The California Legislature has enacted new Public Resources Code § 21159.25, effective as of January 1, 2019 (Stats. 2018, c. 670 (A.B. 1804)), which extends much of the substance of the existing CEQA Guidelines’ Class 32 categorical exemption for “infill development” (14 Cal. Code Regs., § 15332) to certain multi-family housing projects in urbanized, unincorporated county areas.  While largely patterned after the Class 32 exemption, the statute thus has a few unique and significant twists and limitations, as explained below.

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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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In a published opinion filed February 13, 2019, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Division 3) reaffirmed the need for a CEQA litigant challenging a coastal development permit to appeal to the Coastal Commission before suing.  Fudge v. City of Laguna Beach (Hany Dimitry; Real Party in Interest) (2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 193.  The Court refused plaintiff’s invitation to make the simple complex, and followed published precedents requiring a plaintiff to exhaust the statutory administrative remedy of an appeal to the Commission to ripen a litigation challenge.

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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 an opinion filed December 18, 2018, and later ordered published on January 10, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying appellant citizen groups’ writ petition challenging the City of St. Helena’s approval of an 8-unit, multifamily housing project and related demolition and design review.  McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group, et al. v. City of St. Helena, et al. (2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 80.  The decision applied the basic principle that CEQA does not apply to ministerial project approvals, and further clarified that CEQA does not apply to “mixed” discretionary/ministerial approvals where the “discretionary component” does not give the agency the authority to mitigate environmental impacts.  It held that because the City’s discretion under its local design review ordinance does not extend to addressing environmental effects it does not implicate CEQA, and therefore the City’s reliance on the CEQA Guidelines’ Class 32 exemption was unnecessary.

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A few recent developments and upcoming events in the CEQA world bear quick mention:

  • The BART Housing Bill:

Under AB 2923, BART now has limited land use regulation authority on its own lands near its stations. BART is required to adopt Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) standards for its lands by July 1, 2020, and its action in this regard is subject to CEQA review, with BART acting as the lead agency.  The new law declares the minimum TOD standards for this purpose (setting minimum density and height limits, and maximum parking limits) are set forth in BART’s 2017 TOD Guidelines.  Development projects which meet TOD zoning requirements and provide 30% affordable housing will qualify for streamlined, “by-right,” ministerial approval with no additional CEQA review.  The law also requires cities and counties to adopt zoning standards for BART-owned lands, conforming to BART’s adoption of TOD standards for height, density, parking, and FAR for eligible TOD projects, within 2 years of BART’s action, or by July 1, 2022 if BART fails to act.  The new law is intended to increase California’s housing supply and provide some relief from its housing crisis, and could enable BART to develop up to 20,000 residential units and 4.5 million square feet of office/commercial uses on 250 acres of BART-owned lands by 2040.  My partner Bryan Wenter’s excellent post on this new law can be found here.


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On September 7, 2018, Governor Brown signed two bills amending CEQA in relatively minor ways that will become effective January 1, 2019.

AB 2341 (Chapter 298) (Mathis) adds Public Resources Code § 21081.3 to provide that “a lead agency is not required to evaluate the aesthetic effects of a project and aesthetic effects shall not be considered significant effects on the environment if the project involves the refurbishment, conversion, repurposing, or replacement of an existing building that meets … [five specified] requirements[.]”  To fall within this new partial statutory exemption, (1) the building must be abandoned, dilapidated (defined as “decayed, deteriorated, or fallen into such disrepair through neglect or misuse so as to require substantial repair for safe and proper use”), or have been vacant for over a year; (2) the site must be immediately adjacent to parcels developed with qualified urban uses or 75 percent of its perimeter must adjoin such parcels (with the remainder adjoining parcels previously so developed); (3) the project must include housing construction; (4) any new structure must “not substantially exceed the height of the existing structure”; and (5) the project must “not create a new source of substantial light or glare.”


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SB 743 was enacted in 2013 to further California’s efforts to reduce GHG emissions by encouraging transit-oriented, infill development – a strategy announced in SB 375, the “Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008.”  As part of SB 743, the Legislature enacted Public Resources Code § 21099(d)(1), which provides:  “Aesthetic and parking impacts of a residential, mixed-use residential, or employment center project on an infill site within a transit priority area shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment.”  In an opinion filed February 28, and subsequently certified for publication on March 22, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal (Division 7) applied § 21099(d)(1) and held that it exempted from CEQA review alleged parking impacts of a 68-acre, mixed-use, infill project, located a quarter-mile from the Covina Metrolink commuter rail station, which the City approved via Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) three months after the statute’s effective date.  Covina Residents for Responsible Development v. City of Covina (City Ventures, Inc., et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 712.  In addition to rejecting plaintiff/appellant CRRD’s CEQA challenges to the project, the Court of Appeal rejected its Subdivision Map Act (SMA) arguments and affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying its writ petition.

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A fundamental prerequisite to a viable lawsuit is a plaintiff possessing standing to bring it, and in writ of mandate proceedings that generally means a person or entity actually possessing a beneficial interest in the legal relief being sought.  Nonetheless, CEQA’s broad statutory standing provisions, the “public interest exception” to beneficial interest standing, constitutional associational privacy claims, and the general unavailability of civil discovery (due to the general irrelevance of extra-record evidence) in administrative mandamus actions have all conspired to allow CEQA litigation standing abuses to become a large – and largely unchecked – problem.  Indeed, I have previously analyzed and written about this particular CEQA litigation abuse in depth.  (See, e.g., Standing Against Environmental Injustice: Some Thoughts On Facing The Need For CEQA Litigation Reform,” by Arthur F. Coon, posted July 18, 2017.)  I am thus happy to be able to report that, in an opinion filed November 28, and ordered published on December 19, 2017, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has now done something about it.  Specifically, it properly upheld the use of civil discovery directed to the issue of a plaintiff organization’s standing in a CEQA writ proceeding, and also affirmed the trial court’s judgment of dismissal after granting a terminating sanction for plaintiff’s discovery abuse in attempting to thwart such discovery.  This important new decision is Creed-21 v. City of Wildomar (Walmart Real Estate Business Trust, Real Party in Interest) (4th Dist., Div. 2, 2017) 18 Cal.App.5th 690.

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