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.
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.