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CEQA Updates

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

Posts from October, 2018


Tina Thomas and Thomas Law Group Attorneys Named Top Environmental and Land Use/Zoning Lawyers

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

Tina Thomas and Thomas Law Group attorneys have been recognized anew in 2018 as top attorneys in environmental, land use, and zoning law and litigation.

Sacramento Magazine named a number of Thomas Law Group attorneys as “Top Lawyers,” an honor given only to a handful of attorneys with the highest number of peers’ votes. Tina Thomas was recognized as a top lawyer in both the environmental law and land use and zoning law categories. Nicholas Avdis, Of Counsel, and Chris Butcher were each recognized as top lawyers in land use and zoning law. Leslie Z. Walker, Of Counsel, was named a top lawyer in state, local, and municipal law.

U.S. News and World Report again ranked Tina Thomas as a “Best Lawyer” in environmental law, land use and zoning law, and land use and zoning litigation. She has consistently achieved this honor since 2008. The publication further announced Thomas Law Group as a top law firm in Sacramento for Environmental Law, Land Use and Zoning Law, and Land Use and Zoning Litigation.

Super Lawyers, a national publication of attorneys who exhibit excellence in practice, named Tina Thomas as a Super Lawyer in Environmental Law, a ranking she has consistently held since 2005. Nicholas Avdis was named as a top rated attorney in Land Use and Zoning Law. He was previously named as a rising star from 2009 to 2015.

Sacramento Business Journal named Tina Thomas as part of the “Best of the Bar” in 2018 for her work in environmental land use and natural resource litigation, including issues related to CEQA, NEPA, the Subdivision Map Act, and the California Endangered Species Act. Nicholas Avdis was also recognized for his work in land use, government affairs, regulatory law and entitlement processing. Nominations were vetted by a panel of peers, awarding points for expertise in the field, community reputation in the legal profession, and other factors.

We congratulate these Thomas Law Group attorneys on their accomplishments!

Thomas Law Group Annual Retreat

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

In October 2018, Thomas Law Group team members and guests gathered for the firm retreat in the San Francisco Bay Area, including a tour of the Bay by sea in the Osprey, a 50 foot sailing yacht. This annual trip provided all participants an opportunity to relax and socialize together as well as strategize for the next business year as, “a team without a goal is like a ship without a rudder.” (Thomas Carlyle)

 

Thomas Law Group team members and guests gather at the Osprey’s bow before casting away!

 

Thomas Law Group wishes to thank all who helped make the day a great success, including TLG team members involved in planning the event and the crew of the Osprey, part of Captain Kirk’s San Francisco Sailing.

EIR Addendum to Previously Certified EIR Proper Where No New Significant Environmental Impacts Identified

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

An artist’s rendering of the Plaza de Panama, Balboa Park, San Diego, as it would appear at the conclusion of the project. (KCM Group)

In Save Our Heritage Organization v. City of San Diego (2018) 28 Cal.App.5th 656, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held CEQA Guidelines section 15164 (Section 15164) validly establishes an addendum process that is consistent with the CEQA statute. Specifically, Section 15164 filled in gaps in Public Resources Code section 21166 and accurately implemented CEQA.

In 2012, the City of San Diego (City) approved the Plaza de Panama Project in Balboa Park (Project) and its accompanying EIR in order to restore pedestrian and park uses to the area. Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) appealed the City’s actions related to this Project multiple times on many grounds, winning some and losing on others.

In 2016, the City adopted an addendum to the project EIR addressing several project modifications. These included: (1) bridge modifications to meet CalTrans requirements; (2) adding and redesigning storm water basins; (3) adding parking lot ventilation; (4) making energy efficiency upgrades; (5) increasing the elevation of the excavated soils landfill; and (6) refining construction design. The most significant aspect was that the modified project would add 93 more parking spaces than in the original Project and EIR.

The City reviewed the modified Project’s potential environmental impacts to land use, historical resources, aesthetics, transportation, air quality, biological resources, energy, geologic conditions, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, health and safety, and hazardous materials. The City concluded that there were: (1) no substantial changes to the project requiring major revisions to the EIR because of new or substantially increased significant environmental effects; (2) no substantial changes in circumstances requiring major revisions to the EIR because of new or substantially increased significant environmental effects; and (3) no new, previously unknown or unknowable, information of substantial importance showing: (a) new or substantially more severe significant efforts than were discussed or shown in the EIR; (b) that previously infeasible mitigation measures/alternatives are now feasible and would substantially reduce significant efforts; or (c) that considerably different mitigation measures than analyzed in the EIR would substantially reduce significant effects. As such, the City approved the modifications with no additional EIR and on the basis of an addendum. SOHO filed suit. The trial court denied the petition. SOHO timely appealed.

Reviewing the agency’s action for abuse of discretion, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s holding. SOHO’s chief claim was that the addendum process, codified in Section 15164, was an invalid extension of the CEQA statute. Section 15164 provides, in pertinent part, “(a) The lead agency or a responsible agency shall prepare an addendum to a previously certified EIR if some changes or additions are necessary but none of the conditions described in [Guideline] 15162 calling for preparation of a subsequent EIR have occurred. …(c) An addendum need not be circulated for public review but can be included in or attached to the final EIR…. (d) The decision-making body shall consider the addendum with the final EIR… prior to making a decision on the project. (e) A brief explanation of the decision not to prepare a subsequent EIR pursuant to [Guideline] 15162 should be included in an addendum to an EIR, the lead agency’s required findings on the project, or elsewhere in the record.  The explanation must be supported by substantial evidence.”  The Resources Agency’s discussion of Section 15164 states it was “designed to provide clear authority for an addendum as a way of making minor corrections in EIRs… without recirculating the EIR” and that “[Section 15164] provides an interpretation with a label and an explanation of the kind of document that does not need additional public review.”

The Court held that, under established case law, Section 15164, like any agency action, carries a presumption of validity and the challenging party has the burden of demonstrating its invalidity. Presented with the challenge, the Court is to consider “whether…[the regulation] is (1) consistent with and not in conflict with CEQA, and (2) reasonably necessary to effectuate the purpose of CEQA.” This analysis depends on whether the regulation is a quasi-legislative regulation or an interpretive regulation. The Court pointed out that no Supreme Court case has definitively said that the CEQA Guidelines are quasi-legislative or interpretive and declined to say so itself. Instead, the Court held it need not decide the issue in order to resolve the case because SOHO had not met their burden to establish Section 15164 was invalid.

While the Court agreed that CEQA does not expressly authorize the addendum process described in Section 15164, the Court stated that the process “fills a gap” in the CEQA process for projects with a previously certified EIR. Further, “CEQA authorizes the Resources Agency to fill such gaps in the statutory scheme, so long as it does so in a manner consistent with the statute.” The Court held Section 15164 is consistent with and furthers the objectives of CEQA section 21166 by requiring an agency to substantiate its reasons for determining why project revisions do not necessitate further environmental review. “The addendum process reasonably implements section 21166’s objective of balancing the consideration of environmental consequences in public decision making with interests of finality and efficiency.” After EIR certification, “the interests of finality are favored over the policy of encouraging public comment.” As such, the EIR addendum regulation was in line with the spirit of CEQA and a natural extension of the statutory scheme.

To this point, the Court noted that the Section 15164 was first promulgated in 1983 and the Legislature has never modified CEQA to eliminate it, strongly indicating consistency with legislative intent.

Lastly, the Court easily dismissed SOHO’s argument that additional findings were required for the City to approve the addendum. Such findings were already made in adopting the original EIR and “an addendum is only proper where no new significant environmental impacts are discovered.” Here, where no new significant environmental impacts were discovered, an addendum was proper and findings were not necessary.

The Court affirmed the trial court judgement finding the EIR addendum valid.

Key Point:

An addendum to a previously certified EIR is proper where there no new significant environmental impacts are discovered.

CEQA Claims Separate from Municipal Code Claims Subject to More-Specific Public Resources Code Timing

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

California Oak trees, like those to be removed by PG&E in the project at issue, are pictured in the City of Lafayette, California. (Lisa White/East Bay Times)

In Save Lafayette Trees v. City of Lafayette (2018) 28 Cal. App. 5th 622, the First District Court of Appeal held that a letter of agreement for removal of protected trees was the equivalent of a permit under the municipal code and, therefore, challenges to its approval were subject to the filing and service limitations of Government Code section 65009(c)(1)(E) (Section 65009). However, CEQA claims related to the approval were subject to the more specific filing and service limitations in Public Resources Code sections 21167 and 21167.6.

On March 27, 2017, the City of Lafayette (City) approved a letter of agreement for removal of up to 272 trees in the local natural gas pipeline right-of-way by Real Party in Interest PG&E. On June 26, 2017 petitioners Save Lafayette Trees, Michael Dawson, and David Kosters (collectively Save Lafayette) filed a petition challenging the City’s action. The petition was served on the City on the next day.

The petition alleged that the City (1) failed to comply with CEQA; (2) violated the substantive and procedural requirements of the planning and zoning law, the city’s general plan, and the City’s tree ordinances; (3) violated the due process rights of the individual petitioners by failing to provide sufficient notice of the agreement review hearing; and (4) proceeded in excess of its authority and abused its discretion in completing each action.

PG&E filed a demurrer to the petition on the grounds that it was barred by Section 65009, which requires that an action regarding a zoning permit be filed and served within 90 days of the decision. Save Lafayette failed to meet this requirement by serving the City on the 91st day. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend and dismissed the petition. Save Lafayette timely appealed.

Reviewing de novo, the Appellate Court affirmed the demurrer in part and reversed in part. First, the Court set out that the filing and service limitations in Section 65009 are “to provide certainty for property owners and local governments regarding decisions by local agencies made pursuant to [the] planning and zoning law.” Further, the statute applies to all matters listed in the Section, including permits and variances when the applicable zoning ordinance provides. This interpretation, the Court clarified, “is to be applied broadly to all types of challenges to permits and permit conditions, as long as the challenge rests on a ‘decision’ of a local authority.”

Next, the Court outlined that, under the City’s municipal code, a permit is required for the removal of protected trees. An applicant may seek an exception when the tree must be removed “to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of the community.” The agreement approved by the City is to remove trees thus there is “no meaningful difference between [the agreement and a permit] in this instance.” Therefore, contrary to Save Lafayette’s contentions, the agreement “falls squarely within the scope of [Section 65009].”

Save Lafayette claimed that Section 65009 was only intended to apply to permits and variances related to relieving the state housing crisis and, thus, did not apply. The Court disagreed because courts have applied the statute to challenges in a broad range of local zoning and planning decisions.

The Court also dismissed Save Lafayette’s claim that the City was not the proper reviewing body for the statute. Save Lafayette claimed that the City was not explicitly listed as a legislative body whose actions were subject to Section 65009. Citing relevant precedent, the Court held that it is “the underlying decision being reviewed [that] determines the applicability of Section 65009,” not the body deciding it.

Save Lafayette claimed that the 180-day statute of limitations provided in the City’s Municipal Code applies here. The Court disagreed because “[i]nsofar as Section 65009 applies to the present action and expressly conflicts with the local ordinance, it preempts the local ordinance.”

Save Lafayette also argued that it should be excused from compliance with Section 65009 as the City failed to provide written notice of the approval prior to the meeting, as required by Government Code section 65905 and the due process clause of the Constitution. The Court held that the City complied with the Brown Act and provided adequate notice as Save Lafayette failed to present any facts to support a conclusion that they were entitled to personal service.

Finally, the Court held that the CEQA cause of action was timely filed and served and therefore reversed and remanded as to the CEQA cause of action. Relying on Royalty Carpet Mills, Inc. v. City of Irvine (2005) 125 Cal.App.4th 1110, the Court held “when two statutes relate to the same subject, the more specific one will control unless they can be reconciled.” Section 65009 and Public Resources Code sections 21167 and 21167.6 relate to the same subject, the time period for service. In Royalty Carpet, the court held that the shorter statute of limitation and service requirement set forth in Public Resources Code sections 21167(b) and 21167.6(a) do not require automatic dismissal and, therefore, can be harmonized with the 90-day service requirement set forth in Section 65009(c)(1)(E). Here, however, the Court concluded the longer 180-day requirement set forth in Public Resources Code section 21167(a) applied and that requirement could not be reconciled with Section 65009(c)(1)(E)’s shorter 90-day service requirement. As a result, unlike in Royalty Carpet, the two applicable statutory provisions could not be reconciled. Because the applicable statutory provisions could not be reconciled, the more specific Public Resources Code provisions set forth in Public Resources Code sections 21167(b) and 21167.6(a) prevailed.  Therefore, the Court concluded that Save Lafayette’s CEQA claims were timely.

The Court affirmed the trial court ruling in part, sustaining the demurrer as to the second, third, and fourth causes of action, and reversed in part, finding the demurrer improper as the CEQA cause of action.

Key Point:

The more-specific filing and service timing requirements of the Public Resources Code apply to CEQA claims rather than the service and timing requirements in the Government Code.

City Charter Must Explicitly Limit Municipal Power to Approve General Plan Amendment of Single Parcel Initiated with Project Proposal, Los Angeles Auto Mall Conversion Project Valid

Monday, October 1st, 2018

Plans for the Martin Expo Town Center in West Los Angeles show residential, retail, and office space. (Martin Town Expo Center)

In Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment v. City of Los Angeles (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 1079, the Second District Court of Appeal held that a charter city may approve a general plan amendment for a single project site, even if initially requested by a project applicant, so long as the city’s charter did not “clearly and explicitly” limit or restrict such an action.

In 2013, Real Party in Interest Philena Property Management, LLC (Philena) filed for a land use permit with the City of Los Angeles (City), a charter city, to convert an auto mall into residential, retail, and office space close to a new light rail station and other transit (Project). The Project required preparation of an EIR, a development agreement between Philena and the City, several conditional use permits, and, of chief concern here, an amendment to the City’s general plan to change the project site land use designation. The City reviewed the proposal, granted the project requirements, and approved the Project in September 2016. Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment (Westsiders), an association of neighborhood residents, filed suit.

Westsiders alleged that the City exceeded its authority in the Los Angeles City Charter section 555 subdivisions (a) and (b) (Sections 555(a) and 555(b)) by approving a general plan amendment for a single parcel and allowing Philena to effectively initiate the amendment. The trial court held that the City did not exceed its authority or abuse its discretion in amending the general plan. Further, the trial court denied Westsiders’ request for judicial notice of early drafts and proposed amendments to Section 555 where interpreting the statute did not require review of its legislative history. Westsiders timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first addressed whether it is proper to seek a writ of mandate or administrative mandamus for relief in this situation. Westsiders contended that Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5 applied and the award of an administrative mandamus is appropriate here “to review the final adjudicative action of an administrative body.” The Court found that this claim misplaced as a general plan amendment is a legislative action and Government Code section 65301.5 explicitly says that a legislative action is to be reviewed for a writ of mandate, pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 1085.

The Court then laid out that such legislative acts are presumed valid per San Francisco Tomorrow v. City and County of San Francisco (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 498. Further, the Court must be “[m]indful of the rule that [it] cannot construe a charter to restrict municipal power without a clear mandate in the charter itself.” Such a restraint requires “clear and explicit limitations or restrictions” in the charter itself. This standard is in addition to principles of statutory construction which require the Court to, in the first instance, rely on the plain language of the statute. If clear, the Court need not go any further in its inquiry. Ultimately, the City’s interpretation of its own charter is “entitled to great weight and respect unless shown to be clearly erroneous and must be upheld if it has a reasonable basis.”

With this in mind, the Court turned to Westsiders’ arguments that the City exceeded its authority in approving the general plan amendment. Section 555(a) permits general plan amendments for, as pertinent here, “geographic areas, provided that the part or area involved has significant social, economic, or physical identity.” Westsiders claimed that a single parcel of land could not qualify as a geographic area. Relying on the dictionary definitions for each word, the Court determined that “geographic area” means any physical region. The parcel was indeed a physical region that satisfied this definition despite its singularity and small size. Second, Westsiders claimed that the parcel did not have “significant social, economic, or physical identity” as it was a car lot in a busy area with no distinctive features. The Court held that the City had no “clear and explicit” categorical limits on what it could and could not determine to be significant. Consequentially, the Court held in favor of not restricting municipal power.

Westsiders alleged that the City was required to make explicit findings that the project site qualified as a geographic area of significant economic or physical identity. The Court, after pointing out that Westsiders did not cite any authority for this claim, held that the City was not required to make explicit findings for a legislative act per San Francisco Tomorrow. The City did find that the project site had a significant physical and economic identity near a transit-oriented area and was one of the largest underutilized parcels in the area. These findings, though unnecessary, supported the City’s decision to issue a general plan amendment for the site.

The Court then addressed Westsiders’ argument that the City violated Section 555(b) by allowing Philena to initiate a general plan amendment with a project proposal. The Section provides “[t]he Council, the City Planning Commission, or the Director of the Planning Commission may propose amendments to the General Plan.” The Court found that, while the Charter outlined certain permissions for initiating an amendment, it did not provide any “clear and explicit limitation” to do so. The Court held that, absent such a limitation, the City did not violate Section 555(b) in responding to Philena’s request for the amendment.

Finally, the Court addressed Westsiders’ contention that the City’s action constituted impermissible spot zoning where there was no “substantial public need.” Since Westsiders did not raise this claim at the trial level, they waived their right to appeal the issue.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the petition.

Key Point:

Claims against a charter city’s legislative action must be supported by “clear and explicit” limitations in the plain language of the city’s charter.