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Posts Tagged ‘CEQA challenges’


Second Appellate District Upholds PG&E Lease Extension as Categorically Exempt from CEQA, Finds Unusual Circumstance Exception Inapplicable to Extension of Nuclear Power Plant Lease

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

Ocean intake water flow can be seen at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. (PG&E)

In World Business Academy v. California State Lands Commission (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 476, the Second Appellate District determined that renewing a lease for an existing power plant constituted a categorically exempt “existing structure” project under CEQA and the record did not support an “unusual circumstances” exception to the exemption.

Diablo Canyon Power Plant is a nuclear power plant that has been in operation since 1985 but is set to close by 2025. Owned and operated by PG&E in San Luis Obispo County, the plant’s cooling system draws in seawater as well as incidental aquatic plants and animals from state-owned tidal and submerged lands then expels heated water back into the sea. The leases for the water intake and discharge systems were to expire in 2018 and 2019.

PG&E submitted a single lease renewal application to the California State Lands Commission (Commission) to replace the expiring leases (Project). A staff report confirmed the Project would not require additional environmental review under the existing facilities exemption (CEQA Guidelines, § 15301) unless it was found to be an unusual circumstance meriting exception (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(c)). After weighing the potential seismic and environmental impacts, the Commission found that the Project would not have a new significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances, moved to support the staff report, and issued a notice of exemption for the lease renewal.

World Business Academy filed suit alleging that the Commission’s actions violated CEQA where the lease approval would irreparably injure and deplete the marine ecosystem surrounding the plant. The trial court held the lease replacement fell squarely within the existing facilities exemption to CEQA and the unusual circumstances exception did not apply. World Business Academy timely appealed.

The Appellate Court affirmed the Commission’s lease approval under the existing facilities exemption.

The Court determined the Project was exempt from CEQA review as an existing facility, per CEQA Guidelines section 15301. Appellants argued that unlike other existing utility structures, nuclear power plant projects cannot be categorically exempt from CEQA because of the significant environmental impacts they have by their de facto operation. Further, the legislative history of the exemption indicated the meaning of “provide electric power” implicated structures which disseminate power, not power generating facilities themselves. The Court disagreed. Under the plain meaning of the statute, “provide electric power” reasonably included a power plant.

The Court rejected a related argument that the Commission lacked the authority to consider nuclear power plants under the exemption due to their operational environmental impacts. The Court found that minor alterations to, continued operation of, and leasing pre-CEQA facilities resulting in negligible or no expansion of use are unlikely to cause a new, significant adverse change in environmental conditions. Further, the class of projects at issue in the existing facilities exemption are not only nuclear power plants—rather, the exemption is applied to existing facilities of all types. The Court concluded that the Commission’s evaluation of the lease extension, while brief, was sufficient to demonstrate that the lease extension would maintain the status quo at the existing facility and not expand its operations.

The Court then looked at the unusual circumstances exception to the exemption under CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2(c). The Court found that the Commission incorrectly applied the Berkeley Hillside two-pronged test (described above in Don’t Cell Our Parks) but this was not fatal to the Commission’s determination.

Turning to the substance of the unusual circumstance analysis, the Court found that the Project was not an unusual circumstance based on its size and location. The Commission acted properly by considering the existing baseline for the Project and World Business Academy failed to point to specific evidence supporting the claim that impacts to aquatic life would be significantly increased past the existing operational level of the plant or certain risks – seismic activity, terrorist threats, “embrittleing” and others—would now occur. World Business Academy’s claim that the plant constituted a significant environmental effect because it was the last one of its kind in the state was irrelevant. The Court dismissed this and dismissed World Business Academy’s ad hominem attack against PG&E which alleged criminal conduct outside of the established record.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgement of the trial court.

Key Point:

The existing facilities exemption allows pre-CEQA power plants (regardless of power source) undergoing non-significant changes to avoid additional environmental review. The proper baseline to determine if a change is significant is not established by present-day or forecasted analysis, rather, by the environmental impact the facility had when it began operations.

First Appellate District Denies Initial Study Noise Level Challenge to Transitional Housing Project Based on Non-Expert Analysis

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

Construction crews begin the building transformation from hospital to youth center. (Bruce Robinson, KRCB)

In Jensen v. City of Santa Rosa (2018) 23 Cal.App.5th 877, the First Appellate District held that noise impacts from a proposed youth center and transitional housing project were properly analyzed and approved with a negative declaration (ND) where the City of Santa Rosa’s (City) acoustic expert found no noise impacts above the baseline would occur as a result of the project. Appellant’s non-expert claims to the contrary did not rise to the level of substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that there would be a significant noise impact meriting preparation of an EIR.

The Dream Center Project (Project) proposed to redevelop a vacant hospital into a youth center and transitional housing for 18 to 24-year-old homeless youth and former foster care youth including youth who have been abused, are unable to afford housing, or are unable to find employment.

Project applicant filed an application for a CUP, rezoning, and design review to implement the Project plans. The City prepared a draft Initial Study/Negative Declaration. In doing so, the City contracted with a professional noise consultant to conduct a noise analysis of the site. The study concluded that the Project would not constitute a significant noise impact. The City reviewed the application and noise study and found that the Project would have no significant effect on the environment. The City approved the Project and, thereafter, Project site neighbors (Petitioners) filed suit.

Petitioners alleged that the noise impacts from recreational activities (e.g. gardening, pottery throwing) and parking lot traffic at the southern end of the Project site were significant and required preparation of an EIR. Petitioners supported these claims with reference to another noise study conducted at a neighboring convenience store whose methodology, if applied to the Project site, would demonstrate noise impacts sufficient to merit preparation of an EIR. The trial court found the claims speculative and denied the petition. Petitioners timely appealed.

The Appellate Court affirmed and refused to consider the alternative noise study proposed and interpreted by Petitioners. Petitioners’ non-expert qualitative analysis of the convenience store noise study and its methodology were not an acceptable means of analyzing noise impacts. Petitioner’s calculations were essentially opinions rendered by non-experts that rested on supposition and hypothesis, rather than fact, expert opinion, or reasonable inference. As such, Petitioners failed to present substantial evidence supporting a fair argument.

Further, the Court held, Petitioners concerns about noise from parking traffic and recreational activities were unfounded as the Project plans and conditions for approval specifically mitigated noise impacts. Noise from parking in the south lot was mitigated as only staff were allowed to park there; residents and deliveries were prohibited from using anything but the northern parking lot. Petitioners’ claims that recreation activity noise would rise to a level of significance were also meritless as activities on the half basketball court, community garden, and pottery throwing space were explicitly limited to daytime hours.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s holding.

Key Point:

When attempting to rebut the validity of an independent noise analysis for a project’s Initial Study, is it imperative to use expert analysis. Additionally, comparison of two unrelated Initial Study results (even if the sites are nearby) will likely fall short of Court-accepted scientific evidence.

First District Court of Appeal Finds Project Description, Downstream GHG Emissions Analysis, and Existing Train Hazards Analysis Sufficient, Upholds Oil Recovery Project RFEIR

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

An oil refinery against the evening sky (Michael Mep)

In Rodeo Citizens Association v. County of Contra Costa (2018) 22 Cal.App.5th 214, the First District Court of Appeal held the project description, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions analysis, and hazard impact analyses for upgrades to an oil refinery project were sufficient under CEQA therefore, Contra Costa County (County) properly approved the project. Despite this, the trial court writ of mandate setting aside the project remained intact until certain air quality analyses were complete.

Phillips 66 Company (Phillips) applied for a permit to upgrade the facility and operations at an existing oil refinery propane recovery plant (Project). Specifically, the Project would add to and modify existing facilities to enable Phillips to recover butane and propane from its refinery and ship it by rail. After circulating the draft EIR and responding to comments, the County approved a recirculated final EIR (RFEIR).

Rodeo Citizens Association (Petitioners) challenged the approval on the grounds that the project description was inaccurate for failing to address future projects and imports, the analysis of cumulative impacts, air quality and GHG impacts were insufficient, and the RFEIR overlooked the increased risk of accidents from train derailments or explosions at project completion.

Relying on San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center v. County of Merced (2007) 149 Cal.App.4th 645, Petitioners alleged the project approval was improper because the project description was not “accurate, stable, and finite” where Phillips executives had made public comments about future projects whose impacts would run seemingly contrary to the RFEIR. The Appellate Court held even if a project applicant’s statements indicate an anticipated or potential future change to a site, petitioners must also present evidence showing a connection between the project and any intended change. None of the statements established the future projects were dependent on a change or intended change in the proposed Project.

Petitioners also claimed that the project description and RFEIR were insufficient for failing to detail the Project’s environmental impacts from purported changes to the crude oil feedstock, specifically the refining of heavier oils. The Court found that the RFEIR laid out that the Project is not dependent on a change in feedstocks and the Project only plans to utilize existing steam without any additional imports or modifications to the refinery. Thus, substantial evidence in the record supported the conclusion that the Project was independent of any purported change in the crude oil feedstock used at the refinery and would not increase its present capacity to refine heavier oils.

The Court upheld the lead agency’s description of the Project and concluded that Petitioners failed to provide evidence that the lead agency’s approval of the Project inappropriately approved any potential future changes not included in the Project description.

Next, the Court found the GHG considerations detailed in the RFEIR were “reasonable” under the circumstances; environmental review documents may find a project’s contribution to GHG emissions will be less than cumulatively considerable if there is sufficient showing that the Project is part of the State’s solution to climate change. While Petitioners claimed that the RFEIR failed to consider GHG emissions resulting from the combustion of project-captured propane and butane sold to downstream users, such a claim misconstrued the situation. Phillips considered downstream users in the RFEIR but was unable to definitively pinpoint the buyers’ uses. Indeed, the Court highlighted, propane and butane are low-GHG emitting gasolines mostly used in place of high-GHG emitting gasolines therefore reducing overall GHG emissions. An agency’s inability to quantify all down-stream emissions from project-related activities does not compel the agency to conclude that the project creates a significant and detrimental contribution to GHG impacts. Any possible negative environmental impacts were too speculative for evaluation; investigating these possibilities were beyond the County and Phillips’ responsibilities.

Finally, the Court rejected Petitioners’ allegations that the RFEIR overlooked the increased risk of accidents from train derailments or explosions as a result of the Project. In the RFEIR, Phillips properly addressed significance of the Project’s impacts without reference to existing risks posed by operation of the refinery, reasonably determined that the potential impacts were less than significant, and underscored that comparative worst case scenario analyses may reasonably consider only those impacts that have moderate or high consequence of occurrence.

The Court affirmed the trial court holding on each of these issues.

Key Point:

Project descriptions are sufficient where not misleading or inaccurate. Greenhouse gas emission considerations under CEQA may be sufficient where the project emissions are downstream and evidence supports the project aligns with statewide solutions to climate change.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Finds Minor Telecommunications Facility on Dedicated Park Land Is Not An “Unusual Circumstance” Exception to CEQA Small Facility Exemption

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

A faux eucalyptus tree cell tower stands next to a live evergreen  (Annette LeMay Burke)

In Don’t Cell Our Parks v. City of San Diego (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 338, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found that the San Diego City Charter (Charter 55) did not prohibit the City of San Diego (City) from approving a telecommunications project within real property held in perpetuity by the City for “park purposes.” The project did not create a “change in use or purpose” of the property, which would require a vote of two-thirds of City voters. Further, a dedicated park is not a “sensitive and protected resource area” for the purposes of CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2(a) unless explicitly designated as such.

Rancho Peñasquitos is an 8.5-acre park dedicated to the City in perpetuity for recreational purposes in accordance with Charter 55. Verizon filed a project application to build a wireless telecommunications facility in a corner of the park (Project), including a 35-foot tall cell tower disguised as a faux eucalyptus tree and a 250-square-foot landscaped equipment enclosure with a trellis roof. The San Diego Planning Board determined the Project was exempt from CEQA as being a small structure (CEQA Guidelines, § 15303) and approved the Project. Don’t Cell Our Parks (DCOP) filed suit against the City.

DCOP alleged that placing the facility within the park was not a permissible “park or recreational purpose” under the plain language of Charter 55. The trial court disagreed and held the Project was properly approved, exempt from CEQA as a small facility, and no unusual circumstances established an exception to the CEQA exemption. DCOP timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first turned to the language and context of Charter 55 wherein real property dedicated to the City without an ordinance or statute explicitly guiding its management may be used for any public purpose deemed necessary by the City. Voter approval is only required where a project would “change the use or purpose” of a dedicated park. After reviewing the record, the Court held the Project did not change the use or nature of the park –the facility’s faux-tree would be installed in an existing stand of trees and the structure would be shrouded by native plants. The Court also found that the construction of the wireless facility would “clearly benefit park visitors” by providing greater access to 911 services. In sum, the Court deferred to the City’s interpretation of its Charter.

The Court rejected all of DCOP’s arguments that the project was erroneously approved as a Class 3 categorical exemption from CEQA.

The Court found that the Project qualified for the Class 3 exemption (CEQA Guidelines, § 15303), rejecting Petitioners’ claims that telecommunications are not explicitly listed in the statute. The Court noted that exemption categories are not exclusive and that the exemption is meant to apply to multiple types of small facilities. Here, the Project is roughly 523 square feet, most of which are faux tree branches. Substantial evidence supported the City’s conclusion that the Project was smaller than the examples listed in Section 15303 such as a store, motel, or family residence. Thus, the Project was properly a Class 3 exemption.

Second, the Court addressed DCOP’s claim that an unusual circumstances exception applied per CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2(c). The two-pronged test in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley, (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, provided that determining an unusual circumstance exists is a factual inquiry and the Court reviews this claim under the deferential substantial evidence standard of review. If there is evidence of an unusual circumstance, and no substantial evidence to the contrary, then the Court examines the record for evidence whether the unusual circumstance results in a potentially significant impact to the environment. In this second part of the Court’s review, the Court applies the fair argument standard of review. Here, DCOP failed to satisfy either of these standards.

The Court held that the Project’s location in a dedicated park was not an unusual circumstance as 37 other similar facilities existed in other dedicated parks in the City. In the State, many similar cell towers and reception boxes have been unsuccessfully challenged for being placed in parks and subsequently permitted. The record included sufficient evidence to show that the Project location was not an unusual circumstance.

Next, the Court rejected DCOP’s claim that the park was environmentally sensitive land. An exception exists where a project “may impact [] an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern where designated, precisely mapped, and officially adopted pursuant to law by federal, state, or local agencies.” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(a).) DCOP presented no evidence that the park was “designated” as an “environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern” by any federal, state, or local agency. The City’s general plan designation and zoning of the Project site as a park was insufficient to support such a finding. In fact, the record included a biological resource report created by the City for the project approval, which showed that the area where the Project was proposed for construction was mostly disturbed habitat.

The Court affirmed the trial court judgement.

Key Point:

The list of project types set forth in the Class 3 exemption is not exhaustive.  In evaluating whether a project is covered by the exemption, a court may consider whether the project is similar in size or scope to other project types listed in the exemption.

First District Court of Appeals Affirms, Remands LA Railyard Project FEIR, Attorney General Exempt from Exhaustion Requirements, CEQA Analyses Must Be Presented to Adequately Inform

Friday, January 12th, 2018

The Port of Los Angeles meets the Pacific Ocean waters at sunrise (Pete)

In City of Long Beach v. City of L.A. (2018) 19 Cal.App. 5th 465,

The First District Court of Appeal concluded that the Port of Los Angeles (Port) Project description was accurate, not misleading, and did not result in piecemealing. As such, the Court affirmed in part and remanded in part a judgement setting aside the City of Los Angeles (City) and Real Party in Interest BNSF Railway Company (BSNF) (collectively Appellants) final EIR related to BNSF’s railyard construction project. The Court also found that the Attorney General has no obligation to exhaust administrative remedies.

At the Port, shipping containers are loaded onto trains at railyard facilities for transport across the Country. The Port is currently served by one “near-dock” railyard facility. Trucks take some containers to “off-dock” railyards, like BSNF’s current facility (Hobart Yard) twenty-four miles from the Port. BSNF proposed a new 153-acre near-dock railyard approximately four miles from the Port, diverting traffic headed to Hobart Yard and increasing the volume of cargo transported in the Port-railway interface (Project).

In 2005, the Port staff issued an initial study and NOP and, later, a supplemental NOP. In 2011, they released a draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project. In response to public comment, the Port staff revised major portions of the draft and released a revised draft EIR in September 2012 for 45-day public review. Thereafter, a final EIR (FEIR) was issued, identifying significant unavoidable environmental impacts on air quality, noise, GHG emissions, and traffic. Following public review, the board of harbor commissioners certified the FEIR and approved the Project. The resolution was appealed to the Los Angeles City Council, which affirmed certification of the EIR and approval of the Project.

Seven suits were filed in multiple Counties. The Attorney General intervened on one. The trial court, after consolidating the petitions, set aside the certification of the FEIR and project approval. Specifically, the trial court found the FEIR project description and analysis of growth-inducing impacts, cumulative impacts, noise, traffic, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigation measures were inadequate. Appellants timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first addressed the Attorney General’s intervention. Appellants alleged the Attorney General failed to abide by exhaustion requirements because he/she did not raise the issues in the administrative hearing that he/she brought in the intervening action. Indeed, no party had raised the claims. The Court found that neither a plain reading of Public Resources Code section 21177’s exhaustion requirements nor the legislative history supported applying the section’s requirements to the Attorney General. The Court found that the Attorney General need not be a party in the administrative hearings nor is he/she limited to raising issues raised during the administrative proceedings because he/she is specifically exempt from both identity and issue exhaustion requirements. (Pub. Res. Code, § 21177 (d).)

The Court next considered the adequacy of the project description. The Court agreed with the trial court that the FEIR project description was sufficient because it was not “misleading or inaccurate.” Unlike San Juaquin Raptor Rescue Center v. County of Merced (2007) 149 Cal.App.4th 645, the project description at issue in this case did not send any “conflicting signals to decision makers about the nature and scope of the Project” as no part of the FEIR suggested the overall rail capacity would remain unchanged.

The Court then addressed claims that the FEIR failed to address indirect physical changes to the original off-dock railyards. CEQA requires consideration of all “reasonably foreseeable” indirect environmental effects. Here, substantial evidence in the form of worldwide and domestic intermodal business studies supported the City’s conclusion that a predicted amount of economic growth could occur with or without the Project. While the proposed near-dock site would increase the cargo capacity of the Port, because the Project would retire an equal amount of use at the Hobart site and growth would occur regardless of the Project, the Project did not increase the demand or volume of cargo at the Port, it merely changed the place at which the cargo is distributed. The Court found this analysis was adequate.

The Court upheld the conclusion of the trial court that the FEIR failed to adequately inform decision makers and neighbors about the concentration of pollutants in the project vicinity. Despite Appellant’s claim that it performed worst-case-scenario analyses and disclosed air quality concentration impacts, the information was spread throughout the FEIR, never analyzed or discussed, and did not disclose the frequency of significant concentration occurrences. The Court stated that the FEIR was deficient because it did not disclose or estimate how frequently and for what length of time the level of particulate air pollution in the area would exceed the standard of significance—e.g., the duration of the worst case scenario.

The Court was careful to state it did not agree with the trial court’s determination that the composite emissions or the methodology was misleading, but the analysis was instead incomplete because a reader could not compare air pollution concentrations at any given point in time. The Court determined that this deficiency rendered the public and decision makers unable to consider alternatives or mitigation measures, or balance competing considerations before adopting a statement of overriding considerations.

Further, the Court held while the cumulative impact analysis of noncancerous health risks was sufficient, the discussion of cumulative air quality impacts failed to be a “good faith and reasonable disclosure” for the same reasons detailed above. Finally, the Court upheld the FEIR’s GHG analysis, noting that the Project relocating shipping activities twenty miles closer to the ship yard would result in less emissions than not building the Project at all.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to set aside certification of the FEIR and suspend project activities until the City could bring ambient air pollutant concentrations and cumulative impacts analysis into CEQA compliance. The Court reversed the trial court’s judgements on the GHG emissions, noise, transportation and cumulative impact (for noncancerous health risks only).

The Court affirmed in part and remanded in part for further proceedings.

Key Point:

An EIR must display statistical and quantitative reports in a manner which can be understood and easily accessed by laypersons. Although the information may be present in documents, if it cannot be fairly compared and understood (here, it was spread throughout thousands of pages), it will likely not stand up to a CEQA challenge.

The Attorney General is exempt from CEQA identity and issue exhaustion requirements.

Second District Court of Appeal Upholds Interlocutory Remand in Shopping Center Project Challenge, Clarifies General Plan Relationship with Projects

Monday, July 31st, 2017

Plans for the Corral de Tierra Neighborhood Retail Village (Hart Howerton)

In The Highway 68 Coalition v. County of Monterey (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 883, the Sixth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court and upheld the County’s approval of a shopping center proposed by Omni Resources LLC (“Omni”), known as the Corral de Tierra Neighborhood Retail Village (“Project”).

The Project, proposed for construction on eleven acres of land located at the intersection of Highway 68 and Corral de Tierra Road in Monterey County, consists of ten retail buildings, including a grocery store, a two-story office building, and other retail spaces for a sporting goods store, bank, florist, mail store, post office branch, or a barber/beauty salon.

After the Board of Supervisors certified an EIR and approved the project in February 2012, the plaintiff sued the County, alleging failure to comply with CEQA. The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s claims of CEQA violations, but issued an order of interlocutory remand to allow the County to clarify whether the Project was consistent with the County’s general plan requirement that the Project have a long-term, sustainable water supply.

On remand, the Board adopted a resolution finding that the Project was consistent with the County’s general plan. In March 2015, the plaintiff filed its opening brief, contending that the County violated both CEQA and procedural due process during the remand proceedings. In 2015, the trial court again held for the County and Omni.

In the published portion of the opinion, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the trial court erred in issuing an interlocutory remand. According to plaintiff, where an agency abused its discretion, the only allowable procedure, as provided by Public Resources Code (“PRC”) section 21168.9, was an order compelling compliance with CEQA. The court found that the mandate procedures in PRC section 21168.9 did not apply because the issue of whether a proposed project was consistent with a county’s general plan was not a CEQA issue. Citing Voices of the Wetlands v. State Water Resources Control Board (2011) 52 Cal.4th 499, the court concluded that the trial court’s choice to issue an interlocutory remand was eminently practical and well within the court’s inherent power. Because there was a single, discrete non-CEQA issue of general plan consistency that required clarification before the County’s approval of the Project could be upheld, the court concluded interlocutory remand was proper in this case.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s contention that the EIR failed to analyze whether the project was consistent with the County’s 2010 general plan. The court found that, although CEQA requires an analysis of general plan inconsistency, CEQA does not require an analysis of general plan consistency. The court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the County’s finding on interlocutory remand that the project was consistent with the County’s general plan and had a long-term sustainable water supply was not supported by substantial evidence.

Key Point:

The Sixth District Court of Appeal found that PRC section 21168.9 addresses CEQA issues, and is not applicable to an inquiry into whether or not a proposed project is consistent with a county’s general plan. The Court also held that interlocutory remand is proper where there is a single, discrete, non-CEQA issue of general plan consistency that the trial court determined required clarification before approval of a proposed project.

California Supreme Court Holds EIRs Must Analyze Impacts to ESHA

Monday, July 24th, 2017

In Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach, (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918, the California Supreme Court unanimously held that the City’s EIR prepared for the Newport Banning Ranch (NBR) project was inadequate, finding that it failed to identify potential “environmentally sensitive habit areas” (ESHAs) under the California Coastal Act (“Act”) and analyze the project’s impacts to those areas.

The Banning Ranch site is an undeveloped, 400-acre plot of land containing oil field facilities and wildlife habitat. The project site, located in the City’s “sphere of influence,” falls in the “coastal zone” under the Act. NBR proposed to develop the site with up to 1,375 residential units, 75,000 square feet of retail, and 75 hotel rooms.

After the City announced in its notice of preparation that the project site included areas that might be defined as ESHAs, numerous public comments were submitted urging the City to discuss potential ESHAs in the EIR. The City refused to do so, contending that it had no legal authority to determine if the areas were ESHA, despite the fact that it knew that the California Coastal Commission (“Commission”) staff had preliminarily determined that the project site contained ESHAs.

In July 2012, the City certified the FEIR and approved the NBR project master plan. Subsequently, Banning Ranch Conservancy (BRC) challenged the project approval, raising two issues. First, BRC claimed that the EIR failed to identify areas that might qualify as ESHAs and account for those areas in its analysis of project alternatives and mitigation measures. Second, BRC contended that the City violated its obligation under the general plan to work with the Commission to identify wetlands and habitats to be protected from development.

The trial court rejected BRC’s CEQA claim, but found that the City had not complied with their general plan obligations. The Fourth Appellate District affirmed on the CEQA issue, but reversed on the trial court’s general plan findings because the general plan did not require the City to work with the Commission before project approval.

Reversing the Fourth Appellate District’s holding related to BRC’s CEQA claim, the Supreme Court held that CEQA requires an EIR to identify areas that might qualify as ESHAs. Further, rejecting the City’s argument that CEQA imposes no duty to consider the Act’s ESHA requirements, the Court noted that the lead agency should integrate CEQA review with its project approval process. In addition, the Court held that an EIR must lay out any competing views put forward by the lead agency and other interested agencies. Finally, the Court held that it did not need to address the general plan issue because BRC was found to be entitled to relief on its CEQA claims.

Key Point:

The lead agency must identify a potential ESHA through consultation and discuss their ramifications for mitigation measures and project alternatives in the EIR when there is credible evidence that an ESHA might be present on the project site. The Court provided that whether an EIR has omitted “essential information” is a procedural question subject to de novo review, without clarifying exactly what is deemed “essential information” required to be analyzed under CEQA. Thus, the Court’s holding in this case raises a question of whether an EIR must address other similar statutory schemes relevant to the project, such as the California Fish and Game Code, the California and federal Endangered Species Acts, the federal Clean Water Act, and other statutory requirements administered by the responsible, trustee, or interested agency.

Second District Court of Appeal Rejects Challenge to CEQA-Exempt Lighting Project on Procedural Grounds

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Light emitting diode (LED) fixtures illuminate a parking lot

In The Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 993, the Second District Court of Appeal addressed an appeal centered on challenge to the City of Los Angeles’ lighting project, and held that plaintiff’s attempt to invoke Code of Civil Procedure (“CCP”) section 473, subdivision (b) was improper due to insufficient evidence.

In September 2014, the plaintiff challenged the approval of a City of Los Angeles’ bureau of street lighting project’s use of light emitting diode replacement lights, which the City claimed was exempt from formal environmental review under CEQA. The plaintiff failed to lodge the administrative record as required pursuant to a stipulation. On July 8, 2015, the trial court denied the plaintiff’s request for a continuance because the record had not been lodged. The trial court also denied the plaintiff’s petition and complaint because the plaintiff could not support its arguments due to its failure to lodge the administrative record.

On August 26, 2015, the plaintiff moved to vacate the judgment under CCP section 473, subdivision (b), asserting that both discretionary and mandatory relief should be granted based on its attorney’s sworn affidavit in which he admitted neglect in failing to lodge the administrative record. The trial court denied discretionary relief because the plaintiff’s counsel’s mistake – failing to check to see if his assistant actually lodged the administrative record due to his hectic workload – did not rise to the level of excusable neglect. The trial court granted mandatory relief, however, finding that the mistake of plaintiff’s attorney deprived plaintiff of its day in court and explaining that it had ruled on the merits only because it was under the mistaken impression that the incomplete record had been lodged by plaintiff, when in fact it had been lodged by the City.

On appeal, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the trial court erred in granting the mandatory relief. The mandatory relief provision in CCP section 473, subdivision (b) only applies to a default, a default judgment, or a dismissal. In this case, the court found the mandatory relief provision did not apply. Plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to meet its burden of proof because it never lodged the administrative record.  The judgement was therefore on the merits and not a default, default judgment, or dismissal.

Key Point:

The Second District Court of Appeal found that the grant of mandatory relief under CCP section 473, subdivision (b) is improper when plaintiff fails to present sufficient evidence and does not meet the burden of proof.

Court of Appeal Views Appellants’ Failure to Present and Discredit Evidence favorable to the Agency as a Concession that Substantial Evidence Does In Fact Support Agency

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

In an unpublished decision, El Pueblo Para El Aire Y Agua Limpio v. Kings County Board of Supervisors, 2012 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4984, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and El Pueblo Para El Aire y Agua Limpio (collectively appellants) sued the Kings County Board of Supervisors (County) alleging that the County’s approval of a project to expand an existing hazardous waste disposal facility violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Appellants also presented civil rights causes of action under Government Code sections 11135, 12955, and 65008. The Fifth Appellate District Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court, finding that the CEQA claim was properly rejected and upholding demurrers to the civil rights causes of action.

The court first concluded that appellants’ claims of CEQA noncompliance were not persuasive. Appellants attacked the County’s final subsequent environmental impact report (FSEIR) in three respects: (1) the health-related impacts were not sufficiently analyzed; (2) the daily truck traffic baseline used was inflated; and (3) the cumulative impacts analysis did not include all the relevant information and was thus underestimated. Pertaining to the first claim, appellants alleged that the County did not have sufficient information to judge the project’s true impacts on public health, the County should have conducted an additional health survey, and the County had an obligation to reexamine the project’s impacts due to new information brought to light by the Greenaction health study.

The court first explained that appellants had waived their claims by failing to adhere to the well-established principle that when an appellant is challenging an EIR for insufficient evidence, the appellant must lay out the evidence favorable to the other side and then show why it is lacking. Appellants’ failure to present all the evidence was viewed by the court as a “concession” that there was, in fact, substantial evidence to support the County’s findings.

The court next held that the County properly refused to conduct an additional health test as requested by appellants. “CEQA does not require a lead agency to conduct every test … recommended or demanded by commentors” (El Pueblo Para El Aire Y Agua Limpio v. Kings County Board of Supervisors, 2012 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4984 at 47). Since the court found that the FSEIR reflected an adequate, good faith effort to ascertain the project’s potential impacts on public health, the court concluded that the County did not need to conduct an additional test. The court further explained that the county’s response to the requests for an additional test adequately explained why the County had refused to conduct another test, supporting the County’s decision with substantial evidence.

Lastly, the court explained that the County did not need to recirculate its EIR. Appellants’ argument rested on their belief that the Greenaction health survey presented new information, thus changing the environmental setting of the project from the one analyzed in the FSEIR. However, using the CEQA definition of “environmental setting,” which is “the surrounding physical conditions such as topography, air quality, plant life and water resources,” the court concluded that since the information from the survey was about birth defects, there was no change in the project’s environmental setting. (Id. at 61-62). There was no new information presented, therefore the County’s decision not to recirculate the DSEIR was supported by substantial evidence as well.

Appellants’ second and third claims that the truck traffic baseline and the cumulative impacts analyses were inadequate under CEQA were both rejected by the court under the exhaustion doctrine. By failing to raise the two claims either during the administrative proceedings or in the appeal letter, the court explained that these claims were forfeited due to appellants’ failure to exhaust all the available administrative remedies before bringing the suit to court.

The court also addressed non-CEQA, civil rights causes of action under Government Code sections 11135, 12955, and 65008. All three of these causes of action were rejected. The court explained that the appellants were trying to use the statutes in situations that were beyond their scope as defined by each statute itself along with interpretations used by other courts in previous cases. Therefore, the trial court’s holding and the County’s approval of the expansion of the hazardous waste site were reaffirmed.

Written By: Tina Thomas, Ashle Crocker and Grant Taylor (law clerk)
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For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

Newly Published Appellate Decision Holds Analysis of Parkland Impacts for Campus Master Plan Fails to Comply with CEQA

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

The City of Hayward v. Board of Trustees of the California State University, 2012 Cal. App. LEXIS 761, publication status was recently changed from unpublished to published on June 28, 2012. The Board of Trustees of the California State University (Trustees) approved a master plan to guide the expansion of the Hayward campus. The City of Hayward (City) sued claiming the Trustees’ environmental impact report (EIR) violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by failing to analyze the impacts of the master plan on fire protection and public safety, traffic and parking, air quality, and parklands. The California First Appellate District Court found that Trustees’ EIR was adequate under CEQA in all respects except with regard to the analysis of impacts on surrounding parklands.

Trustees’ master plan requires an increase of fire services, either with the expansion or construction of a firehouse. The court held that the EIR adequately analyzed the impacts of the construction. Due to the small area required for a new firehouse along with its urban location, the court also held that the EIR appropriately concluded that the environmental impacts of expanded fire services would be less than significant. Therefore, the court explained, no mitigation measures were required. The court further concluded that it found no deficiency in the EIR’s analysis of cumulative impacts on public services.

The court next addressed the issues of traffic and parking. With the expansion of the college campus comes the need for more faculty. The Trustees’ master plan acknowledged the high cost of housing in California, and therefore explored potential locations to build affordable faculty housing. The EIR conducted an analysis and concluded that construction of faculty housing will not have a significant environmental impact as a result of increased traffic or parking. The court held this conclusion and analysis as sufficient under CEQA, explaining that since the Trustees prepared a program EIR as opposed to a project EIR, they properly evaluated cumulative impacts but deferred site-specific analysis of possible impacts on traffic until a later time. The court next examined the Trustees’ mitigation measures. With the main goal of shifting commuters out of single-occupant cars and into cleaner modes of transportation, the court found “no deficiency” in the way the EIR considered impacts of the master plan on parking and traffic, incorporated mitigation measures, and reached the conclusion that some environmental impacts are unavoidable. Lastly, the City claimed that the Trustees’ EIR failed to include a “mitigation measure … providing for the University to pay its fair share of traffic improvements.” City of Hayward, 2012 Cal. App. LEXIS 761 at 61. Since the City did not raise this issue in its opening brief, the court declined to address it because the argument had been waived.

Pertaining to impacts on air quality, the court supported the Trustees’ EIR. While the EIR concluded that the master plan would produce long-term emissions of pollutants, it presented transportation mitigation measures that would reduce some, though not all, emissions to a less than significant level. Since neither the trial court nor the City suggested other mitigation measures, the court held this portion of the Trustees’ EIR to be sufficient.

Analysis of the impacts on parklands was the one area the court found the EIR to be inadequate. Due to the proximity of two parks to the campus, the court explained that the EIR must do more than simply reference insignificant impacts on the East Bay Regional Park System. The Trustees’ EIR should rather analyze impacts on the two parks specifically. The court also held that the Trustees’ reliance on “long-standing use patterns” was done in error. Since the EIR made no attempt to determine the extent to which the current student body uses the parks or to extrapolate from that data as to what park usage might be in the future, there was no evidence to support Trustees’ assumption that the student use of the parks would remain nominal even after campus expansion.

Key Point:

The court found that the Trustees’ EIR inadequately analyzed the master plan’s impacts on parklands because, due to the proximity of the two parks, an analysis of impacts on the regional park system in general was too broad. The court also made clear that to support findings and analyses in an EIR, there needs to be concrete evidence; the Trustees should have attempted to ascertain the overall usage and capacity of the two nearby parks.

Written By: Tina Thomas, Chris Butcher and Holly McMannes (law clerk)
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For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.