Fourth District Court of Appeal Finds Caltrans Project Not Exempt from CEQA; Caltrans Misrepresented Project Approval Process and May Be Equitably Estopped from Asserting Statute of Limitations

April 7th, 2020

By: Johannah Kramer

In Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans Decision v. Department of Transportation (March 24, 2020) 2020 Cal. App. LEXIS 243, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found that the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) improperly relied on a CEQA exemption in approving a San Diego County freeway interchange project. The Court further found evidence that Caltrans misrepresented the environmental review process and that the writ petition sufficiently pleaded that Caltrans was equitably estopped from asserting the 35-day statute of limitations. Accordingly, the Court overturned the trial court’s grant of demurrer and dismissal of the petition challenging project approval.

In 2005, Caltrans filed a notice of preparation for the construction of two freeway interchange ramps connecting Interstate 5 and State Route 56 in southern California (the Project). The Project was part of Caltrans and the San Diego Association of Governments’ larger North Coast Corridor (NCC) project, which covers transportation improvements to a 27-mile corridor between La Jolla to Oceanside in San Diego County.

Streets and Highways Code section 103 (section 103), effective January 1, 2012, provides for integrated regulatory review by the Coastal Commission of a public works plan (PWP) for the projects within the NCC. Section 103 provides a streamlined process for approving projects included in the PWP, rather than requiring the Coastal Commission to undertake project-by-project approval. It further provides that the Coastal Commission’s certification of the PWP is subject to CEQA but exempt from the requirement to prepare an EIR. Instead, section 103 permits the Coastal Commission to prepare a substitute (i.e., functional equivalent) environmental document, similar to when the Coastal Commission certifies a local coastal program.

The Coastal Commission approved the PWP in August 2014. The PWP included a provision  that the Coastal Commission retained authority over PWP projects, thereby precluding the need to obtain coastal development permits from multiple local jurisdictions. The PWP further stated that the Coastal Commission’s review and approval process for the PWP should not supplant the review processes required by CEQA, NEPA, or other regulatory schemes. Rather, compliance with the CEQA, NEPA, and other regulatory schemes were to be addressed at the project level.

In April 2012, Caltrans circulated the Project DEIR, which identified Caltrans as the lead agency and stated that an FEIR would be prepared identifying the preferred alternative and including responses to comments. The June 2017 Project FEIR stated that once it was circulated, if Caltrans decided to approve the Project, Caltrans and the Coastal Commission would publish an NOD in compliance with CEQA. This process comported with previous projects under the NCC project, including an October 2013 NCC project freeway widening project, which noted in its EIR that section 103 was not intended to eliminate project-specific CEQA or NEPA review; rather, it was to provide for integrated regulatory review by the Coastal Commission.

However, the Project FEIR also included statements inconsistent with the above. It identified the Project as a PWP project. It then stated that the CEQA process for the Project was initiated prior to the enactment of section 103, that CEQA review was no longer required, but public disclosure of the analysis of the Project’s anticipated impacts in the format of a FEIR was desirable for informational purposes. The FEIR stated that it was drafted in compliance with NEPA, the California Coastal Act, and CEQA “to the extent it is applicable”.

Nearly two weeks before the 30-day public review period for the FEIR commenced, Caltrans approved the Project without providing public notice. On July 12, 2017, two days before the public review period began, Caltrans issued a notice of exemption (NOE), relying on section 103 and consistency with the Coastal Commission’s certified regulatory program. Nonetheless, during the 30-day public review period, Caltrans received and responded to public comments on the FEIR.

In September 2017, Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans Decision (Petitioner) became aware of the NOE. Caltrans refused Petitioner’s request to rescind the NOE or agree to a 180-day statute of limitations for challenging its approval. In November 2017, Petitioner sued, alleging that Caltrans erroneously claimed that the Project was exempt from CEQA under section 103 and that Caltrans was equitably estopped from relying on the 35-day statute of limitations for challenging the NOE. Caltrans demurred, alleging that Petitioner were barred by the statute of limitations and that the Project was exempt from CEQA under section 103. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend and dismissed the petition.

On appeal, the Fourth District, taking up the issue as a matter of first impression, found that section 103 treated the PWP as a long-range development plan (through reference to Pub. Res. Code sections 21080.5 and 21080.9), thereby exempting it from the requirement to prepare an EIR. Following rules of statutory construction, the Court ruled that nothing in section 103 exempted Caltrans from CEQA’s requirement that an EIR be prepared and circulated prior to approving the Project.

The Court found that section 103 does not expressly exempt Caltrans from preparing and circulating an EIR in compliance with CEQA. Caltrans implicitly conceded this point but asserted that Public Resources Code sections 21080.5 and 21080.9 provide such an exemption. The Court disagreed, noting that the plain language of section 103, along with its references to Public Resources Code sections 21080.5 and 21080.9, did not demonstrate intent to exempt Caltrans from preparing and circulating an EIR prior to Project approval. When read together, section 103 and Public Resources Code section 21080.9 provide that the Coastal Commission, not Caltrans, must comply with CEQA and prepare a substitute environmental document when considering the certification and approval of the PWP. By not expressly exempting Caltrans’ requirements under CEQA, while clearly doing so for the Coastal Commission, the Court found that the Legislature did not intend to exempt Caltrans from preparing and circulating the Project EIR prior to approval. While the PWP proposed improvements to the subject interchange, it did not include the Project as defined in its EIR, so the Coastal Commission’s certification of the PWP did not encompass the Project. Moreover, section 103 pertained to the PWP as a Coastal Commission regulatory program for a long range development plan and in no way addressed Caltrans’ EIR obligations. Thus, the onus was on Caltrans to engage in environmental review and circulation under CEQA.

The Court found that Petitioner’s equitable estoppel claim alleged sufficient facts to survive the demurrer. Equitable estoppel is based on the theory that a party which misleads another to their prejudice should be prevented from obtaining the benefits of their misconduct. It can result in a waiver of the ordinary statute of limitations applicable to a claim. The Court held that the Petitioner alleged sufficient facts (assumed to be true for the purposes of a demurrer) showing that Caltrans was estopped from relying on the 35-day statute of limitations for challenging the NOE. Petitioner adequately presented documentation supporting a finding that Caltrans knew that it would not circulate the FEIR before approving the Project and would file an NOE instead of an NOD. The Court found evidence supporting a reasonable inference that Caltrans made misleading statements regarding the circulation of the FEIR prior to Project approval and that Petitioner had a right to believe that Caltrans’ statements were intended to be acted on. The Court also found that Petitioner alleged sufficient facts to show ignorance of the misrepresentation and reliance upon Caltrans’s conduct to its injury.

Caltrans attempted to insulate itself from the application of equitable estoppel, which—when applied to governmental entities—requires the injustice prevented by upholding an estoppel to outweigh any impact on the public interest or policy. (See, e.g., Long Beach v. Mansell (1970) 3 Cal.3d 462, 496-497.) The Court was unpersuaded, stating Caltrans failed to “cite any public interest or policy that supports a position that a government agency should be allowed to make misrepresentations to the public regarding its intent to comply with CEQA in approving a project and then, in effect, secretly approve the project without compliance with CEQA and erroneously file an NOE for the project.” Accordingly, the Court held that Petitioner alleged sufficient facts to survive Caltrans’s demurrer and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

Key Point

Public agencies may not misrepresent their intended approach to environmental review and may not circumvent CEQA through reliance on exemptions applicable to a different agency.  An agency’s intentional misrepresentation of its environmental review process may support a determination that the agency is equitably estopped from relying on the statute of limitations as an affirmative defense.

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