Statute of Limitations

The EIR has long been the judicially-proclaimed “heart of CEQA” because it represents the culmination of the statute’s environmentally-protective purposes and objectives.   Yet the legal “expiration date” for the document embodying CEQA’s highest purposes is often subject to debate and confusion.  A public agency’s reliance on an “old” EIR is inherently fraught with the risk of legal challenge by project opponents.  But, as a recent First District decision reminds, such reliance may be perfectly proper under CEQA’s applicable rules, which focus in this context on not “reinventing the wheel” – the “wheel” being the EIR – without very good reason to do so; they also defer to the lead agency’s reasoned decision in this regard.
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A recent Sixth District Court of Appeal decision serves as a pointed reminder to practitioners that CEQA exemptions and limitations periods are not always neatly grouped within those statutory provisions of the Public Resources Code known as the “California Environmental Quality Act” (“CEQA”; Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.).  Statutes other than CEQA, including provisions codified in the Education Code, Government Code, Health & Safety Code, Water Code, and non-CEQA portions of the Public Resources Code also provide statutory exemptions to CEQA’s requirements.  In May v. City of Milpitas (6th Dist., 7/16/13) 217 Cal.App.4th 1307, the Court applied one such “outlier” statute — Government Code § 65457 — to affirm a judgment dismissing a carpenters’ local union’s CEQA challenge to a residential development project as time-barred.
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In its terse, no-nonsense opinion in Alliance For the Protection of the Auburn Community v. County of Placer, et al. (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 25, ordered published on April 2, 2013, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment entered after sustaining a demurrer to a CEQA action without leave on statute of limitations grounds

In a partially published opinion filed September 14, 2012, the Fifth District Court of Appeal revived a CEQA lawsuit the trial court had dismissed as time-barred on demurrer because it was filed 55 days after the City of Visaliafiled a notice of exemption (“NOE”).  The case – Coalition for Clean Air v. City of Visalia (VWR International, LLC) ) (Sept. 14, 2012) 209 Cal.App.4th 408, Case No. F062983 – may be viewed as “blurring” a “bright line” rule stated by the Supreme Court just two years ago, but it provides a valuable reminder to CEQA action respondents and real parties of the “t”’s that must be crossed and the “i”’s that must be dotted to ensure they can take advantage of CEQA’s short statute of limitations period (35 days) when relying on an exemption.  The  decision’s key points on this important issue include:
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Governor Jerry Brown was recently quoted in a Capitol Alert piece as calling legislative reform of CEQA “the Lord’s work” – hopefully he didn’t mean the quest for the Holy Grail – although he admitted in the same article he hadn’t yet read the latest bills proposing to limit its scope.  In the short time since then, SB 317 (the most significant effort at CEQA reform this year) appears to have died in the waning days of this Legislative session.  While “hope springs eternal,” meaningful legislative reform of CEQA thus continues to prove elusive.
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Rejecting intervenors’ challenges to a pre-litigation tolling agreement between a CEQA plaintiff (Salmon Protection and Watershed Network, or “SPAWN”) and MarinCounty, in an action challenging the EIR for a countrywide general plan update, the First District Court of Appeal upheld the legal validity of such tolling agreements notwithstanding CEQA’s strong policies for expedited litigation.  Salmon Protection And Watershed Network v. County of Marin, et al. (4/20/12, Div. 3) 205 Cal.App.4th 195, Case No. A133109.  Recognizing CEQA’s strong public policy favoring the prompt filing, litigation, and disposition of CEQA challenges, as embodied and reaffirmed in numerous statutory provisions and judicial decisions, the Court’s decision relied on an equally strong public policy encouraging settlement.  The Court’s decision was supported not only by the parties but – in a rare show of CEQA solidarity – by amici curiae League of California Cities, the California State Association of Counties, the California Building Industry Association, and the Sierra Club.
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Vernon Law, famed Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, once said: “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.”  The same rings true regarding CEQA litigation, where traps for the unwary abound, and mistakes can be painful, costly and even fatal to a client’s claims or action.  Based on nearly 25 years of personal experience litigating CEQA cases in California trial and appellate courts, as well as extensively writing and speaking on the topic, I offer for consideration the following ten mistakes all CEQA litigators should be sure to avoid.

  • Don’t fail to exhaust your administrative remedies and obtain standing.  If you fail to raise an issue you want to litigate during the CEQA public comment period or prior to the close of the lead agency’s public hearing on the project, you will forfeit it, and if you fail to object during that timeframe you will fail to obtain standing to sue at all under CEQA.  (Pub. Resources Code, §21177; Central Delta Water Agency v. State Water Resources Control Bd. (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 245, 273-274.)
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