In a partially published unanimous opinion filed June 16, 2021, authored by a jurist who is also a noted CEQA expert (Acting Presiding Justice Ronald Robie), the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition challenging El Dorado County’s mitigated negative declaration (MND) for and approval of the Newtown Road Bridge at South Fork Weber Creek Replacement Project.  Newtown Preservation Society, et al. v. County of El Dorado, et al. (3d Dist. 2021) ____ Cal.App.5th ____.  In the published portion of its opinion, the Court of Appeal held that petitioners/appellants erroneously framed the “fair argument” test in terms of the project having “potentially significant impacts on resident safety and emergency evacuation,” whereas the correct test is “whether the record contains substantial evidence that the project may have a significant effect on the environment or may exacerbate existing environmental hazards.”  It held appellants “failed to carry their burden of showing substantial evidence supports a fair argument of significant environmental impact in that regard.”  (In the unpublished portion of its opinion, which won’t be analyzed in further detail in this post, the Court held the County did not impermissibly defer mitigation, and it declined to consider two other arguments because they added nothing to the fair argument analysis and/or constituted new theories or arguments raised for the first time on appeal.)

Continue Reading Flunking CEQA’s “Fair Argument” Test: Third District Affirms Judgment Upholding MND for El Dorado County Bridge Replacement Project, Rejects Arguments Based on Alleged Significant Impacts on Fire Evacuation Routes During Construction As Insufficient To Require EIR

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) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  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) ____ Cal.App.5th ____.  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

Falling more into the category of “spring cleaning” than “breaking news,” readers should note that a Second District decision, published last spring and covered in this blog, was ordered depublished by the California Supreme Court late last summer.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Denies Review of And Depublishes Second District Refinery Project Case Addressing CEQA Baseline Issues

In a published opinion filed December 29, 2020, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying a petition for writ of mandate filed by the Santa Clara Valley Water District (District) challenging waste discharge requirements (WDRs) belatedly imposed by a responsible agency, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (Board), on lead agency District’s flood control project.  Santa Clara Valley Water District v. San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (2020) 59 Cal.App.5th 199.  The case involved highly unique facts, and a number of interesting legal issues concerning the Board’s authority under the Federal Clean Water Act (CWA), the state Porter-Cologne Act, and CEQA.

Continue Reading Can a Responsible Agency Get A Second Bite At The CEQA Apple? First District Says “Sometimes, Yes,” Upholds Regional Water Board’s Imposition of Additional Mitigation On Flood Control Project Through “Independent” Porter-Cologne Act Authority Exercised Subsequent To Grant Of CWA § 401 Water Quality Certification Based On Lead Agency’s Unchallenged Final EIR

In a published opinion filed on August 17, 2020, the Third District Court of Appeal mostly affirmed the trial court’s judgment upholding Placer County’s partial abandonment of public easement rights in an emergency access/public transit road connecting two Lake Tahoe-area residential subdivisions; the County took the action to resolve disputes that had arisen after one subdivision’s residents began using the road as an all-purpose public road and short-cut through the other subdivision to get to Northstar-at-Tahoe.  Martis Camp Community Association v. County of Placer, et al. (Retreat at Northstar Association, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2020) _____ Cal.App.5th _____________.  My partner Bryan Wenter’s post covers the land use issues at the heart of the case, and can be found here; readers should consult that post for the case’s factual background and primary holdings.  This post covers the CEQA issue at the “tail end” of the opinion, which involved application of CEQA’s “subsequent review” rules to County’s partial road abandonment project.

Continue Reading Hitting A CEQA Snag: Third District Affirms Rejection of Statutory Road Abandonment And Brown Act Challenges And Inverse Condemnation Claim, But Holds Placer County Violated CEQA By Adopting Addendum To Wrong Project’s EIR

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) 50 Cal.App.5th 467.)  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