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?
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).)
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 on August 22, 2018, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed the trial court’s judgment rejecting various CEQA challenges to the City of San Francisco’s (“City”) Program EIR analyzing the environmental impacts of its 2009 General Plan Housing Element, which it adopted on June 29, 2011. San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods v. City and County of San Francisco (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 596. San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods (“SFLN”), an unincorporated association comprised of more than a dozen neighborhood organizations, had challenged the EIR – mostly unsuccessfully – in the trial court. It then appealed from adverse portions of the judgment concerning the EIR’s baseline and impact analyses for traffic, water supply, land use, and visual resources impacts; the City’s decision not to recirculate the EIR; the EIR’s alternatives analysis; and the feasibility of certain proposed mitigation measures.
In a published opinion filed June 13, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed a judgment denying a writ of mandate and declaratory relief in an action challenging the California State Lands Commission’s (“Commission”) determination that CEQA Guidelines § 15301’s categorical exemption for “existing facilities” applied to its renewal of PG&E’s leases of state-owned lands needed to operate the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant until federal licensures expire in 2025. World Business Academy v. California State Lands Commission (Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 476. The Court rejected petitioner/appellant World Business Academy’s arguments that the consolidated lease replacement, which maintains the status quo at the plant until 2025, did not fall within the exemption, or was subject to the “unusual circumstances” exception, and also rejected arguments that it violated the public trust doctrine.
Continue Reading Second District Holds CEQA’s Existing Facilities Categorical Exemption Applies To State Lands Commission/PG&E Lease Extension For Operation Of California’s Last Active Nuclear Power Plant Until 2025 Closure
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.
In an opinion filed March 20, and later certified for publication on April 12, 2018, the First District Court of Appeal (Division 3) affirmed a limited peremptory writ of mandate issued by the Contra Costa County Superior Court requiring the County to set aside an EIR and land use permit for Phillips 66 Company’s “Propane Recovery Project” at its oil refinery in the City of Rodeo, pending County’s correction of specified inadequacies in the EIR’s air quality analysis. Rodeo Citizens Association v. County of Contra Costa (Phillips 66 Company, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 22 Cal.App.5th 214. Unsatisfied with the trial court’s grant of limited relief and denial of its additional CEQA challenges to the EIR (based on an allegedly defective project description and deficient GHG and hazard analyses), plaintiff/appellant Rodeo Citizens Association (“RCA”) appealed as to those issues, but the Court of Appeal rejected its arguments and affirmed the writ as issued by the trial court.
In a lengthy, partially published opinion filed January 12, 2018, the First District Court of Appeal (Division 3) partly affirmed, but in large part reversed, the trial court’s judgment granting a writ of mandate directing the City of Los Angeles to set aside its FEIR certification and approval of BNSF Railway Company’s (“BNSF”) project to construct a new intermodal railyard facility, near the Port of Los Angeles, to handle containerized cargo transported through the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. City of Long Beach, et al., Xavier Becerra (Attorney General, as Intervener) v. City of Los Angeles, (BNSF Railway Company, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 19 Cal.App.5th 465.
In a lengthy opinion filed December 20, 2017, and belatedly ordered published on January 8, 2018, the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division 1, affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition asserting CEQA and land use law challenges to the City of San Diego’s (“City”) approval of a small high school on previously developed, open-space designated lands adjacent to a commercial equestrian facility. Clews Land and Livestock, LLC v. City of San Diego (Jan Dunning, et al, Real Parties In Interest) (2017) 19 Cal.App.5th 161. The opinion underscores the critical importance of correctly interpreting and scrupulously following a local lead agency’s administrative appeal procedures in order to exhaust administrative remedies and preserve CEQA claims for judicial review. (The non-CEQA, land use law aspects of the opinion will not be analyzed here but will be covered in a subsequent blog post by my partner, Bryan Wenter.)