Since the California Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District, California appeals courts have issued a spate of decisions addressing subsequent review under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), including two in the last two months of 2016. In both cases, the appeals court upheld the agency’s decision not to undertake further environmental review. Continue Reading
On March 30, 2017, in the first of at least three CEQA rulings expected this year, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach. In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Carol Corrigan, the Court invalidated an EIR for the coastal development at Banning Ranch approved by the City of Newport Beach. Despite the fact that the EIR addressed in detail the project’s physical impacts on wetlands and sensitive habitats, the Court nevertheless held that it failed to adequately disclose and consider the controversy surrounding the potential presence of Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (“ESHA”) under the Coastal Act. This decision falls within a growing line of cases mandating inclusion of non-CEQA regulatory requirements within the confines of the CEQA environmental review process, and in a manner that places ever greater burdens on lead agencies and EIR preparers. Continue Reading
On April 13, the Second Appellate District disapproved two of its prior decisions that had expansively interpreted the availability of mandatory relief from default or dismissal under Code of Civil Procedure section 473(b). In The Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles, the court held that this mandatory relief provision did not apply to an adverse judgment at a CEQA merits hearing, resulting from plaintiff’s failure to lodge the administrative record with the court prior to the hearing.
The underlying mandate petition and complaint alleged a single cause of action challenging the City’s finding that a streetlight replacement project using LED lights was exempt from environmental review under CEQA. The parties stipulated that plaintiff would prepare the administrative record and, following certification by the City, lodge it with the trial court. However, plaintiff never lodged the certified record. At the hearing on the merits, the trial court determined that plaintiff could not present sufficient evidence to support its arguments because it failed to lodge the record. Accordingly, the trial court denied the plaintiff’s petition and complaint and entered judgment in favor of the City. Continue Reading
The Fourth District Court of Appeal recently issued its opinion in Save Our Heritage Organisation v. City of San Diego (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 154, the latest round of litigation over the site development plan for a revitalization project in San Diego’s Balboa Park, finding that, under some circumstances, a project proponent may recover attorneys’ fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5.
Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) previously challenged the project, which involved closing off parts of Balboa Park to traffic and diverting traffic via a new bridge to a parking structure, under CEQA. SOHO filed the action against the City of San Diego, as lead agency, and the Plaza de Panama Committee (“Committee”), as real party in interest. The Committee was founded to shepherd the project through the design and review process. The superior court granted SOHO’s petition for writ of mandate, and SOHO and the Committee both filed appeals on different issues. The City did not appeal. The Court of Appeal rejected SOHO’s arguments and reversed the trial court, finding that SOHO failed to demonstrate that the City had abused its discretion.
The Committee filed a motion for attorneys’ fees under Code of Civil Procedure (“CCP”) section 1021.5, arguing that it met the standard for an award of fees under that section because (1) it was a successful party, (2) the project approval it vindicated conferred a substantial benefit on the general public, and its efforts were necessary to that vindication (because the City did not appeal the adverse judgment), and (3) the cost of the appeal was greater than the Committee’s pecuniary interest in the project (in fact, it had none).
SOHO opposed the fees motion. Although SOHO did not dispute that the Committee satisfied the three-prong test set forth in CCP section 1021.5, it argued that fees are not available to project proponents because such an award would undermine the rationale behind CCP section 1021.5: promoting public interest litigation. The superior court agreed, denying the Committee’s motion.
The Court of Appeal upheld the denial of a fee award, but disagreed with the lower court’s reasoning. First, the court stated that because a “successful party” is generally understood to mean any party to litigation who achieves its objectives, project proponents are not categorically barred from obtaining fees under CCP section 1021.5. However, the court went on to conclude that fees could not be awarded against SOHO, based on a recognized exception to CCP section 1021.5 where the three-prong test is met, but the litigant against whom fees are sought “did nothing to adversely affect the public interest.” The court stated that the “relevant inquiry in cases where the defendant or real party in interest prevails in defending against litigation and seeks attorney fees from the party who initiated the litigation is whether the litigation was detrimental to the public interest because it sought to curtail or compromise important public rights.” In this case, the court answered that question in the negative.
This case seems significant at first glance but is unlikely to materially affect CEQA practice. The recovery of attorneys’ fees under CCP section 1021.5 has historically been a one-way street, with fees potentially recoverable by successful petitioners against respondents, but not the other way around. Potential fee awards against petitioners could have the effect of deterring meritless and nuisance-type lawsuits. However, the bar set by the court makes such a shift in practice unlikely. Most courts will be extremely reluctant to find that any CEQA lawsuit, even if meritless or brought by a self-interested NIMBY group, is “detrimental to the public interest because it sought to curtail or compromise important public rights.” Thus, it is unlikely we will see courts approving fee awards against CEQA petitioners any time soon.
In its February 14 decision (certified for publication on March 15) in Residents Against Specific Plan 380 v. County of Riverside, the Fourth Appellate District upheld the County of Riverside’s (“County’s”) approval of a master-planned community. The opinion provides helpful guidance for lead agencies and applicants in understanding when changes made to a project in direct response to public comments after publication of a Final EIR do not necessitate recirculation. The decision also reaffirms that where defects in a notice are not prejudicial, unwinding of the approval is not required.
The case involves a proposed 200-acre development in the French Valley region of Riverside County, containing a mixture of residential, mixed use, commercial, and open space uses (“Project”). The Project, which was proposed by the Hanna Marital Trust (“Trust”), required approval of a specific plan (known as Specific Plan 380), a general plan amendment, and a zoning change. Continue Reading
I am pleased to announce that both Christian Marsh and I will be participating in panel discussions at the Association of Environmental Professionals’ 2017 State Conference, entitled “Bridging the Gap” and taking place in San Francisco from May 18 through May 21 (view schedule of events). As stated by AEP, “the conference seeks to ‘bridge the gap’ between CEQA practitioners and the technical experts they rely on, between CEQA and planning, and among other related local, regional, statewide, and national environmental issues.” Continue Reading
On March 2, 2017, the California Supreme Court ruled in City of San Jose v. Superior Court that where a public employee uses a personal email account or texts to communicate about the conduct of public business, those writings may be subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act (“PRA”). While resolving one long-debated question in California law, this decision also raised myriad new issues, including issues that are specifically relevant to litigation under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). Continue Reading
On January 11, the California Supreme Court granted review of the Fourth Appellate District’s decision in Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 103. The two issues to be decided by the Court are as follows:
- Is the enactment of a zoning ordinance categorically a “project” within the meaning of CEQA?
- Is the enactment of a zoning ordinance allowing the operation of medical marijuana cooperatives in certain areas the type of activity that may cause a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change to the environment?
In Sierra Club v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (“TRPA”), finding that the TRPA’s final Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) for the agency’s Regional Plan Update (“RPU”) sufficiently addressed localized impacts on soil erosion and water quality. The 2012 RPU, among other things, restricted future development to areas that are already developed, and limited the extent of development in those areas. Plaintiffs, Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore, challenged the RPU’s EIS, principally arguing that the RPU failed to adequately address the localized effects of the runoff created by the plan’s permitted development, and that the RPU improperly assumed that Best Management Practices (“BMPs”) would reduce water quality impacts of concentrated development. Continue Reading
In its October 14 decision in Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego, the Fourth Appellate District weighed in for the second time this year on whether a city ordinance regulating medical marijuana dispensaries is subject to CEQA review. As in the first case, which was brought by the same petitioner (Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of Upland, decided on March 25), the appeals court held that the ordinance was not a “project” for purposes of CEQA. Continue Reading