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CEQA Updates

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

Posts from August, 2018


Public Trust Doctrine Applies to Groundwater, Sustainable Groundwater Management Act Exists Concurrently with Common Law and Did Not “Occupy the Field”

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018

In Environmental Law Foundation v. State Water Resources Control Board (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 844, the Third District Court of Appeal held that the public trust doctrine applies to groundwater basin management where groundwater may effect “navigable waters” and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), Water Code section 10720 et seq., did not change this.

The parties stipulated to the facts and issues for the Court to address. The Scott River is a tributary of the Klamath River and a navigable waterway located in the northwest California. The Scott River has historically been used for water recreation and serves as habitat for salmon species listed in the Endangered Species Act. Groundwater aquifers adjacent to the Scott River in Siskiyou County (County) are hydrologically connected to the surface flows of the Scott River. Local farmers drilled groundwater wells and, in some summers and early fall months, the River was dewatered due to the groundwater pumping.

Environmental groups petitioned the County and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to take administrative action to limit pumping in the Scott River watershed based on the public trust doctrine. When both refused, Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) filed suit.

ELF alleged that groundwater resources, which are interconnected with the surface water flows of the Scott River, are subject to and protected by the State’s public trust doctrine. The SWRCB reconsidered and adopted ELF’s position before the litigation concluded. The County claimed that it had no duty to limit groundwater pumping or consider its environmental impacts. The County further claimed that SGMA, which created a statewide system of groundwater management, was a comprehensive statutory scheme that displaced common law principles like the public trust doctrine. The trial court held that the public trust doctrine applies to groundwater in this case and SGMA did not effect this. The County timely appealed.

The Appellate Court, with Presiding Justice Raye writing for a unanimous Court, relied heavily on National Audubon Society v. Superior Court (1983) 33 Cal.3d 419 and held that groundwater in the Scott River Valley is subject to the public trust doctrine. In National Audubon, the Supreme Court held that the public trust doctrine fully applies to the State’s complex water rights system. Specifically, the City of Los Angeles’ diversion of water from the non-navigable, freshwater streams flowing into Mono Lake, which were reducing the lake level and causing environmental damage to the lake ecosystem, could be limited by state water regulators under the public trust doctrine. The Court held that the Scott River facts were analogous to those in National Audubon as the pumping was similarly effecting the water level of the river. However, there was a heightened duty to protect the Scott River where it is a navigable waterway. “The analysis begins and ends with whether the challenged activity harms a navigable waterway and thereby violate the public trust.” Accordingly, the Court concluded that the public trust doctrine fully applies to extractions of groundwater that effect a navigable waterway.

The Court then held that, by enacting the SGMA, the Legislature did not intend to “occupy the field” of groundwater management and thereby abolish the public trust doctrine. Definitively, the Court held, “the enactment of SGMA does not, as the County maintains, occupy the field, replace or fulfill public trust duties, or scuttle decades of decisions upholding, defending, and expanding the public trust doctrine.”

The Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Key Point:                                                            

The State and its legal subdivisions must concurrently consider public trust principles and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in monitoring groundwater resources. Further, only where the Legislature intended to “occupy the field” will common law principles be superseded by Legislative acts.

California Supreme Court Allows Referendum Vote That Would Make Zoning Ordinance Inconsistent with General Plan for “Reasonable Time”

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

In City of Morgan Hill v. Bushey (2018) 5 Cal.5th 1068, the California Supreme Court held that a local referendum challenging a zoning ordinance amendment in the City of Morgan Hill (a general law city) was valid even where the referendum, if adopted by the local electorate, would be inconsistent with the general plan, so long as the city has the means to make the two consistent within a “reasonable amount” of time.

Seeking the construction of a hotel, the City of Morgan Hill, amended the city’s general plan to change a parcel designation from industrial use to commercial use in 2014; the zoning ordinance remained unchanged. Subsequently, in early 2015, the city approved rezoning the parcel from “ML-Light Industrial” to “CG-General Commercial.” Local hotel owners established the Morgan Hill Hotel Coalition (Coalition) to challenge the city’s approval of the rezone by referendum. The city declined to place the referendum on the ballot concluding that it was invalid because, if adopted by the local electorate, it would result in an inconsistency between the city’s current general plan and zoning ordinance. Coalition brought suit challenging the city’s decision not to place the referendum on the ballot.

The trial court, following the holding in deBottari v. City of Norco (1985) 171 Cal.App.3d 1204 (deBottari) that a referendum that “enacts” a zoning ordinance inconsistent with the general plan is invalid, held in favor of the city. Coalition filed an appeal.

The appellate court disagreed with the holding in deBottari and reversed the trial court, holding that referendums are not per se invalid if they contradict the general plan. Citing Government Code section 65860, subsection (c), the appellate court held, where a city could adopt a new designation within a “reasonable time,” a referendum may be valid. (City of Morgan Hill v. Bushey (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 34.) The California Supreme Court granted review.

The Court first emphasized the importance of the referendum power to alter local government policy, subject to preemption by the state legislature in only a few cases. At a local level, this power may only be preempted where there is a “definite indication” or “clear showing” that it was within the ambit of the Legislature’s purpose to restrict those rights. For instance, the Court elaborated, there is no reason to maintain the referendum power over ministerial or administrative tasks of local governments, they have no discretion. In addition, the Legislature maintains some power over local government authority to guide land use where it is an issue of “statewide concern,” for example the mandate to have a general plan.

Turning to the issue at hand, the City claimed that the referendum was invalid because it was “essentially an initiative causing the zoning ordinance and general plan to conflict.” The Court held that a referendum is not null simply because of an inconsistency with the general plan. Relying on Government Code section 65860, subdivision (a), the Court explained that such a referendum is not the final imposition where a local government “can use other means to bring consistency to the zoning ordinance and the general plan.” Here, the Court found that, if the referendum passed, the city was at liberty to change the zoning ordinance to another conforming use that was in line with the general plan. Essentially, the city was not without options.

The Court clarified that the referendum power should not be viewed as the power to repeal an ordinance or revive another, instead it provides the ability of the electorate to weigh in on a local government decision. Thus, the trial court was wrong to say the referendum would “enact” an ordinance. A referendum, rather than rewriting and establishing a specific ordinance, merely prevents a certain type of change from happening and directs the local government to take a different direction.

The Court concluded:

Given our duty to protect the referendum power, we conclude the Court of Appeal was correct to hold that a referendum can be used to challenge a zoning ordinance amendment that attempts to make the zoning ordinance consistent with an amended general plan. But it is not clear if other zoning designations were available for the property here, or whether the City has other means to comply with a successful referendum while making the zoning ordinance and the general plan consistent with one another. So we vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remand the case to the Court of Appeal with directions to remand to the trial court to address these questions.

Key Point:

A referendum that results in a zoning ordinance inconsistent with the general plan may be valid so long as the local government may be able to bring them in to congruence with one another within a “reasonable time.”  In reaching its holding, the Court focused on Government Code section 65860, which applies to general law cities and certain charter cities (pursuant to subdivision (d) of the statute).  Therefore, the Court’s holding does not directly apply to charter cities that are not subject to Government Code section 65860.

Second District Prohibits Preparation of Subsequent EIR Where Project-level EIR Covered All “Reasonably Foreseeable Consequences” of Later Plan-level Project; Spot-Zoned Target Store Permissible Where in Public Interest

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

In Citizens Coalition Los Angeles v. City of Los Angeles, (2018) 26 Cal. App. 5th 561, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the City of Los Angeles’s (City) reliance on an addendum to a prior project-level EIR prepared for a Target store was legally sufficient environmental review for the approval of a later ordinance amending a specific plan applicable to the area containing the Target store. The City’s reliance on the Target EIR and addendum was permissible where the new ordinance did not present “reasonably foreseeable consequences” beyond those presented in the Target EIR.

The City completed an EIR for a Target store and then later passed an ordinance that amended its neighborhood-based specific plan to create a new subzone for large commercial development, and placed the half-built Target store into that new subzone. In passing the ordinance, the City relied on an addendum to the Target store EIR. Citizens Coalition Los Angeles (Citizens) filed suit.

Citizens alleged that the City’s actions violated CEQA by failing to conduct subsequent environmental review when creating the new subzone. The trial court held that the City violated CEQA for treating the action as a follow-on to its prior, initial approval of the Target store. The City and Real Party in Interest, Target Corporation, timely appealed.

The Appellate Court outlined that, where an EIR has been prepared, Public Resource Code section 21166 provides a supplemental EIR may only be required where new information comes to light or there is a substantial change to the project plans or project circumstances that requires a “major revision” to the EIR. Relying on Friends of College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District, (2016) 1 Cal. 5th 937, the Court found that only where one of the exceptions of Public Resources Code section 21166 applies may a new EIR be required. If an EIR “retains any relevance in light of the proposed changes,” then an addendum is proper, not a subsequent EIR.

The Court, relying on CEQA Guidelines section 15162 for direction, asked “[did] the existing CEQA document encapsulate all of the environmentally significant impacts of the project?” Further environmental review was only required if the later action was not a “reasonably foreseeable consequence” of the original project-level EIR. The Court awarded “greater deference to a public agency’s determination … than they [would for] whether initial CEQA review is required.”

The Court clarified that a “reasonably foreseeable consequence” is where “that consequence is, as a practical matter, sufficiently certain to happen.” The Court then outlined five such situations: (1) where an agency has already committed itself to undertake the consequence; (2) where a project presupposes the occurrence of consequence – where a consequence is a necessary and essential component of the project itself; (3) where a consequence is already under environmental review; (4) where an agency subjectively intends or anticipates the consequence; and (5) where an agency creates an incentive that is all but certain to result in a consequence.

Here, the Court found that substantial evidence supported the City’s finding that the sole reasonably foreseeable consequence of the ordinance was the construction of the Target store. Evidence in the administrative record showed that the City had not committed to any other large-scale commercial development on parcels meeting the ordinance criteria.  As such, Public Resources Code section 21166 did not merit subsequent or supplemental EIR as all of the reasonably foreseeable consequences of the ordinance had been addressed in the prior EIR and addendum. The Court further clarified that it did not matter that, though unconventional, the plan-level project relied on a project-level EIR.

Having settled the adequacy of the City’s environmental review, the Court then determined that the ordinance did not constitute impermissible spot zoning because extensive evidence in the record showed that the location of the store was in the public interest. Relying on Foothill Communities Coalition v. County of Orange, (2014) 222 Cal.App.4th 1302, the Court defined an island or spot zoning as where a parcel of land is rezoned to give it fewer or greater rights than parcels around it. In reviewing such claims, the Court’s focus is on if the City’s discretionary action is in the public interest. Only where an island is arbitrary, irrational, or unreasonable will it be impermissible. Here, record evidence showed demonstrated numerous benefits of the store being part of a shopping complex near pedestrian walkways and public transportation. Thus, the City’s action was in the public interest.

The Appellate Court reversed the trial court holding. In a separate holding, the Appellate Court awarded attorneys fees to Citizens’ co-petitioners, La Mirada Neighborhood Association. Read more about that in our blog post “Private Attorney General Doctrine Attorney’s Fees Proper For Party Successful in Invalidating Specific Plan Variances

Note that this case was originally published by the Appellate Court and then depublished by the Supreme Court at the same time that the Supreme Court denied review.

Key Point:

Public Resources Code section 21166 prohibits an agency from preparing a subsequent EIR where a project-level EIR covered all “reasonably foreseeable consequences” of a later plan-level project.

A city’s action to spot zone is evaluated by the court for being in the public interest, with great deference given to the city’s determination.

Population Projections Proper Baseline for San Francisco General Plan Housing Element Update

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018

In San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods v. City and County of San Francisco (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 596, the First District Court of Appeal held the City of San Francisco (City) general plan housing element EIR satisfied CEQA in using 2025 population projections as a baseline for a growth-accommodating policy and adequately considered traffic impacts, water needs, and project alternatives.

In 2011, the City updated the housing element to the City’s general plan. The housing element EIR baseline was based on 2025 population projections. San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods (SFLN) filed suit alleging the EIR used an improper baseline and failed to adequately address various environmental impacts.

The trial court held that the City complied with CEQA in most respects. Specifically, the trial court agreed with Respondents that the general plan was not internally inconsistent, the City need not have recirculated the EIR after publication, and the EIR contained an adequate project description, sufficient impact analyses, and a reasonable range of project alternatives. However, the trial court found that the EIR was inadequate in its analysis of alternatives and findings regarding potentially feasible mitigation measures. Parties timely appealed.

Typically, CEQA requires an EIR baseline to employ present environmental conditions for the baseline analysis. However, the Appellate Court held that the use of an alternative baseline was permissible under CEQA so long as contextual factors support the alternative baseline and the agency takes an informed, deliberate approach. An agency may adjust its baseline conditions at its own discretion and in appropriate circumstances in order to account for a major change in environmental conditions expected to occur before project implementation. For instance, where an amendment to a general plan takes a long view of city planning, the analysis of the amendment’s impacts may do so as well. Here, the City used a hypothetical baseline—population projections for 2025—in order to measure resulting traffic and water impacts related to the housing element. Recognizing “it would be absurd to ask the City to hypothesize the impacts of a long-term housing plan taking hold immediately,” the Court held the City acted within its discretion to define the baseline with 2025 population projections and forecast traffic and water impacts in 2025 rather than compare the existing conditions with and without the housing element.

The Court determined that the housing element sought to accommodate housing needs in response to a growing population, growth that would happen regardless of the housing element, therefore it was a growth-accommodating policy rather than a growth-inducing policy. Cases relied on by SFLN were unconvincing as they analyzed project approvals that would result in population growth in previously undeveloped areas.

With the baseline properly defined, the Court then held the EIR’s analysis of environmental impacts was sufficient. The EIR reasonably concluded that the housing element would not have a substantial impact on visual resources or neighborhood character as it encouraged residential uses in areas that were already allotted or existing and did not change any zoning.

Then focusing on the EIR traffic impact analysis, the Court held the City was not required to study in-the-pipeline projects with potential traffic impacts as they are subject to their own CEQA review and EIR process. Nonetheless, the City did so at sixty intersections and properly relied on 2025 population projections in their analysis for the above reasons.

The Court then held the EIR’s water supply impact analysis was sufficient where it acknowledged the “degree of uncertainty involved, discuss[ed] the reasonably foreseeable alternatives—including alternative water sources and the option of curtailing the development if sufficient water is not available for later phases—and disclos[ed] the significant foreseeable environmental effects of each alternative, as well as mitigation measures to minimize each adverse impact.”

Finally, the Court held the EIR’s analysis of alternatives complied with CEQA where it identified and provided “extensive information and analysis regarding the alternatives” for at least three alternatives. SFLN failed to meet their burden to show the range of alternatives are “manifestly unreasonable or deprive[] the decision-makers and the public of information they need to evaluate the project and its impacts.” Where the EIR’s alternatives allowed decision makers a meaningful context to weigh the project’s objective against its environmental impacts, it complied with CEQA.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s holding on these issues.

Key Point:

An alternative project baseline for CEQA purposes may be proper so long as contextual factors support the alternative baseline and the agency takes an informed, deliberate approach in utilizing it.

Argument and Speculation that a Project will Violate Local Code Requirements is Insufficient to Support a Fair Argument that a Project may have a Potentially Significant Impact on the Environment

Friday, August 10th, 2018

In Friends of Riverside’s Hills v. City of Riverside (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 1137, the Fourth District Court of Appeal denied a neighborhood group’s petition to set aside approval of a small housing development where there was no substantial evidence supporting a fair argument of a violation of the land use ordinances and no evidence of an abuse of discretion. The City of Riverside (City) acted within the law in approving a six single-family home development, despite the Friends of Riverside’s Hills’ (FRH) claims to the contrary.

Before this controversy arose, the City established a residential conservation zone to protect the hills, canyons, and unique natural views of the area. Within the residential zone, planned residential developments (PRD) projects meeting certain criteria were permitted to deviate from conventional subdivisions requirements. A PRD applicant could also achieve a “density bonus” if the map and conditions clustered residences in the less steep portions of the site, appointed a conservation group to maintain open space areas, and achieved at least six of eleven “superior design elements” that promote environmentally-conscious design.

In November 2013, Real Parties in Interest Carlton and Raye Lofgren (Lofgrens) submitted plans for a PRD with a density bonus to subdivide a 12-acre site into seven lots and a designated open space. The Planning Commission recommended the City approve the plans with a negative declaration. The City issued a negative declaration (ND) and approved the plans with a revised tract map showing the site as 11.6 acres with six lots clustered on the less steep areas of the property and a designated open space.

FRH brought suit challenging the City’s approval. FRH alleged land use violations because the plan failed to properly cluster the residences and failed to seek a variance for each lot. The trial court denied the petition in its entirety. FRH timely appealed.

The Appellate Court held in favor of the City, finding there were no land use violations and no substantial evidence supporting a fair argument of significant environmental impacts. Such evidence, the Court elaborated, must be founded in facts in the administrative record, not speculation or theory. Here, FRH’s claim that the homes would be unlawfully placed in high grade portions of each lot was merely speculative.  The tract map approved by the City showed division of the site into lots but not where the residence would be on each lot. FRH’s claim that the Lofgrens would not build each residence in accordance with the municipal code was therefore speculative, absent any additional evidence.

FRH claimed the Lofgrens would not comply with the additional conditions required to achieve the “density bonus.” The Court found this claim also to be speculative where there was no evidence the Lofgrens would not comply with the conditions. Indeed, the Court pointed out that to hold differently would absurdly necessitate any project with future conditions be required to complete an EIR. In short, the potential to violate the municipal code is not grounds to mandate the preparation of an EIR.

The Court went on to rule that FRH was incorrect to draw similarities between this case and Pocket Protectors v. City of Sacramento (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 903 as the administrative record in that case had “ample” evidence the project violated the city’s land use provisions. Here, the administrative record lacked any similar evidence. As a result, FRH’s claims were speculative and thus rejected.

The Court then turned to FRH’s claim that the City abused its discretion and violated its own municipal code. The Lofgren’s engineer submitted numerous reports throughout the approval process to support the City’s decision to approve the Project. Applying a deferential standard of review, the City was entitled to rely on evidence submitted by the Lofgrens and the Court found substantial evidence supported the City’s determination.

The Court found that there was also no abuse of discretion where the City allowed the Lofgrens to choose which of the eleven design elements to incorporate into the plans. Per the municipal code, this is to be determined by the applicant upon issuance of building permits and the Lofgrens need not have chosen the elements yet because “it is difficult, if not impossible, to know which building or landscaping elements are feasible until later phases of the project like grading or construction.” Despite this, the Lofgrens had already demonstrated in the plans which designs they were to utilize, a fact FRH failed to notice.

The Court affirmed the trial court holding; the negative declaration was sufficient.

Key Point:

Where a challenger alleges violations of local code as a basis for asserting a fair argument that a project may have a significant environmental impact, the challenger has the burden to both demonstrate a violation or conflict with the local code exists and that the local code provisions at issue were adopted for the purpose of avoiding or mitigating an environmental effect.