By Cori Badgley

In Health First v. March Joint Powers Authority (2009) (Case No. E045541), the Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District addressed the issue of whether the approval of a Design Plan Application was discretionary, thus requiring review pursuant to CEQA.  The court held that approval of the Design Plan Application was ministerial, not discretionary, and therefore, CEQA did not apply.

The March Joint Powers Authority (“March JPA”) has been implementing a reuse plan for the former March Air Force Base since 1996.  The March JPA began the process by finalizing a redevelopment plan, followed by adopting a general plan and a specific plan.  The general plan and specific plan have undergone environmental review under CEQA.  The project at issue in this case involved a warehouse distribution center for Tesco’s Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Markets to be located in the March Business Center Specific Plan Area.  The March JPA zoned the area industrial, which permitted warehouse type uses.  When it adopted the March Business Center Specific Plan, the March JPA also adopted the March Business Center Design Guidelines, which required each project applicant to submit a Design Plan Application to be reviewed and approved by the Implementation Committee.  The committee had to approve the Design Plan Application if it conformed to the March Business Center Design Guidelines, which consisted of a “checklist of specific “yes/no” questions for each design element.”

Tesco submitted a Design Plan Application and the Implementation Committee approved the application without CEQA review.  Health First brought suit on the grounds that CEQA applied to the approval of the application.  The trial court found in favor of Health First, and the March JPA appealed.

In reversing the trial court’s decision, the appellate court held that review and approval of the Design Plan Application is a ministerial act and thus not subject to CEQA.  CEQA only applies to discretionary actions taken by agencies.  (Pub. Resources Code, § 21080, subd. (a).)  “Ministerial” is defined by the CEQA Guidelines as “a governmental decision involving little or no personal judgment by the public official as to the wisdom or manner of carrying out the project.”  (14 Cal. Code. Regs. § 15369.)

In this case, the court found that the Implementation Committee merely decided “whether the application was consistent with the requirements, fixed standards, and proposed mitigation of the Specific Plan, the Focused EIR, and the Design Guidelines.”  Because the Tesco project was a component of the Specific Plan and the committee had to approve the application if it conformed to the guidelines, the court found that approval of the application was a ministerial act.[1] Therefore, CEQA did not apply.

Health First also argued that the March JPA abused its discretion by finding that the Tesco facility complied with the mitigation plan adopted by the Specific Plan. The appellate court also struck down this argument, finding that substantial evidence supported the March JPA’s decision.

The court emphasized that the public had ample opportunity to comment on and challenge the reuse plan, the redevelopment plan, the general plan and the specific plan, prior to 2003. Only under certain circumstances would subsequent environmental review need to take place, considering the previous EIRs covering the project area. The ministerial approval of a Design Plan Application was not one of those exceptional circumstances. Thus, Health First’s petition for writ of mandate was denied.

Cori M. Badgley is an associate at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal

[1] In a rather irritated tone, the court pointed to the previous occasions on which the public could have commented on the environmental impacts of the general plan in 1999 and the specific plan in 2003, which encompassed the type of use proposed by Tesco and included in the Design Guidelines. The court stated: “… any challenge to the Specific Plan for the March Business Center should have been raised in 2003 during the CEQA review process, not years later in 2006 in opposition to the design review process.  On these grounds, the court held that Health First lacked standing to challenge the application and the Specific Plan, generally, because the Specific Plan may be deemed a single project and should have been challenged in 2003.