Posts Tagged ‘Categorical Exemptions’


CEQA and the Guidelines’ statutory and categorical exemptions streamline the environmental review process, and can play a key role in project planning and development. The philosophical underpinning of many exemptions is that the environmental impacts for some types of projects are known to be less-than-significant and the public would benefit from having them expeditiously implemented.

Public Resources Code sections 21080.2 and 21080.20.5 typify this philosophy. Comprised of two bills, A.B. 417 and A.B. 2245 (chaptered together as Stats.2013 Chapter 613), they created exemptions for bicycle transportation plans and certain bicycle projects. However, Chapter 613 will sunset in 2018, unless the Legislature acts. Assembly Bill 1218 (2016–2017) seeks to preserve the exemptions. However, Chapter 613 has been underutilized, in favor of older, more time-tested categorical and statutory exemptions. This underutilization may influence the Legislature’s decision whether to extend the sunset provision, remove it, or allow Chapter 613 to simply expire.

Legislative History of Chapter 613: “One petitioner had the power to delay something good from happening for several years.”

The published legislative history of Chapter 613 reflects that it was passed in reaction to a lengthy and expensive CEQA suit against the City and County of San Francisco. In 2005, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a bicycle transportation plan (Plan). The Plan’s purpose was to promote bicycle transportation and create safe, interconnected routes throughout the city. It called for upgrades to bicycle infrastructure, including separated lanes, painted lanes, and bike parking. It sought to reduce risks to cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists in areas where the data reflected frequent bicycle-involved collisions. In June 2005 the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Commission adopted the Network Improvement Document (Document), a five-year plan to fund and implement the Plan. Believing that there was no possibility that the Plan could have a significant effect on the environment, the agencies proceeded under the “common sense” exemption of CEQA Guidelines, section 15061. (See generally Assem. Com. on Natural Resources, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 417, (2013–2014 Reg. Sess.).)

A CEQA petition followed, spearheaded by an individual, Rob Anderson. The petition alleged that the Plan and Document together formed a “project” under CEQA, that there was a legitimate question that the project could have an effect on the environment, and that environmental review should be conducted. It took nearly two years for the court to rule in Anderson’s favor, and ultimately enjoin the city proceeding, pending compliance with CEQA. Subsequently, the city prepared a draft EIR in 2008. The EIR was finalized, certified, and a Notice of Determination posted in August 2009. Anderson immediately appealed, alleging deficiencies in the EIR. A year later, in August 2010, the court ruled in favor of the city, upholding the EIR. (Ibid.). In short, it took five years to travel from Plan adoption to implementation. When one considers that the Plan and Document themselves likely took years to draft, the planning and implementation horizon for implementing upgrades to urban bikes lanes spanned close to a decade – half of which was spent in CEQA litigation.

Summarizing public frustration, a legislator noted that “one petitioner had the power to delay something good from happening for several years.” (Senate Rules Comm. Analysis of A.B. 416 (2013–2014 Reg. Sess.), p. 4).

To prevent the San Francisco scenario from repeating throughout the state, the Legislature passed Chapter 613. The legislation garnered overwhelming support from both houses – passing unanimously in the Senate and with only three no votes in the Assembly.

Chapter 613’s Provisions and Underutilization

Chapter 613 seemingly strikes a careful balance between the benefits of environmental review and the public interest in promoting bicycle transportation, by exempting qualified bicycle transportation plans from CEQA (§ 21080.20), but only exempting one limited class of bicycle project (§ 21080.20.5.)

Regarding bike plans, Public Resources Code section 21080.20 states that CEQA does not apply to bicycle transportation plans, as defined. To qualify for the exemption, the plan must be prepared pursuant to the Streets and Highways Code section 891.2; be situated in an urban area; and relate to bicycle transportation. The exemption expressly includes plans that have provisions for the restriping of roadways for bike lanes, bicycle parking and storage, signal timing, and related signage.

For bike projects, Public Resources Code section 21080.20.5 only explicitly exempts highway restriping for bike lanes, done pursuant to a bicycle transportation plan. Presumably, other projects implemented under bicycle transportation plans are not exempt.

Under both sections, the lead agency must hold public hearings, solicit input from local residents, and prepare an assessment of the plan or restriping project’s and traffic and safety impacts, including mitigation measures. If the project or plan is approved, the government must file notice with the state and county clerk. Because traffic and safety impacts were the focus in the San Francisco litigation, by mandating disclosure and mitigation measures the exemption directly and proactively addresses the key concerns that a CEQA environmental review process, or lawsuit, would raise. And by only exempting restriping, projects that are more likely to negatively impact the environment are still required to complete an environmental review process.

Despite the promise of Chapter 613, according to OPR data cited by the Natural Resources Committee in its analysis, the bike plan provision it has never been used, and the bike lane project provision has only been utilized three times. (Comm. Analysis, supra., pp. 3–4.) All three times were by the City of Los Angeles, the provision’s original proponent. (It is worth noting that bill’s author statement cites a different statistic, and states that 17 bike projects have utilized the exemptions, although it is not clear if the bill’s author is referring to Chapter 613, or all of CEQA’s exemptions that have been applied to bike projects. (Id. at p. 4.) The underutilization of the exemption is significant for two reasons: 1) five years after passage, it is uncertain as to how it would be applied by local government and interpreted by the courts; and 2) given its lack of use, begs the question of whether the community considers the exemptions to be necessary or if agency staff are aware of or feel encouraged to use them.

A New Hope? A.B. 1218

Chapter 613 will sunset on January 1, 2018. There is legislative momentum in continuing the exemptions, through A.B. 1218. At issue is whether to: renew the exemptions, but strike the sunset provision; to extend the sunset provision for another term; or allow Chapter 613 to sunset, citing its underutilization.

As originally drafted, A.B. 1218 would have removed the sunset provision entirely, and allowed the law to be codified permanently. However, the current version (as of May 2017, amended in Assembly) preserves the exemptions, but only until 2021. The Assembly Natural Resources Committee addressed this issue in its March 30, 2017 Committee Analysis, citing the exemption’s potential utility, but lack of actual use, and recommending that the bill be amended to sunset in 2021.

The Committee seemed to imply that underutilization does not evince a lack of interest in bicycle plans or projects. Rather, government entities have been relying on other, more “established and frequently used categorical exemptions” in CEQA and the Guidelines. CEQA section 21080.19, passed in 1984, exempts projects that restripe streets to relieve traffic congestion. The Committee notes that the CEQA Guidelines have two applicable categorical exemptions: Guidelines section 15301(c), the Class 1 exemption, for development of existing facilities, where there is negligible expansion of an existing use, which specifically includes existing bicycle trails; and Guidelines section 15304 (h), the Class 4 exemption, for minor alternations to land that do not involve removing mature and scenic trees, and specifically includes the creation of bicycle lanes on existing roadways.

A.B. 1281 passed the Assembly in May 2017, and given its overwhelming support in the Senate in 2013, is likely to pass muster there, too.

Conclusion

Within weeks of the court upholding San Francisco’s bike transportation EIR, bike lanes began sprouting up around the city. Areas that had never had bike lanes became connected to established routes. Established routes on prominent streets, many of which were identified as high collision risks in the Plan, were widened, separated, or re-routed to increase safety. Cal. Bike, an advocacy organization, and SFMTA state that bike usage in San Francisco has increased 10% since 2013. Whether one enjoys cycling or not, this infrastructure is heavily utilized, and cycling is becoming an increasingly important segment of our urban transportation mix. Yet, despite the increase in popularity of urban cycling, the future vitality of the bicycle lane exemptions remain in doubt. Supporters of the exemptions should take heed of the Committee Analysis, and be on notice that may face challenges in the Legislature in 2021 if Chapter 613’s muscle does not start getting flexed on the local level.

The California Supreme Court reversed the First District Court of Appeal’s decision that the “unusual circumstances” exception in CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2, subdivision (c), precluded the City of Berkeley’s finding that a single-family residence qualified for a categorical exemption. That section provides that a categorical exemption “shall not be used for an activity where there is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.” The Supreme Court established a two-part test for determining whether the “unusual circumstances” exception applies. Berkeley Hillside Preservation, et al. v. City of Berkeley, et al. (March 2, 2015) __ Cal.4th __, Case No. S201116.

Homeowners in the Berkeley hills applied to demolish their house, and to construct a new, two–floor, 6,478 square-foot house with an attached 3,394 square-foot ten-car garage on a steep lot in a heavily wooded area. The City concluded the proposed project fell within the Class 3 (new construction of small structures) and Class 32 (infill) categorical exemptions. Project opponents hired an engineer who submitted letters stating the grading required would result in unstable conditions and could cause landslides during an earthquake. The homeowners’ engineer submitted a report stating the opponents’ engineer had misread the plans. The City eventually approved the proposed project, relying on the categorical exemptions.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the “unusual circumstances” exception under CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2, subdivision (c), applied. According to the court, if there is a fair argument the project may result a significant impact, then by definition the circumstances are “unusual.” Finding substantial evidence of a fair argument that the proposed residential project may have a significant environmental effect, the court held the proposed project was not categorically exempt. The Court of Appeal ordered the trial court to issue a writ of mandate directing the City to set aside the project approval and its finding of a categorical exemption, and to order preparation of a full EIR. Thereafter, Respondents filed a petition for review in the Supreme Court, which the Court granted on May 23, 2012.

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal. In the majority opinion, authored by Justice Chin, the Court laid out a two-part test for determining whether the unusual circumstances exception applies. Under the first part of the test, the lead agency must determine whether there are “unusual circumstances,” which the court reviews under the “substantial evidence” standard of review.

Under the second part of the test, if the lead agency determines in the first instance that unusual circumstances exist, the lead agency then considers whether there is a fair argument that the proposed activity may have a significant environmental effect.

In coming to its decision, the Court relied, in part, on the rules governing statutory interpretation requiring that every phrase in a statute (and regulation) be given meaning. The Court turned to the plain text of section 15300.2, subdivision (c), and concluded that the phrase “due to unusual circumstances” has meaning and cannot be read out of the regulation. Thus, the Court of Appeal incorrectly held that a proposed project may have a significant effect on the environment is itself an unusual circumstance rendering the categorical exemption inapplicable.

Justice Liu authored the concurring opinion in which Justice Werdegar joined. The concurring opinion agreed with the Court’s reversal and remand of the appellate court’s decision. Parting ways with the majority, however, Justice Liu disagreed with the Court’s reading of CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2, subdivision (c). The concurring opinion advocated for a one-part test, observing that “‘unusual circumstances’ and ‘significant effects’ have invariably traveled together.” According to the concurring opinion, the phrase “unusual circumstances” in section 15300.2, subdivision (c), “simply describes the nature of a project that, while belonging to a class of projects that typically have no significant environmental effects, nonetheless may have such effects.” Justice Liu thus concluded that the standard of review is limited to whether substantial evidence supports a fair argument that the project will have significant environmental effects.

The majority acknowledged that evidence that the project will have a significant effect does tend to prove that some circumstance of the project is unusual. The majority also explained that in considering the first part of the test, the lead agency has “discretion to consider conditions in the vicinity of the proposed project.” The Court stated that the appellate court had erred in determining that the unusual circumstances inquiry excludes consideration of typical circumstances in a particular neighborhood. Beyond that, though, the Court provided little guidance on the legal test for what constitutes “unusual circumstances.”

The Court also addressed the proper remedy on remand. Relying on Public Resources Code section 21168.9, the Court stated that on remand the Court of Appeal could order preparation of an EIR only if it found that neither of the categorical exemptions applied and if the City lacked discretion to apply another exemption or to issue a negative declaration.

 

Note: The opinion was modified on May 27, 2015. These changes do not affect the result of the case.