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CEQA Updates

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

Posts from June, 2018


Second District Court of Appeal Finds County Well Permit Approval is “Ministerial,” Exempt from CEQA Review Absent Showing of Discretion, SGMA Absent Agency Law Incorporation

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

An agricultural groundwater well is inspected in California (Kelly Grow/CADFW)

In California Water Impact Network v. County of San Luis Obispo (2018) 25 Cal. App. 5th 666, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the approval of groundwater well permits was a ministerial act and not subject to CEQA environmental review because no discretion was exercised when such permits were issued.

County of San Luis Obispo (County) staff, after finding that four groundwater well permit applications were complete and complied with County and state standards, approved each well permit without conducting CEQA review. Specifically, staff alleged the wells met the standards outlined in the San Luis Obispo County Code Chapter 8.40, incorporating the state well standards set by the Department of Water Resources.

California Water Impact Network (Network) filed suit claiming that the County improperly failed to conduct CEQA review and, in doing so, “bypassed public disclosure of potentially significant impacts to groundwater resources.” The trial court agreed with the County that no CEQA review was necessary for ministerial actions and granted the County’s demurrer.

The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court and the County that no CEQA review was required where such permit approvals were exempt as “ministerial projects” under Public Resources Code section 21080(b)(1). The Court described where a ministerial project does and does not exist and rejected Petitioners’ argument that the recently enacted Sustainable Groundwater Management Act altered the County Code.

The Court clarified that a ministerial act is where “little or no personal judgement” is used by the public official; the law is applied to the facts and no individualized or special consideration is required. The Court noted that well permits are a type of building permit which are “presumed to be [a] ministerial [act].” In contrast, a discretionary act involves judgement or deliberation. The Court reviewed the legislative intent, stated that agencies conducting ministerial acts have no ability to influence the project, and concluded that such acts are excluded from CEQA review.

Citing rules on judicial statutory interpretation, the Court rejected appellant’s argument that the County had some discretionary powers under Chapter 8.40 to impose additional conditions on well permits. The Chapter was clear: a well permit “shall be issued” so long as the listed conditions are met. The Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to uphold the permits.

Key Point:

The issuance of groundwater well permits are ministerial duties exempt from CEQA review. Therein, SGMA considerations need not be addressed in agency decisions unless the guiding agency law specifically incorporates it.

Reasonable Administrative Record Preparation Costs Awarded to Agency Where Plaintiff Elected to Prepare and Failed to do so within 60-Day Limit

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo County as seen at sunset. (805 Aerial)

In LandWatch San Luis Obispo County v. Cambria Community Services District (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 638, the Second District Court of Appeals affirmed an agency may properly take over the preparation of the administrative record per Public Resources Code section 21167.6(b)(1) when petitioner elects to prepare and fails to do so within 60 days.

LandWatch San Luis Obispo County (LandWatch) filed suit against Cambria Community Services District (District) for alleged CEQA violations in approving an emergency water supply project on January 30, 2014. In its initial pleading of October 2014, LandWatch elected to prepare the administrative record. District provided the documents to Petitioners in November 2014. The next month, the District notified LandWatch of additional documents. LandWatch requested the documents in March 2015 and received them in April 2015.

LandWatch presented a draft administrative record index in August 2015. The District notified LandWatch the draft was over and under inclusive and, to avoid further delays in distribution of $4.3 million in grant fund awards, prepared and certified the record itself.

The trial court granted leave for LandWatch to include additional documents. However, LandWatch then failed to timely request the documents, stalling from December to February. This was problematic as the trial was set for March and the complete, certified administrative record was required to be filed before then.

The trial court denied LandWatch’s petition for a writ of mandate and the District sought costs from LandWatch for the cost of preparation of the administrative record, $4,299.01, and preparation of the appendix, $26,922.46. The trial court awarded the entirety of the first amount and half of the second amount, totaling $14,328.59. LandWatch timely appealed.

Relying on Coalition for Adequate Review v. City and County of San Francisco (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 1043, the Appellate Court held that an agency is not prohibited from recovering costs for preparation of the administrative record where the petitioner initially elected to do so. Such a determination is made on a case-by-case basis and at the court’s discretion.

While the award of such costs is limited to those that are “reasonable” and “reasonably necessary,” so long as the trial court finds that it is not specifically prohibited, it is at the trial court’s discretion to award costs. Here, the Court found that the trial court’s award was “on the low side of reasonable” totaling only $1.77 per page. The trial court would have been “well within its bounds” to award more, especially where the 7,683-page appendix was erroneously requested by LandWatch. Finally, the Court allowed costs for court calls, copies, and transcription costs that were reasonable and not prohibited.

The Court affirmed the trial court award.

Key Point:

Any amount of delay in administrative record preparation past the 60-day limitation in Public Resources Code section 21167.6(b)(1) is “unreasonable delay” in which an agency may prepare the record and recover “reasonable” costs, at the discretion of the court, for doing so.

Second Appellate District Upholds PG&E Lease Extension as Categorically Exempt from CEQA, Finds Unusual Circumstance Exception Inapplicable to Extension of Nuclear Power Plant Lease

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

Ocean intake water flow can be seen at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. (PG&E)

In World Business Academy v. California State Lands Commission (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 476, the Second Appellate District determined that renewing a lease for an existing power plant constituted a categorically exempt “existing structure” project under CEQA and the record did not support an “unusual circumstances” exception to the exemption.

Diablo Canyon Power Plant is a nuclear power plant that has been in operation since 1985 but is set to close by 2025. Owned and operated by PG&E in San Luis Obispo County, the plant’s cooling system draws in seawater as well as incidental aquatic plants and animals from state-owned tidal and submerged lands then expels heated water back into the sea. The leases for the water intake and discharge systems were to expire in 2018 and 2019.

PG&E submitted a single lease renewal application to the California State Lands Commission (Commission) to replace the expiring leases (Project). A staff report confirmed the Project would not require additional environmental review under the existing facilities exemption (CEQA Guidelines, § 15301) unless it was found to be an unusual circumstance meriting exception (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(c)). After weighing the potential seismic and environmental impacts, the Commission found that the Project would not have a new significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances, moved to support the staff report, and issued a notice of exemption for the lease renewal.

World Business Academy filed suit alleging that the Commission’s actions violated CEQA where the lease approval would irreparably injure and deplete the marine ecosystem surrounding the plant. The trial court held the lease replacement fell squarely within the existing facilities exemption to CEQA and the unusual circumstances exception did not apply. World Business Academy timely appealed.

The Appellate Court affirmed the Commission’s lease approval under the existing facilities exemption.

The Court determined the Project was exempt from CEQA review as an existing facility, per CEQA Guidelines section 15301. Appellants argued that unlike other existing utility structures, nuclear power plant projects cannot be categorically exempt from CEQA because of the significant environmental impacts they have by their de facto operation. Further, the legislative history of the exemption indicated the meaning of “provide electric power” implicated structures which disseminate power, not power generating facilities themselves. The Court disagreed. Under the plain meaning of the statute, “provide electric power” reasonably included a power plant.

The Court rejected a related argument that the Commission lacked the authority to consider nuclear power plants under the exemption due to their operational environmental impacts. The Court found that minor alterations to, continued operation of, and leasing pre-CEQA facilities resulting in negligible or no expansion of use are unlikely to cause a new, significant adverse change in environmental conditions. Further, the class of projects at issue in the existing facilities exemption are not only nuclear power plants—rather, the exemption is applied to existing facilities of all types. The Court concluded that the Commission’s evaluation of the lease extension, while brief, was sufficient to demonstrate that the lease extension would maintain the status quo at the existing facility and not expand its operations.

The Court then looked at the unusual circumstances exception to the exemption under CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2(c). The Court found that the Commission incorrectly applied the Berkeley Hillside two-pronged test (described above in Don’t Cell Our Parks) but this was not fatal to the Commission’s determination.

Turning to the substance of the unusual circumstance analysis, the Court found that the Project was not an unusual circumstance based on its size and location. The Commission acted properly by considering the existing baseline for the Project and World Business Academy failed to point to specific evidence supporting the claim that impacts to aquatic life would be significantly increased past the existing operational level of the plant or certain risks – seismic activity, terrorist threats, “embrittleing” and others—would now occur. World Business Academy’s claim that the plant constituted a significant environmental effect because it was the last one of its kind in the state was irrelevant. The Court dismissed this and dismissed World Business Academy’s ad hominem attack against PG&E which alleged criminal conduct outside of the established record.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgement of the trial court.

Key Point:

The existing facilities exemption allows pre-CEQA power plants (regardless of power source) undergoing non-significant changes to avoid additional environmental review. The proper baseline to determine if a change is significant is not established by present-day or forecasted analysis, rather, by the environmental impact the facility had when it began operations.

Second Appellate District Calls Settlement Agreement Part of “Project” for CEQA Consideration In Line with Historically Broad “Project” Definition

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

Land erosion is visible under steps to Malibu’s Broad Beach. (Melanie Wynne)

In County of Ventura v. City of Moorpark (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 377, the Second Appellate District upheld a CEQA statutory exemption applied to a project undertaken by the State-created Broad Beach Geologic Hazard Abatement District (BBGHAD) and clarified that a “project” for CEQA consideration may be two separate activities if they serve a single purpose, have the same proponent, and are “inextricably linked.” Further, settlement agreement restrictions were not preempted by state law and do not constitute extraterritorial regulation. However, the abdication of BBGHAD’s police power in portions of the agreement was improper and therefore void.

The State created BBGHAD to address beach and sand dune erosion at Malibu’s Broad Beach. Here, BBGHAD was obliged to restore and restock sand at the beach. The project would involve shipments of 300,000 cubic yards of sand, four subsequent deposits of equal size at five year intervals, and additional shipments of 75,000 cubic yards on an as-needed basis (Project). The sand was to be collected from quarries 30-40 miles away from Broad Beach and transported by trucks to the beach. The initial deposit alone was estimated to require 44,000 one-way truck trips. Possible truck routes from the quarries to the beach required either traveling through the City of Moorpark (City) or on roads adjacent to the community.

In the Project’s planning stages, City officials expressed concern that hauling sand on these routes would negatively impact residents, and therefore entered into a settlement agreement with BBGHAD to manage traffic. BBGHAD agreed to specific haul routes, truck staging requirements, and changes in routes in response to settlement-defined road emergencies. Additionally, the settlement agreement could only be modified with the consent of all parties. Thereafter, the Coastal Commission approved a coastal development permit for the Project, incorporating the settlement agreement.

The County of Ventura (County) filed suit alleging that the settlement’s incorporation is preempted by state law, constitutes an illegal attempt by the City to regulate traffic outside of the City limits, and represents an abdication of BBGHAD’s state-granted police power.

The trial court found that the Project was statutorily exempt from CEQA, held that the settlement agreement was not preempted by the state’s Vehicle Code, and was not an improper attempt by the City to regulate traffic outside City limits. However, BBGHAD improperly contracted away its ability to amend the settlement agreement, therefore the trial court struck down the agreement’s mutual assent provision and held that BBGHAD must be able to modify the agreement in response to changed circumstances. The County timely appealed.

The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. In addition to its original claims, the County contended that the settlement agreement is an action distinct from the Broad Beach restoration project, thus beyond the scope of the exemption and subject to CEQA review. The Court disagreed, and found that the settlement agreement between the City and BBGHAD was part of the whole beach restoration effort and one project. The Court stated that when two activities are a coordinated endeavor to obtain an objective or are otherwise related to each other, they constitute a single project for purposes of CEQA. Here, the actions served the single purpose of abating a geologic hazard and were inextricably linked in achieving that goal. Only when the second activity is independent of and not a contemplated future part of the first activity may the two activities be reviewed separately.

Turning to the preemption argument, the Court found Vehicle Code section 21 was not implicated in the City’s settlement agreement. Vehicle Code section 21 prohibits local authorities from enacting resolutions or ordinances which affect state traffic restrictions. The Court found that because the agreement did not involve an ordinance or resolution (rather, it was the City acting under its contracting power), it was not preempted by Vehicle Code section 21. The Court further found that the agreement merely dictated the routes BBGHAD’s contractors and subcontractors must use when delivering on behalf of the Project. The agreement did not amount to a physical barrier which would redirect traffic, did not close roads, and did not restrict non-project related hauling.

The Court then addressed the extraterritorial regulation claim and held the City was within its contracting rights to further its implied necessary function of preventing public nuisances on their roads—like thousands of sand shipments. Additionally, the Court found the traffic restrictions on BBGHAD shipments were valid, as they only affected activity within the City limits.

Turning to the issue of infringements on BBGHAD’s police power, the Court found that as an entity of the State, BBGHAD was entitled to exercise a portion of the state’s police power. However, BBGHAD erred in part by contracting away its right to exercise its police power in the future. The agreement bound BBGHAD to surrender its discretion to haul routes in the future unless mutual assent was achieved between BBGHAD and the City. The Court found that this grant of veto power infringed upon the State’s police power therefore was invalid. In examining if this error was sufficient to render the entire agreement void, the Court weighed the agreement’s impact on the public and the expressed intentions of the parties, and determined that the aspects of the agreement which infringed on BBGHAD’s State-granted police power were severable from the rest of the agreement. Accordingly, the Court upheld the agreement in part and struck the agreement in part.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgement.

Key Point:

While incorporated settlement agreements with local authorities in project planning is allowable as part of one CEQA-defined “project”, when contracting with state entities, it is important to not infringe upon state police powers through the creation of modification clauses requiring assent from all parties.