On October 23, the First Appellate District issued its opinion in Save Lafayette Trees v. City of Lafayette et al. (Case No. A154168) finding that Save Lafayette Trees’ (“Save Lafayette”) CEQA challenge to a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) tree removal project was timely filed and served, reversing in part and affirming in part the trial court’s sustaining of a demurrer to the petition for writ of mandate (“Petition”). The Court of Appeal affirmed the dismissal of the petitioner’s remaining causes of action brought under the California Planning and Zoning Law.

Save Lafayette’s Petition challenged the City of Lafayette’s (“City”) approval of an agreement with PG&E that authorized, with conditions, the removal of up to 272 trees within PG&E’s local natural gas pipeline rights-of-way. Although the City determined the proposal was a major tree removal project requiring a tree removal permit and mitigation under the City’s municipal code, PG&E argued that it was exempt from obtaining discretionary permits, including the tree removal permits. The City and PG&E ultimately agreed to process the project under the City’s municipal code section allowing tree removal” to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of the community.” The City, however, did not conduct any CEQA review prior to approving the agreement with PG&E authorizing the project.

Save Lafayette’s Petition, which was later amended, challenged the City’s action under CEQA, the California Planning and Zoning Law, the City’s General Plan, and the City’s Tree Ordinance. Save Lafayette also included a due process claim in its Petition, arguing that the City failed to provide the individuals petitioners with written notice of the City Council meeting at which the agreement with PG&E was approved.

PG&E and the City demurred to the amended petition contending that while Save Lafayette timely filed its Petition, it did not timely serve the Petition under the 90-day statute of limitations period provided in Government Code section 65009(c)(1)(E). The trial court sustained the demurrer as to all causes of action—CEQA and non-CEQA—agreeing that Save Lafayette failed to serve its complaint within the 90-day period.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision as to the non-CEQA causes of action brought under the California Planning and Zoning Law and principles of due process, but disagreed as to Save Lafayette’s CEQA cause of action. The Court held that the CEQA challenge was timely under the more specific 180-day statute of limitations period provided by Public Resources Code sections 21167 and 21167.6, applying the general rule that when two statutes relate to the same subject, the more specific one controls unless they can be reconciled. The Court distinguished this case from Royalty Carpet Mills, Inc. v. City of Irvine (2005) 125 Cal.App.4th 1110, 1119, which involved the 30-day statute of limitations that begins running when the agency decides whether a project will have a significant impact on the environment and files a Notice of Determination. In that case, the more specific statute of limitations provided a shorter time limit so the two statutes could be reconciled. In contrast, in this case the more general statute of limitations would impermissibly reduce the period allowed for filing a CEQA action. According to the court, this conflict cannot be reconciled.