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2015 and 2016 Year2015 was a banner year for CEQA rulings by the California Supreme Court, with four decisions handed down, each of which addressed key issues in the application of the statute and its governing regulations: Berkeley Hillside clarified the application of the “unusual circumstances” exception to categorical exemptions; City of San Diego addressed the feasibility of offsite mitigation; Center for Biological Diversity set new parameters for analysis of greenhouse gas emissions; and CBIA confirmed that CEQA does not address the environment’s impact on a project.

2016 could prove to be just as important, given the five cases currently pending before the Supreme Court – ranging from one that is set for argument on May 4 to one in which the briefing was just completed on April 5:

  • Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College Dist. (review granted January 1, 2014). The San Mateo Community College District approved a change to a previously-approved campus master plan, which involved demolition of a building originally been slated to be preserved. The District relied on a previous EIR, finding that the “change” did not require major revisions to that document. In an unpublished opinion, the First Appellate District invalidated the District’s approval, holding that the District could not rely on the previous EIR because the demolition constituted a “new” project with new and potentially significant impacts. On review, the Supreme Court will address the circumstances under which public agencies must prepare subsequent EIRs when evaluating “changes” to previously-approved projects, as well as the level of deference agency decisions may receive from the courts. The case is set for argument on May 4, in San Francisco.
  • Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (review granted October 1, 2014). This case presents issues concerning the standard and scope of judicial review of an EIR under CEQA for the Friant Ranch Project, an active adult community in Fresno County. The case was fully briefed in March 2015.
  • Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority (review granted December 10, 2014). The Court will review the following issues in this case: (1) whether the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA) preempts the application of CEQA to a state agency’s proprietary acts with respect to a state-owned and funded rail line, or instead does not preempt CEQA in such circumstances under the market participant doctrine; and (2) whether the ICCTA preempts a state agency’s voluntary commitments to comply with CEQA as a condition of receiving state funds for a state-owned rail line and/or leasing state-owned property. The case was fully briefed in April 2015.
  • Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Assoc. of Governments (review granted March 11, 2015). In this case, the Court limited review to a single issue: whether an EIR for a regional transportation plan must include an analysis of the plan’s consistency with the greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reduction goals reflected in Executive Order No. S–3–05 (i.e., 80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050). The case was fully briefed in August 2015.
  • Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (review granted August 19, 2015). This case –the most recent CEQA case to be taken up by the Supreme Court – involves a challenge to an EIR for a residential and commercial development in the coastal zone. The Fourth Appellate District upheld the EIR, finding that the City complied with its general plan policy requiring it to coordinate with appropriate state and federal agencies in connection with the approval, and that the City could defer the identification of environmentally sensitive habitat areas to the California Coastal Commission so long as the EIR evaluated the project’s potential inconsistencies with the Coastal Act. The Supreme Court granted review on the following issues: (1) whether the City’s approval comports with the directives in its general plan to “coordinate with” and “work with” the Coastal Commission to identify habitat areas prior to project approval; (2) which standard of review should apply to a city’s interpretation of its general plan; and (3) whether the City was required to identify environmentally sensitive habitat areas—a legal determination under the Coastal Act—in the EIR. Briefing was completed on April 5, 2016.

All of these cases, except Friends of the Eel River, will address issues of major significance to a wide range of lead agencies and project applicants across the state. And although Friends of the Eel River directly addresses only a narrow range of state agency rail projects, the Supreme Court’s analysis could have important ramifications for preemption arguments under other federal statutes. So 2016 could be just as chock-full of key Supreme Court CEQA decisions as last year.