding federal law.  (18 C.F.R. § 4.34 (i)(6)(vii); First Iowa Coop. v. Federal Power Comm’n (1946) 328 U.S. 152, 164 (“First Iowa”).)

Continue Reading California Supreme Court Holds In 5-2 Decision, Over Chief Justice’s Strong Dissent, That Federal Power Act Does Not Fully Preempt CEQA’s Application to FERC’s Licensing Process for State-Owned and Operated Hydroelectric Projects

“The more I know, the less I understand/All the things I thought I’d figured out, I have to learn again” – Don Henley, “The Heart of the Matter”

One of CEQA’s bedrock principles is that environmental review must precede project approval.  (E.g., POET, LLC v. California Air Resources Board (2013) 217 Cal.App.4th 1214; CEQA Guidelines, § 15004(a).)  To reverse the order and “put the cart before the horse” would be anathema, i.e., to sanction uninformed and undemocratic lead agency decision making, and to encourage irretrievable commitments of resources and post-hoc rationalizations that foreclose mitigations and alternatives and sweep environmental considerations under the rug.  Right?  Well …  maybe not.  In the area of State Water Resources Control Board (“SWRCB” or the “State Board”) water quality certifications (“WQCs”) under the Federal Clean Water Act (“CWA”; 33 U.S.C § 1251 et seq), this bedrock principle appears to have been watered down, and it may be significantly eroding under pressure from a preemptive federal law deadline.

Continue Reading Must CEQA Compliance Precede Project Approval? When State Water Board Water Quality Certifications Are Involved, The Answer Is As “Clear as Mud”

On December 11, 2019, the California Supreme Court by a 7-0 vote granted the petition for review of Butte and Plumas Counties and the Plumas County Flood Control and Water Conservation District in County of Butte v. Department of Water Resources (State Water Contractors), Case No. S258574 (formerly published at (3d Dist. 2019) 39 Cal.App.5th 708).  The order granting review, which also directed that the Third District’s opinion be depublished at the request of defendant and respondent Department of Water Resources (which interestingly filed no answer to the petition for review), specified the following two issues for briefing:

Continue Reading California Supreme Court Grants Review of Third District Decision Involving FERC Relicensing of State’s Oroville Hydroelectric Dam Project To Decide Extent To Which Federal Power Act Preempts CEQA; Merits Briefing Underway

The City of Sacramento received an early Christmas present with the December 18 publication of the Third District Court of Appeal’s opinion in Citizens for Positive Growth & Preservation v. City of Sacramento (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 609, which was originally filed on November 26, 2019.  The decision affirmed a trial court judgment upholding the City’s 2035 General Plan against the plaintiff group’s Planning and Zoning Law and CEQA challenges.  The opinion’s most significant CEQA holding was that plaintiff’s challenge to the EIR’s transportation impacts analysis was moot because the applicable law currently in effect at the time of judgment in the appellate court – specifically, Public Resources Code § 20199(b)(2) (enacted as part of SB 743) – provides that auto delays measured by LOS or similar measures shall not be considered significant environmental impacts.  The Court of Appeal also rejected all of plaintiff’s other CEQA challenges, including those to the City’s non-adoption of the no-project alternative, its decision not to recirculate the EIR after adding numerous supplemental changes to the draft 2035 General Plan, and its Final EIR’s GHG and cyclist safety analyses.

Continue Reading Out With The Old (And In With The New … Next Year)! – Third District Rejects CEQA And General Plan Consistency Challenges to Sacramento’s 2035 General Plan Update And Related EIR, Holds Traffic Analysis Challenge Based On Lowering of Acceptable LOS Is Mooted By Public Resources Code § 20199, But New VMT Standard Doesn’t Yet Apply

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) issues licenses needed to construct and operate hydroelectric dams pursuant to the Federal Power Act (“FPA”; 16 U.S.C. § 791a, et seq).  Under long-standing law, and with the limited exception of state-issued water quality certifications, the FPA “occupies the field” of licensing a hydroelectric dam, and bars environmental review of the federal licensing procedure in state courts; this preemption is necessary because recognizing a “dual final authority” for such projects would be “unworkable.”  (First Iowa Hydro-Electric Cooperative v. Federal Power Com. (1946) 328 U.S. 152.)  States have limited authority under the Clean Water Act (33 U.S.C. § 1341) to impose stricter water quality conditions than are federally required on a FERC license, through the section 401 water quality certification process, but must act on a project applicant’s certification request within one year or certification is deemed waived.  (33 U.S.C. § 401(a)(1); Alcoa Power Generating Inc. v. FERC (D.C. Cir. 2011) 643 F.3d 963, 972.)  Further, any disputes concerning the Federal licensing process or the adequacy of “required studies” for that process (including “environmental studies” serving as the predicate for the state’s water quality certification conditions) are subject to FERC’s review.  (18 C.F.R. part 4, 34(i)(b)(vii) (2003).)

Continue Reading State Courts Lack Jurisdiction Over CEQA Challenge To Matters Within FERC’s Jurisdiction In Hydroelectric Dam Relicensure Process For Oroville Dam Facilities

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.

Continue Reading “Sauce For The Gander”: Second District Holds CEQA’s Broad Definition Of “Project” Also Applies In Determining Scope of Activity To Which Statutory Exemption Applies