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Procedural Issues Posts


COURT OF APPEAL HOLDS “DISCOVERY RULE” DOES NOT EXTEND CEQA STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

In Communities for a Better Environment v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District, 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 596, Petitioners challenged Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s (BAAQMD) July 2013 determination that the approval of the Richmond rail-to-truck facility to transload crude oil instead of ethanol was ministerial and therefore not subject to CEQA. BAAQMD did not provide the public with notice of its determination and Petitioners did not learn of the decision until January 31, 2014, when one of Communities for a Better Environment’s staff members received an email disclosing the change from ethanol to crude oil.

Petitioners filed their petition in March 2014 and it was subsequently dismissed by the trial court as untimely. Petitioners appealed, arguing that the so called “discovery rule” applied. In the typical case, the discovery rule postpones the accrual of an action from the date an injury occurs until the date the plaintiff has actual or constructive notice of the facts constituting the injury. Petitioners argued that the discovery rule should apply in this case because there was no way to discover that the approval had taken place—they claimed that the transloading operation is entirely enclosed, making any changes invisible to the public.

The appellate court held that the discovery rule did not extend the statute of limitations in this case because the legislature created the applicable triggering dates when drafting the statute and those dates, providing constructive notice to Petitioners, had occurred. Specifically, an action to challenge a determination that a project is not subject to CEQA accrues on one of three alternative dates set forth in Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (d): (1) filing of a notice that the project is not subject to CEQA, which triggers a 35 day statute of limitations; (2) if no notice is filed, then within 180 days of the agency’s formal decision to carry out or approve the project; or (3) if there is no formal determination, then within 180 days from the commencement of the project.

The court distinguished the situation from Concerned Citizens of Costa Mesa, Inc. v. 32nd District Agricultural Association (1986) 42 Cal.3d 929, where the Supreme Court held that an action accrues on the date a plaintiff knew or reasonably should have known of the project only if no statutory triggering date has occurred. Here, the court held that the triggering dates had occurred, even if they were not apparent to Petitioners.

While the court acknowledged that public participation may be served by applying the discovery rule in cases such as this, where no notice is given and there is virtually no indication to the public that the project has been approved and commenced, it concluded that it could not read such an exception into the statutory text, such a change would have to be initiated by the Legislature.

FOURTH APPELLATE DISTRICT UPHOLDS MOJAVE DESERT GROUNDWATER EXTRACTION IN TWO PUBLISHED OPINIONS

Friday, June 10th, 2016

A proposal to pump fresh groundwater from an underground aquifer located in the Mojave Desert (“Project”) resulted in six related cases. On May 10, 2016, the Fourth Appellate District upheld the Project in all six cases: Delaware Tetra Technologies, Inc. v. County of San Bernardino, 2016 Cal. App. Lexis 380, 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3434, 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3438, 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3439, and Center for Biological Diversity v. County of San Bernardino, 2016 Cal. App. Lexis 382 and 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3441.

The proposed Project is a public/private partnership designed to prevent water waste caused by brine and evaporation, and to ultimately transport water to customers in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura Counties. Once in operation, the Project would appropriate an average of 50,000 acre feet of groundwater over a period of 50 years. The groundwater extraction would be subject to the County’s 2002 Groundwater Ordinance, which was designed to ensure that groundwater extractions maintain safe yield of affected aquifers.

In March 2011, the Santa Margarita Water District (“Santa Margarita”) posted a notice of preparation of a draft Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) for the Project. Under a June 2011 agreement, Santa Margarita agreed to act as the lead agency and San Bernardino County (“County”) agreed to act as a responsible agency. The Draft EIR was released for public review and comment in December 2012. During the EIR process, Santa Margarita, the County, the landowner, and Fenner Valley executed a memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) in which the parties agreed that a groundwater management, monitoring and mitigation plan would be developed in connection with the finalization of the EIR. The Final EIR was certified in July 2012.

Delaware Tetra Technologies

In the first published case, Delaware Tetra Technologies, Inc. challenged the County’s resolution authorizing the execution of the 2012 MOU, arguing that the County should have completed an environmental review under CEQA prior to approving the MOU.

Applying the de novo standard of review, the Court concluded that environmental review was not required because establishing a groundwater management, monitoring and mitigation plan under the MOU would not cause a direct, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect, physical change in the environment. Moreover, the MOU did not foreclose alternatives or mitigation measures, nor commit the County to a particular course of action that would cause an environmental impact. Rather, the MOU established that the County still retained full discretion.

Center for Biological Diversity

In the second published case, the Center for Biological Diversity, the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and National Parks Conservation Association (collectively, “CBD”) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the approval of the Project under CEQA. The Court concluded that Santa Margarita did not abuse its direction when it approved the Project and certified the EIR.

The court first held that Santa Margarita was properly designated as a lead agency because it was jointly undertaking the Project with the landowner and because it was the agency with the principal authority to approve and supervise the Project. Next, the Court held that the Project description, which characterized the Project as “a means of conserving water,” was not misleading because the Project would conserve water otherwise lost to brine and evaporation.

Finally, the Court rejected CBD’s contentions that the EIR did not provide an accurate duration for pumping by the Project and would result in more water being withdrawn than was contemplated and discussed by the EIR. Although the EIR recognized that the parties may choose to extend pumping for an additional term after the stated completion date of the Project, the Court found that the additional term was not reasonably foreseeable and noted that any additional term would require additional environmental review. The court further noted that the EIR did not permit withdrawal of water in excess of the amounts identified.

Key Points:

In holding that the MOU was not a “project,” the Court reaffirmed the principles of Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116 regarding when an activity constitutes a “project” subject to environmental review. Memoranda of Understanding will not require environmental review under CEQA where they do not commit a lead agency to a particular course of action, foreclose alternatives or mitigation measures, or result in environmental impacts.

In addition, the Court reaffirmed in several different contexts that a court’s role is not to “pass upon the correctness of the EIR’s environmental conclusions, but only upon its sufficiency as an informative document.”  Petitioners bear the burden of describing the lead agency’s supporting evidence and showing how it is lacking.

SIXTH APPELLATE DISTRICT REJECTS CEQA AND PARK ACT CHALLENGES TO SALE OF PUBLIC ACTIVITY CENTER

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

In an unpublished opinion, Save Sunnyvale Parks & Schools v. City of Sunnyvale, 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1146, the Sixth Appellate District affirmed the trial court’s ruling and rejected challenges to the City’s approval of the sale of the Raynor Activity Center (“RAC”) to Stratford Schools, a private school.

The City had previously declared that the RAC was a surplus property and had begun a competitive bidding process for its sale. Negotiations with Stratford resulted in a proposed agreement to sell the property for $14,050,000, with a joint use agreement that gave Stratford priority use of certain areas in the adjacent, City-owned Raynor Park. The proposed sale agreement required the City to conduct an environmental analysis under CEQA as part of the permitting process. Petitioner Save Sunnyvale Parks (“Petitioner”) sought a writ of mandate to compel the City to rescind the sale and joint use agreements, arguing that the City approved the agreements without first complying with CEQA and that the agreements violated the Public Park Preservation Act of 1971 (“Park Act”).

First, the court held the City did not violate the Park Act, which requires that all the funds received by a local government from the sale of park land be used to obtain or provide substitute park land and facilities. The court held that under the “home rule” doctrine, the Park Act did not apply to a charter city like Sunnyvale because the preservation of public parks is not a matter of statewide concern.

Next, the court rejected Petitioner’s claim that the City approved the sale and joint use agreements before conducting CEQA review in violation of the principles articulated in Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116. The court found that Petitioner’s Save Tara claim was barred because it had not satisfied the “issue exhaustion requirement” of Public Resources Code section 21177(a), which prohibits a legal action from being commenced unless the grounds for noncompliance were presented to the public agency during the administrative process. The court found that the public comments submitted were far too general to satisfy the issue exhaustion requirement, and that the notices or staff reports prepared by the City sufficiently notified the public of the City’s conclusions regarding the timing of CEQA review and the proposed agreements.

Finally, the court rejected Petitioner’s claim that the issue exhaustion requirement impermissibly infringed its rights to petition the government for redress of grievances as guaranteed in California Constitution Article I, § 3. The court held that the right to petition does not excuse compliance with the issue exhaustion requirement and noted that Petitioner was not denied access to the courts in this case––its claims were considered by both the superior and appellate court.

“No one ever said it was easy to build a project in San Francisco”

Monday, September 28th, 2015

On September 17, 2015, the California First District Court of Appeal struck another blow to the beleaguered 8 Washington Street Project in Defend Our Waterfront v. California State Lands Commission, 2015 Cal. App. LEXIS 817, when it upheld the trial court’s ruling that a necessary land transfer between the State Lands Commission and the City of San Francisco did not qualify for an obscure CEQA exemption.

Developers San Francisco Waterfront Partners II, LLC and Pacific Waterfront Properties LLC have been attempting to build luxury condominiums on waterfront land near the San Francisco Ferry Building for almost a decade. In 2012, the project seemed to be on track. The Planning Commission certified the project’s FEIR, the Board of Supervisors affirmed the certification, and the developers were issued a conditional use authorization. At that point, only one hurdle remained—removing the public trust restrictions from the waterfront land.

The site for the project includes a parcel of property commonly referred to as “Seawall Lot 351,” which includes a public trust restriction due to the fact that the area was previously submerged land under the San Francisco Bay. To allow the development to proceed on Seawall Lot 351, the developer and the City devised a plan to transfer the lot out of the public trust and replace it with a different parcel of property pursuant to a land exchange agreement with the State Lands Commission. In August 2012, the State Lands Commission approved the land exchange agreement and found that the agreement is a statutorily exempt activity under CEQA pursuant to Public Resource Code section 21080.11.

Defend Our Waterfront (DOW) challenged the State Lands Commission’s reliance on the exemption. In early 2014, the trial court held the exemption was inapplicable and invalidated the land transfer.

On appeal, the First District upheld the lower court’s ruling. The Court began by rejecting State Lands Commission’s argument that DOW failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. DOW formed after the State Land Commission’s decision to approve the land swap. The State Lands Commission argued that Public Resources Code section 21177, subdivision (c), requires that a member of the after-formed organization must have raised the CEQA issue during the agency proceeding. The Court did not reach the merits of this argument because it determined that the State Lands Commission had provided inadequate notice of the meeting in violation of section 21177, subdivision (e), excusing DOW from the exhaustion requirement.

Specifically, the Court held that a meeting agenda posted on the State Lands Commission’s website stating that the land exchange agreement would be discussed, with no mention of CEQA, was insufficient to give the required notice that the project would be approved based on a statutory exemption. A hyperlink to a staff report that mentioned the CEQA exemption was added prior to the meeting; however, the Court found the extra step of clicking on the hyperlink to be inadequate notice and regardless, the link to the staff report was not added at least 10-days’ prior to the meeting as required under Government Code section 11125, subdivision (a). The Court further held that actual notice of the meeting/staff report did not satisfy CEQA’s notice requirement, nor was the notice requirement waived when one of DOW’s members’ failed to object to the exemption at the meeting.

On the merits of the challenge, the Court held that the Public Resource Code section 21080.11’s exemption for “settlements of title and boundary problems by the State Lands Commission and to exchanges or leases in connection with those settlements” applied only to instances where the State Lands Commission exercised its authority to settle land disputes. The Court rejected the State Lands Commission’s argument that it applied to title “problems” generally, finding that it was not required to defer to the State Lands Commission’s interpretation of the exemption because construing the scope of the CEQA exemption was a matter of “statutory interpretation” subject to de novo review.

Key Point:

The public must have sufficient notice under section 21177, subdivision (e), to trigger the exhaustion requirements. The notice must clearly state if any CEQA determinations will be discussed at the meeting and that statement must be in the notice itself, not in a hyperlinked document. This case also made clear that actual notice or waiver is no substitute for those notice requirements.

Supplement to 16 year old EIR is Acceptable, Project Proponents Need Not Address Every Comment Following Public Review.

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

In City of Irvine v. County of Orange, (July 6, 2015, G049527)__Cal.App.4th__, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the adequacy of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) prepared approximately 16 years after the original EIR was adopted. The court granted publication on July 7, 2015.

The dispute began in 1996 when the City of Irvine (Irvine) challenged the County of Orange’s (County’s) certification of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) involving the expansion of the Musick Facility (Musick). The Musick facility is a 1,200 inmate jail, and the proposed expansion would make it a 7,584 inmate jail. In Musick I, the court held that the 1996 EIR was adequate, but the project fell through for financial reasons.

In 2011, newly available state funding revived the Musick project. Irvine immediately challenged the County’s application for state funding, alleging that the application for funding itself required an EIR. In Musick II, the court held that there was no need for a new EIR just to apply for state funds.

The County then prepared an SEIR to the 1996 EIR.  The SEIR reflects major changes that have taken place in the area surrounding Musick over the 16 years separating the two documents. First, a proposed airport that was supposed to be built next to the facility was scrapped in favor of a large park. Second, agricultural land around the facility and in the County almost entirely disappeared. Following the County’s certification of the SEIR, Irvine immediately sued, seeking a writ of mandate to invalidate the SEIR, but the trial court denied Irvine’s petition.

On appeal, Irvine raised four arguments: (1) the changes since the 1996 EIR warranted a new EIR, (2) the EIR’s traffic study was inadequate, (3) the mitigation measures for the loss of agricultural land were inadequate, and (4) the County’s responses to comments on SEIR were inadequate. The court of appeal disagreed with Irvine on all its arguments and held for the County.

Irvine argued that the significant changes between the 1996 EIR and SEIR warranted a new EIR altogether. The court disagreed.  While the CEQA Guidelines state that a lead agency “may” prepare a supplemental EIR where “[o]nly minor additions or changes would be necessary to make the previous EIR adequate to apply to the project in the changed situation” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15163), the court noted that a “subsequent” EIR and a “supplemental” EIR are statutorily similar in their requirements.   Moreover, the court explained that the appropriate judicial approach is to look to the substance of the EIR, not its nominal title.

Next, Irvine challenged the SEIR’s traffic study. It alleged that the SEIR is inconsistent in its descriptions of project phasing because it uses 2014 as the date an initial phase of the prison expansion would be completed when the evidence demonstrates the initial phase will not be completed until 2018.  While the court acknowledged an accurate, stable and finite project description is critical, the court explained that evaluation of interim traffic impacts based on anticipated future construction necessarily cannot be predicted with certainty.  Furthermore, the court concluded even if delays in the start of construction resulted in discrepancies, it was nothing more than an “insubstantial and technical error.”

Irvine also alleged that the mitigation measures for the loss of agricultural land were inadequate. But, the court noted that the price of land in the County had far outgrown any feasible level for agriculture to remain profitable. The court noted that a land price of $60,000 per acre is approximately the break-even point for agricultural profitability, and land in the County was averaging $2 million per acre in 2012.

Finally, Irvine argued that the County’s allegedly deficient responses to their comments on the SEIR required a new EIR. Irvine had submitted 88 comments on SEIR, and challenged eight of the responses given by the County. The court noted that the CEQA Guidelines do not specifically require responses to comments, only responses to “significant environmental issues raised.” The court explained:

When a comment raises a “significant” environmental issue, there must be some genuine confrontation with the issue; it can’t be swept under the rug. Responses that leave big gaps in the analysis of environmental impact are obviously inadequate. By the same token comments that bring some new issue to the table need genuine confrontation. And comments that are only objections to the merits of the project itself may be addressed with cursory responses.

The court held that many of Irvine’s comments were “objections to the merits of the project” that the County adequately addressed with cursory responses. For the remaining comments, the court found the County’s responses to be adequate.  The court noted further that the case was “drowning in ‘paperwork’” and Irvine failed to demonstrate any prejudice resulting from the alleged inadequate responses.

Key Point

Age does not automatically render an EIR invalid.  Additionally, the appropriate judicial approach to evaluating an EIR is to look to its substance, not its nominal title.  Furthermore, CEQA Guidelines only require responses to “significant environmental issues raised.”  Comments that do nothing but object to the project’s merits may be addressed with cursory responses.

Appellate Court Reverses Injunction for La Jolla Hillside Revegetation Project

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

In an unpublished opinion in CREED-21 v. City of San Diego, the California Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed in large part the trial court decision granting an injunction and other relief for violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) relating to emergency repair and subsequent revegetation of a hillside and storm drain in La Jolla.

The City of San Diego (City) initially proposed a project that included replacing a damaged storm drain pipe and revegetating of the surrounding hillside. Before the environmental review was complete, the storm drain failed, causing significant erosion of the hillside. Due to public health and safety concerns and the need for immediate repairs, the City issued an emergency determination of environmental exemption.

The emergency repair of the storm drain did not include revegetation of the steep hillside. The City concluded the revegetation project would result in no significant environmental impacts and therefore qualified for the common sense exemption from CEQA. CREED filed a writ petition alleging the project was not exempt from CEQA, and the trial court granted an injunction stopping the revegetation project pending further environmental review.

The appellate court held that baseline conditions existed at the point in time after the emergency repair, not at the time the City initially proposed the storm drain repair project. The court reasoned the emergency repair was an “intervening and superseding event” and the existing environment under CEQA is comprised of the physical conditions that “will be affected by the proposed project.” Because the emergency repair project was exempt from CEQA, any future work on the site was required to consider the environment the project would actually affect, which in this case was the post-repair hillside.

After holding CREED only had standing to challenge the CEQA exemption for the revegetation project and not the storm drain repair project, the court held substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that the common sense CEQA exemption applied to the revegetation project. The revegetation project consisted of planting native plants on an otherwise bare hillside. As a result, there was no possibility the revegetation project would have a significant adverse effect on the environment. The court also held CREED did not meet its burden of showing the unusual circumstances exception applied to the CEQA exemption in this case.

In the final portions of the court’s opinion, the court held the City did not violate CREED’s due process right when responding to its California Public Records Act request. The court upheld the trial court’s denial of the City’s untimely and incomplete request for judicial notice of a City ordinance authorizing an appeal fee and required the City refund CREED’s $100 appeal fee.  The court also declined to impose sanctions on the City.

Second District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Development Along Santa Clara River

Monday, January 26th, 2015

In an unpublished opinion in Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment v. City of Santa Clarita, 2014 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 8998, the California Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court and denied a petition for a writ of mandate challenging a 185-acre development (the Project) along the Santa Clara River near the City of Santa Clarita (the City). The court also rejected SCOPE’s cross appeals, allowing the mixed use development project to move forward.

The City owns a portion of the dry Santa Clara River corridor running through the Project site and the Project provides that the City will sell four of the acres to the developer for installation of buried bank stabilization. The Project also preserves a corridor of the dry riverbed, and results in dedication of all developer-owned river corridor property to the City.

The court reversed the trial court in two respects. First, the court held the City did not improperly incorporate by reference other documents into the environmental impact report (EIR). The court rejected SCOPE’s argument that the description or summary of the incorporated document must appear at the precise point in the EIR where the document was incorporated, and rejected all of SCOPE’s examples of alleged inadequate discussion of the documents incorporated by reference. Additionally, while the EIR may not have included an adequate description or summary for a few documents incorporated by reference, the court held SCOPE failed to show any prejudicial error.

Second, the court held the EIR adequately analyzed the cumulative biological effects of the Project. SCOPE contended the analysis was too broad because the EIR relied upon an analysis of the entire 1,036,571-acre Santa Clara River Watershed, while the Project was only 185 acres. However, the court noted a preference by the EPA for watershed-wide analyses and held the City did not abuse its discretion in considering the watershed-wide analysis of the Project’s cumulative impacts.

As to the cross appeals, the court held the Project was consistent with the City’s general plan. The court found the general plan amendment’s description of the preserved river corridor was not vague and the City did not abuse its discretion in finding the Project was consistent with the General Plan’s goal of promoting preservation of the river as open space.

The court also declined to question the correctness of the EIR’s environmental conclusions and found substantial evidence supported the City’s finding that the Project would not have a significant water quality impact related to chloride in the river.

Finally, the court held the trial court properly sustained the City’s demurrer to SCOPE’s claims regarding the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Act (the Act), focusing primarily on the lack of a private right of enforcement of the Act..

Court Orders Supplemental EIR for Ventura County Medical Center Building Due to 15 Foot Increase in Building Height

Monday, January 12th, 2015

In Ventura Foothill Neighbors v. County of Ventura (2014) 232 Cal.App.4th 429, the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District affirmed the trial court’s decision requiring Ventura County (the County) to prepare a supplemental environmental impact report (EIR) to evaluate the impacts associated with increasing the height of a medical office building previously approved to be developed within the Ventura County Medical Center from 75 feet to 90 feet.

The County originally approved an EIR in 1993 stating the building would have a maximum height of 75 feet. In 2005, the County prepared an addendum to the 1993 EIR to evaluate potential impacts of relocating the building a few hundred feet northwest from the original location. The addendum only addressed relocation of the building and did not disclose that the building height would increase by twenty percent.   The County filed a Notice of Determination (NOD) after approving both the original 1993 EIR and the 2005 addendum. In May of 2008, a community group known as Ventura Foothill Neighbors, learned about the change in height when a citizen noticed equipment at the construction site and inquired what was being built. Approximately two months after discovering the change, Ventura Foothill Neighbors filed a petition for writ of mandate and sought a preliminary injunction to stop construction of the building.  The trial court declined to enjoin construction and the County completed the building in 2010.

The key question before the court was whether the statute of limitations expired before Ventura Foothill Neighbors filed its lawsuit.  The County argued that the lawsuit should be viewed as a challenge to the 1993 EIR or at least the 2005 addendum and, therefore, the lawsuit was filed well after the 30 day statute of limitation ran under either of the NODs.  The court disagreed. The court reasoned filing of the NOD triggers a 30-day window for all CEQA challenges “to the decision announced in the notice.” In this case, neither the 1993 EIR nor the 2005 addendum mentioned the change in height of building. As a result, respondent had 180 days from when it “knew or reasonably should have known the project differed substantially from the one described in the EIR.”  As Ventura Foothill Neighbors discovered the change in May of 2008 and filed its lawsuit in July of 2008, the lawsuit was timely.

The court also held the change in height from 75 feet to 90 feet constituted a substantial change in the project requiring a major revision in the EIR.  Therefore, the court concluded that the County should have prepared a supplemental EIR to analyze the impacts associated with the change in height.

KEY POINT

An NOD filed creates a short statute of limitations to challenge actions of the lead agency pursuant to CEQA.  However, an NOD only covers the project as defined in the NOD and associated environmental document (e.g. EIR, addendum, etc.).  To avoid uncertainty and reduce the potential for future litigation, a lead agency should make sure to clearly define the project in an NOD and associated environmental document.

Appellate Court Upholds EIR for Perris Dam Remediation Project in Riverside County

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

In Paulek v. California Department of Water Resources, 2014 Cal. App. LEXIS 999, the Court of Appeal for the Fourth District upheld the trial court’s denial of a writ of mandate challenging the Department of Water Resources’ (Department) approval of an environmental impact report (EIR) for a dam remediation project at Perris Dam in Riverside County.

Following a 2005 study of the dam’s foundation that found structural deficiencies, the Department developed a three-part plan for long-term improvements. The three parts included: 1) fixing the structural deficiencies in the dam’s foundation; 2) replacing the facility’s outlet tower; and 3) constructing a new emergency outlet extension. Despite an initial notice of preparation of a draft EIR that included all three parts, the final EIR did not include construction of the emergency outlet extension. Petitioner sought a writ vacating the Department’s approval of the EIR.

After establishing the petitioner had standing to bring the lawsuit, the court rejected petitioner’s argument that removal of the emergency outlet extension from the final EIR left a significant environmental impact unmitigated. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) only requires a public agency to mitigate the environmental impacts of “projects that it carries out or approves.” The court found the danger from the current emergency outlet extension existed regardless of whether the seismic improvements were made to the other portions of the dam. As a result, the flooding danger was part of the baseline condition that did not fall within the mitigation requirements of CEQA.

The court also rejected petitioner’s argument that removal of the emergency outlet extension into a separate CEQA analysis constituted improper segmentation. While CEQA prohibits “piecemeal” review of projects to avoid a cumulative significant impact, the court found the emergency outlet was a distinct project. It was not a “reasonably foreseeable consequence” of the dam remediation and tower rebuilding because those two projects could occur and remedy the structural deficiencies without the emergency outlet extension. The outlet extension was also not an integral part of same project and not a future expansion of the dam remediation and tower rebuilding that would change the scope of their impacts. Accordingly, the project was not improperly segmented.

Finally, the court found the Department’s responses to petitioner’s comments on the EIR were adequate. Petitioner’s comments did not point to specific deficiencies in the EIR; rather, the comments generally stated the EIR was inadequate and expressed the need for mitigation. The court held the Department’s reference to portions of the EIR addressing petitioner’s concerns were sufficient stating, “a general comment only requires a general response.”

KEY POINT

The court reiterated the standard for improper segmentation of CEQA projects. Although CEQA defines project broadly in favor a comprehensive environmental review, public agencies have discretion to remove discrete portions of a project from the final EIR, even if the removed portion was included in the initial notice.

When is Agency Action Considered a Project under CEQA? When the Legislature Says So.

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

In Rominger v. County of Colusa, 2014 Cal. App. LEXIS 813, the Court of Appeal for the Third District overturned the trial court and held a proposed subdivision approved by Colusa County was a project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), even though the proposal did not include any specific plans for development. The appellate court went on to find that substantial evidence in the record supported a fair argument that the project may have a significant unmitigated impact on traffic at a particular intersection adjacent to the project site. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed and remanded for the preparation of an environmental impact report (EIR).

In 2009, real party in interest, Adams Group Inc., filed an application for a tentative subdivision map to divide four parcels into sixteen parcels. The application included no specific plan for future use of the property. The County conducted an initial study and then a revised study, and eventually adopted a mitigated negative declaration, concluding that impacts of the project could be mitigated to a less-than-significant level. Neighbors opposed the project throughout the review process and sought to compel preparation of an EIR for the subdivision.

The court first reversed the trial court and determined that the subdivision was a project under CEQA. Section 21080 of the Public Resources Code specifically includes approval of a tentative subdivision map as a project under CEQA. The court also found that the common sense exemption to CEQA review did not apply because the County could not show there was no possibility that approval of the subdivision could lead to a significant effect on the environment at some point in the future.  

The court then considered each of the seven environmental areas that the petitioners contended would be significantly impacted by the subdivision. The petitioners’ traffic expert showed the County improperly relied on a continued agricultural use for the subdivision when the County conducted its analysis. The court considered the traffic expert’s specific facts, such as the subdivision’s proximity to a major highway, and concluded substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the subdivision may have a significant environmental impact on traffic.

The court dismissed arguments related to impacts on agriculture, odor, noise, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and water supply. The mitigation measures the County required to address these areas adequately addressed any significant environmental impacts and no substantial evidence to the contrary had been provided.

The court also found the County abused its discretion by failing to provide a full thirty-day public review period for the mitigated negative declaration. The County issued notice that the public comment period would be August 7 to September 5.  Since September 5 was a holiday, the comment period was only twenty-nine days. However, the court ultimately concluded this was not a prejudicial error

KEY POINT

Whether an approval is considered a project for purposes of CEQA review is not a fact-based inquiry when the type of activity is expressly listed in Public Resources Code section 21080 subdivision (a). The Legislature determined that certain activities always have the potential to impact the environment and a lead agency’s determination of no significant impact does not alter this conclusion.