In Salmon Protection and Watershed Network v. County of Marin (2102) 2012 Cal.App. LEXIS 458, the court considered whether a public agency and a party disputing the adequacy of an EIR could enter into an agreement to toll the statute of limitations setting the time period for filing a CEQA lawsuit to challenge the EIR.
In 2010, Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN) filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging the EIR certified by Marin County for the county’s general plan update violated CEQA. The county had certified the EIR three years earlier, in 2007, and subsequently, SPAWN and the county entered into a series of tolling agreements, extending the thirty-day limitation period for filing a challenge to the sufficiency of the EIR. Following filing of the petition in 2010, a group of property owners with interests that could be affected by the outcome of the lawsuit intervened and moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that SPAWN’s 2010 petition was untimely because tolling agreements are invalid under CEQA, and the 30-day limitation period had expired in 2007.
Interveners argued that CEQA provisions requiring the prompt filing of complaints alleging noncompliance, and setting forth shortened time limits for the conduct of litigation evidence a legislative intent that the 30-day limitations period set forth in the Public Resources Code is mandatory and jurisdictional. Interveners therefore argued that any agreement to extend the statutory limitations period was ineffective.
While the court agreed that the CEQA limitations period serves a key policy in favor of prompt resolution of lawsuits alleging noncompliance, the court found that an equally strong public policy favoring settlement of lawsuits. The court further noted that these two policies were not irreconcilable, since in many cases, settlement will resolve the controversy much sooner than could be accomplished by following through with a full trial and appeal. The court therefore held that the tolling agreements were valid and effectively extended the CEQA limitations period.
Tolling agreements have been recognized as an effective tool in resolving litigation by all sides of a typical CEQA dispute, as evidenced by the amicus briefs filed by the League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties, California Building Industry, and Sierra Club, all arguing that the validity of tolling agreements should be upheld. This opinion decides a question that some CEQA practitioners have nonetheless considered uncertain. By answering in the affirmative, parties to a CEQA dispute may now enter into a tolling agreement during settlement negotiations with more assurance that the terms of the agreement extending the limitations period will be upheld.
Written By: Tina Thomas and Amy Higuera
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