Thomas Law Blog

CEQA Updates

Keeping You Up-to-Date on the California Environmental Quality Act

Posts from September, 2016


ON REMAND, DIVISION FIVE OF THE FIRST APPELLATE DISTRICT LIMITS APPLICABILITY OF BAAQMD RECEPTOR THRESHOLDS

Thursday, September 29th, 2016

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s (BAAQMD) “CEQA Air Quality Guidelines” have been the source of litigation since they were first adopted in 2010. Most recently, courts have grappled with certain thresholds for assessing the health risks of siting new sensitive receptors near existing sources of toxic air contaminants, often referred to as the “Receptor Thresholds.”

In California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (2015) 62 Cal.4th 369, the Supreme Court held that the scope of CEQA did not require lead agencies to consider the effect of the existing environment on a future users of a project unless the project will exacerbate those existing conditions. See http://www.thomaslaw.com/blog/supreme-court-strikes-down-reverse-ceqa-and-part-of-the-ceqa-guidelines/. The First Appellate District was tasked with determining on remand how that holding affected the Receptor Thresholds adopted by BAAQMD.

In California Building Industry Assn. v. Bay Area Air Quality Management Dist., 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 758, the appellate court considered BAAQMD’s argument that approval of the receptor thresholds did not need to be set aside because there were possible valid uses.  These uses included: (1) voluntary applications by a lead agency; (2) the determination of whether a project will exacerbate existing conditions; (3) the assessment of the health risks to students and staff at a proposed school site; and (4) the evaluation of whether a housing project is exempt from CEQA.

The Court agreed with BAAQMD, but cautioned that “any effort by an agency to require an EIR, mitigating measures, or other CEQA review under the Receptor Thresholds when one is not authorized would be subject to a strong legal challenge.” The Court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to issue an order invalidating the portions of the BAAQMD Guidelines that suggested that lead agencies should routinely assess the effect of existing environmental considerations on future users or occupants of a project.

BAAQMD subsequently filed a petition for rehearing and argued that writ relief was inappropriate because the Guidelines are a nonbinding, advisory document and any review was premature because there was no specific controversy regarding an application of the Guidelines. (See California Building Industry Assn. v. Bay Area Air Quality Management Dist., 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 752.) The Court disagreed and found BAAQMD’s Guidelines to be akin to the guidelines at issue in Pacific Legal Foundation v. California Coastal Commission (1982) 33 Cal.3d 158. They were not “interim steps in a larger review process,” where a court may decline to use the remedy of mandamus. Therefore, the Court denied the petition for rehearing.

FIFTH APPELLATE DISTRICT HOLDS REAL PARTY IN INTEREST CAN RECOVER COST OF PREPARING RECORD AFTER REIMBURSING THE LEAD AGENCY

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

The City of Ceres approved the development of a 300,000 sq. ft. shopping center anchored by a 190,000 sq. ft. Wal-Mart Supercenter to replace an existing Wal-Mart store after an extensive environmental review process. Citizens for Ceres (Citizens) filed a petition for writ of mandate pursuant to CEQA, alleging several defects in the environmental documents the City certified when it approved the project. The trial court denied the petition and Citizens appealed.

After prevailing in the trial court Wal-Mart, as the real party in interest, filed a memorandum of costs in which it requested, among other things, an award against Citizens of $48,889.71 for the cost of preparing the administrative record. Wal-Mart incurred these costs because the City required Wal-Mart to reimburse the City’s costs to have outside counsel prepare the record. The trial court struck this item from Wal-Mart’s memorandum of costs and Wal-Mart filed a separate appeal.

In a partially published opinion, Citizens for Ceres v. City of Ceres, 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 759, the Fifth Appellate District affirmed the trial court’s denial of Citizens’ petition for writ of mandate, and reversed as to Wal-Mart’s appeal on the cost of preparing the administrative record.

In the unpublished portion of the opinion, the Court rejected Citizens’ CEQA claims that: (1) the EIR certified by the city did not mandate adequate mitigation measures for the urban decay impact of the project; (2) the EIR did not sufficiently analyze the project’s impacts on landfill and recycling facilities and did not mandate adequate mitigation measures for those impacts; (3) the EIR failed to contain adequate information correlating the project’s air pollution impacts with resulting effects on human health; and (4) the City’s statement of overriding considerations was not supported by substantial evidence.

The Court then addressed Citizens’ motion to tax costs. Wal-Mart argued that the trial court erred when it applied Hayward Area Planning v. City of Hayward (2005) 128 Cal.App.4th 176 (Hayward) to bar an award of costs to Wal-Mart for preparation of the administrative record. The Court agreed, explaining that Code of Civil Procedure section 1032 states that a prevailing party is “entitled” to a cost award “as a matter of right” in “any action or proceeding,” except “as otherwise expressly provided by statute.” While Public Resources Code section 21167.6 requires an agreement with the petitioner before an agency can delegate record preparation to a real party, as stated in Hayward, the Court held that an agreement with the petitioner was not required where a real party covers an agency’s costs after the record has been prepared by the agency.

Key Point: Prevailing real parties in interest in CEQA matters may recover costs associated with the preparation of an administrative record where it reimburses an agency’s costs after the record has been prepared by the agency.

GOVERNOR SIGNS SWEEPING CLIMATE CHANGE BILL, SENATE BILL 32, INTO LAW

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016

Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill (S.B.) 32, which will extend the State’s greenhouse gas targets from 2020 to 2030. The legislation builds on Assembly Bill (A.B.) 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which required California to reduce greenhouse gas levels to 1990-era levels by 2020. Under S.B. 32, the State will be required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

S.B. 32 codifies the interim 2030 greenhouse gas target included in the Executive Order (B-30-15) issued by Governor Brown on April 29, 2015. The interim target is intended to ensure California meets its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.  The Assembly passed the bill with only one vote to spare during a largely party-line vote.

Notably, to help garner the required votes, S.B. 32 was amended to provide that it would only become operative if A.B. 197 was also enacted. A.B. 197, which was passed by the Legislature by a much less narrow vote than S.B. 32, increases legislative oversight of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) by putting two legislators on CARB as nonvoting members and requiring CARB to report annually to a newly created joint legislative committee on climate change policies. It also directs CARB to prioritize emissions rules and regulations that limit economic impact on the State’s disadvantaged communities and regions reliant on agriculture.  S.B. 32 and A.B. 197 were approved by Governor Brown on September 8, 2016, and will become effective on January 1, 2017.

NO PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION OF THE PANOCHE VALLEY SOLAR PROJECT

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

In Defenders of Wildlife v. United States Fish & Wildlife Service, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109509, the Northern District of California refused to preliminarily enjoin Panoche Valley Solar (PVS) from constructing a 247-megawatt solar facility comprised of approximately 1,529 acres of photovoltaic panels installed on a 2,154-acre site in the Panoche Valley in San Benito County.

The Panoche Valley is home to a variety of endangered species, such as the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, the San Joaquin kit fox, and the giant kangaroo rat.  Each of these species has been in decline due to loss of habitat or fragmentation of existing habitat.  The giant kangaroo rat, for example, survives in less than five percent of its historic geographic range.

In early 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a biological opinion (BO) under the Endangered Species Act, concluding that the project would not likely jeopardize the survival and recovery of any of the species identified above.  Accordingly, FWS issued an incidental take statement, which authorized limited take of the listed species during the project construction, operation, and maintenance for the life of the project.

While the BO acknowledged that the solar facility would permanently impact 1,688 acres of habitat and temporarily impact 466 acres of habitat, such impacts were minimized by conditions to reduce the anticipated take.  Conditions included designing the project to avoid areas with high densities of listed species, monitoring construction work by FWS-approved biologists, relocating species to nearby habitat, and preserving and managing conservation land for the species covered by the incidental take statement.

Based on the BO, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a Section 404 permit pursuant to the Clean Water Act, authorizing PVS to discharge dredged or fill material into 0.121 acres of waters of the United States.

Both the BO and the Section 404 permit were challenged in federal court by the Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, and the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. After finding it was unlikely that plaintiffs would succeed on the merits, the Court denied their request for a preliminary injunction. This decision allows PVS to rely on the BO and Section 404 permit while the matter is litigated.

NINTH CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS AFFIRMS BLM’S PROPOSAL TO EXPAND ACCESS FOR OFF-ROAD VEHICLES IN IMPERIAL SAND DUNES SPECIAL RECREATION MANAGEMENT AREA

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

In Imperial County, just north of the Mexican border, lies the Imperial Sand Dunes Planning Area, a 227,000-acre tract of desert, of which 214,930 acres is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This swath of land is home to the Algodones Dunes, the largest active sand dune system in the United States. A 138,111-acre portion of the Planning Area, designated as the Imperial Sand Dunes Special Recreation Management Area (Dunes), is set aside for the protection of plants and wildlife, as well as for outdoor recreation. The Dunes attract over one million visitors annually, especially off-road vehicle enthusiasts. In Center for Biological Diversity v. Bureau of Land Management, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 14949, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed BLM’s proposal to expand access for off-road vehicle recreation in the Dunes (Proposal).

Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) contended that the plain language of the Endangered Species Act requires an Incidental Take Statement for threatened plants, rather than just fish and wildlife. In reviewing an agency’s interpretation of a statute it is charged with administering, the Court applied the two-step statute interpretation framework set forth in Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. (1984) 467 U.S. 837 (Chevron): (1) whether Congress has spoken on the issue in the statute; and (2) if the statute is ambiguous with respect to the issue, whether the agency’s interpretation is reasonable. The Court determined that the Endangered Species Act on its face does not require Biological Opinions to contain Incidental Take Statements for threatened or endangered plants.  The Court did not proceed to the second step of the Chevron test, but it noted that its reading of the Endangered Species Act was consistent with the USFWS’ longstanding interpretation of the Incidental Take provision.

CBD also claimed that BLM’s conclusion that implementation of its Proposal would not increase ozone emissions was arbitrary and capricious and violated the Clean Air Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act. Specifically, CBD took issue with BLM’s assumptions regarding the number of individuals who will visit the Dunes and how an average visitor will spend their time. The Court noted that BLM’s assumptions were entitled to deference so long as they are supported by “substantial evidence,” and found that the administrative record demonstrated that BLM “considered the relevant factors and articulated a rational connection between the facts found and the choices made.” Accordingly, the Court concluded that CBD had failed to demonstrate that BLM’s emissions analysis was arbitrary and capricious under this deferential standard.

Key Point: The Endangered Species Act does not require an Incidental Take Statement for threatened or endangered plants.