The California Supreme Court has issued its long-awaited decision in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley, No. S201116 (March 2, 2015). The Court’s decision clears up some of the ambiguity that has surrounded the standard of review for challenges to CEQA exemptions under the unusual circumstances exception. In doing so, the Court rejected the controversial approach taken by the court of appeal and instead opted for a middle ground, balancing the interest in giving effect to the legislatively-mandated exemptions against CEQA’s overarching goal of ensuring review of significant environmental effects.


The project at issue was a large house to be built in the City of Berkeley. The city granted a use permit and found the project exempt from CEQA under the Class 3 (construction and location of limited numbers of new, small facilities or structures) and Class 32 (in-fill development) exemptions. The city also determined that none of the exceptions to categorical exemptions listed in CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2 were triggered, including the exception for a “significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.” An organization sued, alleging, among other things, that the exemptions were barred by the unusual circumstances exception.

The court of appeal overturned the City’s exemption determination, holding that the possibility that a proposed activity might have a significant effect on the environment “is itself an unusual circumstance,” barring reliance on a categorical exemption.

A Potentially Significant Environmental Effect Alone Is Not Sufficient to Trigger the Unusual Circumstances Exception.

The California Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that a party bringing a challenge under the unusual circumstances exception must establish both 1) that there are unusual circumstances that justify removing the project from the exempt class; and 2) that there is a reasonable possibility of significant environmental impacts due to those unusual circumstances.

The Court began by examining the text of section 15300.2, which provides: “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.” According to the Court, the plain language of this provision supported the view that there must be some showing of unusual circumstances for this exception to apply. The court of appeal’s interpretation would, the Court found, render the phrase “due to unusual circumstances” mere surplusage.

The Court further found that under the court of appeal’s interpretation, the categorical exemptions would have little, if any, effect. The Court noted that under CEQA section 21080(c) and (d) and Guidelines section 15061(b)(3), when there is no substantial evidence that an activity will have a significant effect on the environment, “further CEQA review is unnecessary; no CEQA exemption is necessary to establish that proposition.” Thus, under the court of appeal’s interpretation, the categorical exemptions would serve no purpose, applying only when the proposed project is already outside the scope of CEQA review.
Continue Reading California Supreme Court Upholds Most Commonly Used CEQA Categorical Exemptions

A Summary of Published Appellate Opinions Under CEQA

 By Stephen Kostka, Julie Jones, Barbara Schussman, Alan Murphy,  Ned Washburn, Laura Zagar, Kathryn Bilder, Christopher Chou and Marie Cooper

In 2014, courts, regulators and public agencies continued to struggle with the relationship between CEQA and California’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Courts of appeal held

The California Supreme Court’s involvement in CEQA cases has been relatively limited since the statute’s enactment in 1970, with the court taking review of at most one or two appellate court decisions a year.  The last two years have, however, seen a dramatic shift in this trend, with the result that the court now has nine pending cases on its docket.  The pending cases span a broad range of issues, but they all involve fundamental questions:  the breadth of CEQA’s reach, the scope of agency discretion, the vitality of categorical exemptions, limits on mitigation obligations, and procedural limitations on CEQA litigation.

  • The court’s review in one case will include a key issue regarding CEQA’s scope — does required environmental review end with effects of the project on the environment, or must the environment’s impact on the project also be examined?  The court’s decision should squarely resolve this issue.
  • A pair of cases before the court involve categorical exemptions and the exception for significant impacts resulting from “unusual circumstances.”  Courts of appeal have issued conflicting decisions on this topic, and the high court’s decision on this question could have a major effect on the efficacy of these commonly used exemptions.
  • Limits on judicial review of an agency’s CEQA decisions is the subject of two cases before the court. In both cases, the courts of appeal took an expansive view of the powers of the court to reevaluate agency decisions. The high court may conclude that greater deference is owed lead agencies in light of their knowledge and expertise in the subject matter.
  • In two cases, the court will address potential limitations on the mitigation required for environmental impacts, including whether fiscal constraints can be used to limit mitigation measures and whether impacts on public services such as emergency and fire services must be mitigated.
  • The court will decide the important question of whether judicial review is limited to CEQA claims raised prior to the close of the period for public comment on a draft EIR, or whether issues raised for the first time during later hearings may also be considered.
  • Finally, the court will tackle another subject of conflicting appellate decisions — the effect of federal preemption on application of CEQA to publicly operated railroads. Resolution of the case will likely have significant implications for California’s High Speed Rail project.

Continue Reading California Supreme Court Poised To Decide Key CEQA Questions: The Court’s Lineup For 2015

In a long-awaited 2-1 decision, a court of appeal overturned the environmental impact report for the San Diego Association of Governments’ 2050 Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy. Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments (4th Dist., Div. 1, No. D063288, Nov. 24. 2014).   The most remarkable ruling, in what is likely to be viewed as a highly controversial decision, is the majority’s finding that the EIR was deficient because it did not assess the plan’s consistency with the 2050 greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal contained in an executive order issued by the Governor in 2005.

Background of the Plan and SB 375

The decision concerns SANDAG’s Regional Transportation Plan which contains the Sustainable Communities Strategy required by SB 375. When it enacted SB 375, the Legislature recognized that cars and light duty trucks emit 30% of the state’s greenhouse gases. Accordingly, SB 375 required the Air Resources Board to establish greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets applicable to cars and light duty trucks for each of the state’s metropolitan planning regions. The initial targets set goals for the years 2020 and 2035. SB 375 requires the Air Resources Board to consider new targets every eight years. The targets set for the San Diego area required a 7 percent CO2 reduction by 2020 and a 13 percent reduction by 2035.

In addition, the Legislature recognized that to achieve these targets, changes would need to be made to land use patterns and policies. For this reason, SB 375 also required Regional Transportation Plans to include land use-related strategies for achieving the targets, called Sustainable Communities Strategies. The SANDAG Regional Transportation Plan was the first in the state to be adopted with a Sustainable Communities Strategy.

The plan, however, drew fire. While it showed greenhouse gas emissions reductions through 2020, it also showed increases in greenhouse gas emissions after that date. Project opponents argued this was inconsistent with SB 375’s goals, the policy in AB 32 requiring that emissions reductions achieved by 2020 be maintained past that date, and an executive order targeting larger scale emissions reductions by 2050.

EIR’s Analysis of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

In 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger issued an executive order establishing statewide targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions that included reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.  The EIR found that SANDAG’s plan would reduce greenhouse gas emissions until 2020, but would increase them in later years.  While it discussed the 2050 emissions reduction target in the executive order, it did not treat the order’s 2050 emissions reduction target as a standard for assessing the significance of the plan’s greenhouse gas impacts.

The court’s majority agreed with the plan opponents held that the EIR’s greenhouse gas impacts analysis was inadequate for failing to analyze the plan’s consistency with the executive order. While the executive order was not a legislative enactment, and established only statewide rather than regional emissions reduction targets, the majority reasoned that the executive order led to later legislation that  “validated and ratified the executive order’s overarching goal of ongoing emissions reductions,” and therefore the executive order continues to “underpin the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the life of the transportation plan.”  According to the majority, the absence of an analysis comparing the plan with the executive order’s 2050 emissions reduction target amounted to “a failure to analyze the Plan’s consistency with state climate policy.”
Continue Reading EIR For SANDAG’s Regional Transportation Plan Rejected By Court Of Appeal

Proposals to redevelop infill sites can often present difficult issues relating to how the potential effects of preexisting contamination should be evaluated under CEQA.  In a recently published opinion, the court in Parker Shattuck Neighbors v Berkeley made it clear that, in the absence of real evidence a significant environmental impact might occur,  the fact

A court of appeal today rejected a CEQA challenge to an air pollution control district’s published thresholds of significance for air pollution impacts.  California Building Industry Association v Bay Area Air Quality Management District, No. 135335 (First District, July 13, 2013).  

The thresholds, contained in the District’s “CEQA Air Quality Guidelines,” were first

Every few years, with El Nino-like regularity, a wave of interest in CEQA reform sweeps through the business community, accompanied by pleas to the legislature to overhaul the statute.  In the end, few substantive changes are made.  This year is no exception. (See June 14th post).

Many of the recurring concerns involve the unpredictability of litigation challenging EIRs.  As is illustrated by the recent appellate court opinion in North Coast Rivers Alliance v Marin Municipal Water District, that unpredictability arises not from deficiencies in CEQA’s standard for judicial review, but from the failure of some courts to apply it.

The trial court in North Coast Rivers put the EIR a water district had prepared for a desalination project under a microscope, and found its treatment of eleven separate issues “inadequate.”  By contrast, in a straightforward application of CEQA’s standard of review — which requires judicial deference to agency findings of fact and policy determinations — the court of appeal reversed the lower court judgment and upheld the EIR.

Among other things, the court of appeal’s meticulous and carefully reasoned opinion addresses:

  • AB 32 standards and greenhouse gas significance thresholds
  •  Significance thresholds for aesthetic impacts
  •  Mitigation standards and deferred mitigation
  •  Description of the affected environment
  •  Use of pilot studies to assess potential impacts
  •  Treatment of regulatory agency protocols for analyzing impacts
  •  Analysis of inconsistencies with relevant plans
  •  Triggers for recirculation of an EIR

A detailed summary of the trial and appellate courts’ contrasting rulings follows.
Continue Reading Judicial Review of Environmental Impact Reports: Is There Really A Need for CEQA Reform?

The court of appeal opinion issued today in Concerned Dublin Citizens clearly answers three CEQA questions which haven’t been directly addressed in other published opinions: the proper interpretation of the statutory exemption for housing projects that are consistent with a specific plan; how the CEQA guideline on further review following a program EIR should be