In a published decision filed March 30, 2022, the First District Court of Appeal (Division 5) reversed a trial court judgment upholding the reissued final environmental impact report (“RFEIR”) for a 44-single family residence project on a unique, species- and habitat- rich 32-acre site in the City of Livermore’s Garaventa Hills area.  Save the Hill Group v. City of Livermore (Lafferty Communities, Inc., Real Party in Interest) (2022) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  Both the trial court and Court of Appeal agreed that the RFEIR’s analysis of the “no project” alternative was substantively inadequate, because it lacked information about the feasibility of purchase and preservation options that was necessary for the City Council to make an informed, reasoned decision, but the Court of Appeal disagreed with the trial court’s conclusion that Petitioner/Appellant Save the Hill’s failure to exhaust on this issue barred judicial consideration of it.  The Court of Appeal rejected Appellant’s remaining arguments that the RFEIR’s analysis and mitigation of the project’s vernal pool fairy shrimp (“VPFS”) and wetlands impacts were inadequate, and that its identified compensatory mitigation for permanent sensitive habitat loss was inadequate.  (In a brief concluding portion of the opinion that won’t be further discussed here, the Court also held Appellant had forfeited and lacked standing to raise the issue of City’s alleged mitigation obligations under two prior settlement agreements to which Appellant was not a party.)

Continue Reading First District Holds EIR’s Analysis of “No Project” Alternative To City of Livermore Residential Development Violated CEQA By Failing To Discuss Feasibility Of Purchasing And Preserving Habitat-Rich Garaventa Hills Project Site, Also Addresses Significant Issues Involving Exhaustion Doctrine And Adequacy of Mitigation

In an opinion filed January 28, and later certified for publication on February 16, 2022, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying a petition for writ of mandate that challenged on CEQA grounds the El Dorado Irrigation District’s (“EID”) decision to undertake its Upper Main Ditch piping project.  Save the El Dorado Canal v. El Dorado Irrigation District, et al. (2022) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  The challenged water conveyance project would replace about three miles of EID’s open and unlined earthen ditch system with a buried water transmission pipeline in order to conserve water and improve water quality.  Petitioner alleged the EIR’s project description was inadequate because it omitted the material fact that the ditch section to be abandoned as a water conveyance also served as the watershed’s only drainage system, and that the EIR insufficiently analyzed the abandonment’s impacts on hydrology, biological resources, and wildfires.

Continue Reading Third District Rejects CEQA Challenges To El Dorado Irrigation District Ditch Piping Project, Holds EIR’s Project Description And Analysis Of Potential Hydrology, Biological Resources, and Wildfire Impacts Were Adequate

In a sprawling, 123-page published opinion filed on February 14, 2022, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed in part, and reversed in part, judgments in consolidated CEQA actions challenging Placer County’s EIR for its approval of a specific plan and rezoning to permit residential and commercial development and preserve forest land in the Martis Valley near Truckee and Lake Tahoe.  League to Save Lake Tahoe, Mountain Area Preservation, et al./California Clean Energy Committee v. County of Placer, et al. (Sierra Pacific Industries, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2022) ___ Cal.App.5th __________.  Consistent with its impressive length, the opinion decides a number of significant issues, and contains a thorough exposition of established CEQA rules and principles, including, but not limited to, those governing:  applicable standards of review; baseline/environmental setting description; lead agency discretion regarding thresholds of significance, methodology for impact study, and significance determinations; cumulative impacts (including GHG) analysis; and requirements for adequate mitigation measures.

Continue Reading Third District Addresses Significant CEQA Issues In Mixed Decision On Placer County’s EIR For Specific Plan/Rezoning Allowing Development of Martis Valley Timberlands

In a published opinion filed December 15, 2021, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 5) affirmed a trial court’s judgment entered after sustaining a demurrer to a writ petition in a CEQA action without leave to amend.  Mission Peak Conservancy, et al. v. State Water Resources Control Board (Christopher George, et al, Real Parties in Interest) (2021) 72 Cal.App.5th 873.

Continue Reading First District Holds SWRCB Small Domestic Water Use Registration Is CEQA-Exempt Ministerial Act: “CEQA Does Not Regulate Ministerial Decisions – Full Stop.”

In an opinion filed November 15, and later ordered published on December 14, 2021, the Sixth District Court of Appeal reaffirmed the basic CEQA principle that required environmental review and analysis must precede project approval, and it applied that principle to invalidate the California Coastal Commission’s (Commission) approval of a Coastal Development Permit (CDP) for a residential subdivision project in Monterey County. Friends, Artists and Neighbors of Elkhorn Slough v. California Coastal Commission (Heritage/Western Communities, Ltd., et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2021) 72 Cal.App.5th 666. While the dispositive rule is a simple one, the case’s more complex facts and procedural history make it interesting – and somewhat disturbing – on a number of levels.

Continue Reading Sixth District Holds Coastal Commission’s Post-Approval Analysis of Coastal Development Permit’s Environmental Impacts Violates CEQA

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”