In a mammoth 132-page published opinion (with an additional five pages of appendices) filed on June 12, 2020, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Division One) mostly affirmed the trial court’s judgment invalidating San Diego County’s approvals of a 2018 Climate Action Plan (CAP), related Guidelines for Determining Significance, and related Supplemental EIR (SEIR).  The opinion – which marked “the third time the County’s attempt to adopt a viable climate action plan and related CEQA documents” had been before the Court – resolved consolidated appeals in three cases, in which the lead plaintiffs were Golden Door Properties, LLC and the Sierra Club.  (Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego (2020) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.)  While the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s findings that the CAP was inconsistent with the County’s General Plan (applying the familiar highly deferential standard of review to the County’s consistency determination), that several of the County’s responses to SEIR comments were inadequate, and that the SEIR’s geographical scope of study for cumulative impacts was inconsistent, it otherwise affirmed the trial court’s findings of significant CEQA violations affecting the CAP and SEIR.

Continue Reading Third Time Is Not The Charm: Fourth District Affirms Judgment Setting Aside San Diego County’s Climate Action Plan And Related Supplemental EIR Approvals Due To CEQA Violations

In a published 2-1 majority opinion filed April 7, 2020, written by Justice Wiley and joined by Presiding Justice Bigelow, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 8) affirmed a judgment upholding the EIR for Tesoro’s “Los Angeles Refinery Integration and Compliance Project.”  Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management District (Tesoro Refining and Marketing Company, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2d Dist. 2020) 47 Cal.App.5th 588.  The project involved Tesoro’s adjacent Carson and Wilmington oil refining facilities, which date from the early 1900s, and sought (1) to better integrate those facilities to increase flexibility in output ratios (e.g., of gasoline and jet fuel) to respond to market demands, and (2) to increase regulatory compliance by reducing air pollution.

Continue Reading Back To CEQA Basics: Second District Teaches That CEQA Requires Judicial Deference To Lead Agency’s Chosen Baseline, Failure To Administratively Exhaust “Exact Issue” Results In Forfeiture, And An EIR Is Not Faulty For Omitting Immaterial Information

In a published opinion filed March 24, 2020, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Division One) reversed a judgment of dismissal with prejudice, entered by the San Diego County Superior Court after sustaining a demurrer without leave on statute of limitations grounds to a group’s action challenging the CEQA review for Caltrans’ Interstate 5 (I-5)/State Route 56 (SR 56) freeway interchange project (the “Project”).  Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans Decision v. Department of Transportation (2020) 46 Cal.App.5th 1103.  The opinion (1) interprets, as a matter of first impression, the scope and operation of the statutory CEQA exemption in Streets and Highways Code § 103 (“Section 103”), and (2) holds that Caltrans’ repeated misrepresentations and misleading conduct during and concerning the Project’s CEQA and approval process precluded the trial court from finding as a matter of law that Caltrans was not estopped to assert the ban of the 35-day statute of limitations based on its filing of a Notice of Exemption (NOE) with the State Clearinghouse (SCH).

Continue Reading Once More Into the “Brambled Thicket”: Fourth District Reverses Ruling Sustaining Demurrer to Action Challenging Caltrans’ Claim of Statutory CEQA Exemption For Freeway Interchange Project, Holds Streets and Highways Code § 103’s Coastal Commission Exemption Does Not Apply And That Petition Adequately Pleaded Estoppel Against Caltrans to Assert 35-Day Statute of Limitations Based on NOE Filing

In a 74-page opinion filed February 24, and later ordered published on March 17, 2020, the Second District Court of Appeal (Division 7) affirmed judgments (granting the writ petition and awarding fees) in coordinated appeals stemming from a CEQA action successfully challenging the City of Agoura Hills’ (City) project approvals and mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a mixed use development project on an undeveloped 8.2 acre parcel.  Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll v. City of Agoura Hills (Doron Gelfand, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2020) 46 Cal.App.5th 665.  The Court rejected the City’s and Real Parties’ procedural arguments that Petitioners and Respondents Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll (STACK) and California Native Plant Society (CNPS) had failed to exhaust administrative remedies, and that their claims were barred by lack of standing and the statute of limitations; on the merits of the CEQA claim, it held that substantial evidence in the record supported a fair argument that even as mitigated the project may have significant impacts on cultural resources (i.e., a Chumash Native American archaeological site), three sensitive plant species, native oak trees, and aesthetic resources, and that an EIR was therefore required; and it further held the trial court properly granted writ relief based on the City’s violation of its own Oak Tree Ordinance by approving a project that would concededly remove 35 to 36 percent of the site’s oak tree canopy when the Ordinance prohibited removal of more than 10 percent.  Finally, the Court held that the trial court properly awarded Petitioners STACK and CNPS $142,148 in attorneys’ fees under Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5, made payable 50% by City and 50% by Real Parties, notwithstanding that Petitioners furnished their first amended petition to the Attorney General (AG) beyond the 10-day statutory period for doing so.

Continue Reading Second District Affirms Judgment Invalidating City of Agoura Hills’ Mixed-Use Project Approvals and Related MND Based On CEQA and Local Oak Tree Ordinance Violations

In an opinion filed January 30, and later ordered published on March 2, 2020, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying a writ petition filed by plaintiffs Environmental Council of Sacramento and the Sierra Club challenging the EIR for Cordova Hills, a large master planned community project approved by Sacramento County.  Environmental Council of Sacramento v. County of Sacramento (Cordova Hills, LLC, et. al., Real Parties in Interest) (3d Dist. 2020) 45 Cal.App.5th 1020.

Continue Reading Third District Affirms Judgment Rejecting CEQA Challenges To EIR For Cordova Hills Master Planned Community Project

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

CEQA’s Class 32 categorical exemption for “infill development” applies to proposed developments within city limits on sites of five or fewer acres substantially surrounded by urban uses, where the site has no habitat value for special status species, can be adequately served by all required utilities and public services, and the project would not have significant traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality impacts. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15332(b)-(e).)  But another important qualification is that the project must be “consistent with the applicable general plan designation and all applicable general plan policies as well as with applicable zoning designation and regulations.” (§ 15332(a).)  A recent Fourth District decision addressed this key requirement of the infill exemption, and upheld application of the Class 32 exemption to the City of San Diego’s approval of a project proposing seven (7) detached residential condominium units on a steeply sloped, environmentally sensitive half-acre site –despite general plan minimum density policies that would ordinarily require 16 to 23 dwelling units on a parcel of that size.  Holden v. City of San Diego (IDEA Enterprises, LP, Real Party in Interest) (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 404.

Continue Reading Fourth District Upholds CEQA Class 32 Infill Exemption For Small Residential Condo Project On Environmentally Sensitive Lands As Consistent With San Diego’s General Plan Despite Failure To Meet Recommended Minimum Density

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

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

In an opinion filed September 6, and later ordered published on October 7, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying plaintiff groups’ writ petition challenging Sonoma County’s use permit and related mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a winery project in the County’s rural Knights Valley area.  Maacama Watershed Alliance, et al v. County of Sonoma, et al. (James Bailey, Knights Bridge Vineyards, LLC, Real Parties in Interest) (2019) 40 Cal.App.5th 1007.

Continue Reading First District Affirms Judgment Upholding MND for Rural Sonoma County Winery Project, Holds Unsubstantiated Expert Opinion Fails to Support Fair Argument of Geologic, Erosion Or Groundwater Impacts