In Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. Superior Court of Tuolumne County, (August 7, 2014, S207173) __ Cal.4th __, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s issuance of a writ of mandate challenging the City of Sonora’s approval of an ordinance for the expansion of a big box store (Project) without first conducting complete environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
In an effort to streamline approval for construction and operation of the Project, an initiative petition proposed the adoption of a specific plan for the contemplated improvements. The petition was ultimately signed by over 20 percent of the City’s registered voters. The City Council ordered that a section 9212 report be prepared in compliance with the Elections Code to examine the initiative’s consistency with previous planning commission approvals for the Project. After weighing its options, the City adopted the ordinance. Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance (TJSBA) opposed the ordinance and sought a writ of mandate.
The Court’s analysis focused on the interpretation of Elections Code requirements. When presented with a voter initiative, a city council must do one of three things: (1) adopt the initiative without alteration; (2) submit it to a special election; or (3) order an abbreviated report on the initiative. It has been well established that the provisions of CEQA do not apply to land use initiatives proposed by voters and adopted at an election. This case clarified whether a legislative body must obtain full CEQA review before it may directly adopt a voter initiative.
The Court first analyzed the statutory language of the Elections Code. Specifically, the Court found that if local agencies were required to undertake CEQA review before the adoption of initiatives, it would essentially nullify streamlined direct initiative adoption. The only other option would be to order a report exploring potential impacts of the initiative. Considering the time necessary for agencies to complete CEQA review (a process taking months), the Court found that it would be impossible for a city to complete CEQA review within 10 days before adopting a voter initiative, as required by the Elections Code. Moreover, the Court held that if a city undertook full CEQA review of a voter initiative, the more cursory review available under the Elections Code would be duplicative and unnecessary. The Court also found no evidence that the Legislature intended CEQA to supersede direct initiative adoption procedures. Because the timelines for initiatives and CEQA review are fundamentally incompatible, a requirement of CEQA review before direct adoption would limit local governments to submitting most initiatives to election.
Next, the Court turned to the Legislative Intent behind the Elections Code. The Court indicated it was telling that no law extending CEQA to initiatives has been enacted in over 25 years. Citing DeVita v. County of Napa, (1995) 9 Cal.4th 763, 795, the Court indicated that by not enacting legislation that would subject initiative measures to environmental review, the Legislature has made an attempt to balance the initiative right of the people, with the goal of informing voters and local officials about the consequences of an initiative’s enactment. Thus, local agencies are able to conduct abbreviated environmental review to act promptly on an initiative.
Finally, the Court reviewed whether direct adoption of a voter initiative without fulfilling CEQA mandates is against public policy. The Court found that by amending the constitution, voters intended to empower their government to enact a qualified initiative immediately, without the need for an election and its associated delay and cost. Furthermore, the Court indicated that the Elections Code does not play favorites; the possibility that interested parties may use initiatives to advance their own interests is part of the democratic process. Voters have statutory remedies available through the referendum process if direct adoption of an initiative results in the enactment of an undesirable law.
The Court established that “CEQA review is contrary to the statutory language and legislative history pertaining to voter initiatives.” Accordingly, voter backed initiatives for proposed projects may be considered an effective option for CEQA streamlining. However, as the Court noted, because the initiative process is neutral, it may also be used as a tool by project opponents to thwart development.