Archive for September, 2016


On September 26, 2016, Judge Goode of the Contra Costa County Superior Court, issued a ruling denying a petition brought by the Town of Atherton and organizations opposed to the statewide high-speed rail project. The court rejected their claims that the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB), which operates the Caltrain commuter rail system between Gilroy and San Francisco, had illegally “piecemealed” its project to electrify the Caltrain system from the future high-speed rail system, which is planned to share the same electrified track into San Francisco. The petitioners claimed that because a portion of the electrification project funding is coming from the High-Speed Rail Authority and the electrification is needed for future high-speed trains to operate, the JPB should have analyzed both the high-speed train project and the Caltrain electrification activities as one project in the Caltrain EIR. They argued that the failure to do so improperly minimized consideration of project impacts, consideration of mitigation measures, and alternatives. The court rejected all of the petitioners’ arguments, finding that despite the relationship between the two projects, the Caltrain electrification project could properly stand on its own, whether or not the high-speed train system is ever completed on the Peninsula, and that the future operation of high-speed rail on the corridor was appropriately disclosed in the cumulative impacts analysis in the EIR. The ruling is a major victory for Caltrain, and contracts for further design work and eventual construction have already been approved. Sabrina Teller and Elizabeth Pollock represented the JPB in the litigation.  

 

Governor Brown recently signed Senate Bill 32 and Assembly Bill 197 continuing California’s leadership on climate change. SB 32 and AB 197 were inextricably linked—each bill requiring the passage of the other.

SB 32 significantly increases the state’s targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. It calls for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 40 percent below the statewide limit by 2030.

AB 197 requires CARB to prioritize direct emission reductions and consider social costs when adopting regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a means to protect the state’s “most impacted and disadvantaged communities.” Social costs are defined as “an estimate of the economic damages, including, but not limited to, changes in net agricultural productivity; impacts to public health; climate adaptation impacts, such as property damages from increased flood risk; and changes in energy system costs, per metric ton of greenhouse gas emission per year.” The legislation requires CARB to prioritize those rules and regulations that would result in direct emissions reductions at large stationary and mobile sources. AB 197 also creates oversight of future CARB greenhouse gas emissions reductions strategies by adding two legislators to the state board as ex-officio nonvoting members and creating a joint legislative committee that will make recommendations to the legislature concerning the state’s programs, policies, and investments related to climate change.

 

The Fifth District Court of Appeal, in a partially-published opinion, ruled on a cost award in Citizens for Ceres v. City of Ceres (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 237. The court disagreed in part with the decision in Hayward Area Planning Association v. City of Hayward (2005) 128 Cal.App.4th 176 (“Hayward Area Planning”), and granted real party in interest’s request for the cost of preparation of the administrative record.

Citizens for Ceres (“Citizens”) filed a petition for writ of mandate under CEQA challenging the City of Ceres’ approval of a Wal-Mart shopping center. At Citizens’ request, the city prepared the administrative record, through its outside counsel. Pursuant to agreement with the city, real party in interest Wal-Mart subsequently reimbursed the city $48,889.71 for the costs of preparing the record.

After the city and real party in interest won on the merits at the trial court, Wal-Mart filed a memorandum of costs requesting payment for the cost of preparation of the administrative record. In response, Citizens filed a motion to tax costs, arguing that the city could have recovered the cost of preparation of the record, but Wal-Mart could not. The trial court granted Citizens’ motion, based on the holding in Hayward Area Planning, and denied Wal-Mart’s request for costs.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal disagreed with the trial court and found that Public Resources Code section 21167.6, subdivisions (b)(1) and (b)(2), do not bar a real party in interest from recovering the cost of record preparation where the petitioner requested that the lead agency prepare the record, and the real party reimbursed the agency. Section 21167.6 provides three express options for preparation of the administrative record in a CEQA action: (i) the agency can prepare the record; (ii) the plaintiff can prepare the record subject to the agency’s certification; or (iii) the agency and the plaintiff can agree on a different procedure. The First District Court of Appeal in Hayward Area Planning held that prevailing parties are entitled to seek an award of the cost of preparing an administrative record only when the record was prepared in one of the three approved ways. The Hayward Area Planning court held that a real party in interest could not recover costs when the petitioner directed the agency to prepare the record and the agency delegated that task to the real party interest.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal explained that Section 21167.6(b)(1) requires the parties to “pay any reasonable costs or fees imposed for the preparation of the record of proceedings in conformance with any law or rule of court.” Wal-Mart applied to recover costs under Code of Civil Procedure sections 1032 and 1033.5, and the court found that there is nothing in section 21167.6 limiting such recovery so long as the record was prepared in one of the three specified ways. Here, the record was prepared in one of those ways—it was prepared by the agency—and contrary to the holding in Hayward Area Planning, the right to recover is not limited any further.

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order granting Citizens’ motion to tax costs and remanded for the lower court to determine whether the requested administrative record costs were reasonable.

Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937

In a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court emphatically rejected the notion that public agencies should get no deference in deciding whether to treat proposed projects as changes to previously reviewed projects or as new projects under CEQA. In doing so, the court strongly disagreed with the reasoning presented in the Third District’s decision in Save Our Neighborhood v. Lishman (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 1288, which first articulated the “new project” threshold question as a de novo question of law for the courts. The Supreme Court concluded that Division One of the First District Court of Appeal erred in applying Lishman’s “new” project standard to the case at hand, which involved a community college district’s proposed changes to the disposition of a small building complex and landscaped area on a campus for which a campus-wide renovation plan was previously reviewed in an unchallenged mitigated negative declaration (MND). The district considered the subsequent changes in an addendum to the MND and approved the demolition of an existing complex of outdated buildings and their replacement with a new parking lot, concluding that the changes posed no new or more severe environmental impacts than were previously described in the adopted MND.

The Supreme Court granted review to resolve the question of whether Lishman’s “new project” test was the correct approach for courts reviewing subsequent review documents, or whether courts should follow the more deferential, substantial evidence standard explained in Mani Brothers Real Estate Group v. City of Los Angeles (2007) 153 Cal.App.4th 1385. Few appellate courts had followed the Lishman approach after the court in Mani Brothers rejected it. Division One of the First District applied it to the college district’s case in an unpublished decision, but oddly declined to apply it again a few weeks later in its published decision, Latinos Unidos de Napa v. City of Napa (2013) 221 Cal.App.4th 192, 201-202, thereby highlighting the conflict in the law.

The Supreme Court noted that the Lishman court’s focus on the similarities or lack thereof in the features associated with an originally-reviewed project and subsequent proposal as lacking any basis or standards in CEQA. The court further noted that because of the lack of any standards or framework for measuring the “newness” of a given project, a “new project” test applied by the courts “would inevitably invite arbitrary results.” Moreover, the court emphasized that, given the purpose of CEQA to ensure agencies consider the environmental effects of proposed actions, focusing on the characterization of a proposed project as a new project or a modified project misses the point of subsequent review. Rather, the court concluded, the fundamental determination an agency must make is whether an original environmental document retains some informational value, or whether the proposed changes have rendered it wholly irrelevant.

The court affirmed the college district’s view (shared by the Regents of the University of California, League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties, Association of California Water Agencies, California Building Industry Association, Building Industry Association of the Bay Area, and California Business Properties Association, who participated as amicus parties at the Supreme Court) that the question of whether an initial environmental document remains relevant in light of changed plans or circumstances is inherently a factual question for the agency to answer in the first instance and is reviewable under the deferential substantial evidence standard of review.

Following oral argument, the court ordered supplemental briefing on two issues: (1) the standard of review that applies to an agency’s determination not to prepare an EIR for modifications to a project that was previously reviewed by a negative declaration; and (2) whether CEQA Guidelines section 15162, as applied to projects initially approved by negative declarations rather than EIRs, was a valid interpretation of the governing statute, Public Resources Code section 21166, which does not mention negative declarations. Guidelines section 15162, subdivision (a) prohibits agencies from requiring a subsequent or supplemental EIR unless the agency determines “on the basis of substantial evidence in the light of the whole record,” that “substantial changes . . . will require major revisions of the previous EIR or negative declaration due to the involvement of new significant environmental effects or a substantial increase in the severity of previously identified significant effects.” The court rejected the petitioner’s argument that application of this substantial evidence standard in section 15162(a) to projects initially analyzed in negative declarations creates a CEQA loophole that permits agencies to evade their obligation to prepare an EIR under the less deferential fair argument standard. As the court explained, “the substantial evidence test referred to in the Guidelines does not, as plaintiff supposes, refer to substantial evidence that the project, as modified, will necessarily have significant environmental effects. It instead refers to substantial evidence that the proposed modifications will involve ‘[s]ubstantial changes’ that ‘require major revisions of the previous EIR or negative declaration due to the involvement’ of new or significantly more severe environmental effects.” The court held that section 15162 constitutes a valid gap-filling measure as applied to projects initially approved via negative declaration, including the college district’s project at hand.

Lastly, the court rejected the petitioner’s contention that the subsequent review schemes in the statute and Guidelines were inapplicable to the district’s project because the originally-approved campus renovation project was more akin to a plan or program than a specific project. Both the Court of Appeal below and petitioner relied on Sierra Club v. County of Sonoma (1992) 6 Cal.App.4th 1307 to conclude that when an agency initially adopts a broad, large-scale environmental document (such as the college district’s original MND) that addresses the environmental effects of a complex long-term management plan, a court can find that a material alteration to the plan regarding a particular site or activity may be a new project triggering environmental review under Public Resources Code section 21151. The Supreme Court rejected the attempt to frame the original campus renovation plan and subsequent changes to the disputed area in this manner, holding that the tiering provisions, and therefore the Sierra Club decision, had no applicability here. The court noted that unlike the program EIR at issue in Sierra Club, the MND previously adopted by the college district was a project-specific review that could not be characterized as a first-tier document.

The Supreme Court remanded to the Court of Appeal’s consideration the merits of the district’s addendum and approval of the building demolition and parking lot project. The Court of Appeal had not previously reached the merits because of its conclusion that the subsequent project was “new.”

RMM partners Sabrina V. Teller and James G. Moose represented the respondent San Mateo County Community College District in the litigation from the trial court through the Supreme Court.

In Coastal Hills Rural Preservation v. County of Sonoma (2016) (previously published at 2 Cal.App.5th 1234)* the First District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s determination that the County of Sonoma did not violate CEQA or the Planning and Zoning law when it adopted a subsequent mitigated negative declaration (MND) and approved a master use permit to expand the existing Ratna Ling Buddhist retreat center and printing facility.

The Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center (TNMC) has operated a monastery and retreat center in Cazadero since 1975. In 2004, TNMC purchased an additional property, which it designated the Ratna Ling Retreat Center. Since 2004 Ratna Ling has undergone numerous changes and expansions, including growing from a one-printing-press facility to operating six printing presses. In response to applications from Ratna Ling, the county adopted and approved a series of mitigated negative declarations in 2004, 2008 and 2012. In 2014, Ratna Ling applied for a third multiple-use permit, and the county adopted a subsequent MND to the 2004 and 2008 MNDs, superseding the 2012 MND. The 2014 subsequent MND analyzed Ratna Ling’s application to make permanent four storage tents for its printing-press operation, and construct a new six-bedroom residence and up to eight tent cabins.

Coastal Hills Rural Preservation (CHRP) filed suit, arguing that the county should have prepared an EIR because the project greatly expands the printing-press operation. CHRP also argued that the approval violated the county’s general plan and zoning provisions. The trial court denied the petition, and the First District Court of Appeal affirmed.

CHRP argued that the project was inconsistent with the county’s general plan and zoning provisions in violation of Government Code section 65300. The site is designated for “resources and rural development” under the county’s general plan, which is intended to “protect lands used for timber, geothermal and mineral resource production and for natural resource conservation.” Contrary to CHRP’s argument that the printing press included “extraordinary levels of manufacturing productions …, massive storage structures and commercial Internet sales,” the court found that substantial evidence supported the county’s determination that the proposed uses were consistent with the land use regulations. The court explained that an agency’s determination regarding consistency with its own general plan is given great deference because “the body adopting a general plan has unique competence to interpret those policies when applying them to a proposed project.” There was no evidence in the record that the printing activities were undertaken for profit, the printing press use had been permitted since 2004, and the Board fully considered the county’s land use policies and the extent to which the project conforms to those policies.

The Court of Appeal also affirmed the trial court’s determination that the Board did not violate CEQA. Because the court was considering the county’s decision to prepare a subsequent MND where an MND had already been prepared under Public Resources Code section 21166, the court applied the substantial evidence test rather than the fair-argument standard of review. The court noted that the issue of the standard of review is currently before the California Supreme Court in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo Community College Dist. (Sept. 26, 2013, A135892 [nonpub. opn.]), review granted Nov. 5, 2013, S214061).

The court found that substantial evidence supported the Board’s conclusion that any fire risks posed by the storage tents were adequately mitigated: the membranes covering the tents met applicable fire protection standards, there was 200 to 300 feet of defensible space around each tent, and a condition of approval required Ratna Ling to provide and maintain its own onsite fire engine. In addition, the court held that, regardless of whether the county should have included the tents in the baseline for its analysis, substantial evidence in the record indicated that the Board fully considered the potential impacts of the tents.

The court also ruled against arguments put forth by amicus curiae Friends of the Gualala River and Forest Unlimited. Contrary to those arguments, the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan was not effective until October 25, 2011, well after the storage tents were permitted and constructed, and therefore was inapplicable. In addition, the county did not improperly defer mitigation when it required Ratna Ling to coordinate with the fire district and comply with all fire-related conditions, because the mitigaton simply granted the county the right to impose new, stricter requirements if deemed necessary.

Finally, CHRP argued that the county engaged in impermissible spot zoning. The court explained that because the record and the relevant zoning regulations did not suggest that the authorized use for Ratna Ling is prohibited as to all other parcels in the same zone, this was not impermissible spot zoning in violation of Government Code section 65852.

*On November 22, 2016, the California Supreme Court granted review (210 Cal.Rptr.3d 14), depublished the decision, and transferred the case back to the First District, Division One, for reconsideration in light of Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District et al. (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937, 957–959. On May 16, 2016, the First District filed an unpublished decision in matter, available at 2017 WL 2118370.

On August 31, 2016, the Sixth District issued a decision in Bay Area Clean Environment v. Santa Clara County (previously published at: 2 Cal.App.5th 1197)* upholding the County’s EIR for a quarry reclamation plan. The non-profit challenger asserted claims under the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The court concluded that the county had not violated either statute.

The 3,510-acre quarry started producing limestone and aggregate in the early 1900s. In 2006, the Department of Conservation concluded that the quarry was violating SMARA because slope instability issues had not been properly addressed in the earlier 1985 reclamation plan. High selenium levels downstream of the quarry also posed a problem. In 2007 and 2010, Real Party in Interest Lehigh Southwest Cement Company applied to the county for amendments to the 1985 plan that would close one pit while allowing for the opening of new mining areas to replace the reclaimed pit. In particular, the 2010 application proposed a new pit called the South Quarry. But, subsequently, Lehigh applied in 2011 for an amendment to the 1985 reclamation plan that closed the problematic pit without proposing any new pits. This 2011 application superseded all earlier applications.

The county prepared an EIR for the reclamation plan amendment and made the requisite findings under both CEQA and SMARA. The county concluded that the project would result in significant and unavoidable impacts of excess selenium runoff during the 20-year period of reclamation. Bay Area Clean Environment and Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District filed challenges to the project. Midpeninsula ultimately settled with Lehigh, but Bay Area Clean Environment appealed the trial court’s denial of its petition for writ of mandate.

The Sixth District Court of Appeal started by addressing the SMARA claims. First, the court concluded that evidence in the record supported the county’s finding that the reclamation plan complies with SMARA with regard to water quality. The court explained that SMARA provided the county with discretion to allow reclamation activities that may result in adverse impacts—such as the additional deposition of selenium in Permanente Creek—if those actions were necessary to comply with federal and state laws. Second, the court held that evidence in the record supported the county’s conclusion that the project’s impacts to red-legged frogs were mitigated to the extent possible.

The court turned to the CEQA claims next. First, the court rejected the challenger’s argument that the county had failed to analyze the cumulative impact of the potential new South Quarry pit that had been proposed in the earlier 2010 application. The court explained that the South Quarry pit was not a reasonably foreseeable future project because the application for a use permit for the new pit had been withdrawn. The court also noted that the county had not engaged in improper piecemealing because the amendment to the reclamation plan was a stand-alone project that did not depend on the future approval of a South Quarry pit.

Second, the court addressed the argument that the county’s findings about impacts to the red-legged frog were insufficient and not supported by substantial evidence. The EIR reported that direct impacts to the frog would be less than significant. The EIR also determined that impacts to aquatic life, of which the frog is included, from excess selenium runoff in the downstream areas would be significant and unavoidable. The court concluded that substantial evidence in the record supported the EIR’s conclusions about both direct and indirect impacts to the frog. The court also held that a statement of overriding considerations for impacts to the frog was not required because the potential direct impacts to the frog were less than significant. Although it is not clear from the opinion, presumably the county adopted a statement of overriding considerations for the significant and unavoidable impact to aquatic life from excess selenium runoff. The court rejected the petitioner’s argument that a statement of overriding considerations directed specifically to the frog was required.

Finally, the court affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant Lehigh’s motion to augment the administrative record. Lehigh had argued that an email between a herpetologist and staff of the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) should be included in the record under Public Resources Code section 21167.6, subdivision (e)(10). In the email, Dr. Mark Jennings explained to DFW staff that his 2007 report contained typographical errors and that he had in fact never observed the red-legged frog in one particular pond. This email was sent to the consulting firm that prepared the biological resources assessment for the EIR. The court concluded that the email could be properly included in the record as evidence of the presence or absence of the frog in the reclamation area that was relied upon by the consultants who prepared the biological study for the EIR.

* Review Denied and Ordered Not to be Officially Published ,December 14, 2016, per Cal. Rules of Court, Rules 8.1105 and 8.1110, 8.1115, 8.1120 and 8.1125.