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

Welcome to Abbott & Kindermann’s 2017 2nd Quarter cumulative 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. 2016 CEQA UPDATE

 To read the 2016 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:

Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego, S238563. (D068185; 4 Cal.App.5th 103; San Diego County Superior Court; 37-2014-00013481- CU-TT-CTL.) Petition for review after the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment in an action for administrative mandate. This case presents the following issues: (1) Is the enactment of a zoning ordinance categorically a “project” within the meaning of the California Environmental Quality Act (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.)? (2) Is the enactment of a zoning ordinance allowing the operation of medical marijuana cooperatives in certain areas the type of activity that may cause a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change to the environment? 

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.)

  1. UPDATE 
  • Ministerial v. Discretionary 

Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 11.

The County issued an erosion-control permit to allow the establishment of a vineyard on land currently used for grazing. Petitioners challenged the issuance of the permit arguing it was a discretionary decision which triggered compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). The County argued the permit was ministerial and was, thus, exempt from CEQA. The dispute centered on the interpretation of the County Code and how much discretion the County Agricultural Commissioner can exercise when approving the permits.

The petitioners argued that the relevant provisions of the County Code were broad and vague, thereby allowing the Commissioner to exercise significant discretion. The court found petitioner’s claims unpersuasive, because most of the provisions that provide the Commissioner with considerable latitude were inapplicable to the issuance of the challenged permit. The court reasoned that even if the contested provisions could overcome the County’s position, the discretion arguably conferred to the Commissioner is only relevant when those discretionary provisions are applied to the approval of a specific permit.

The Court then turned to petitioner’s argument that three provisions that did apply conferred additional discretion, namely provisions requiring: (1) a 50-foot setback from wetlands, “unless a wetlands biologist recommends a different setback”; (2) stormwater to be diverted “to the nearest practicable disposal location”; and (3) incorporation “of natural drainage features…whenever possible.” The Court rejected these claims, reasoning that in contrast to prior seminal cases involving discretionary approvals, such as Friends of Westwood, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles, 191 Cal.App.3d 259 (1987), these provisions did not confer the ability to mitigate environmental impacts in a meaningful way. It further reasoned that in each instance petitioners failed to cite to any evidence in the record that demonstrated that the County had discretion or that any discretion found would mitigate potential environmental impacts to any meaningful degree.

Lastly, the Court turned to petitioner’s claims that the Commissioner’s ability to request additional voluntary actions rendered the permit discretionary. The Court held the requests did not establish the exercise of discretion. It reasoned that despite the inclusion of several mitigation measures in the permit’s conditions of approval, because the ordinance does not require the requested measures, the Commissioner had no authority to require them and the applicant’s acceptance of the voluntary request is insufficient to transform an otherwise ministerial permit into a discretionary one.

  • Piecemealing 

Aptos Council v. County of Santa Cruz (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 266. 

The County of Santa Cruz, as part of its plan to overhaul its zoning ordinance, adopted three separate ordinance amendments to: (1) expand the minor exceptions to the zoning site standards; (2) alter the height, density, and parking requirements for hotels in its commercial districts; and (3) adopted an administrative approval process for some minor exceptions to the sign ordinance. The County relied on a negative declaration for each of the first two amendments and found the third amendment was exempt. In each case, the County considered them separate and distinct projects under CEQA. The Aptos Council challenged the approvals, arguing the County had improperly “piecemealed” the CEQA evaluation for the projects by failing to consider them as a single project. In addition, the Council challenged the negative declaration for the hotel amendment, arguing the CEQA analysis failed to consider the impacts of future development that would be permitted by the ordinance.

Affirming the trial court, the appellate court denied the Council’s petition. It rejected the Council’s claim that the County improperly piecemealed the CEQA analyses for each amendment, because, as stated in Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach, 211 Cal.App.4th 1209 (2012), each amendment could be “implemented independently.” As to the hotel amendment, the Court found that the County’s analysis properly considered some potential impacts of future development, but concluded that additional impacts described by the Council were speculative and, thus, were not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the amendment. 

  • Subsequent Environmental Review 

Friends of College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College Dist. (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 596.

In the follow up decision to the Supreme Court’s decision in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937, the Appellate Court invalidated the District’s reliance upon the addendum to the previously adopted mitigated negative declaration. In the facts of San Mateo Gardens, the District proposed to modify a previously approved 2006 master plan calling for the demolition of up to 16 buildings and the renovation of several others at the campus. It later adopted an addendum to address the modifications to the master plan which included the removal of a portion of the gardens surrounding a building newly designated for demolition and the renovation of two other buildings that were previously slated for demolition.

First, the Appellate Court applied the substantial evidence test to review the agency’s decision to rely upon the prior mitigated negative declaration and use CEQA’s subsequent review provisions. The Court found there was sufficient evidence to support the lead agency’s decision, because the project’s changes did not affect the 2006 decision and MND to demolish the other 14 buildings nor the previously established mitigation measures. Thus, the agency’s determination that there was continuing utility to the 2006 decision and related environmental analysis was proper.

Moving to the second question, however, the appellate court found the use of an addendum was inadequate under CEQA. Given the agency’s reliance upon a mitigated negative declaration in the first instance, the court held that the use of an addendum was improper when “the proposed modification may produce a significant environmental effect that had not previously been studied.” Based upon the testimony of students and faculty about the aesthetic impacts on the campus gardens, the appellate court concluded there was sufficient evidence to support a fair argument of a new aesthetic impact not previously analyzed and set aside the use of an addendum. The Court, thus, affirmed the lower court judgment in favor of the petitioner. But, rather than directing the agency to prepare an EIR, the court concluded that the agency could “choose to prepare a subsequent MND if it determines that the possibly significant environmental effects will ‘be reduced to insignificance’ through the implementation of mitigation measures.” 

  • Environmental Impact Reports 

Poet, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 52.

In 2013, the Fifth District Court of Appeal issued a writ of mandate compelling CARB to revise its environmental document in support of its 2009 adoption of the Low Carbon Fuel Standards (“LCFS”) to ensure compliance with CEQA. (See POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 681.) After Carb adopted the revised environmental document, Poet, LLC (“Poet”), challenged whether the analysis adequately evaluated the project’s impacts on biodiesel consumption and the related increases in NOx emissions that would result. Specifically, Poet challenged CARB’s use of a 2014 NOx emissions baseline to evaluate the impacts of the regulations. CARB argued the 2014 baseline was appropriate under these circumstances, because the changes in biodiesel use and technology in the years after the 2009 LCFS adoption, and the modified LCFS regulations and new Alternative Diesel Fuel (“ADF”) regulations adopted in 2015, made it “impossible to determine what portion of the increase in use is attributable to the original LCFS,” and, thus, would not yield any environmentally meaningful information.

The Appellate Court was unpersuaded and held that CARB was required to set the baseline at 2009 levels. It reasoned that CEQA’s requirement that environmental review must consider “the whole of the action,” as well as the explicit requirements under the writ of mandate, necessitated that the analysis consider not only the original LCFS regulations, but also the 2015 LCFS and ADF regulations, in order to fully inform the decision makers and the public of any significant environmental impacts of their adoption. The Court then issued a revised writ directing CARB to freeze into place the 2017 standards for diesel fuel and its substitutes adopted under the 2015 LCFS until a CEQA-compliant environmental document using the proper baseline is completed. 

Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918.

Petitioners sued the City of Newport Beach over the approval of a residential and commercial project on one quarter of a 400-acre, largely undeveloped coastal property. The petitioners objected to the City’s EIR, arguing it failed to identify potential impacts to “environmentally sensitive habitat areas” (“ESHA”), defined by the California Coastal Act, as a result of the project. The Coastal Commission had not yet determined whether ESHAs were present at the site and the site was explicitly excluded from the City’s coastal land use plan. Petitioners also challenged the project on general plan consistency grounds, asserting that the County had failed to adequately “work with” the Coastal Commission to identify wetlands and habitats. The Appellate Court held that the City was not required to speculate as to the presence of ESHAs at the site in its EIR, because it is a legal conclusion to be made by the Coastal Commission. Instead, the City’s EIR analysis was sufficient because it included all of the necessary data and analysis regarding biological resources and habitat. The Court also found the project was consistent with the City’s general plan because the City could work with the Commission post-approval when it obtains the necessary coastal development permit. Petitioners appealed and the California Supreme Court granted the petition for review.

The California Supreme Court reversed. It held that CEQA’s requirement to concurrently integrate CEQA compliance with other related review procedures “required by law or by local practice” (CEQA Guidelines §15080), obligated the City to include at least some analysis of the impacts to known and potential ESHAs present on the site. It found the City’s reasoning for deferring the analysis was not persuasive, given the “ample evidence that ESHA are present on Banning Ranch.” As for the general plan consistency claim, the Court decided it need not address the issue, holding it was unnecessary as sufficient relief was already granted under CEQA.

Residents Against Specific Plan 380 v. County of Riverside (2017) 9 Cal.App.5th 941.

Riverside County approved a specific plan and related regulations for a mixed-use project located on 200 acres. The specific plan, as modified by the Board of Supervisors prior to its approval, included seven planning areas with different allocations of allowed land uses. The EIR analyzed a project consisting of eight planning areas with different land use allocations across the project site than the adopted specific plan. Among other commenters, the air district and a nearby city both suggested mitigation measures to reduce air quality impacts in comments on the Draft EIR. Additional noise mitigation measures were also proposed during the final hearing before the Board. The Final EIR included responses to comments, including those of the air district and nearby city, but as to those comments concluded that the proposed mitigation measures were infeasible. The petitioners filed suit and the trial court denied the claims. The petitioners appealed.

The Appellate Court denied the appeal, rejecting the arguments of multiple CEQA claims, finding: (1) there were no procedural errors concerning the County’s practice of passing a motion of intent to approve and the later final approval; (2) EIR recirculation was not required because the decision not to recirculate due to the changes in the project was supported by substantial evidence; (3) errors in the notice of determination were not prejudicial; (4) there was sufficient evidence in the record to support rejection of suggested mitigation measures; and (5) the County had no duty to formally respond to late comments.

  • Litigation

The Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 993.

Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. (“UWG”) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the City’s use of a California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) exemption for the replacement of street lamp bulbs with new light emitting diodes (“LEDs”). The City certified the Administrative Record, and UWG was ordered to lodge the administrative record pursuant to an agreement. UWG filed its opening and reply briefs, and the City filed its opposition brief, but UWG’s attorney did not lodge the administrative record. The Court found in favor of the City, finding that UWG could not support its arguments because the administrative record was not lodged with the court. UWG subsequently filed a motion to vacate the judgment arguing they were entitled to relief under both the discretionary and mandatory relief provisions in Code of Civil Procedure section 473. The Court granted relief under the mandatory provisions due to UWG’s attorney’s affidavit attesting to a “mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or neglect resulting in a default or dismissal.” The City appealed, and the Court of appeal reversed. Disapproving of prior case law which took a more expansive meaning of “default judgment” (In re Marriage of Hock & Gordon-Hock (2000) 80 Cal.App.4th 1438; Avila v. Chula (1997) 57 Cal.App.4th 860), it held that the trial court ruling was not “a default, default judgment, or dismissal,” because the failure to lodge the administrative record was akin to the failure to provide sufficient supporting evidence to meets its burden of proof in a trial on the merits.

Friends of Outlet Creek v. Mendocino County Air Quality Management District (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1235.

The operator of a proposed asphalt plant, after receiving approval from the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, applied for an Authority to Construct permit (“ATC”) from the District. The District air pollution control officer relied on the County’s prior environmental review to conclude that issuance of the ATC did not require any additional environmental review to comply with CEQA. The petitioner filed an administrative appeal to the District Board challenging the officer’s decision. The District Board denied the appeal, citing the prior land use decisions and environmental review, and the petitioner filed suit on the ground that the District did not comply with CEQA. The District demurred, arguing the petitioner was only entitled to a claim under Health & Safety Code section 40864, which they maintained did not support a CEQA challenge. The trial court sustained the demurrer and the petitioner appealed.

The Court of Appeal overruled the trial court. It found no case law supporting the District’s position that only Health & Safety Code section 40864 can be invoked to challenge the issuance of an air quality permit. Instead, it reasoned that not only do several cases support a petitioner’s right to challenge ATCs on CEQA grounds, but as an administrative proceeding, a suit challenging the ATC issuance proceeds under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5. Thus, the Appellate Court held that the petitioner could advance claims against the District under Health & Safety Code section 40864, CEQA, or both. The District also raised an additional defense—that the ATC issuance was ministerial—but the Appellate Court held that the record was too lacking to evaluate the District’s determination and held that it could not dismiss the appeal on that basis.

Association of Irritated Residents v. Department of Conservation (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1202.

Petitioners challenged the Department’s issuance of permits for 214 new oil wells in Kern County, arguing that the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (“DOGGR”) failed to comply with CEQA because no CEQA exemption applied to the permit and DOGGR did not conduct any other environmental review. DOGGR demurred, arguing the claims were res judicata, or barred, as a result of a similar prior action filed in Alameda County. The Department argued that the Alameda County action was a final judgment on the merits which rejected similar claims against DOGGR’s issuance of oil well permits. Petitioners argued the prior decision was found to be moot due to the passage of Senate Bill 4 in 2013, and was not on the merits. The trial court agreed with the Department and sustained the demurrer, and petitioners appealed. The Court of Appeal ruled in favor of petitioners. The Department argued that the Alameda Court had reached the merits of the case when it analyzed relevant provisions with Senate Bill 4 which required DOGGR to issue permits within a certain time period when the permit applications met the statutory conditions for issuance. The Department argued that this analysis was on the merits, because it showed how the new process rendered the claims moot. The Court rejected the argument, however, reasoning that the review was limited to supporting the Court’s position that the prior process was changing and, thus, petitioner’s arguments about past practices were no longer relevant to rule on future activities. Therefore, the Appellate Court remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. 

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