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 27, 2018, and later ordered published on January 15, 2019, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. 1) affirmed the trial court’s judgment rejecting CEQA and other challenges to the City of San Diego’s (City) approval of an amended and restated lease of City-owned land containing an oceanfront amusement park in its Mission Beach neighborhood (Belmont Park), which restated lease potentially extends the prior lease term for a significant period.  San Diegans For Open Government v. City of San Diego (Symphony Asset Pool XVI, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 349.

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In a unanimous 33-page opinion authored by Justice Ming Chin and issued on December 24, 2018, the California Supreme Court addressed the standard of review for claims challenging the legal sufficiency of an EIR’s discussion of environmental impacts, and also CEQA’s rules regarding deferral and adequacy of mitigation measures.  Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (Friant Ranch, L.P.) (2018) 6 Cal.5th 502, Case No. S219783.  In affirming in part and reversing in part the Court of Appeal’s judgment, the Supreme Court held that the EIR for the Friant Ranch Project – a 942-acre master-planned, mixed-use development with over 2,500 senior residential units, 250,000 square feet of commercial space, and extensive open space/ recreational amenities on former agricultural land in north central Fresno County – was deficient in its informational discussion of air quality impacts as they connect to adverse human health effects.  In doing so, the decision provides guidance in an area – the legal adequacy of an EIR’s discussion on a topic required by CEQA – that it held does not fit neatly within CEQA’s usual standard of review dichotomy, which provides for de novo review and exacting judicial scrutiny of alleged procedural errors (e.g., an EIR’s complete omission of a required topic area) and deferential substantial evidence review of an EIR’s or agency’s factual determinations and conclusions.

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In an opinion filed October 19, and later ordered published on November 15, 2018, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment upholding Plumas County’s First comprehensive update of its 1984 general plan, and rejecting arguments that the update violated the California Timberland Productivity Act of 1982 (the “Timberland Act” or “Act”) and that the related EIR violated CEQA.  High Sierra Rural Alliance v. County of Plumas (2018) 29 Cal.App.5th 102.

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The Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. 1) held in a published opinion filed October 24, 2018, that CEQA Guidelines § 15164 validly establishes an addendum process that is consistent with the CEQA statute, implementing and filling gaps in Public Resources Code § 21166.  The Court also held that new findings under Public Resources Code § 21081 addressing a project’s significant impacts are not required when a lead agency approves an addendum to an EIR.  Save Our Heritage Organisation v. City of San Diego (The Plaza de Panama Committee, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 28 Cal.App.5th 656.

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“Birds of a feather flock together.”  — Proverb

The Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. 2) affirmed a judgment entered after the sustaining of a demurrer without leave, holding that a mandate action brought by The Inland Oversight Committee (IOC), CREED-21, and Highland Hills Homeowners Association (HOA) alleging CEQA and Water Code violations was barred by res judicata (based on the final judgment in the HOA’s prior related CEQA action), and failure to state a claim.  The Inland Oversight Committee v. City of San Bernardino (First American Title Insurance Company) (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 771.  (The Court’s opinion, filed September 14 and later ordered published on September 27, 2018, denied the parties’ motions to dismiss and strike and related requests for judicial notice as moot in light of its disposition on the merits.)


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In an opinion filed August 10, and later ordered published on September 7, 2018, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. 2) affirmed a judgment denying Friends of Riverside’s Hills’ (FRH) writ petition challenging a residential development permit and related Negative Declaration issued by the City of Riverside (City) for a six-home, 11-acre subdivision in an environmentally sensitive area.  Friends of Riverside’s Hills v. City of Riverside (Carlton R. Lofgren, as Trustee, etc., et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 1137.

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In a lengthy published opinion filed August 23, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment, and upheld the City of Los Angeles’ addendum to a prior project-level EIR for a Target Superstore as legally sufficient CEQA compliance for a revised plan-level  project which amended a specific plan so as to authorize that same development.  Citizens Coalition Los Angeles v. City of Los Angeles (Target Corporation, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 561.  The Court further held the specific plan amendment was not impermissible “spot zoning,” even if approved only to authorize the site-specific Superstore project, because there was a “reasonable basis” for the City to find it was in the public interest.  While these holdings are not surprising, some of the analysis used to reach the Court’s clearly correct CEQA holding – which analogizes subsequent review rules to piecemealing concepts – is novel and potentially confusing, as discussed below.

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In a lengthy published opinion filed on August 22, 2018, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed the trial court’s judgment rejecting various CEQA challenges to the City of San Francisco’s (“City”) Program EIR analyzing the environmental impacts of its 2009 General Plan Housing Element, which it adopted on June 29, 2011.  San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods v. City and County of San Francisco (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 596.  San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods (“SFLN”), an unincorporated association comprised of more than a dozen neighborhood organizations, had challenged the EIR – mostly unsuccessfully – in the trial court.  It then appealed from adverse portions of the judgment concerning the EIR’s baseline and impact analyses for traffic, water supply, land use, and visual resources impacts; the City’s decision not to recirculate the EIR; the EIR’s alternatives analysis; and the feasibility of certain proposed mitigation measures.

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In an opinion filed July 16, and belatedly ordered published on August 9, 2018, the First District Court of Appeal (Division 5) affirmed the trial court’s judgment setting aside the City of Fremont’s approvals of a mixed residential/retail project (“Project”) and related Mitigated Negative Declaration (“MND”), and ordering preparation of an EIR based on the Project’s potentially significant aesthetic and traffic impacts on the Niles historical district.  Protect Niles v. City of Fremont (Doug Rich, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 1129.  The opinion is a good reminder of the legal vulnerability of any species of negative declaration under CEQA’s applicable “fair argument” standard of review.  It also provides guidance in the areas of mootness; analysis of aesthetic, historical resources, traffic level of service (“LOS”), and traffic safety impacts; the operation of traffic thresholds of significance; and the nature of substantial evidence sufficient to support a “fair argument,” both generally and in the unique “historical district” context presented by this particular case.

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