Exemptions and "Not a Project" Determinations

Car Exhaust in TrafficOn remand from the California Supreme Court, the First Appellate District has issued its second ruling in California Building Industry Assn. v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District. In this case, CBIA challenged BAAQMD’s 2010 “CEQA Air Quality Guidelines”—specifically, the Guidelines’ thresholds and methods for assessing the effects of siting new sensitive receptors (residences) near existing sources of toxic air contaminants and other harmful air emissions, such as freeways. Last year, the California Supreme Court held that CEQA “does not generally require an agency to consider the effects of existing environmental conditions on a proposed project’s future users or residents” (so-called ‘CEQA-in-Reverse’). Requiring analysis of the existing environment’s effects on a project, the Supreme Court emphasized, would “impermissibly expand the scope of CEQA.” The Supreme Court remanded the case to the First District Court of Appeal to apply its general ruling to the specific aspects of the BAAQMD Guidelines still in dispute.

Railroad Tank CarsOn July 19, the First District Court of Appeal published its opinion in Communities for a Better Environment v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District. In this case, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and a host of other environmental groups sought to challenge a rail-to-truck facility for the transloading of crude oil permitted by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD). The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that CBE’s petition was time barred under Section 21167(d) of the Public Resources Code for failure to bring the claim within 180 days of BAAQMD’s approval of an Authority to Construct (ATC) that authorized the transloading of Bakken crude. In doing so, both courts rejected the argument by CBE that the “discovery rule” should apply in CEQA cases where, as here, there is no public notice of the approval.

Palm SpringsThe Fourth District has waded into the world of CEQA exemptions, holding that the City of Palm Springs improperly relied upon the Class 5 categorical exemption for “minor alterations in land use limitations.” However, in a confusing discussion of whether an exception to that exemption might apply, the Court seemed to ignore the Supreme Court’s guidance in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley. This marks at least the second instance in which, despite a clear ruling in Berkeley Hillside, a court of appeal has so grossly misread the Supreme Court’s ruling, which portends a confusing road ahead for categorical exemptions. (See also Paulek v. Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority (2015) 238 Cal.App.4th 583, now unpublished, which applied the wrong standard of review to the unusual circumstances exception).

In 2013, the City approved a General Plan amendment removing reference to minimum density requirements for each land use designation. The General Plan had stated that, while the maximum densities were limits, the lower thresholds represented “a minimum amount of development anticipated” in that land use designation – in other words, they were predictions, not lower bounds. The City found that the action was exempt under CEQA’s Class 5 categorical exemption for “minor alterations in land use limitations in areas with an average slope of less than 20%, which do not result in any changes in land use or density . . .”, because it was simply revising the General Plan to conform with the City’s ongoing permitting practices.

Cadiz Valley
A pilot well on Cadiz Inc. property in the Mojave Desert. Photo credit: Cadiz Inc.

In a series of sweeping opinions, the Fourth Appellate District on Tuesday, May 10, upheld the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project against six separate challenges brought by a host of environmental organizations and a salt mining operation. The Cadiz Project, initiated by the Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD) and Cadiz, Inc. in a public/private partnership, involves plans to pump native groundwater from the Fenner Valley Aquifer System in the Mojave Desert and deliver the water for municipal and industrial uses in Southern California. A later phase of the Project would include importing water for storage in the basin. With this ruling, the Cadiz Project has survived an onslaught of organized opposition. Six legal challenges were directed at overturning approvals granted by SMWD, as the CEQA lead agency, and the County, as the agency responsible for regulating the Project under the County’s own Desert Groundwater Management Ordinance.

Marijuana DispensaryLocal regulation of the medical marijuana industry has become a hot-button area of controversy. New ordinances are routinely being proposed and adopted – and then challenged in court. In a March 25 opinion filed in Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of Upland, the Fourth Appellate District weighed in on one such local dispute, holding that a city ordinance prohibiting mobile marijuana dispensaries is not a “project” subject to CEQA review, but is merely a restatement of existing law that will not cause a physical change in the environment.

In 2007, the City of Upland adopted a municipal ordinance stating that “[n]o medical marijuana dispensary . . . shall be permitted in any zone within the city,” and defining a dispensary as including any “fixed or mobile” facility or location. The City prepared and adopted a negative declaration for this ordinance, which was not challenged. In 2013, the City adopted another ordinance, which added a new chapter to the municipal code expressly stating that mobile dispensaries “are prohibited” in the City. The 2013 ordinance contained recitals asserting that such facilities were associated with criminal activity and highly likely to “flourish in the City without the adoption of this Ordinance.”