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

Welcome to Abbott & Kindermann’s 2016 Annual 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 C and are denoted by bold italic fonts.

A.        2015 CEQA UPDATE 

To read the 2015 cumulative CEQA review, click here: 


There are 4 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? 

**The case was argued before the California Supreme Court in early January, 2017.

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.)

C.        Update

1.               CEQA Significance Thresholds 

California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 1067. 

Hearing the case on remand from the California Supreme Court, the First District Court of Appeal considered the efficacy of BAAQMD’s significance thresholds used to evaluate the significance of a project’s air quality impacts on sensitive receptors under CEQA.  In light of the California Supreme Court’s decision in California Building Industry Assn. v. BAAQMD (2015) 62 Cal.4th 369, holding that, as a general rule, CEQA does not require an effect of the existing environment on a project’s future occupants or users, the court held that BAAQMD’s receptor thresholds could not be used to evaluate effects on future users, because to do so could trigger the need to prepare an EIR solely because the emissions in the existing environment meet the thresholds as to future users.  The court did, however, hold that the receptor thresholds could be used under certain circumstances, consistent with the California Supreme Court’s ruling, such as: (1) when the effect is ‘exacerbated’ by the project; (2) when a lead agency wishes to use such information for its own evaluation purposes; and (3) for those certain projects specifically identified in CEQA that call for an analysis of impacts on future users (see airports (PRC § 21096), school construction (PRC § 21151.8) and some housing projects (PRC §§ 21159.21 (f) and (h), 21159.22 (a) and (b)(3), 21159.23(a)(2)(A), 21159.24 (a)(1), (3),  211551.(a)(4), (6), 21096,  and 21151.8.)  The court then remanded the case to the trial court for further action consistent with the California Supreme Court and appellate court decisions.

2.               General Considerations: What Is The Definition Of A Project? 

Delaware Tetra Technologies, Inc. v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 352.

Citing seminal CEQA timing cases Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood, 45 Cal.4th 116 (2008) (“Save Tara”), and RiverWatch v. Olivenhain Municipal Water Dist., 170 Cal.App.4th 1186 (2009)(“RiverWatch”), the plaintiff claimed the respondent’s approval of a Memorandum of Understanding for development of a public/private partnership groundwater pumping project in the Mojave Desert (“2012 MOU”) was a “project” under CEQA and, thus, environmental review was required before it could be approved.  The court disagreed, finding that the 2012 MOU was not a “project,” because it did not commit the County “to a particular course of action that will cause an environmental impact,” affirming the trial court.  It reasoned that the instant circumstances were distinguishable from those cases, because those defendant agencies were sufficiently committed to a course of action that foreclosed alternatives or mitigation measures normally considered as part of the project approval process.  Instead, the 2012 MOU was akin to the “term sheet” in Cedar Fair, L.P. v. City of Santa Clara, 194 Cal.App.4th 1150 (2011), because the approval was merely “a process for completing the Plan” and the 2012 MOU explicitly stated that “the County retain[ed] full discretion to consider the Final EIR and then to approve the Project, disapprove it, or require additional mitigation measures or alternatives.”

Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of Upland (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 1265.                                                                                               

In 2007, the City of Upland adopted an ordinance banning “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 CEQA 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. 

Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 103.

The city adopted an ordinance regulating the establishment and regulation of medical marijuana cooperatives within the city, finding the ordinance was not a “project” under CEQA, because it will not result in a direct or reasonably foreseeable indirect change in the physical environment. (CEQA Guidelines §15060(c)(3).)  The petitioners (“UMMP”) challenged the city’s adoption of the ordinance under CEQA, arguing the ordinance was a project under CEQA, because it had the potential to cause environmental impacts as a result of traffic, air pollution, and effects from home cultivation sites around the city.  The trial court denied the petition and UMMP appealed.  The Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that the city’s ordinance was not a “project” subject to CEQA.  It reasoned that UMMP’s concerns over potential indirect impacts were too speculative to meet the reasonably foreseeable standard.

3.               Exempt From CEQA Review 

People for Proper Planning v. City of Palm Springs (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 640.

The City of Palm Springs amended its general plan to remove minimum density requirements.  The City asserted that the amendment was categorically exempt from CEQA (CEQA Guidelines §15305 [Minor Alterations in Land Use Limitations]), as the action was consistent with prior city interpretation and administration of the general plan which resulted in projects at less than the minimum density stated in the various land use districts.  While the trial court agreed that it was exempt, the appellate court reversed on the basis that the change undermined the city’s ability to meet its share of the state’s housing needs when it relied upon the “anticipated densities” when developing its housing element. Consequently, given the exemption’s facial exclusion for projects that result in changes to land use density, the exemption was inapplicable.

Walters v. City of Redondo Beach (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 809.

Auto-Spa applied for a conditional use permit to build a car wash and coffee shop in Redondo Beach, California. The project consisted of a 90-foot car wash tunnel and an attached coffee shop totaling 4,080 square feet. From 1965 to 2001, there was a car wash on the property.  The Planning Commission approved the project under a categorical exemption in CEQA Guidelines section 15303(c) for “New Construction or Conversion of Small Structures.”   

In reviewing the determination of whether a project fits within the exemption, the appellate court applied the substantial evidence test and agreed with the city that the exemption embraced a broad range of commercial projects. Appellants then argued that even if the exemption applies, it should not apply for this project because “there is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.”  But the court concluded that there is nothing particularly unusual about the proposed car wash and coffee shop. The evidence established that there are many other car washes in the surrounding area, plus the site itself was a car wash and snack bar for nearly 40 years. 

On the final issue, the court held that appellants failed to provide evidence that the project will actually have a significant impact due to noise and traffic, reasoning that the car wash was conditioned to adherence to the city’s noise standards, and that, at best, appellants provided evidence that suggests that the project possibly could have a periodic impact on traffic. Therefore, the city properly determined that the car wash project was categorically exempt under the CEQA Guidelines. 

4.               Negative Declarations 

Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 677. 

In a challenge to the adequacy of the county’s adopted negative declaration, the appellate court held that petitioner failed to provide substantial evidence of a potentially significant effect from urban decay resulting from the approval of a 9,100 sq. ft. Dollar General store, because there were legitimate credibility issues regarding the opinions of the local business owner regarding the impact.  The court also held that given the relatively moderate size of the business, it was reasonable for the county to conclude that the project was consistent with the county’s general plan policies for the area which favor small businesses.

Preserve Poway v. City of Poway (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 560.

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. 

Friends of the Willow Glen Trestle v. City of San Jose (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 457. 

Petitioners challenged the City of San Jose’s mitigated negative declaration in support of its proposal to demolish the Willow Glen Railroad Trestle (the “Trestle”), a wooden bridge built in 1922 as part of a rail line accessing the canning districts near downtown, and replace it with a new steel pedestrian bridge.  The City found that, because the Trestle design was common and was likely largely rebuilt within the last 30-40 years, it was not a historical resource.  Thus, there was no significant impact on the environment.  Petitioners challenged that determination and filed a writ of mandate, arguing that there was a “fair argument” that the Trestle was an historical resource and an environmental impact report (“EIR”) was required. The appellate court ruled in favor of the City, reasoning that the statutory language precluded the application of the fair argument standard to the initial decision of whether it was an historical resource, because the City was specifically authorized under Public Resources Code section 21084.1 to make such determinations based upon “the preponderance of the evidence.” 

Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo Community College Dist. (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937.

In 2006, the San Mateo Community College District adopted a master plan, calling for over one billion dollars in investment districtwide. This master plan was based upon an environmental impact report (“EIR”). As to the College of San Mateo campus, the plan called for renovation of the Building 20 complex and demolition of others. In 2007, the District approved a negative declaration for the improvements at the San Mateo campus. In 2011, being unsuccessful in obtaining funding, the College modified its plans, planning now to demolish the Building 20 complex and associated gardens, and renovate other buildings. This decision was based upon the 2007 negative declaration coupled with an addendum. Project opponents filed suit, and the District rescinded its addendum and reissued a new addendum with a more in-depth analysis, but reaching the same conclusion. Opponents dismissed the first case and refiled a new lawsuit challenging the revised plans on CEQA grounds. At the opponents’ urging, the trial court concluded that the revisions constituted a new project, ordered the approvals set aside, and directed the District to prepare an EIR. The Court of Appeal concurred (relying primarily on Save Our Neighborhood v. Lishman (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 1288) to decide that as a matter of law the proposed building demolition was a new project. The California Supreme granted review and reversed. 

The Court was emphatic that a decision of whether or not a proposed activity was a new project was predominately a factual question to be made by the decision making body, not a reviewing court. “It is thus a question for the agency to answer in the first instance, drawing on its particular expertise….A court’s task on review is then to decide whether the agency’s determination is supported by substantial evidence; the court’s job’ is not to weigh conflicting evidence and determine who has the better argument.’ ” The opponents also argued that Public Resources Code Section 21166 and CEQA Guidelines Section 15162 could only be invoked following the use of an EIR and therefore had no application in this instance based upon a negative declaration. Citing the legislative history, the Court rejected this argument. Finally, the opponents argued the substantial evidence test was inappropriate in circumstances of a tiered CEQA document, pointing to the master plan as the first tier. The record did not support this characterization, as the 2007 approval was a project-level decision.

5.               Environmental Impact Reports

The Committee for Re-Evaluation of the T-Line Loop v. San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, 2016 Cal.App. LEXIS 1154 

In 1998, the San Francisco MTA certified an EIR for the addition of a new light rail line to connect the southeastern portion of the City to the rest of San Francisco, included a portion of the project called the Initial Operating Segment (“IOS”).  Over the next decade, portions of the IOS were constructed, but the “Loop” was not fully constructed due to budget constraints.  In 2013, the City received approval of a federal TIGER grant to complete construction of the “Loop,” and City planning department staff determined that the 1998 EIR provided sufficient CEQA review of the project.  In 2014, the City entered into a contract for construction of the “Loop” and the plaintiffs filed suit arguing: (1) the 1998 EIR did not sufficiently cover construction of the “Loop,” and, thus, the court should apply the fair argument standard of review for CEQA compliance; and (2) even if it did, supplemental review of the existing 2014 conditions should have been completed.  The trial court denied the petition and plaintiffs appealed.

The First District Court of Appeal affirmed.  Citing Friends of College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo Community College District (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937, the court found that the substantial evidence standard of review applies to review of the City’s determination that the 1998 EIR was sufficient.  Thus, based upon review of the record, the court held that substantial evidence supported the City’s decision to rely on the 1998 EIR.  In addition, it held that plaintiffs’ claim that the analysis of the “Loop” in the 1998 EIR was inadequate was time-barred pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21167.2.  As to the question of whether supplemental review was required, the court also found the plaintiffs’ arguments were meritless.  It reasoned that prior case law cited by plaintiffs that suggest support for their position involve prior program or plan EIRs, while this matter involved a project-level EIR, and found that: (1) substantial evidence in the record supported the City’s decision not complete supplemental review; and (2) the delay between the 1998 EIR and the 2014 construction was not a substantial change to the project necessary to trigger supplemental analysis.

Bay Area Citizens v. Association of Bay Area Governments (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 966.

Reviewing a legal challenge perhaps driven primarily by philosophical considerations (higher density vs. lower density), the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District) upheld ABAG’s Sustainable Communities plan (the “Plan”), adopted under the authority of SB 375 (Steinberg).  SB 375, adopted in 2008, created a framework for linking transportation investment and land use planning in a manner to move the state closer to its targeted reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by passenger vehicles and light trucks. The heavy lifting under SB 375 is by the regional planning agencies, in this case Association of Bay Area Governments (“ABAG”) in consultation with the California Air Resources Board (“CARB”) as it discharges its responsibilities developing and implementing the State Scoping Plan. The adequacy of the Plan and EIR, and in particular the shift towards higher density, was challenged by Bay Area Citizens. 

Although the appellate decision is mostly dedicated to SB 375, Citizens also challenged the EIR. Its first argument challenged the project description, reintroducing the theme that Pavley I and the low carbon fuel requirements should have been factored in as part of the project description. The appellate court readily disposed of this argument, reciting that the seven identified goals for the Plan were sufficiently broad and appropriately linked to SB 375. The appellate court then turned to Citizens’ challenge to the EIR’s alternatives.  Citizens first argued that the No Project alternative was required to reflect the benefits of other state programs (notably Pavley I and low carbon fuels) which largely centered on an argument that the EIR should have included the Citizen’s alternative.  Again, the appellate court disagreed noting that the targets in greenhouse gas reduction and climate change from the Plan were developed independent from, and were additive to, the anticipated benefits of Pavley I and low carbon fuels. The appellate court also determined that the Pavley II impacts were not known until too late in the EIR process and therefore were not required to be reflected in the EIR.  Citizens also argued that the EIR was required to review its plan as an alternative, suggesting that its plan would have met basic project objectives without the secondary effects of higher density development.  The court rejected this argument finding that the EIR included a reasonable range of alternatives and that Citizens had failed to demonstrate any shortcomings against that legal standard. Citizens last argument was a variation on the same theme: because the Agency failed to account for the benefits of Pavely I and low carbon fuels, the Agency failed to adequately respond to the Citizens comments as to those issues. Again noted the appellate court, the Citizens had it wrong. 

Finally, as an independent ground to uphold the EIR, the Court agreed with amicus California Attorney General that the EIR was a full disclosure document. The document was clear when and where it relied upon Pavley I and low carbon fuels, and that the challengers failed to show why more analysis was required. Essentially then, Citizens challenge was to the wisdom of the Plan itself, essentially at its best that the Plan did more than the minimum to meet the law. In the end, a challenge to the wisdom of the Plan was not a CEQA challenge. 

Spring Valley Lake Assn. v. City of Victorville (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 91.

The Appellate Court held that the EIR prepared for a shopping center, including a new Wal-Mart, lacked substantial evidence to support a finding of consistency with the General Plan because the analysis of the project’s noncompliance with a plan policy requiring on site electricity generation did not adequately explain the infeasibility of solar or consider other onsite generation options. Analysis of greenhouse gas emissions impacts was insufficient because some documents in the record indicated energy efficiency standards would not be met. Before approving the parcel map the city was required to affirmatively address all of the factors in Government Code Section 66474. Significant changes to the air quality analysis and the hydrology and water analysis required recirculation.

Ukiah Citizens for Safety First v. City of Ukiah (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 256.

The appellate court held that the city’s EIR for a commercial retail project failed to adequately analyze energy impacts, because it failed to calculate the resulting energy impacts from increased vehicle trips resulting from the project. Furthermore, it held that the city’s reliance upon building code compliance to reduce energy use was improper, because the compliance with those standards fails to address many of the considerations required under Appendix F of the CEQA Guidelines. The court also held that the city’s adoption of an addendum to the EIR addressing these deficiencies nearly one year after its original adoption did not cure the deficiencies in the EIR, because the EIR was still inadequate at the time the decision was made to approve the project.

Center for Biological Diversity v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 326.

The petitioners challenged the adequacy of the environmental impact report (“EIR”) for a proposed project to pump groundwater from an underground aquifer in the Mojave Desert, a public/private partnership between the County of San Bernardino (the “County”), the Santa Margarita Water District (“Santa Margarita”), the Fenner Valley Mutual Water Company (“Fenner Valley”), and Cadiz, Inc. (“Cadiz”)(collectively, the “Respondents”). Petitioners challenged under several theories: (1) Santa Margarita was improperly designated as the lead agency under CEQA; (2) the project description was misleading and inaccurate by (a) mischaracterizing the project’s “conservation” objectives as preventing water lost to evaporation, (b) misstating the project duration; and (c) mischaracterizing the total amount of water than will be withdrawn from the aquifer. The trial court denied the petition and the petitioners appealed. 

The appellate court affirmed on all counts. It found Santa Margarita was properly designated as the lead agency pursuant to CEQA Guidelines section 15051, because (1) it is a public agency that will carry out, in part, a public/private partnership; and (2) it will have the greatest responsibility for supervising the project as a whole. It rejected petitioners’ claim that the project does not meet its purported “conservation” purpose, finding that the purpose was broader than prevention of evaporation and included saving freshwater sources before they become non-potable due to excess salinity once they migrate into nearby dry lakes.   

The court denied petitioners claims that the project duration was indefinite, reasoning that even though the project by its terms could be extended beyond its 50-year duration in order to complete contracted-for water deliveries, the duration remained limited by the fact that any extension was limited by the maximum amount of water that may be pumped over the life of the project, and the average amount of water that can be pumped annually. It further reasoned that any extensions would require subsequent environmental review consistent with CEQA. Finally, the court rejected the claim that the quantity of water pumped was inaccurate, reasoning that the water sales agreement cited other adopted documents limiting the amount of water that may be pumped annually and that the size of the pipelines is consistent with the project design capacities. 

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

An EIR was held to be invalid due to an 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. 

San Diegans for Open Government v. City of San Diego, 2016 Cal.App. LEXIS 1095.

The city staff reviewed a developer’s proposed changes to a previously approved project and determined that the project, as amended, was in substantial conformance with the conditions and requirements of the approved permit and no further CEQA compliance was required.  Plaintiffs, a local public interest group, appealed the determination to the Planning Commission which upheld the decision of staff.  The city then rejected the request to appeal the matter to the city council.  Plaintiffs filed suit arguing: (1) they were entitled to an administrative appeal under Public Resources Code section 21151(c), requiring agencies to accept appeals of CEQA determinations made by non-elected decision making bodies; (2) the determination was discretionary, thus entitling them to an appeal to the city council; and/or (3) the local ordinance provides for an appeal of environmental determinations.  The trial court denied the petition and plaintiffs appealed. 

The appellate court affirmed, holding that the city was not obligated to allow plaintiffs to appeal the decision.  It reasoned that: (1) nothing in the CEQA Guidelines supports the notion that section 21151(c) applies to review of a project that merely confirms a previous CEQA determination still applies; (2) the discretionary nature of a decision is not sufficient on its own to establish a right to an administrative appeal; and (3) the action was not an “environmental determination” as defined in the city code, because it did not “certify an environmental impact report, adopt a … mitigated negative declaration, or determine that a project was exempt from [CEQA].”

Mission Bay Alliance v. Office of Community Investment & Infrastructure (2016) 6 Cal.App.5th 160.

A citizens group challenged the City and County of San Francisco’s (“City”) certification of an environmental impact report for the construction of an arena for the Golden State Warriors and adjacent facilities in the Mission Bay South redevelopment plan area.  Plaintiffs challenged several issues, including: (1) that certain environmental issues were improperly “scoped-out” and there was a fair argument of potentially significant impacts; (2) mitigation requiring the Warriors to “work with” transit agencies to address traffic impacts was legally inadequate; (3) inclusion of the Muni Transit Service Plan (“TSP”) in the project description, rather than as mitigation, prevented the consideration of other potential mitigation measures under Lotus v. DOT (2014) 223 Cal.App.4th 645; (4) the City’s use of an “ambient plus increment” noise threshold improperly disregarded noise impacts where the noise levels were already high; and (5) failure to quantify GHG emissions and rely on a qualitative standard of consistency with the City’s GHG strategy was legally deficient.  The trial court denied the petition and plaintiffs appealed. 

The appellate court affirmed.  It held that: 

(1)  the substantial evidence standard of review was proper, because the City made a determination that the project was consistent with a prior program EIR, while identifying the specific issues that warranted more detailed environmental review, consistent with CEQA Guidelines section 15168. 

(2)  the mitigation that required the Warriors to “work with” the transit agencies was adequate, reasoning that the adopted transportation management plan specific performance standards and substantial evidence supported the conclusion that the mitigation will “actually be implemented as a condition of development”;  

(3)  Lotus was inapplicable, reasoning that unlike the Lotus environmental document, the arena EIR fully disclosed the traffic and transit impacts of the project, and analyzed both with and without the TSP under the same threshold to determine significance;

(4)  The noise analysis was not deficient, because the EIR incorporated a smaller incremental threshold for high ambient noise levels, the cumulative analysis expressly addresses the issue raised by plaintiffs, and the impact analysis fully describes the noise impacts on human health; and

(5)  the EIRs reliance on compliance with an adopted GHG reduction strategy, even without quantifying the GHG emissions, was: (a) consistent with CEQA Guidelines section 15064.4 which grants agencies discretion in determining the proper significance threshold for a given project; and (b) does not run afoul of the California Supreme Court’s holding in Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Fish & Wildlife (2015) 62 Cal.4th 219, because it did not hold that quantification was necessary in every case, it identified “potential pathways to compliance.”

East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City v. City of Sacramento (2016) 5 Cal.App.5th 281.

Note: Requests for depublication have been filed with the California Supreme Court.  The court extended time to review these request until March 17, 2017. 

The court of appeal refused to set aside an EIR due to minor changes that occurred through the EIR process. These include:

·       Failure to discuss the development agreement;

·       A minor density change resulting in an increase of eight more residential units from 328 units to 336 units;

·       The discussion, but no decision of a potential secondary vehicle access (to be built if at all as an independent city project);

·       Driveway width variances for a handful of four-house residential T-court clusters;

·       A modification to over circulation resulting in traffic being diverted to another street with additional capacity;

·       The EIR was not required to analyze impacts from the existing nearby landfill on the project. 

However, the EIR failed to substantiate the use of a different level of service on downtown, as compared to suburban intersections.

Finally, with respect to general plan consistency claims, the court of applied a deferential review, finding no irreconcilable conflicts with mandatory policies.

6.               Litigation Procedures 

Highland Springs Conf. & Training Center v. City of Banning (2016) 244 Cal.App.4th 267. 

After a successful challenge to the approval of an Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) for a 1,500-acre development project, the appellants, Highland Springs Conference & Training Center (“Highland Springs”), were awarded over $1 million in attorney fees and costs against the real party in interest, SCC/Black Bench, LLC, dba SunCal Companies (“SCC/BB”) in 2008.  Four years later, appellants sought to add SCC Acquisitions, Inc. (“SCCA”), as an additional judgment debtor, claiming that SCCA was the alter ego of SCC/BB and filed the motion shortly after they became aware that SCC/BB had dissolved back in 2010.  The trial court denied the motion to amend reasoning that while Highland Springs likely would have prevailed on the motion had they filed it earlier, it was denied because Highland Springs failed to provide sufficient evidence to support their “long delay” in filing the motion.  Highland Springs appealed.

The appellate court reversed, holding that the court erred by failing to apply the alter ego doctrine to the motion, which would have put the burden was on SCCA to provide sufficient evidence that it was prejudiced by Highland Springs delay in filing the motion under a laches defense.  The appellate court remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the opinion. 

Center for Biological Diversity v. Cal. Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 452. 

After extended litigation over a mandate petition regarding the certification of an Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) related to several approvals for the proposed land development project called Newhall Ranch, the California Supreme Court held that issues involving greenhouse gas emissions and protected fish species required further analysis under CEQA and remanded the case back to the appellate court.  In the published portion of the decision, the appellate court considered the defendants’ argument that the appellate court had the authority under the California Supreme Court decision to retain supervision of the agency’s compliance after remand.  The Court of Appeal held that it is not empowered to retain jurisdiction to supervise the return to the writ of mandate, because Public Resources Code section 21168.9, subdivision (b) expressly vests such power in the trial court.

Communities for a Better Environment v. Bay Area Air Quality Mgmt. Dist. (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 715. 

The petitioners, Communities for a Better Environment (“CBE”), filed a writ of mandate challenging the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s (“BAAQMD”) approval of a modification to operations at a rail-to-truck facility to transload crude oil, instead of ethanol, as a “ministerial” approval exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).  Though CBE’s action was filed more than 180 days after both BAAQMD’s approval of the change in operations, as well as the commencement of the new operations, CBE argued the “discovery rule” should apply to toll the statute of limitations.  Because of the nature of the change in operations and BAAQMD did not file a Notice of Exemption, CBE maintained that it neither learned about the project, nor could have discovered it using reasonable diligence, until it received an email disclosing the project.  In its defense, CBE cited Concerned Citizens of Costa Mesa, Inc. v. 32nd District Agricultural Association, 42 Cal.3d 929 (1986), in which the California Supreme Court allowed a CEQA suit filed more than 180 days after construction began on an amphitheater project, because the Association made substantial changes to the project that were not made public and were not discoverable until the first concert was held at the site.  However, the trial court held the claim was time-barred, dismissed the case, and CBE appealed. 

The appellate court affirmed.  Looking to Concerned Citizens, the appellate court reasoned that the California Supreme Court did not apply the discovery rule, because to do so would be inconsistent with the Legislature’s intent in adopting the strict timelines in Public Resources Code 21167.  Instead, the court noted that the California Supreme Court allowed the suit to proceed because the changes from the original project were so substantial the plaintiffs had neither actual nor constructive notice of the changes until the first concert was held.  Thus, they had 180 days from the time they “knew or reasonably should have known that the project under way differs substantially from the one described in the EIR.”  The court then considered another case, Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton, 48 Cal.4th 481 (2010), to conclude that the public has received constructive notice through either a formal decision to approve the project or the project’s commencement.  Thus, the court held that CBE’s suit was subject to the 180 day limitations period from the date CBE had constructive notice, which was the date of project commencement, not the date of the email giving CBE actual notice.

Citizens for Ceres v. City of Ceres (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 237.

A citizens group unsuccessfully challenged the city’s environmental review and approval of a shopping center project.  The developer reimbursed the city for the costs to prepare the administrative record and requested the court grant an award that included those costs.  The citizens group filed a motion to tax those costs and the trial court granted it.  The developer appealed and the appellate court reversed the order to tax costs and remanded to the trial court.  It reasoned that: (1) nothing in the statute prohibits a real party in interest from submitting cost bills after it reimbursed the agency for preparing the administrative record; and (2) neither could such a prohibition imply that to do so would undermine the public policy of incentivizing agencies to reduce costs.

7.               CEQA Guidelines Updates 

a.     OPR VMT CEQA Guidance 

On January 20, 2016, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (“OPR”) released its Revised Proposal on Updates to the CEQA Guidelines on Evaluating Transportation Impacts in CEQA, which followed its “Preliminary Discussion Draft” released in 2014.  OPR accepted public comments on the revised draft through February 29, 2016.  Key proposals include: 

·       A recommendation that VMT be used throughout the state, not just in transit priority areas, phased in over time, beginning in urban areas. 

·       Establishes that under CEQA, “a project’s effect on automobile delay does not constitute a significant environmental impact.”

·       Authorizing agencies to use significance thresholds adopted by other agencies, so long as they are supported by substantial evidence.

·       The proposal includes a Technical Advisory that sets forth recommended VMT screening thresholds, as well as several examples of potential mitigation measures and alternatives to reduce VMT. 

To date, no further steps have been taken and there is no timeline for adoption of final regulations. More information can be found at:

b.     AB 52 CEQA Guidelines Update 

California Natural Resources Agency adopts final rule to implement AB 52, Tribal Cultural Resources under CEQA on September 29, 2016. 

See Environmental Law Update, Cultural Resources Protection Section, Update, Item 1.

D.        Legislation

SB 122 (Chapter 476) California Environmental Quality Act: record of proceedings.  

This bill requires: (1) the lead agency to concurrently prepare the administrative record with the administrative process, upon the request of the applicant and the consent of the agency, at the sole cost of the applicant, and certify the record within 30 days after filing the notice of determination; and (2) directs OPR to implement an online public database of all CEQA documents and notices, and requires lead agencies to submit these documents in either hard-copy or electronic format, as determined by OPR.

SB 734 (Chapter 210) Environmental quality: Jobs and Economic Improvement Through Environmental Leadership Act of 2011.

This bill extends the sunset date until January 1, 2019, for projects to qualify for the expedited CEQA judicial review process established in the Jobs and Economic Improvement Through Environmental Leadership Act in 2011.

SB 1008 (Chapter 588) California Environmental Quality Act: Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System: exemption.  

This bill exempts from CEQA the design, construction and operation of the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System, a radio and broadband communications system for emergency responders, under specified conditions.

If you have any questions about these court decisions, contact William Abbott, Diane Kindermann or Dan Cucchi. The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, Inc., 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.