An agency could be equitably estopped from relying on the 35-day statute of limitations applicable to a CEQA Notice of Exemption where the agency had misled the public into expecting the agency would instead circulate a Final EIR for public comment and file a Notice of Determination following project approval. Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans Decision v. California Department of Transportation, 46 Cal. App. 5th 1103 (2020).
Caltrans and the San Diego Association of Governments jointly developed the North Coastal Corridor (NCC) Project, which included multiple highway and railroad improvements along a 27-mile corridor between San Diego and Oceanside. One of the components of the NCC Project was construction of interchange ramps connecting Interstate 5 and State Route 56. Streets and Highways Code Section 103 created a streamlined approval process for the NCC Project, including an exemption of certain project elements from CEQA review.
Caltrans’s Final EIR for the I-5/SR-56 interchange contained conflicting language regarding the CEQA process: while it stated that the project was exempt from CEQA, it also stated that Caltrans would decide whether to approve the project after circulating the Final EIR and would file a Notice of Determination if it approved the project. A few weeks after publishing the Final EIR, and before the start of the public comment period on the Final EIR, Caltrans approved the interchange project and filed a Notice of Exemption with the State Clearinghouse. The Notice of Exemption had a different State Clearinghouse Number than the Final EIR. Caltrans then initiated the 30-day review period on the Final EIR and subsequently responded to the comments that it received on the Final EIR.