By William W. Abbott

Citizens for a Green San Mateo v. San Mateo County Community College District (2014) 226 Cal.App.4th 1572.

Details do matter in CEQA litigation as reflected in the recent decision involving the application of the statute of limitations to bar a CEQA claim. Citizens for a Green San Mateo v. San Mateo County Community College District (2014) 226 Cal.App.4th 1572. The facts involve a facilities master plan adopted by the San Mateo County Community College District. The chronology begins in 2001 when the District adopted a master plan. The District updated the master plan in 2006. The 2006 plan called for building demolition and reconstruction, and extensive site redevelopment including modification to existing landscaping. A mitigated negative declaration was approved in conjunction with the updated master plan. From 2008 through 2010, the District developed, approved and awarded site specific construction contracts. To differing degrees, these plans and construction contracts referenced tree removal. In late 2010, the District awarded a contract for tree removal which began on December 29, 2010, continuing on into January. Citizens raised concerns in early January, and filed a petition for writ of mandamus against the District on July 1, 2011. 

The District challenged the pleadings, arguing the relevant statute of limitations barred the suit. The trial disagreed, and the District appealed.  The court of appeal reversed, finding that the suit was barred under both the 30 and 180 day CEQA statutes of limitation.

The Citizens’ primary argument was that the tree cutting project was different from the project studied in the earlier master plan and as a result, they were not limited by the prior NOD, but could properly file the claim within 180 days of actual discovery. Not so in the opinion of the appellate court. The court of appeal was satisfied that the initial study adequately described the tree cutting such that the filing of the NOD following approval of the 2006 updated plan effectively triggered CEQA’s thirty day statute of limitations. In finding the lawsuit to be untimely, the court emphasized the prior California Supreme Court decision in Committee for Green Foothills v. Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors (2010) 48 Cal.4th 32, which explores in depth the beneficial effects of an NOD in terms of the statute of limitations.

The court then addressed the Citizens’ alternative argument that the relevant statute of limitations ran from discovery, and extended for 180 days. As to this issue, the Court found that the relevant commitment to the tree cutting took place in 2010 with the approval of various bid and construction related documents, which also included information on tree removal.  Contrary to the Citizens’ claim, the relevant triggering period was not to be measured from the award of the tree removal contract.

Comment: The lead agency was able to successfully assert that the later implementation action (tree cutting) was included and part of the project approved as part of the earlier master plan. While the discussion of landscape modification in 2006 was not overly detailed, it included sufficient information in the analysis of the appellate court to give extended benefits to the 2006 filing of the NOD. Thus, project details disclosed in the initial CEQA do matter in the long run by expanding the scope of coverage protected by the filing of a Notice of Determination.

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, 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 issues.