Petitioner challenged the City of Placentia’s (City) EIR for a proposed railroad grade separation project, claiming that the EIR was not sufficient. The trial court dismissed the case. The Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the dismissal. The Petitioner argued that because the City did not claim the project was exempt from CEQA and prepared an EIR, it had waived its right to claim the project was exempt from CEQA. The Court disagreed. The Court explained that the City did not waive its right and was not estopped from asserting the project was exempt from CEQA as a defense. Estoppel only applies to factual issues to prevent a party from denying facts that the other party relied on to its detriment. Here, the application of a CEQA exemption is a legal issue, thus estoppel did not apply. The Court further explained that estoppel cannot be used against a government entity if it would hurt a policy adopted for a public benefit. Because the Court found that the project was statutorily exempt from CEQA under Public Resources Code section 21080.13, the EIR was unnecessary.
The costs and time associated with preparing an EIR can be avoided by a statutory or categorical exemption to CEQA where applicable. A lead agency should always carefully consider whether a project is exempt from CEQA before commencing environmental review.