By William W. Abbott, Diane Kindermann, Glen Hansen, Brian Russell and Dan Cucchi

Welcome to Abbott & Kindermann’s 2016 1st Quarter CEQA update. This summary provides links to more in depth case write-ups on the firm’s blog. The case names of the newest decisions start with Section 3 and are denoted by bold italic fonts.

1.         2015 CEQA UPDATE 

To read the 2015 cumulative CEQA review, click here: 


There are 5 CEQA cases pending at the California Supreme Court. The cases, listed newest to oldest, and the Court’s summaries are as follows:

Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach, S227473. (G049691; 236 Cal.App.4th 1341; Orange County Superior Court; 30-2012-00593557.) Petition for review after the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment in an action for writ of administrative mandate. This case presents the following issues: (1) Did the City’s approval of the project at issue comport with the directives in its general plan to "coordinate with" and "work with" the California Coastal Commission to identify habitats for preservation, restoration, or development prior to project approval? (2) What standard of review should apply to a city’s interpretation of its general plan? (3) Was the city required to identify environmentally sensitive habitat areas – as defined in the California Coastal Act of 1976 (Pub. Resources Code, § 3000, et seq.) – in the environmental impact report for the project?

Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Assn. of Governments,

S223603. (D063288; 231 Cal.App.4th 1056, mod. 231 Cal.App.4th 1437a; San Diego County Superior Court; 37-2011-00101593-CU-TT-CTL, 37-2011-00101660-CU-TTCTL.) Petition for review after the court of appeal affirmed the judgment in a civil action. The court limited review to the following issue: Must the environmental impact report for a regional transportation plan include an analysis of the plan’s consistency with the greenhouse gas emission reduction goals reflected in Executive Order No. S-3-05, so as to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.)? 

Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority, S222472. (A139222; 230 Cal.App.4th 85; Marin County Superior Court; CV1103591, CV1103605.) Petition for review after the court of appeal affirmed the judgments in actions for writ of administrative mandate. This case includes the following issues: (1) Does the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act [ICCTA] (49 U.S.C. § 10101 et seq.) preempt the application of the California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA] (Pub. Resources Code, § 21050 et seq.) to a state agency’s proprietary acts with respect to a state-owned and funded rail line or is CEQA not preempted in such circumstances under the market participant doctrine (see Town of Atherton v. California High Speed Rail Authority (2014) 228 Cal.App.4th 314)? (2) Does the ICCTA preempt a state agency’s voluntary commitments to comply with CEQA as a condition of receiving state funds for a state owned rail line and/or leasing state-owned property?

Sierra Club v. County of Fresno, S219783 (F066798, 226 Cal.App.4th 704); Fresno County Superior Court; 11CECG00706, 11CECG00709, 11CECG00726.) Petition for review after the court of appeal reversed the judgment in an action for writ of administrative mandate. This case presents issues concerning the standard and scope of judicial review under the California Environmental Quality Act. (CEQA; Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.)

Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College Dist., S214061. (A135892; nonpublished opinion; San Mateo County Superior Court; CIV508656.) Petition for review after the court of appeal affirmed the judgment in an action for writ of administrative mandate. This case presents the following issue: When a lead agency performs a subsequent environmental review and prepares a subsequent environmental impact report, a subsequent negative declaration, or an addendum, is the agency’s decision reviewed under a substantial evidence standard of review (Mani Brothers Real Estate Group v. City of Los Angeles (2007) 153 Cal.App.4th 1385)? Or, is the agency’s decision subject to a threshold determination of whether the modification of the project constitutes a “new project altogether,” as a matter of law (Save Our Neighborhood v. Lishman (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 1288)?

3.         UPDATE

A.              Exempt From CEQA Review 

Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of Upland (March 25, 2016) 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 223

In 2007, the City of Upland adopted an ordinance banning both “fixed or mobile” medical marijuana dispensaries within the city limits. In reaction to the likely operation of marijuana delivery services within the city limits, the council adopted a new ordinance in 2013 that explicitly banned mobile dispensaries.  The Union of Medical Marijuana Patients (“UMMP”) filed a petition for writ of mandate, arguing that adoption of the ordinance was a “project” subject to the California Environmental Quality Act and the trial court denied.  The 4th appellate district court affirmed, holding that the ordinance was not a project under CEQA.  It reasoned that the 2013 ordinance was nothing more than a ratification of the previous existing ordinance which banned mobile dispensaries. It then further found that even if the 2013 did not restate existing law, the potential environmental effects raised by UMMP through studies evaluating industrial-scale indoor growing operations—increases in electrical and water, waste plant material and odors, hazardous waste materials, increased traffic—were speculative and, thus, not reasonably foreseeable environmental effects.  It reasoned that these concerns “rest on layers of assumptions” about the similarity of the potential acts and consequences of small-scale medical marijuana patients and those on an industrial-scale if the mobile delivery service ban is upheld.  

B.              Negative Declarations 

Preserve Poway v. City of Poway (2106) 245 Cal.App.4th 560.

It is no surprise that people dislike change. California’s near constant state of evolvement is fertile ground for localized conflict between those fostering growth and those seeking to protect the status quo. While the fear or opposition to community change may well be the motivating factor in many CEQA disputes, is community change by itself an impact which must be addressed. According to Division One of the Fourth Appellate District, the answer is no. 

The underlying facts are neither remarkable nor unusual. The setting is the City of Poway, known as “The City in the Country.” A property owner, Harry Rogers, had operated a horse boarding facility for twenty years, located across the street from the polo/rodeo grounds of the Poway Valley Riders Association (which did not offer horse boarding.) Seeking greener pastures, Rogers proposed to close the boarding facility and subdivide his property into equestrian residential lots. The proposed subdivision conformed to the zoning and was unanimously approved by the City Council based upon a negative declaration. Horse enthusiasts filed a CEQA challenge over the conversion of use. The CEQA challenge raised a number of issues, noteworthy among which involved the loss of the facility and its potential implications to the character of the community. Equestrian activities were well thought of and helped define the community of Poway. The trial court found that most of the issues in the CEQA writ petition had not been raised administratively and could not be pursued at trial for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Reviewing the issue of community character, the trial court concluded that a fair argument had been made and directed that the Negative Declaration and project approval be set aside. As to the remaining issues, the trial court ruled for the City. The applicant timely appealed. The petitioners did not appeal the adverse ruling on the remaining claims. 

The appellate court reversed, concluding that community character was not the type of issue that CEQA was concerned with, as the impacts of closing the facility were social in character. The residents’ concerns were expressed in terms of childhood activities, life’s lessons while learned apparently on the back of a horse, the benefits to horse owners of not having to haul their horses around, and that the community would lose its country feel. While courts have recognized land use changes may affect a community through aesthetic impacts, in this particular case the impacts were to the psyche of the residents and were not the basis for requiring an environmental impact report. From the court’s perspective, these concerns were “psychological, social, and economic—not environmental.” 

The project opponents further argued that the existing rodeo/polo facility could cause impacts to the future subdivision. The appellate court rejected this argument, following the Supreme Court’s recent decision in California Building Industry Association v. Bay Ara Air Quality Management Dist. (2015) 62 Cal.4th 369, finding that CEQA’s focus was on the impacts of the project on the environment, not the other way around. As to traffic impacts, there was no “fair argument” from the court’s perspective. 

On appeal, the project opponents also argued that the trial court committed error in not requiring an EIR on other grounds. However, the opponents had failed to cross appeal these aspects of the lower court judgment, and could not now raise them in response to the appeal by the real party in interest. 

            C.        Environmental Impact Report

North Coast Rivers Alliance v. Kawamura (2015) 243 Cal.App.4th 647. (Unpublished to Published January 4, 2016.)

               EIR found to be invalid for inadequate range of alternatives.

The Third Appellate District found an EIR to be inadequate for lack of a particular alternative. While this suggests a potential micromanagement of the EIR process, the decision involves an unusual fact pattern. The lead agency was California Department of Food and Agriculture, proposing a seven year program to eradicate an invasive insect, the light brown apple moth (“LBAM”)[1]. Found in select northern California counties, this insect had spread rapidly notwithstanding State efforts to control the pest. The State proposed a program to eliminate the insect (as compared to managing its population) and prepared an EIR. At the end of the EIR process, the State approved a seven year program to control LBAMs based upon new information that eradication was not deemed to be attainable. “Control,” as compared to eradication, was not considered in the EIR as a reasonable alternative. Rather, the alternatives section examined seven techniques for management (five of which were approved as part of the project.) Opponents filed suit, arguing primarily project segmentation (after all, the pest was only to be controlled, not eradicated, within seven years), unstable project description and inadequate project alternatives. 

The project objective was defined as “eradication,” an objective determined by the appellate court to be too narrow. Eradication was used as a screening tool that prevented the consideration of control, which in the end is what the State approved. The fact that the State approved control in the end did not salvage the EIR as the error was deemed to be prejudicial. While late project adjustments might be allowable if insignificant, the court viewed the administrative record as lacking in supporting an insignificance conclusion because of the omission of any consideration of control in the EIR. The court also observed that the record supported the inference that impacts associated with control might be greater than eradication because of the potentially indefinite duration. 

Petitioners also argued other technical defects in specific impact analyses, but these were all rejected by the appellate court. The court considered but rejected an argument that the EIR was defective for failure to consider site specific impacts.  Finally, the court addressed a cumulative impacts argument stating that the new EIR take into consideration the long term (post seven year effects and treatment) in the evaluation of cumulative impacts.

If you have any questions about these court decisions, contact William Abbott or Diane Kindermann. 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.

[1] From Australia, which has also brought us Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee, and shrimp-on-the-barbie.