By William W. Abbott

In case you missed the recent legal tremor, be advised that land use practitioners are looking at two appellate districts in conflict with one another over the application of CEQA to a citizen sponsored land use measure. In Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. Superior Court (Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.) (October 30, 2012, F063849) ___Cal.App.4th ___, the facts involve the efforts of Wal-Mart to seek an expansion of an existing store in the City of Sonora. An EIR was prepared by the City, and the Planning Commission recommended approval. Before the matter was considered by the City Council, an initiative was filed, the effect of which would change the land use regulations on the Wal-Mart parcel, and dispense with the need for a discretionary permit. Once the city determined that the initiative petition contained the requisite number of signatures, the City Council had two basic choices: enact the measure as its own without modification or place it on the ballot. With the belief that CEQA did not apply, the City Council chose the former option and enacted the initiative measure as its own. Litigation challenging the approval ensued, including a claim that the City Council was required to complete the CEQA process first. The City and Wal-Mart demurred to the petition/complaint, which the trial court sustained. Petitioners then filed a writ petition with the Fifth Appellate District which granted the writ as to the CEQA claim, effectively reinstating the claim at the trial court.

The City and Wal-Mart argued strenuously to the appellate court that the city’s actions were ministerial and that the published court decision in Native American Sacred Site & Environmental Protection Association v. City of San Juan Capistrano (2004) 120 Cal.App.4th 961 was dispositive of this legal question. Based on these arguments, City and Wal-Mart argued that CEQA did not apply to the city council option to enact the measure (as compared to placing the matter before the voters.) The Fifth Appellate District wasn’t buying it however, expressly declining to follow Native American Sacred Site and finding the Council was exercising discretion if it enacted the measure as its own. To further cement its disagreement with the Fourth Appellate District, the Tuolumne court then ordered its decision published, potentially setting the stage for resolution by the California Supreme Court.

William W. Abbott is a partner 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, or 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 issues.