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In Bridges v. Mt. San Jacinto Community College District (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 104, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court and upheld Mt. San Jacinto Community College District’s (“College”) purchase agreement for approximately 80 acres of unimproved land in the City of Wildomar (“Property”), located about a mile southwest of Interstate 15.

Over the past 17 years, the College had considered building a new campus in southwest Riverside County to serve the growing communities along the Interstate 15 corridor. In the spring of 2003, the District entered into an option agreement to purchase the Property from the property owner, Riverside County Regional Park & Open-Space District (“District”). Subsequently, the College initiated CEQA review for the construction of a 488,000-square-foot campus intended to serve approximately 15,000 part-time and 10,000 full-time students on the Property. In May 2006, the College terminated CEQA review due to a lawsuit related to the option agreement.

On May 8, 2014, the College’s board of trustees held a public meeting to consider a motion to enter into an agreement to purchase the Property from the District for $2.455 million. In June 2014, the College and the District executed a purchase agreement for the Property, which conditioned both the opening and closing of escrow on CEQA compliance. Later, the voters approved a $295 million bond measure to upgrade and expand the College’s facilities, including the construction of facilities on the Property. The plaintiffs sued the College. The trial court held for the College.

On appeal, the court held plaintiffs were barred from raising their objection in a CEQA suit because they did not offer any comments during the meeting where the College’s board of trustees considered the purchase agreement for the Property, and therefore failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. The plaintiffs argued they were excused from the exhaustion requirement because the College did not give appropriate notice of the meeting. Finding that the May 8, 2014 meeting was a regularly scheduled meeting of the board of trustees, not a public hearing under CEQA, the court held that the College provided appropriate notice at least 72 hours in advance, as required by the Brown Act. With no evidence in the record showing that the College improperly noticed the meeting, the court held that under Evidence Code section 664, it must presume the College regularly performed its official duty, including providing proper meeting notice.

The court nonetheless addressed the merits of the plaintiff’s CEQA claims. First, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the College must issue an EIR before it signed the purchase agreement. The court explained that CEQA Guidelines section 15004, subdivision (b)(2)(A) allowed the College to enter into the purchase agreement if it conditioned its future use of the site on CEQA compliance. The court also found that the purchase agreement did not commit the College to a definite use of the Property, unlike the circumstances in Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116.

Second, the court found that the purchase agreement was not a project under CEQA, given that no development plans existed at the time the College executed the purchase agreement. Third, stating that it “bordered on the frivolous,” the court rejected plaintiff’s argument that the College was required to prepare an EIR under Public Resources Code section 21080.09, which requires a college to prepare an EIR when it selects a location for a campus and approves a long range development plan. The court reasoned that campus site selection involves more than the execution of the purchase agreement.

Key Point:

Although significant changes to a community (such as the purchase of land by a college) may be approved at regularly scheduled public meetings, the Brown Act allows for contemplation of these changes as long as the public agency provides notice to the public 72 hours before the meeting.