In an opinion filed on August 24, and certified for partial publication on September 22, 2021, the Third District Court of Appeal reversed a judgment upholding Placer County’s EIR for a 94-acre resort development project in the Olympic (formerly Squaw) Valley area – site of the 1960 Winter Olympics near the iconic Lake Tahoe.  Sierra Watch v. County of Placer (Squaw Valley Real Estate, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2021) 69 Cal.App.5th 1.  The published portions of the 51-page opinion found faults in the EIR’s description of the environmental setting and related water and air quality impact analyses, and errors in its analysis and mitigation of construction noise impacts.  Nearly half of the opinion remained unpublished; those portions of it (1) upheld the EIR’s climate change analysis (rejecting appellant Sierra Watch’s arguments challenging it as meritless, moot, or forfeited), (2) upheld most of the EIR’s wildfire impacts analysis (finding merit in one of appellant’s eight arguments, relating to underestimation of evacuation times), and (3) held the EIR’s traffic impacts analysis improperly relied on deferred mitigation.  (The unpublished portions of the opinion will not be discussed further in this post.)

Continue Reading Let’s Get Regional: Third District Holds Olympic Valley Resort Project EIR’s Environmental Setting Description and Analysis Violated CEQA’s Requirement To Place Special Emphasis On Unique Regional Environmental Resources By Failing To Sufficiently Consider Lake Tahoe

In a published opinion filed August 19, 2021, the Second District Court of Appeal reversed a judgment of the Los Angeles County Superior Court that found fault with the EIR for an improvement project within the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument portion of the Angeles National Forest.  Save Our Access–San Gabriel Mountains v. Watershed Conservation Authority (2021) 68 Cal.App.5th 8.  The trial court had rejected plaintiff’s claims that CEQA required the EIR to analyze alternatives beyond the “no project” alternative, and that the project was inconsistent with applicable land use and management plans, but issued a writ requiring additional analysis of the project’s parking reduction “impacts.”  In resolving the ensuing appeals of both parties, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment on the parking issue, finding that reduction in parking is a social not environmental, impact and that plaintiff had failed to identify any secondary adverse physical effects on the environment resulting from the reduction.  It affirmed the remainder of the judgment denying plaintiff’s other claims, and reversed the trial court’s fee award to plaintiff as compelled by its disposition of the merits.

Continue Reading Second District Confirms Parking Is (Still) Not A CEQA Impact, Reverses Judgment That Found EIR For San Gabriel Mountains Wilderness Recreation And Preservation Project Deficient For Not Sufficiently Analyzing “Impact” Of Reducing Recreational Parking

In a lengthy opinion filed April 8, and ordered published on May 7, 2021, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment rejecting a number of CEQA challenges to the California State Land Commission’s (Lands Commission) supplemental EIR for and related approval of a lease modification to facilitate a desalination plant in Huntington Beach.  California Coastkeeper Alliance v. State Lands Commission (Poseidon Resources (Surfside) LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2021) 64 Cal.App.5th 36.  In holding that the Commission properly elected to prepare a supplemental (rather than subsequent) EIR, did not err in refusing to assume lead agency status, and did not unlawfully piecemeal environmental review, the Court provided guidance on a number of significant CEQA issues.

Continue Reading Third District Affirms Judgment Upholding State Lands Commission’s Supplemental EIR For Desalination Plant Lease Modification, Rejects CEQA Claims That Commission Piecemealed Review And Should Have Assumed Lead Agency Status And Prepared A Subsequent EIR

In an 85-page opinion filed March 25, and modified and certified for partial publication on April 23, 2021, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the Napa County Superior Court’s judgment denying a writ petition challenging the County’s EIR and approvals for an expansion of Syar Industries, Inc.’s (Syar) aggregate mining operations at a quarry that has existed since the 1800s.  Stop Syar Expansion v. County of Napa (1st Dist. 2021) 63 Cal.App.5th 444.  The Court belatedly published about 25 pages of its lengthy opinion, which portions addressed basic CEQA principles, including standard of review and exhaustion principles, and the interplay of CEQA and general plan consistency issues.

Continue Reading First District Affirms Judgment Rejecting CEQA and General Plan Consistency Challenges to Napa County’s EIR for Syar Quarry Expansion Project, Addresses Significant Exhaustion and Land Use Issues

“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”

As we rapidly approach the end of a year of COVID-related challenges and uncertainties, CEQA practitioners may want to review the year’s key legislation impacting CEQA and its application, which was contained in the handful of bills summarized below.

  • AB 168 (Aguilar-Curry). This urgency legislation became effective with the Governor’s signature on September 25, 2020.  It amends Government Code §§ 65400, 65913.4 and 65941.1 to correct an “oversight” in SB 35 (Weiner), namely, that 2017 law’s failure to consider potential destruction of tribal cultural resources as a result of the streamlined, ministerial (and thus CEQA-exempt) approval process it authorized for multifamily housing development projects satisfying specified objective planning standards.  (SB 35 is summarized in detail in my 12/7/17 blog post, which can be found here.)


Continue Reading 2020 CEQA Legislative Developments

In a partially-published, 150-page slip opinion resolving appeals in consolidated cases, and filed February 25, 2020, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed in part and reversed in part a trial court decision finding CEQA defects in the 1800-plus page EIR prepared for Kern County’s adoption of an ordinance designed to provide a streamlined, ministerial permitting process for new oil and gas wells in the county.  King and Gardiner Farms, LLC v. County of Kern, et al. (California Independent Petroleum Association, et al., Real Parties in Interest); Committee for a Better Arvin, et al. v. County of Kern, et al. (California Independent Petroleum Association, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (5th Dist. 2020) 45 Cal.App.5th 814.  The published portion of the opinion held the EIR improperly deferred the formulation and implementation of mitigation for significant water supply impacts; failed to adequately mitigate farmland conversion impacts due to improper reliance on agricultural conversion easements (ACEs) as offsetting mitigation; and failed to adequately analyze noise impacts by relying solely on an absolute cumulative numerical limit threshold of significance, rather than also analyzing the significance of the magnitude of project noise increases over ambient levels in differently affected settings.  (Approximately 53 pages of the opinion, a portion finding CEQA violations with respect to air quality and related health risks due to failure to adequately discuss PM 2.5 emissions impacts and related mitigation, and failure to recirculate the DEIR after adding significant new information in the form of an appended Cumulative Health Risk Assessment, were not certified for publication; consequently, those portions set no precedent and will not be discussed in further detail in this post.)

Continue Reading Fifth District Holds EIR For Kern County’s Ministerial Oil and Gas Well Permitting Ordinance Violates CEQA Due To Improperly Deferred Mitigation For Water Supply Impacts, Inadequate Mitigation For Farmland Conversion, And Inadequate Analysis of Noise Impacts

In an opinion filed November 26, and ordered published on December 23, 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal partially reversed a judgment rejecting a labor union’s CEQA challenges to the EIS/EIR for a geothermal power plant project on federal land in Mono County.  Russel Covington, et al v. Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, et al. (Orin 50 LLC, et al, Real Parties in Interest) (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 867.

Continue Reading “ROG Won: A CEQA Wars Story” – Third District Holds Geothermal Energy Project EIR’s Rejection Of Proposed Mitigation Measures For Significant ROG Fugitive Emissions Impact Violated CEQA Where No Substantial Evidence Showed Measures’ Infeasibility

In a 38-page opinion filed on May 16, and belatedly ordered published on June 14, 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment rejecting all of plaintiff/appellant Center for Biological Diversity’s (“CBD”) CEQA and statutory challenges to the EIR that the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (“DOGGR”) was required by S.B. 4 (Stats. 2013, ch. 13, § 2) to prepare “pursuant to [CEQA], to provide the public with detailed information regarding any potential environmental impacts of well stimulation in the state.”  (Pub. Resources Code, § 3161(b)(3)(A).)  The Court’s opinion addresses and disposes of CBD’s CEQA and other challenges in a highly unusual, and even unprecedented, context – that of a statutorily required program EIR addressing the statewide impacts of oil and gas well-stimulation treatments (including the controversial treatment known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) prepared in the absence of any “project” being approved or undertaken by the ostensible “lead agency” (DOGGR).  Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, et al. (3d Dist. 2019) 36 Cal.App.5th 210.

Continue Reading The Curious Case of the EIR Without A “Project”: Third District Rejects CEQA, Statutory Challenges To DOGGR’s “Unique” S.B. 4-Mandated EIR Analyzing Statewide Fracking/Well Stimulation Impacts

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.

Continue Reading Coastal Act Trumps CEQA: CDP Challenger Must Administratively Appeal Local Entity’s Approval To Coastal Commission Before Bringing Judicial Action