No Treasure for Challenger on Appeal: Treasure Island EIR Upheld

Three years after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a major redevelopment project on Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, an appellate court affirmed a lower court judgment upholding the project’s EIR.  Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island v. City and County of San Francisco, A137828 (First District, July 7, 2014).

In 2011, the Board approved a comprehensive plan to redevelop a former naval station located in the middle of San Francisco Bay into a mixed-use community with updated infrastructure and amenities.  A “project EIR” analyzed all phases of the project at maximum buildout.  The EIR was challenged in court, partly on the basis that it contained insufficient detail to constitute a project EIR and, therefore, should have been prepared as a program EIR.

Treasure_Island_Pier_with_San_Francisco_City_Scape

The Court of Appeal disagreed:  All CEQA requires is that an EIR contain all requisite elements and a level of specificity sufficient for the particular proposal under consideration, both of which the court found were satisfied.  Lead agencies, the court held, have the discretion to determine whether a program or project EIR should be prepared.

The court also rejected the challenger’s assertion that the city improperly sought to short-circuit subsequent environmental review by preparing a project EIR, observing that courts apply the same substantial evidence standard to subsequent environmental review whether a project is evaluated in a program EIR or a project EIR.

Other attacks on the EIR also failed, including a claim it should have been recirculated in light of comments submitted by the U.S. Coast Guard about potential effects on regulation of ship traffic.  The court concluded there was no significant new information that required recirculation because the parties met to discuss the Coast Guard’s concerns, a project document and the EIR were revised in response to the comments, the Coast Guard expressed satisfaction with the changes, and no new significant adverse environmental impacts were shown.

The question of whether an EIR should have been prepared as a program EIR or as a project EIR also was before another court recently in Citizens Against Airport Pollution v. City of San Jose.  As discussed in our post on that decision, the court declined to reach the issue, concluding that the substance of the environmental analysis was more important than the title placed on the document.

Airport Challenge Does Not Fly: Court Upholds Use of Addendum for Changes to San Jose Airport Master Plan

The City of San Jose’s use of an addendum for recent modifications to the San Jose Airport’s Master Plan has been upheld by the court of appeal.  Citizens Against Airport Pollution v. City of San Jose, H038781 (6th Dist.  July 2, 2014) 

San_Jose_International_Airport_-_Terminal_BIn 1988, the City of San Jose began to prepare an update to its 1980 Airport Master Plan to accommodate projected growth in air traffic through a planning horizon year of 2010.   The city completed an EIR for the Airport Master Plan update in 1997, and a supplemental EIR in 2003,  and also adopted eight addenda to the EIRs from 1997 through 2010.  In the eighth addendum, the city analyzed the potential impacts associated with proposed changes to the Master Plan including:  (1) changes in the size and location of future air cargo facilities; (2) replacement of previously planned  air cargo facilities with 44 acres of general aviation facilities to accommodate a forecasted increase in use by large corporate jets; and (3) modification of two taxiways to improve access for corporate jets.

Citizens Against Airport Pollution  filed suit to challenge the eighth addendum, claiming the changes to the Airport Master Plan amounted to a new project requiring preparation of a supplemental or subsequent EIR.  The city responded that the proposed changes did not add up to a new project, but rather were adjustments to an existing plan that had already received environmental review, and therefore an addendum was appropriate.

Heavily relying on the principle that the standard for a court’s review of an agency’s use of an addendum to an EIR is “deferential,” the court upheld the city’s decision to prepare an addendum, finding substantial evidence in the administrative record that supported the city’s determination that “the changes in the project or its circumstances were not so substantial as to require major modifications to an EIR.”

The court considered, but declined to decide, whether the 1997 EIR should be considered a program EIR.  Instead, the court found that the record contained substantial evidence that use of an addendum was appropriate, even assuming the 1997 EIR was a program EIR,  because the proposed changes will not result in any new significant impacts or impacts that are substantially different from those described in the 1997 EIR and the supplemental EIR.  Similar to the recent decision by the First District Court of Appeal in Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island v. City and County of San Francisco (discussed here), the court found that the substance of the EIR was more important than the name attached to the document, and that the standard for determining whether further environmental review is required the same for both a program and project EIR.

Turning to the substantive claims, the court rejected the claim that the addendum violated CEQA because it did not include the greenhouse gas analysis required by the 2010 amendments to the CEQA Guidelines.  Following the reasoning in recent court decisions, the court observed that the potential environmental impacts of GHG emissions have been known since the 1970s and were widely known before the certification of the 1997 EIR and the 2003 supplemental EIR; as a result, the effect of GHG emissions was not “new information”  that would trigger the need for further CEQA review.

The court further found that the proposed modifications did not warrant supplemental review of  noise impacts, relying heavily on a detailed study comparing the noise analysis in the 1997 EIR and 2003 supplemental EIR to the noise levels projected with the proposed modifications in place.  The challenger’s air quality claim also fell flat, as the record reflected that the proposed modifications would neither increase the activity levels at the airport beyond that already identified in the Plan nor would the proposed changes alter the capacity of the airport. Finally, the court agreed with the eighth addendum’s conclusion that potential impacts to the burrowing owl did not warrant supplemental review, concluding that it could “reasonably assume” that the burrowing owl mitigation measures incorporated in the addendum “will maintain the environmental impacts on the Airport’s burrowing owl population to a less than significant level.”

California Adopts Emergency Water Curtailment Regulations

It is now clear that the present drought requires that there be curtailment of the exercise of some existing water rights due to the lack of sufficient surface water.  On January 17, 2014—the same day as the Governor’s Proclamation of a drought state of emergency—the State Water Resources Control Board issued a “Notice of Surface Water Shortage and Potential of Curtailment of Water Right Diversions.”  The notice advised that if dry weather conditions persisted, the Board will notify water right holders of the requirement to limit or stop diversions of water under their water rights, based on water right priority.

SWRCB_Logo1On March 1, 2014, Governor Brown signed legislation to assist drought-affected communities and provide funding for better managed local water supplies.  As part of that drought relief package, the Legislature expanded the Board’s existing emergency regulation authority under Water Code section 1058.5 and made statutory changes streamlining the authority to enforce water rights and increasing penalties for illegally diverting water during drought conditions.  See SB 104 (adopted March 1, 2104).

Water Code section 1058.5, as amended, grants to the Board the authority to adopt emergency regulations in certain drought years in order to “prevent the waste, unreasonable use, unreasonable method of use, or unreasonable method of diversion, of water to promote water recycling or water conservation, to require curtailment of diversions when water is not available under the diverter’s priority of right, or in furtherance of any of the foregoing, to require reporting of diversion or use or the preparation of monitoring reports.”

Any emergency regulation adopted pursuant to this section may remain in effect for up to 270 days and is deemed repealed immediately upon a finding by the Board that due to changed conditions, it is no longer necessary.

On April 25, 2014, Governor Brown issued a Proclamation of Continued State of Emergency related to the drought.  The Proclamation affirms provisions of the January 17, 2014 Proclamation and added new provisions related to water conservation, water transfers, fishery protection, water recycling, groundwater overdraft protection, water supply shortage and fire response.  Additionally, the Proclamation suspended CEQA requirements for certain activities, including the adoption of emergency regulations under Water Code section 1058.5.

Under the state water right priority system, the Board must curtail water diversions when sufficient flows in a watershed are not available because the water is needed to satisfy senior rights or provide a correlative share of equally senior rights (i.e., riparian rights), or is needed to meet public trust and water quality requirements.

On May 20, 2014, the Board adopted emergency regulations.  See Cal. Code Regs., tit. 23, §§ 877-879.2 (found at article 24, title 23, division 3, chapter 2 of the California Code of Regulations, §§ 877-879.2).  Under these regulations, the Board—based upon an extensive factual record—curtailed diversions of water on a priority basis in three watersheds on the ground that public trust needs required minimum flows for federally-listed anadromous fish.  The authority to issue the curtailment order was given to the Deputy Director and provision was made for exclusion from the curtailment for diversions necessary for minimum health and safety needs.  All water users issued a curtailment order were required to respond and provide the requested information.    The regulations also provided for an alternative to curtailment, which permitted diverters to propose and enter into agreements that would accomplish the same purpose.

Under these regulations, violations can be subject to an administrative civil liability under the Water Code or referred to the Attorney General.  Administrative cease and desist orders and court injunctions are also available.  An administrative civil liability for an unauthorized diversion could be up to $1000 per day, plus $25,000 per acre-foot of water illegally diverted.

The process followed in issuing the curtailment orders with respect to the three watersheds involved in the May 2014 curtailment was time consuming, cumbersome and ineffective.  As a result, it was determined that additional emergency regulations were necessary to improve the Board’s ability to quickly and effectively implement and enforce curtailments during the current drought and to ensure that the State’s water right priority system is effectively implemented.  The Board found that while it has existing authority to issue curtailment notices to junior water users and to initiate enforcement actions, it is likely that there will be a high degree of non-compliance during the drought that will impact senior water rights holders.  Thus, it proposed new regulations that it concluded would solve curtailment and reporting compliance problems.  The Board concluded that  (1) the proposed regulations will provide greater assurance that curtailed water rights holders will cease diverting water; and (2) provide greater assurance that curtailed water rights holders will report information regarding continued exercise of their senior water rights.  As opposed to the process required under the Board’s existing authorities, as exemplified by the May 20, 2014 regulations—which required a case-by-case investigation, issuance of a draft cease and desist order or proposed administrative civil liability, and the opportunity for an evidentiary hearing—a violation of the new proposed emergency regulation would be immediately effective and enforceable by administrative penalty.

The emergency regulations, were adopted on July 2, 2014 and are found in Title 23 of the California Code of Regulations, Article 24, division 3, chapter 2, sections 875, 878.1, 878.3 and 879.  They are effective statewide and are subject to the same 270-day sunset provision as the May 20, 2014 regulations.

Section 875 authorizes the Deputy Director for the Division of Water Rights to issue curtailment orders to post-1914 appropriative right holders in order of water right priority, requiring the curtailment of water diversions and use (except as provided in sections 878 and 878.1).  Section 878.1 provides for certain minimal diversions for domestic and municipal uses.  Section 878.3 provides for regional alternatives to curtailment through agreement (with approval of the Deputy).

As originally proposed, the regulations adopted on July 2, 2014, applied to all diverters, including pre-1914 and riparians.  That version of the regulations also contained a provision excusing minimal health and safety needs from the curtailment.  However, the final version—following numerous comments—excluded pre-1914 appropriators and riparians from the curtailment provisions and also eliminated the health and safety need exclusion on the ground that it could be accomplished by other provisions.

The essence of the emergency regulations adopted July 2, 2014, is contained in section 875.  It provides that:

  • The Deputy Director may issue curtailment orders to post-1914 appropriative water rights holders in order of water right priority requiring curtailment of water diversions; no hearing is required;
  • The Deputy Director can rely upon the information listed in the regulations in making the determination of whether water is available under a diverter’s priority and to issue or suspend curtailment orders;
  • Any order is to be accompanied by the Deputy Director’s determination of the quantity of water and other facts concerning the availability of water and the assumptions employed in issuing the curtailment;
  • A notice of the curtailment specifying the method of curtailment must be given;
  • The provision that all curtailment orders are subject to reconsideration under Water Code sections 1122, et seq.;  however, other than through the reconsideration process, no hearing is provided for prior to curtailment.

Section 879 provides for reporting by diverters subject to curtailment and certification that diversion has ceased.

The new regulation, as presently worded, does not prioritize for the Deputy Director any types of use that are to be given preference over others.  Presumably, the decision is within the discretion of the Deputy Director who, under existing law, must consider public trust uses.  Although pre-1914 and riparian users are not currently subject to the new curtailment procedure, there is nothing suggesting that they could not be subjected to such a procedure under regulations that could be adopted later.

The new regulations are, in large part, a response to the ineffectiveness of prior efforts at curtailment.  For example, with the onset of the drought, thousands of notices of curtailment were sent to various junior water rights diverters with a minimal response in terms of cessation of diversion, reporting and other requirements.  There was also a lack of enforcement ability short of going to court.  It is hoped that has been remedied by the new regulations.

On July 15, 2014, the Board took further action in light of the drought emergency.  It adopted additional emergency regulations prohibiting:

  • The application of water to outdoor landscapes in a manner that causes runoff such that water flows onto adjacent property, non-irrigated areas, private and public walkways, roadways, parking lots or structures;
  • The use of a hose to wash an automobile, except where the hose is fitted with a shutoff nozzle;
  • The application of water to any hard surface; and
  • The use of potable water in a fountain or other decorative water feature.

The taking of any such prohibited actions could subject the violator to a fine of up to $500/day.

An additional regulation was adopted applicable to water suppliers requiring them to implement requirements that impose mandatory restrictions on outdoor irrigation and implement other mandatory conservation measures.  Urban water suppliers are required to submit monitoring reports to the Board.

 

State Water Resources Control Board May Weigh the Use of Water for Public Purposes Against Commercial Use by Riparian Users and Early Appropriators in Determining Reasonableness of Commercial Use

A court of appeals, for the first time, has upheld the  State Water Resources Control Board’s authority to restrict valid pre-1914 and riparian water rights on the ground that their exercise has become an unreasonable use of water under current circumstances.

While it has long been accepted that California law requires that water be put to a use that is both beneficial and reasonable, what constitutes an “unreasonable use of water” has received little attention.  This opinion, in finding the use in question to be unreasonable, is significant both for the principles it relies on and its articulation of the sideboards of the “reasonable use” requirement. Light v. State Water Resources Control Board, 173 Cal.Rptr.3d 200 (2014)

In April 2008, a particularly cold month during a dry year, young salmon were found stranded along the banks of the Russian River.  Federal scientists concluded that the deaths were caused by the abrupt declines in water level due to diversions of water that was sprayed on vineyards and orchards to prevent frost damage.  The salmon are classified as threatened or endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

Following a series of hearings and the preparation of an environmental impact report, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted a regulation — Regulation 862 — that will likely require the reduction in diversion of water for frost protection under certain circumstances.  Regulation 862 delegated the task of formulating regulations governing water use programs to local bodies comprised of diverting growers.  The regulation declares that any water use inconsistent with the programs promulgated (and later approved by the Board) is unreasonable and prohibited.

The plaintiff growers successfully challenged the regulation in the trial court, contending that because the Board lacks regulatory authority to limit diversions by riparian users and pre-1914 appropriators it has no authority to regulate their use of water.

The court of appeal reversed, holding that although the Board has no authority to require such users to obtain a permit to divert water, it has the power to prevent riparian users and pre-1914 appropriators (and anyone else) from using water in an unreasonable manner.  “We conclude that, in regulating the unreasonable use of water, the Board can weigh the use of water for certain public purposes, notably the protection of wildlife, against commercial use of water by riparian users and early appropriators.”

Under California’s dual system of water rights and rule of priority, ownership of the water is vested in the People, but the right to divert water from its natural course for public or private use can be acquired.  Riparian users have water rights through their ownership of riparian land.  Riparian users have never been required to obtain a permit, because their water right emanates from the riparian character of their land.   Appropriators are those who hold a right to divert for use on non-riparian lands.  Appropriators who established their rights prior to California’s adoption of a regulatory system for appropriation in 1914 are not required to obtain a permit or license.

California’s rules of priority require that riparian users must curtail their use proportionately amongst themselves in times of shortage and that appropriative rights are determined by first-in-time, first-in-right.  California Constitutional Amendment Article X, section 2 (adopted in 1928) provides that water use “shall be reasonably required for the beneficial use to be served.”  The provision applies to both riparian users and appropriators.

The appellate court in Light emphasized that “reasonableness” is now the overriding principle governing the use of water in California.  It acknowledged, however, that the California courts have never defined what constitutes an unreasonable use of water.  The court concluded that what is a reasonable and beneficial use at one time may not be at another and that a determination of reasonableness depends upon the circumstances.  In other words, what may be a reasonable use at one time may – because of changed conditions – be waste at a later time and be unreasonable:

“Although, as we have said, what is a reasonable use of water depends on the circumstances of each case, such inquiry cannot be resolved in vacuo isolated from statewide considerations of transcendent importance.  Paramount among these we see the ever increasing need for conservation of water in this state, and inescapable reality of life quite apart from its express recognition in Article X, section 2.”

The court also pointed out that the public trust is a second potential limit on private uses of water.  The public trust, which has been extended in geographic terms from navigable waters to include non-navigable tributaries, has amongst its purposes the preservation of water’s function as a natural habitat.  Consequently, the Board, in issuing licenses that will permit an appropriator to take water has an affirmative duty to take the public trust into account and to protect public trust uses where feasible.  The Board has been given statutory powers to make reasonable rules and regulations to control and condition water use and to prevent unreasonable or wasteful use of water.

In Light, the plaintiffs challenged Regulation 862 contending that:

  • The Board lacks authority to enact regulations on unreasonable use of water
  • The Board lacks authority to limit water use by riparian and pre-1914 appropriators
  • The regulation improperly violates the rules of priority

The trial court ruled favorably for the plaintiffs on all counts.  But the appellate court reversed.

The court of appeal found that Regulation 862 – which provides in part that “a diversion of water that is harmful to salmonids is an unreasonable use of water if the diversion can’t be managed to avoid harm” – was valid and within the Board’s authority.  It also held that the regulation applied to riparian users as well as pre-1914 appropriators.  The court concluded that while the Board cannot require pre-1914 appropriators and riparians to obtain a permit, that does not mean that the Board cannot prevent such users from diverting water for a use the Board determines to be unreasonable.  In that regard, the Board has authority to determine what has become an unreasonable use and prohibit such use.  The court held that the “vested rights” doctrine does not prevent the Board from redefining existing beneficial uses as unreasonable.

Consequently, the extent of a particular users’ vested right to use water may change.  “A riparian users’ vested water rights extend only to reasonable beneficial water use, which is determined at the time of use.”  The court held that the Board has ultimate authority to allocate water in a manner inconsistent with a rule of priority when to do so is necessary to prevent the unreasonable use of water.  According to the court, that power is buttressed by the State’s obligation under the public trust doctrine that applies to all water rights.

The court stressed that the legislature has declared that the use of water for recreation and the preservation and enhancement of fish and wildlife resources is a beneficial use of water.  It has thus recognized that the welfare of wildlife is a beneficial use on a par with the type of commercial uses that have traditionally been recognized as beneficial.  Consequently, balancing the use of water for frost protection against the use for salmon habitat is the application of a fundamental policy decision within the power of the Board.

The court ultimately concluded that in regulating the unreasonable use of water, the Board can weigh the use of water for certain public purposes (notably the protection of wildlife habitat) against commercial use of water by riparian users and early appropriators and prohibit the use of water for frost control under the circumstances that were before it..

The court does not suggest that at the time the riparian and pre-1914 users began diverting water for frost protection that use was neither beneficial nor reasonable.  In fact, it is clear that it was.  As a result, the court’s decision is, in effect, a determination of unreasonableness, based upon current circumstances.

The opinion does not include any discussion of whether the relative priority of existing uses should be considered when terminating diversions determined to  be unreasonable.  For example, should post-1914 diversions for frost protection be terminated prior to limiting riparian and pre-1914 diversions?  This is the process the State Board has followed in its recent adoption of emergency regulations limiting water diversions in certain watersheds due to lack of adequate water.  It is also reflected in the emergency regulations adopted on July 2, 2014, which establish a streamlined process for the Board to use in curtailing diversions by post-1914 water rights holders.  The July 2 regulations do not extend that curtailment process to riparian and pre-1914 diverters.

The opinion endorses the proposition that the Board has broad authority to determine reasonableness at any time and, based upon changed circumstances, may declare well established uses unreasonable and, therefore, waste and impermissible.  It also suggests that the Board’s determination of priority between two otherwise reasonable uses can result in the termination of one without the implication of a taking.

The Plaintiffs in Light filed a petition for rehearing.  The court, on July 11, 2014, denied the petition, but amended its opinion in response to the argument made by Light that Regulation 862 had the effect of immediately banning frost protection during the relevant period of time.  The court’s amended opinion adds a footnote that acknowledges that Light’s reading of Regulation 862 may be correct, if read literally.  However, it then opines that if the regulation is construed with its accompanying resolution, the regulation can be interpreted to mean that the curtailment of diversions for frost protection would only take place after the local body charged with developing regulations mandated by the Board had completed its task—which the court determined would take more than two years.

Renewal of Interim Contracts For Delivery of Central Valley Project Water to Districts an Ongoing Project Exempt from CEQA

In February 2012, the Westlands Water District and related water distribution districts entered into two-year interim renewal contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation relating to the Bureau’s ongoing provision of Central Valley Project water to the Districts.  The purpose of the interim contracts was to continue the existing terms for water delivery in advance of the Districts’ anticipated execution of new, long-term renewal contracts, which were awaiting the Bureau of Reclamation’s completion of environmental documentation necessary for execution of the long-term agreements.

The Districts approved the interim renewal contracts finding the renewals exempt from CEQA.  The trial court agreed, ruling that the matters contemplated in the interim contracts were exempt under the statutory exemption for ongoing pre-CEQA projects and CEQA’s categorical exemption for the continued operation of existing facilities.  The court of appeals affirmed.  North Coast Rivers Alliance v. Westlands Water District, Fifth District, July 3, 2014 (F067383).

Westlands Water District serves over 600,000 acres of farmland with Central Valley Project water.  The CVP is a federal reclamation project built within the major watersheds of the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems and the Delta.  It was originally financed, constructed and operated under the terms of the Reclamation Act of 1902 and, later, under the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1937 and the Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992.   Operated by the Bureau of Reclamation under water rights granted by the State Water Resources Control Board, the CVP is the nation’s largest water reclamation project and California’s largest water supplier.  The CVP allocates CVP water to water districts that contract with it subject to a comprehensive scheme of environmental statutes and regulations, including the Improvement Act of 1992, the federal Endangered Species Act, and various state and federal regulations governing Delta water flow and water quality.

The original contract between the Bureau of Reclamation and Westlands was entered into in 1963 and was to remain in effect for 40 years.  The Improvement Act of 1992 provides that the Bureau “shall” upon request, renew existing long-term water service contracts for a period of up to 25 years—but only after the Bureau first prepares a programmatic EIS that examines the effects of implementing the Act on the environment.  Delays in the completion of the environmental documentation led the Bureau to enter into a series of interim two-year contracts with the Districts.  In December 2011, the Districts approved the two-year interim renewal contracts at issue in this appeal.

In approving the interim contracts, the Districts found that the renewals were exempt from the requirements of CEQA for several reasons.  The Districts found that the renewal contracts merely involved the ongoing receipt and delivery of water on same terms as the prior water service contracts—with no expansion of service and no construction of new facilities.  They also  found that, to the extent the contracts involved any changes, the changes related only to rates, dates and other minor administrative matters.  The Districts made specific findings that the renewals were exempt from CEQA under the statutory exemptions for ongoing pre-CEQA projects and for rate-setting and the categorical exemption for ongoing operation of existing facilities in CEQA Guidelines § 15301.

Following approval of the interim renewal contracts, Petitioners filed suit alleging that no exemptions to CEQA were applicable and that the Districts were required to undertake CEQA review.  Petitioners claimed that the water rights at issue would involve the diversion of a substantial volume of water from the Delta, thereby affecting water flows, water purity, and harming endangered fish species.  They also alleged that the delivery of irrigation water to the lands served by the Districts would contribute to a further buildup of contamination of the soils and groundwater with salt, selenium and other pollutants.

The trial court rejected Petitioners’ challenge, concluding the interim renewal contracts were exempt from CEQA.  As to the rate-setting exemption, the court found the interim renewal contracts had the effect of setting rates between the Bureau and the Districts and, in all other respects, merely continued the existing water deliveries without change.  The court also found the water deliveries were an ongoing project subject to the statutory exemption applicable to projects authorized before the adoption of CEQA.  Finally, the court ruled that the existing facilities exemption applied, since the interim renewal contracts merely authorized continued water deliveries under the existing system and use of the existing distribution network.

The trial court also rejected Petitioners’ claim that exceptions to the categorical exemption (relating to significant effects on environment caused by unusual circumstances or cumulative impacts) were applicable, concluding that the baseline for the interim renewal contracts was the environment that existed in December 2011—including all environmental damages that already existed at the time.  Because the contracts did not increase or change the existing water deliveries, construct new facilities, or make other changes to existing environment, the exceptions to the exemption were not established.

The appellate court affirmed, engaging in an extended discussion of the standard of review, the applicable statutory and categorical exemptions, as well as exceptions to the exemptions and the standard to be applied with respect to the application of both.  The court emphasized the difference between statutory and categorical exemptions, pointing out that statutory exemptions are absolute if the project fits within its terms.  A categorical exemption, by contrast, is subject to exceptions that can defeat its use, including the exception that applies where there is a reasonable possibility the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances and the exception that applies where the cumulative impact of successive projects of the same type is significant.

The appellate court found that the statutory rate-setting exemption in Public Resources Code section 21080(d) did not apply, agreeing with the petitioners’ argument that the interim renewal contracts did not identify any action that was being taken by the water districts that amounted to rate setting actions: they did not mention rates or say anything about adjusting, approving or establishing rates.

The court concluded, however, that the statutory exemption for ongoing projects approved prior to the date CEQA took effect applied.  The court held that the applicability of the ongoing project exemption depends upon whether the challenged action is a normal, intrinsic part of the ongoing operation of a project approved prior to CEQA or is instead an expansion or modification of a pre–CEQA project.  It concluded the exemption applied because the evidence in the record was sufficient to support a finding that the amount of water Westlands Water District is entitled to receive through its existing facilities each year can be traced back to the contractual commitments that were made prior to the CEQA’s effective date, November 23, 1970.

The court of appeal also held that the categorical exemption for continued use of existing facilities applied and that there was no basis for finding any exception to the exemption.  The court first found the exception based on a reasonable probability of significant effects due to unusual circumstances did not apply.  The petitioners argued significant effects would result because  the diversion of more than 1 million acre-feet of water from the Delta each year could adversely affect threatened fish populations and fragile habitat in the Delta and that use of the water for irrigation could add to the salt and selenium buildup in the soil and groundwater in the Westlands Water District area.  The court rejected this claim, determining that application of the correct environmental baseline to assess the project’s impacts made it clear that petitioners had failed to show a reasonable possibility of a significant effect on the environment: The large volume of water distributed to the water districts and used for irrigation was clearly part of the existing environmental baseline for the district’s ongoing operations and a potential for adverse change in the environment from these existing conditions was not shown; further, even if were assumed some change from the existing environmental baseline might occur, the  record evidence was  insufficient to show that the brief period involved in the interim renewal contracts – only two years – would potentially have a significant environmental effect.

The court also rejected the argument that the interim renewal contracts triggered the exception for “successive projects of the same type” which may result in significant cumulative impacts.  Petitioners claimed the successive contract renewals create significant cumulative environmental damage over time, including salt and selenium buildup in the soil and groundwater, as well as harm to salmon, smelt and other endangered fish populations and their habitat in the Delta.  The court concluded, however, that under the “unique statutory context” of the case, the short-term, interim renewal contracts did not amount to “successive projects of the same type” under the exception contained in the Guidelines.

Categorical Exemptions Under CEQA — California Supreme Court Grants Review of Another Case Involving the Unusual Circumstances Exception

In a recent case decided by the Third District Court of Appeal the court upheld the use of a CEQA exemption for a proposed rodeo at a county fairground despite claims it would pollute  a nearby creek.   Citizens for Environmental Responsibility v. State of California ex rel. – 14th Dist. Agricultural Association (No. C070836).    

The California Supreme Court granted a petition to review the court of appeal decision in Citizens for Environmental Responsibility on July 9, 2014,  pending the supreme court’s consideration and disposition of  Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley, a case pending before the court which involves questions relating to interpretation and application of the unusual circumstances exception to the categorical exemptions from CEQA.

In Citizens for Environmental Responsibility the 14th Agricultural District found a proposed two-day rodeo at the Santa Cruz County fairground exempt from CEQA under the Class 23 Categorical Exemption—an exemption that applies to “normal operations of existing facilities for public gatherings for which the facilities were designed, where there is a past history of the facility being used for the same or similar kind of purpose.”

Fairground’s history of similar activities.  In granting the exemption, the District noted the long history of similar activities at the fairground.  The facility included equestrian/livestock arenas and barns, most of which were constructed in 1941. The existing equestrian facilities had been in existence for at least 50 years, and on average, the fairground sponsored two to four equestrian livestock shows per month for the past 25 to 30 years. In the late 1970s, the fairground hosted at least eight annual rodeos. The District also noted that the rodeo would utilize existing facilities and no construction or physical alternations of the grounds were proposed. Manure would be dealt with as described in the previously adopted manure management plan.

The unusual circumstances exception.   The categorical exemptions from CEQA are subject to an exception that makes the exemption inapplicable when significant impacts will occur due to unusual circumstances.  The court concluded the plaintiff failed to establish unusual circumstances which would trigger the exception.   The court reasoned that the unusual circumstances inquiry is exemption-and facility-specific: When determining whether the circumstances of the project differ from the circumstances covered by the Class 23 categorical exemption for the normal operations of a public gathering facility, it is appropriate to look at other activities at the facility that make up its normal operations and compare those circumstances against those presented by the proposed project.

Criteria for identifying unusual circumstances.  The court also identified criteria that would show an activity presents unusual circumstances under the Class 23 exemption:

  • the project proposes a significant change in operation to distinguish the project from normal operations
  • unusual environmental risks are presented by the proposed project
  • the project is inconsistent with the surrounding zoning and land uses
  • the scope and size of the project are dissimilar from other projects at the facility.

The court found that under these criteria, there was nothing to suggest anything unusual compared to past activities at the fairground.

California Supreme Court grants review.  On July 9, 2014 the California Supreme Court granted a petition for review of the Court of Appeal’s decision.   The supreme court ordered that further action on the matter is deferred pending its decision in  Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley, a case pending before the court which raises several issues relating to interpretation and application of the unusual circumstances exception to the categorical exemptions.  See our June, 2012 post for a discussion of the issues before the court in Berkeley Hillside.

Lack of Prejudice Barred Relief Despite Defective Hearing Notice

An opponent of a Wal-Mart project was thwarted in his attempts to use an admittedly defective hearing notice as a basis for overturning project approvals.  The court ruled that his claims were defeated by his failure to present evidence of prejudice and by a prior appellate decision.  Roberson v. City of Rialto, No. E058187 (4th Dist. 5/21/14 [ordered published 6/17/14]). Continue Reading

Santa Cruz Becomes First County to Ban Fracking

Santa Cruz County has become the first California county to permanently ban the controversial oil and gas drilling technique known as fracking. By a 5-0 vote, the Board of Supervisors this week amended its General Plan to prohibit all facilities for oil and gas exploration and development within the unincorporated County.

The ban replaces a temporary moratorium on fracking instituted last year that was set to expire this September. The new prohibition may have no practical effect, as the County has no active oil and gas production.

Santa Cruz County joins Beverly Hills, which earlier this month became the first California city to ban fracking.

Categorical Exemptions Under CEQA — The Latest on the Unusual Circumstances Exception

Finally, a CEQA case about rodeos.

In a recent case decided by the Third District Court of Appeal the court upheld the use of a CEQA exemption for a proposed rodeo at a county fairground despite claims it would pollute  a nearby creek.   Citizens for Environmental Responsibility v. State of California ex rel. – 14th Dist. Agricultural Association (No. C070836).

Since 1941, various events, including equestrian and livestock shows and the annual county fair took place at the fairground. Given all these animal-related events, the fairground found itself with a fair amount of left over manure, and, beginning in the 1960s, developed practices to collect and remove the manure. These practices were formalized in a manure management plan, written in 2010.

In 2011, Stars of Justice proposed a two-day rodeo at the Santa Cruz County fairground. The 14th Agricultural District, which administers the fairground, found the project exempt from CEQA under the Class 23 Categorical Exemption—an exemption that applies to “normal operations of existing facilities for public gatherings for which the facilities were designed, where there is a past history of the facility being used for the same or similar kind of purpose.”

In granting the exemption, the District noted the long history of similar activities at the fairground. The facility included equestrian/livestock arenas and barns, most of which were constructed in 1941. The existing equestrian facilities had been in existence for at least 50 years, and on average, the fairground sponsored two to four equestrian livestock shows per month for the past 25 to 30 years. In the late 1970s, the fairground hosted at least eight annual rodeos. The District also noted that the rodeo would utilize existing facilities and no construction or physical alternations of the grounds were proposed. Manure would be dealt with as described in the previously adopted manure management plan.

Plaintiffs challenged the exemption on two grounds, first, the manure management plan was mitigation which precluded the use of an exemption, and second, the unusual circumstances exception applied.

Manure management was part of the normal operations of the fairground.

The court disposed of the mitigation argument. The manure management plan was not a new measure proposed for or necessitated by the rodeo project. Rather, it was a preexisting measure previously implemented to address a concern which had been formalized in writing before the rodeo project was even proposed. Therefore, the court concluded, the manure management plan was part of the ongoing “normal operations” of the fairground and not a mitigation measure of the project.

There was nothing unusual about the rodeo.

All categorical exemptions from CEQA are subject to an exception that makes the exemption inapplicable when significant impacts will occur due to unusual circumstances.  The court concluded the plaintiff failed to establish unusual circumstances.  As a result, the exemption applied.  The court stressed that the unusual circumstances inquiry is exemption-and facility-specific: When determining whether the circumstances of the project differ from the general circumstances covered by the Class 23 categorical exemption for the normal operations of a public gathering facility, it is appropriate to look at the facility’s other activities, i.e. events or operations that comprise the normal operations of that facility and compare those circumstances against those presented by the proposed project.

The court rejected the plaintiffs’ assertion that the court must compare the circumstances presented by a proposed project to all public gathering facilities in general. This is because the Class 23 exemption, unlike other exemptions, concerns the activities that are “normal operations” of a public gathering facility, and the focus, therefore, should be on the activities that make up a facility’s normal operations.

The court also identified criteria that would show an activity presents unusual circumstances under the Class 23 exemption:

  • the project proposes a significant change in operation to distinguish the project from normal operations
  • unusual environmental risks are presented by the proposed project
  • the project is inconsistent with the surrounding zoning and land uses
  • the scope and size of the project are dissimilar from other projects at the facility.

The court found that under these criteria, there was nothing to suggest anything unusual compared to the facility’s past activities.

Conditions of Approval: “No Do-Overs” On A Condition The Landowner Failed To Challenge When First Imposed.

A landowner’s attack on a condition of approval of a development permit was barred by the landowner’s failure to contest the same condition when it was imposed on an earlier permit, according to a recent court of appeal decision.  Bowman v California Coastal Commission, B243015 (2d Dist 2014). 

San Luis Obispo County issued a coastal development permit to rehabilitate a house on a 400-acre beachfront property.  The county conditioned the permit upon dedication of an easement for public access along the property’s shorefront. The landowner did not appeal to the Coastal Commission or otherwise contest the condition.

Nine months later, the landowner applied for a second coastal development permit, again to rehabilitate the house and also to replace a barn on the property.  This second application requested removal of the easement condition.  The county approved this second permit, and removed the condition, but environmental groups appealed to the Coastal Commission.  The Coastal Commission determined that the easement condition was permanent and binding, and that removal of the condition would violate the Coastal Act policy favoring public access to coastal resources.  It conditioned the second permit on implementation of the easement condition of the first permit.  The landowner sued, seeking to overturn the condition.

The court sided with the Coastal Commission.  It concluded the county made a quasi-judicial determination that the easement condition was valid when it issued the first permit, which became final when the landowner failed to appeal the condition imposed on that permit.  That administrative decision is protected by the doctrine of collateral estoppel, the court ruled, which precludes litigation of claims that were contested in a prior proceeding or that could have been contested.  Accordingly, the landowner could not launch what amounted to a collateral attack on the first permit condition simply by challenging the second permit.

The court clarified that the status and nature of the coastal development permit were not relevant, since collateral estoppel applied to the final decision to impose the condition rather than to the permit itself.  As a result, it was irrelevant that the landowner might have been entitled to “walk away” from the first permit and that the first permit might have expired. Likewise, it did not matter that the Coastal Commission might have modified the permit condition.  The landowner pointed to “nothing that would compel the Commission to modify that access easement condition, a condition the validity of which is not subject to attack.”  The court also found that whether the landowner accepted the first permit was also beside the point.

The court also found that the record contained sufficient evidence to support the Coastal Commission’s implied finding that the landowner accepted the permit by completing work on the house restoration; the contention the landowner could accept this benefit while rejecting the burdens of the permit was, according to the court,  “untenable.”  In addition, it found the fact that the landowner completed the work on the  house before the first permit was issued  even more unavailing.  concluding the landowner should not be allowed to obtain an advantage by proceeding with work without a permit.

Note:  The court has ordered rehearing on an important question relating to  how the evidence in the record of the agency’s proceedings should be treated by a reviewing court.  The court has asked the parties to address specific questions in supplemental briefing  including how the  rule which provides that a court  ”must consider all relevant evidence,  including evidence detracting from the decision” when determining whether an agency’s decision is supported by substantial evidence should be applied and whether it is appropriate for a reviewing court to engage in a “limited weighing of the evidence”  under the substantial evidence standard of review.   The court’s decision on these and related questions when it rehears the case could affect its rulings on whether the evidence in the record supported the Coastal Commissions determinations.

While rehearing is pending,  the opinion is not citable as precedent.  Nevertheless, the court’s rulings on the legal effect of the original conditions of approval  illustrates how important it can be to act quickly in contesting unacceptable conditions to a development approval.

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