A fundamental prerequisite to a viable lawsuit is a plaintiff possessing standing to bring it, and in writ of mandate proceedings that generally means a person or entity actually possessing a beneficial interest in the legal relief being sought. Nonetheless, CEQA’s broad statutory standing provisions, the “public interest exception” to beneficial interest standing, constitutional associational privacy claims, and the general unavailability of civil discovery (due to the general irrelevance of extra-record evidence) in administrative mandamus actions have all conspired to allow CEQA litigation standing abuses to become a large – and largely unchecked – problem. Indeed, I have previously analyzed and written about this particular CEQA litigation abuse in depth. (See, e.g., “Standing Against Environmental Injustice: Some Thoughts On Facing The Need For CEQA Litigation Reform,” by Arthur F. Coon, posted July 18, 2017.) I am thus happy to be able to report that, in an opinion filed November 28, and ordered published on December 19, 2017, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has now done something about it. Specifically, it properly upheld the use of civil discovery directed to the issue of a plaintiff organization’s standing in a CEQA writ proceeding, and also affirmed the trial court’s judgment of dismissal after granting a terminating sanction for plaintiff’s discovery abuse in attempting to thwart such discovery. This important new decision is Creed-21 v. City of Wildomar (Walmart Real Estate Business Trust, Real Party in Interest) (4th Dist., Div. 2, 2017) _____ Cal.App.5th _____.
When a lead agency finds a project approval to be categorically exempt from CEQA, this determination at the initial step of CEQA’s multi-tiered process necessarily includes an implied finding that no exceptions to the categorical exemption are applicable. A party challenging an agency’s categorical exemption determination on the basis that the “unusual circumstances” exception applies generally has the burden to show both (1) unusual circumstances (i.e., the project has some feature distinguishing it from others in the exempt class, such as size or location), and (2) “a reasonable possibility of a significant effect [on the environment] due to [those] unusual circumstance[s].” (Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, 1105, 1115.)
But how does a court review an “unusual circumstances” challenge to a categorical exemption where the agency has made no express findings on these elements and must thus rely on implied findings to uphold its determination? In a published opinion filed September 18, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal answered this important question in the course of affirming a judgment denying a writ petition that challenged the City of South San Francisco’s (City) conditional-use permit (CUP) for conversion of an office building to a Planned Parenthood medical clinic. Respect Life South San Francisco v. City of South San Francisco (Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, Inc., Real Party In Interest) (1st Dist., Div. 1, 2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 449. While the City’s categorical exemption in this case was upheld based on an implied finding, the opinion’s most important takeaway for local agencies (and project proponents) is that reliance on such a finding presents far more litigation risk than if appropriate express findings are made.
Continue Reading First District Upholds CEQA Categorical Exemption for Approval of Planned Parenthood Clinic in City of South San Francisco, Clarifies Implied Finding of No Exceptions is Analyzed for Record Support on Narrowest Possible Ground
“You may say I’m a dreamer.” – John Lennon, “Imagine”
“Son she said / Have I got a little story for you…”
Pearl Jam, “Alive”
CEQA, our state’s landmark environmental protection act, is a venerable law with an illustrious history now spanning over 45 years. But it’s also being abused every day, distorted for non-environmental ends not worthy of it – and our legislature refuses to sit up and take note. It’s as if Lady Justice had grown warts, been disrobed and had her scales smashed by vandals – yet those who could help, sit idly by and don’t seem to care.
CEQA reform has been a hot topic, on and off, over the years. Governor Brown has called it “the Lord’s work.” Calls for it wax and wane with the economy and perceived need to get development projects approved and built. While many CEQA practitioners, politicians, and members of the regulated community have acknowledged the need for reform, many others have denied it; some insist CEQA works “just fine” as it is, or even advocate further expansion of its reach. Proposals for meaningful legislative reform have been largely unsuccessful and have been criticized by opponents as proposals to “weaken” the state’s “signature” environmental law. It’s often said that the first step to recovery is acknowledging a problem exists. It’s difficult to build consensus for CEQA reform when there is not even consensus about the existence of CEQA abuses requiring reform.
In a March 4, 2016 published opinion, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment requiring an EIR for a small 12-home rural subdivision project based on the “psychological and social” impacts of the proponent’s related closure of a public horse boarding facility (the “Stock Farm”) which he had operated pursuant to a CUP for 20 years on the 11.6-acre property. Preserve Poway v. City of Poway (Harry A. Rogers, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 560, 2016 WL 891405. In addition to its primary holding that psychological, social and economic impacts are not cognizable under CEQA, the Court rendered a few other interesting rulings, including its application of the Supreme Court’s recent “CEQA-in-reverse” decision (California Building Industry Ass. v. Bay Area Air Quality Management Dist. (2015) 62 Cal.4th 369 (“CBIA”)) in holding that asserted impacts of an existing equestrian events facility (located across the street from the project) on future project residents were also beyond CEQA’s scope.
With the February 13 passing of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, American jurisprudence lost an intellectual giant. But Justice Scalia will not be forgotten; the legacy of his life’s work lives on.
While much has been and will be written about his landmark opinions and the originalist and textualist methods of constitutional and statutory interpretation he brought to bear in them, Justice Scalia’s significant legal contributions to CEQA, land use and environmental law merit special recognition.
A new year often brings fresh perspective. With 2016 still in its infancy, it is natural to reflect back on what has been and also to contemplate what is yet to come. The California Supreme Court’s recent CEQA decisions, and its current docket of CEQA cases awaiting decision, provide ample opportunity for both of these basic human impulses.
On September 9, 2015, the California Supreme Court denied review and decertified the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s previously published opinion in Albert Thomas Paulek v. Western Riverside Regional Conservation Authority, which had appeared at 238 Cal.App.4th 583. A discussion of the issues presented by the case and my analyses of the Court of Appeal’s reasoning on them can be found in my post on the originally published opinion. (See “Fourth District Holds Agency’s Removal of Conservation Designation From Land Formerly Protected Under MSHCP Is ‘Project’ Subject to CEQA; Class 7 and 8 Categorical Exemptions for Environmentally Protective Regulatory Actions Do Not Apply,” by Arthur F. Coon, posted July 2, 2015.)
The Supreme Court’s depublication order means that while the decision remains binding on the parties to the case, it will not be citable as precedential authority under California law.
In a published decision filed September 17, 2015, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment granting a writ of mandate and finding that a proposed land exchange agreement was not statutorily exempt from CEQA review. Defend Our Waterfront v. California State Lands Commission, et al (San Francisco Waterfront Partners II, LLC, et al) (1st Dist., Div. 4, 2015) 240 Cal.App.4th 570. The underlying facts are straightforward, as is the Court’s holding interpreting CEQA’s statutory exemption that applies to “settlements of title and boundary problems by the State Lands Commission and to exchanges or leases in connection with those settlements.” (Pub. Resources Code, § 21080.11.) Perhaps more interesting, however, is the Court’s treatment (partly in dicta) of CEQA’s statutory standing and exhaustion requirements as embodied in Public Resources Code § 21177. Continue Reading First District Applies CEQA Exhaustion/Standing Rules, Upholds Judgment Rejecting Claim of Statutory Exemption for Controversial State Lands Commission Land Exchange Agreement
A 138-page report, including 371 footnotes and a 30-page appendix listing all properly documented CEQA lawsuits filed in California over its 3-year study period (2010-2012), has been posted by its authors, Holland & Knight attorneys Jennifer Hernandez, David Friedman and Stephanie DeHerrera (the “authors”) on their firm’s website. The study is entitled “In the Name of the Environment” and subtitled “How Litigation Abuse Under the California Environmental Quality Act Undermines California’s Environmental, Social Equity and Economic Priorities – and Proposed Reforms to Protect the Environment From CEQA Litigation Abuse.” Based on my review, the study will be a valuable and interesting read for environmental and land use lawyers, consultants, and others regularly involved with or interested in the CEQA process. That said, its findings and conclusions will not come as any surprise to those on the front lines of CEQA litigation. Continue Reading CEQA Litigation Abuses Documented By New Empirical Study Of Recent Case Filings
In a 47-page published decision filed June 17, 2015, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition, and held that Respondent Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority (“Agency”) must comply with CEQA before “refining” its Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (“MSHCP”) to exclude a 200-acre parcel of ranch land owned by Anheuser-Busch, LLC (“Busch”) from its protections against development. Albert Thomas Paulek v. Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority (Anheuser-Busch, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (4th Dist., Div. 2, 2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 1005. Continue Reading Fourth District Holds Agency’s Removal of Conservation Designation From Land Formerly Protected Under MSHCP Is “Project” Subject to CEQA; Class 7 and 8 Categorical Exemptions for Environmentally Protective Regulatory Actions Do Not Apply