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CEQA Updates

Keeping You Up-to-Date on the California Environmental Quality Act

Posts Tagged ‘Procedure’


CEQA Claims Separate from Municipal Code Claims Subject to More-Specific Public Resources Code Timing

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

California Oak trees, like those to be removed by PG&E in the project at issue, are pictured in the City of Lafayette, California. (Lisa White/East Bay Times)

In Save Lafayette Trees v. City of Lafayette (2018) 28 Cal. App. 5th 622, the First District Court of Appeal held that a letter of agreement for removal of protected trees was the equivalent of a permit under the municipal code and, therefore, challenges to its approval were subject to the filing and service limitations of Government Code section 65009(c)(1)(E) (Section 65009). However, CEQA claims related to the approval were subject to the more specific filing and service limitations in Public Resources Code sections 21167 and 21167.6.

On March 27, 2017, the City of Lafayette (City) approved a letter of agreement for removal of up to 272 trees in the local natural gas pipeline right-of-way by Real Party in Interest PG&E. On June 26, 2017 petitioners Save Lafayette Trees, Michael Dawson, and David Kosters (collectively Save Lafayette) filed a petition challenging the City’s action. The petition was served on the City on the next day.

The petition alleged that the City (1) failed to comply with CEQA; (2) violated the substantive and procedural requirements of the planning and zoning law, the city’s general plan, and the City’s tree ordinances; (3) violated the due process rights of the individual petitioners by failing to provide sufficient notice of the agreement review hearing; and (4) proceeded in excess of its authority and abused its discretion in completing each action.

PG&E filed a demurrer to the petition on the grounds that it was barred by Section 65009, which requires that an action regarding a zoning permit be filed and served within 90 days of the decision. Save Lafayette failed to meet this requirement by serving the City on the 91st day. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend and dismissed the petition. Save Lafayette timely appealed.

Reviewing de novo, the Appellate Court affirmed the demurrer in part and reversed in part. First, the Court set out that the filing and service limitations in Section 65009 are “to provide certainty for property owners and local governments regarding decisions by local agencies made pursuant to [the] planning and zoning law.” Further, the statute applies to all matters listed in the Section, including permits and variances when the applicable zoning ordinance provides. This interpretation, the Court clarified, “is to be applied broadly to all types of challenges to permits and permit conditions, as long as the challenge rests on a ‘decision’ of a local authority.”

Next, the Court outlined that, under the City’s municipal code, a permit is required for the removal of protected trees. An applicant may seek an exception when the tree must be removed “to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of the community.” The agreement approved by the City is to remove trees thus there is “no meaningful difference between [the agreement and a permit] in this instance.” Therefore, contrary to Save Lafayette’s contentions, the agreement “falls squarely within the scope of [Section 65009].”

Save Lafayette claimed that Section 65009 was only intended to apply to permits and variances related to relieving the state housing crisis and, thus, did not apply. The Court disagreed because courts have applied the statute to challenges in a broad range of local zoning and planning decisions.

The Court also dismissed Save Lafayette’s claim that the City was not the proper reviewing body for the statute. Save Lafayette claimed that the City was not explicitly listed as a legislative body whose actions were subject to Section 65009. Citing relevant precedent, the Court held that it is “the underlying decision being reviewed [that] determines the applicability of Section 65009,” not the body deciding it.

Save Lafayette claimed that the 180-day statute of limitations provided in the City’s Municipal Code applies here. The Court disagreed because “[i]nsofar as Section 65009 applies to the present action and expressly conflicts with the local ordinance, it preempts the local ordinance.”

Save Lafayette also argued that it should be excused from compliance with Section 65009 as the City failed to provide written notice of the approval prior to the meeting, as required by Government Code section 65905 and the due process clause of the Constitution. The Court held that the City complied with the Brown Act and provided adequate notice as Save Lafayette failed to present any facts to support a conclusion that they were entitled to personal service.

Finally, the Court held that the CEQA cause of action was timely filed and served and therefore reversed and remanded as to the CEQA cause of action. Relying on Royalty Carpet Mills, Inc. v. City of Irvine (2005) 125 Cal.App.4th 1110, the Court held “when two statutes relate to the same subject, the more specific one will control unless they can be reconciled.” Section 65009 and Public Resources Code sections 21167 and 21167.6 relate to the same subject, the time period for service. In Royalty Carpet, the court held that the shorter statute of limitation and service requirement set forth in Public Resources Code sections 21167(b) and 21167.6(a) do not require automatic dismissal and, therefore, can be harmonized with the 90-day service requirement set forth in Section 65009(c)(1)(E). Here, however, the Court concluded the longer 180-day requirement set forth in Public Resources Code section 21167(a) applied and that requirement could not be reconciled with Section 65009(c)(1)(E)’s shorter 90-day service requirement. As a result, unlike in Royalty Carpet, the two applicable statutory provisions could not be reconciled. Because the applicable statutory provisions could not be reconciled, the more specific Public Resources Code provisions set forth in Public Resources Code sections 21167(b) and 21167.6(a) prevailed.  Therefore, the Court concluded that Save Lafayette’s CEQA claims were timely.

The Court affirmed the trial court ruling in part, sustaining the demurrer as to the second, third, and fourth causes of action, and reversed in part, finding the demurrer improper as the CEQA cause of action.

Key Point:

The more-specific filing and service timing requirements of the Public Resources Code apply to CEQA claims rather than the service and timing requirements in the Government Code.

Petition by Collective Citizens Groups Barred by Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel Where Individual Group Received Previous Final Judgement on Same Project Issues

Friday, September 14th, 2018

Highland Hills, San Bernardino and site of the Highland Hills Project (Jim Nunn)

In The Inland Oversight Committee v. City of San Bernardino (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 771, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgement entered by the trial court sustaining a demurrer without leave to amend, holding that a mandate action brought by The Inland Oversight Committee (IOC), CREED-21, and the Highland Hills Homeowners Association (HOA) alleging CEQA and Water Code violations was barred by res judicata based on the final judgment in the HOA’s prior related CEQA action and failure to state a claim.

The Court’s opinion involved challenges to modifications to the Highland Hills Project (Project), a 541-acre mixed use development in the City of San Bernardino (City). The specific plan and associated EIR were originally approved in 1982. Subsequent amendments to the Project and challenges to those amendments resulted in an agreement. As relevant here, the agreement’s second addendum (Second Addendum) permitted “minor modifications” to the Project, defined as those resulting in development with the same or less intense environmental impacts from a CEQA standpoint, could be approved as “ministerial acts” by the City’s development director without further planning commission involvement.

In 2014, Real Party in Interest First American Title Insurance Company (First American), the developer’s successor in interest, applied for modified construction plans that (1) further reduced the total number of units; (2) eliminated commercial uses, including a convenience store and golf course; (3) increased park acreage and protected an important ridge line by eliminating higher-elevation development; and (4) substantially reduced the Project’s  footprint and impact on jurisdictional streams and wetlands. The City’s development director adopted and made findings from an independent environmental consultant’s report that these were “minor modifications” in line with the Second Addendum. The City rejected appeals by the HOA and approved the modifications. The City filed a motion in the trial court requesting confirmation the proposed changes complied with the terms of the Second Addendum. The trial court granted the motion. The HOA timely appealed.

In an unpublished 2017 decision, the Court of Appeal held that the HOA “failed to demonstrate either that the City eliminated any mitigation measures without due consideration or that there was a lack of substantial evidence supporting the City’s conclusion that the [Project modifications] would have equally intense or less intense environmental impacts than the unmodified [Project].”

The IOC, joined by CREED-21 and the HOA, filed suit in 2015 challenging the approval of the minor modifications by the City for being illegal under CEQA and the Water Code. The trial court sustained the City and First American’s demurrer without leave to amend on the grounds that the issues were moot by the principle of res judicata. The IOC, CREED-21, and the HOA collectively appealed.

Addressing the doctrine of res judicata, the Appellate Court found that a valid final judgement on the merits bars subsequent action by the parties “or their privities on the same cause of action.” Identical causes of action are those that involve the same “primary right.” For CEQA cases, res judicata is limited; “if two actions involve the same general subject matter but involve two distinct episodes of purported noncompliance, the doctrine of res judicata does not apply.” Applying these principles, the Court held that the IOC, CREED-21, and the HOA’s CEQA claim was the same one asserted in the related action brought only by the HOA and resolved in 2017. Specifically, the claims in both are that the City violated CEQA by failing to conduct further environmental review by treating First American’s proposal as “minor modifications” under the Second Addendum. The HOA litigated the claim and lost, receiving a final judgement on arguments that were specifically alleged in the action brought by the three groups together.

The Court then turned to principles of collateral estoppel. Privity is found where “a relationship between the party to be estopped and the unsuccessful party in the prior litigation is “sufficiently close” so as to justify application of collateral estoppel. Thus, the Court likewise barred the same CEQA claim as asserted by the IOC, CREED-21, and the HOA together because the entities are in privity with the HOA. Such a relationship renders the losing litigant a “virtual representative” of the new plaintiffs where it has the “same interest” as them and a “strong motive” to assert it. The IOC, CREED-21, and the HOA shared the same interest in “promoting responsible land use and planning” and sought to invalidate the minor modifications. Since there was no evidence the HOA failed to zealously litigate the related matter, the IOC, CREED-21, and the HOA’s collective interests were adequately represented in the previous case.

The Court also dismissed appellants Water Code claim that asserted a Water Supply Assessment (WSA) was required for the Project modifications. While a WSA is required for certain discretionary development approvals, the Project modifications, as held above, were ministerial.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgement; the demurrer was sustained.

Key Point:

The doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel prevent citizens’ groups from collectively filing a lawsuit with the same issues that one of the groups had previously received a final judgment on.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Upholds Environmental Review of Master-Planned Community, Finds Project Changes After Tentative Approval Non-Actionable

Friday, September 15th, 2017

The Keller Crossing Specific Plan Project map (Riverside County Planning Department)

In Residents Against Specific Plan 380 v. County of Riverside (2017) 9 Cal.App.5th 941, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court and upheld the County’s approval of the Keller Crossing Specific Plan Project (“Project”), a master-planned community proposed by Hanna Marital Trust (“Trust”). The Project proposed residential, mixed-use, commercial and open space components on approximately 200 acres of undeveloped land in the French Valley region of the County. The Project included a general plan amendment, a zoning amendment, and a specific plan (Specific Plan 380).

After finding that the Project’s air quality and noise impacts could not be reduced below the level of significance after mitigation, the County approved the Project and the plaintiffs sued, asserting the County failed to comply with procedural, informational, and substantive provisions of CEQA. The trial court held in favor of the County and the Trust.

On appeal, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the Trust and the County substantially modified the Project after the Board of Supervisors certified an EIR for the Project and approved the Project on December 18, 2012. The court explained that the administrative record clearly showed that the Board only tentatively approved the Project on December 18, 2012 and the Board approved the final version of the Project on November 5, 2013 after planning staff and the Trust had codified the plan changes discussed at the December 18, 2012 hearing.

Second, the court held that errors contained in the notice of determination did not justify unwinding the County’s approval. These errors were related to the description of the Project, such as the number of planning areas, the size of commercial office development, the number of residential units, and the acreage for residential, commercial, and mixed uses. Finding that much of the Project description in the notice was accurate, the court concluded the notice substantially complied with CEQA’s informational requirements by providing the public with the information it needed to weigh the environmental consequences of the County’s determination.

Third, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the County failed to revise and recirculate the EIR after changes were made to Specific Plan 380. The plaintiff contended these changes might cause significant traffic, biological, and noise impacts. Finding these changes related to the details of the allocation and arrangement of uses within the Project site, the court held the EIR adequately addressed potential impacts that might result from the changes to the plan.

Fourth, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the EIR failed to adequately analyze the air quality, noise, and traffic impacts from the mixed-use planning area in the Project. Specifically, the plaintiff contended that, although the EIR analyzed the impacts of development of a continuing care retirement community (“CCRC”) in the mixed-use planning area, the EIR failed to analyze the impact of higher-impact uses that could be allowed. Because the plan included a provision that uses other than a CCRC are allowed only if such uses are compatible with the adjacent planning areas and no additional environmental impacts would occur (based on review by the County) the court held that the County did not improperly defer environmental analysis of other uses.

Finally, the court held that the EIR adequately considered specific suggestions for mitigating the impact of the Project on air quality and noise levels. The court found that the Planning Department properly determined that an air quality mitigation measure proposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District – requiring all off-road diesel-powered construction equipment greater than 50 horsepower to meet Tier 3 off-road emissions standards – was not feasible because the applicant provided evidence that such equipment would not be available at the time of construction. Further, the court held that the County was not required to respond to the plaintiff’s comments in which it proposed several noise mitigation measures because they were submitted more than 14 months after the comment period ended.

Key Point:

Changes made to a project do not constitute legally actionable substantial modifications when approvals made on the project prior to modification were tentative in nature.