“We didn’t start the fire….”

-Billy Joel

Wildfires are an unfortunate reality of life in California and have become of increasing concern over the past several years.  Eight of the ten largest wildfires in the state since 1932 have occurred in the last decade (five of which took place in 2020 alone).

Continue Reading Attorney General’s Guidance On “Best Practices” For CEQA Analysis Of And Mitigation For Wildfire-Related Impacts Is Long On Litigation And Policy Advocacy, Short On Neutral Legal Analysis

On May 12, 2022, the First District Court of Appeal filed a 108-page published opinion affirming a judgment denying a CEQA writ petition that challenged Marin County’s approval of a 43-lot single-family residential subdivision on a 110-acre parcel atop a mountain overlooking the Town of Tiburon and San Francisco Bay.  Tiburon Open Space Committee v. County of Marin (The Martha Company, Real Party in Interest, and Town of Tiburon, Intervenor and Appellant) (2022) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  Apart from its factual background of nearly a half-century of intense legal battles over (and effectively blocking) the property’s development – which the Court described as “this woeful record before us” – the decision is notable for its legal analysis of how CEQA applies when a lead agency’s discretion in considering a project for approval is constrained by legal obligations.  While in this case the legal obligations stemmed from stipulated federal court judgments mandating that the County approve a minimum level of development on the property, the Court’s reasoning and holdings that the scope of CEQA adjusts and is limited commensurate with legal limitations on an agency’s discretionary authority will clearly apply to other contexts.  Most obviously, and topically, they plainly will apply to housing development projects when state housing laws impose legal obligations that limit local agencies’ legal authority to disapprove or reduce the density of those projects.  (See, e.g., Gov. Code, § 65589.5 (the “Housing Accountability Act”).)

Continue Reading “This Woeful Record”: First District Affirms Judgment Rejecting CEQA Challenges To Marin County’s Approval of 43-Home Mountaintop Subdivision Opposed For Nearly Five Decades By Neighbors And Town of Tiburon

In an opinion filed January 28, and later certified for publication on February 16, 2022, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying a petition for writ of mandate that challenged on CEQA grounds the El Dorado Irrigation District’s (“EID”) decision to undertake its Upper Main Ditch piping project.  Save the El Dorado Canal v. El Dorado Irrigation District, et al. (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 239. The challenged water conveyance project would replace about three miles of EID’s open and unlined earthen ditch system with a buried water transmission pipeline in order to conserve water and improve water quality.  Petitioner alleged the EIR’s project description was inadequate because it omitted the material fact that the ditch section to be abandoned as a water conveyance also served as the watershed’s only drainage system, and that the EIR insufficiently analyzed the abandonment’s impacts on hydrology, biological resources, and wildfires.

Continue Reading Third District Rejects CEQA Challenges To El Dorado Irrigation District Ditch Piping Project, Holds EIR’s Project Description And Analysis Of Potential Hydrology, Biological Resources, and Wildfire Impacts Were Adequate

In an opinion filed on August 24, and certified for partial publication on September 22, 2021, the Third District Court of Appeal reversed a judgment upholding Placer County’s EIR for a 94-acre resort development project in the Olympic (formerly Squaw) Valley area – site of the 1960 Winter Olympics near the iconic Lake Tahoe.  Sierra Watch v. County of Placer (Squaw Valley Real Estate, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2021) 69 Cal.App.5th 1.  The published portions of the 51-page opinion found faults in the EIR’s description of the environmental setting and related water and air quality impact analyses, and errors in its analysis and mitigation of construction noise impacts.  Nearly half of the opinion remained unpublished; those portions of it (1) upheld the EIR’s climate change analysis (rejecting appellant Sierra Watch’s arguments challenging it as meritless, moot, or forfeited), (2) upheld most of the EIR’s wildfire impacts analysis (finding merit in one of appellant’s eight arguments, relating to underestimation of evacuation times), and (3) held the EIR’s traffic impacts analysis improperly relied on deferred mitigation.  (The unpublished portions of the opinion will not be discussed further in this post.)

Continue Reading Let’s Get Regional: Third District Holds Olympic Valley Resort Project EIR’s Environmental Setting Description and Analysis Violated CEQA’s Requirement To Place Special Emphasis On Unique Regional Environmental Resources By Failing To Sufficiently Consider Lake Tahoe

In a partially published unanimous opinion filed June 16, 2021, authored by a jurist who is also a noted CEQA expert (Acting Presiding Justice Ronald Robie), the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition challenging El Dorado County’s mitigated negative declaration (MND) for and approval of the Newtown Road Bridge at South Fork Weber Creek Replacement Project.  Newtown Preservation Society, et al. v. County of El Dorado, et al. (3d Dist. 2021) 65 Cal.App.5th 771.  In the published portion of its opinion, the Court of Appeal held that petitioners/appellants erroneously framed the “fair argument” test in terms of the project having “potentially significant impacts on resident safety and emergency evacuation,” whereas the correct test is “whether the record contains substantial evidence that the project may have a significant effect on the environment or may exacerbate existing environmental hazards.”  It held appellants “failed to carry their burden of showing substantial evidence supports a fair argument of significant environmental impact in that regard.”  (In the unpublished portion of its opinion, which won’t be analyzed in further detail in this post, the Court held the County did not impermissibly defer mitigation, and it declined to consider two other arguments because they added nothing to the fair argument analysis and/or constituted new theories or arguments raised for the first time on appeal.)

Continue Reading Flunking CEQA’s “Fair Argument” Test: Third District Affirms Judgment Upholding MND for El Dorado County Bridge Replacement Project, Rejects Arguments Based on Alleged Significant Impacts on Fire Evacuation Routes During Construction As Insufficient To Require EIR