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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In an opinion filed June 28, and later ordered modified and published on July 27, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 6) affirmed the trial court’s $21,160.46 cost award in favor of a prevailing party public agency for costs associated with preparing the administrative record in a CEQA case, despite petitioner’s election to prepare the record, where the petitioner had unreasonably delayed and the agency acted reasonably.  LandWatch San Luis Obispo County v. Cambria Community Services District (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 638.

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In an opinion filed June 28, and later ordered published on July 27, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 6) affirmed the trial court’s judgment dismissing on demurrer a writ petition seeking to compel the County of San Luis Obispo to comply with CEQA in issuing well construction permits to four agricultural enterprises, mostly for vineyard irrigation.  The Court held County’s governing local ordinance, which addresses only water quality issues and incorporates fixed technical standards for well construction from relevant Department of Water Resources (DWR) Bulletins, established a ministerial scheme for issuing such permits and does not confer “discretion to shape a well permit to mitigate environmental damage arising from groundwater overuse.”  California Water Impact Network v. County of San Luis Obispo (Justin Vineyards and Winery, LLC et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 666.

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In a published opinion filed June 13, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed a judgment denying a writ of mandate and declaratory relief in an action challenging the California State Lands Commission’s (“Commission”) determination that CEQA Guidelines § 15301’s categorical exemption for “existing facilities” applied to its renewal of PG&E’s leases of state-owned lands needed to operate the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant until federal licensures expire in 2025. World Business Academy v. California State Lands Commission (Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 476.  The Court rejected petitioner/appellant World Business Academy’s arguments that the consolidated lease replacement, which maintains the status quo at the plant until 2025, did not fall within the exemption, or was subject to the “unusual circumstances” exception, and also rejected arguments that it violated the public trust doctrine.

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In a published decision filed June 12, 2018, the Second District Court of Appeal (Div. 6) held that the same broad definition of a “project” that mandates more extensive CEQA review of activities undertaken or approved by public agencies also applies in determining the scope of statutory exemptions that serve to exempt certain projects from CEQA review.  County of Ventura v. City of Moorpark, Broad Beach Geologic Hazard Abatement District (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 377.  The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment to the extent it rejected Ventura County’s CEQA, preemption, and extraterritorial regulation challenges to a settlement agreement between the City of Moorpark and the Broad Beach Geologic Hazard Abatement District (BBGHAD), a state law entity created to carry out a Malibu beach restoration project.  But it reversed with directions to declare void (as unlawful abdications of BBGHAD’s police power) certain of the settlement agreement’s provisions which severely limited BBGHAD’s authority to modify project haul routes in the event of changed circumstances.

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A development project’s potential noise impacts can implicate complex and technical issues under CEQA, particularly where those impacts are asserted, in litigation by project opponents challenging a negative declaration, as the sole basis an EIR should have been required.  Such was certainly the case in Charles T. Jensen v. City of Santa Rosa (Social Advocates For Youth, Real Party in Interest) (1st Dist. 2018) 23 Cal.App.5th 877, a dense 24-page opinion filed by the Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District (Division 4) on May 1, and later ordered certified for publication on May 24, 2018.

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In an opinion filed March 20, and later certified for publication on April 12, 2018, the First District Court of Appeal (Division 3) affirmed a limited peremptory writ of mandate issued by the Contra Costa County Superior Court requiring the County to set aside an EIR and land use permit for Phillips 66 Company’s “Propane Recovery Project” at its oil refinery in the City of Rodeo, pending County’s correction of specified inadequacies in the EIR’s air quality analysis. Rodeo Citizens Association v. County of Contra Costa (Phillips 66 Company, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 22 Cal.App.5th 214.  Unsatisfied with the trial court’s grant of limited relief and denial of its additional CEQA challenges to the EIR (based on an allegedly defective project description and deficient GHG and hazard analyses), plaintiff/appellant Rodeo Citizens Association (“RCA”) appealed as to those issues, but the Court of Appeal rejected its arguments and affirmed the writ as issued by the trial court.

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