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

In a partially-published, 150-page slip opinion resolving appeals in consolidated cases, and filed February 25, 2020, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed in part and reversed in part a trial court decision finding CEQA defects in the 1800-plus page EIR prepared for Kern County’s adoption of an ordinance designed to provide a streamlined, ministerial permitting process for new oil and gas wells in the county.  King and Gardiner Farms, LLC v. County of Kern, et al. (California Independent Petroleum Association, et al., Real Parties in Interest); Committee for a Better Arvin, et al. v. County of Kern, et al. (California Independent Petroleum Association, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (5th Dist. 2020) 45 Cal.App.5th 814.  The published portion of the opinion held the EIR improperly deferred the formulation and implementation of mitigation for significant water supply impacts; failed to adequately mitigate farmland conversion impacts due to improper reliance on agricultural conversion easements (ACEs) as offsetting mitigation; and failed to adequately analyze noise impacts by relying solely on an absolute cumulative numerical limit threshold of significance, rather than also analyzing the significance of the magnitude of project noise increases over ambient levels in differently affected settings.  (Approximately 53 pages of the opinion, a portion finding CEQA violations with respect to air quality and related health risks due to failure to adequately discuss PM 2.5 emissions impacts and related mitigation, and failure to recirculate the DEIR after adding significant new information in the form of an appended Cumulative Health Risk Assessment, were not certified for publication; consequently, those portions set no precedent and will not be discussed in further detail in this post.)

Continue Reading Fifth District Holds EIR For Kern County’s Ministerial Oil and Gas Well Permitting Ordinance Violates CEQA Due To Improperly Deferred Mitigation For Water Supply Impacts, Inadequate Mitigation For Farmland Conversion, And Inadequate Analysis of Noise Impacts

In an opinion filed September 6, and later ordered published on October 7, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying plaintiff groups’ writ petition challenging Sonoma County’s use permit and related mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a winery project in the County’s rural Knights Valley area.  Maacama Watershed Alliance, et al v. County of Sonoma, et al. (James Bailey, Knights Bridge Vineyards, LLC, Real Parties in Interest) (2019) 40 Cal.App.5th 1007.

Continue Reading First District Affirms Judgment Upholding MND for Rural Sonoma County Winery Project, Holds Unsubstantiated Expert Opinion Fails to Support Fair Argument of Geologic, Erosion Or Groundwater Impacts

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) issues licenses needed to construct and operate hydroelectric dams pursuant to the Federal Power Act (“FPA”; 16 U.S.C. § 791a, et seq).  Under long-standing law, and with the limited exception of state-issued water quality certifications, the FPA “occupies the field” of licensing a hydroelectric dam, and bars environmental review of the federal licensing procedure in state courts; this preemption is necessary because recognizing a “dual final authority” for such projects would be “unworkable.”  (First Iowa Hydro-Electric Cooperative v. Federal Power Com. (1946) 328 U.S. 152.)  States have limited authority under the Clean Water Act (33 U.S.C. § 1341) to impose stricter water quality conditions than are federally required on a FERC license, through the section 401 water quality certification process, but must act on a project applicant’s certification request within one year or certification is deemed waived.  (33 U.S.C. § 401(a)(1); Alcoa Power Generating Inc. v. FERC (D.C. Cir. 2011) 643 F.3d 963, 972.)  Further, any disputes concerning the Federal licensing process or the adequacy of “required studies” for that process (including “environmental studies” serving as the predicate for the state’s water quality certification conditions) are subject to FERC’s review.  (18 C.F.R. part 4, 34(i)(b)(vii) (2003).)

Continue Reading State Courts Lack Jurisdiction Over CEQA Challenge To Matters Within FERC’s Jurisdiction In Hydroelectric Dam Relicensure Process For Oroville Dam Facilities

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.

Continue Reading “Growing Pains”: First District Holds Program EIR for San Francisco’s General Plan Housing Element Amendment Complies with CEQA

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.

Continue Reading Second District Holds CEQA Does Not Apply to San Luis Obispo County’s Issuance of Well Construction Permits Under Its Ministerial Governing Ordinance

In a published opinion filed September 28, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the Alameda County Superior Court’s judgment denying appellant Living Rivers Council’s (LRC) writ petition challenging the State Water Resources Control Board’s (the “SWRCB” or “Board”) approval of a policy designed to maintain instream flows in coastal streams north of San Francisco.  Living Rivers Council v. State Water Resources Control Board (1st Dist., Div. 5, 2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 991.  The Court of Appeal upheld the SWRCB’s Revised Substitute Environmental Document (RSED) against LRC’s CEQA challenges, which related to the RSED’s analysis of potential indirect environmental effects of surface water users switching to groundwater pumping as a result of the policy.

As relevant legal background, the SWRCB administers the State’s water resources and has permitting authority over diversions from surface waters and subterraneous streams that flow through known and definite channels, but it lacks permitting authority over percolating groundwater.  It has authority to prevent unreasonable or wasteful water use regardless of source.  Legislation enacted in 2004 (Wat. Code, § 1259.4) requires the SWRCB to adopt principles and guidelines for maintaining instream flows of Northern California coastal streams.


Continue Reading First District Rejects CEQA Challenges to SWRCB’s Revised Environmental Document and Approval of Northern California Coastal Stream Policy

New California legislation affecting the required water supply analyses that must be made for certain projects subject to CEQA (SB 1262) was signed into law by Governor Brown last fall, and is now effective as of January 1, 2017.  The new law amends two existing statutes governing water supply planning for land use development projects – Government Code § 66473.7 and Water Code § 10910 – and attempts to integrate to some extent that existing law governing “written verifications” of sufficient water supply (“WVs”) and “Water Supply Assessments” (“WSAs”) with the State’s landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (“SGMA”).

Continue Reading New Water Supply Planning Laws Affecting CEQA Projects Now in Effect

On September 18, 2015, I posted a “Part I” piece on the “efficiency improvements” category of OPR’s Preliminary Discussion Draft of its “Proposed Updates to the CEQA Guidelines” (the “Discussion Draft”). That post can be found here. This follow up post (Part II) covers OPR’s most significant proposals contained in the Discussion Draft’s remaining two categories, i.e., its two proposed “Substance” improvements and its first three proposed “Technical” improvements, but excludes the remaining dozen proposals that OPR classifies as only “minor technical improvements.”
Continue Reading Proposed CEQA Guidelines Amendments: A Critique of OPR’s “Preliminary Discussion Draft” (Part II – Proposed “Substance” and Major “Technical Improvements”)