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Introduction

On March 29, 2024, the First District Court of Appeal issued its partially published opinion in the case of Vichy Springs Resort, Inc. v. City of Ukiah (2024) 101 Cal.App.5th 46. In the published portion of the case, the Court held that the completion of a project to reconstruct a gun range (“Project”) and failure to seek preliminary injunctive relief did not moot the CEQA claims and that there was a viable claim against Mendocino County (“County”). In the unpublished portions of the case, the Court found that the trial court erred in dismissing a CEQA claim against the City of Ukiah (“City”) but upheld the dismissal of a claim arising under the Planning and Zoning law and found a declaratory relief claim to be moot. The remainder of this summary focuses on the published portion of the Court’s opinion.

Background

The City owned land outside its borders, in unincorporated Mendocino County, that it leased to the Ukiah Rifle and Pistol Club (“Real Party”). In 2017, the City issued building permits authorizing Real Party to demolish its shooting range and construct a new range. Vichy Springs Resort (“Petitioner”), a mineral springs resort and spa nearby, filed suit alleging that the City and County violated CEQA and other local ordinances. Petitioner claimed that the County had violated CEQA when it erroneously determined that it had no regulatory responsibility and allowed the Project to continue. Real Party and the County filed demurs, which the trial court sustained without leave to amend. The City subsequently filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, alleging that the agreement mooted the Petitioner’s remaining causes of action. After the trial court’s ruling in the City’s favor resolved the outstanding issues, the Petitioner appealed.

Court of Appeal

As a threshold issue, the Court held that the Project’s completion and Petitioner’s failure to seek an injunction did not moot the Petitioner’s CEQA claim. Although the Project was complete, the County could still require the Real Party to implement additional mitigation measures. Relatedly, the City could revoke the Real Party’s building permit and certificate of occupancy during the County’s environmental review. Although the Court stated that it would have been “preferable” for Petitioner to seek an injunction, it did not find the failure to moot the CEQA claim.

On the merits, the Petition argued that the County refused to comply with CEQA because it found the City to be responsible for the permitting, relying on intergovernmental immunity statutes. The County argued that no CEQA claim could be raised against it, as governmental action is outside the purview of CEQA. However, the Court concluded that CEQA still applied, as Petitioner alleged that the County had misapplied those statutes and was required to issue permits and undertake CEQA review. The Court assumed without deciding that the County had erred in applying the intergovernmental immunity statutes, as the County offered no defense of its position on appeal. As such, the Court found Petitioner to have a viable CEQA claim.

Key Point

Though some courts find the completion of a project to moot CEQA claims, others do not. Those finding a live controversy often state that a lead agency can still require a completed project to be modified or even removed. As such, project proponents facing a CEQA challenge should proceed with caution, even if the project is not enjoined.