The court of appeal held that the City of St. Helena did not violate CEQA by approving a demolition permit and design review for a multi-family residential project without preparing an environmental impact report. McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group v. City of St. Helena (2018) 31 Cal.App.5th 80.  The court held that because the city’s discretion


A Summary of Published Appellate Opinions Under the California Environmental Quality Act

The California Supreme Court issued its only CEQA opinion of 2018 at the end of the year. In Sierra Club v. County of Fresno, the court rejected a standard air quality impact analysis in the EIR for a typical mixed-use development project.

The court of appeal held that the plaintiff’s challenge to the City of Rohnert Park’s reapproval of a Wal-Mart grocery store was barred by the doctrine of res judicata because a prior proceeding had raised the same issues.  Atwell v. City of Rohnert Park (Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.), 27 Cal. App. 5th 692 (2018).

In 2010, the City approved the Wal-Mart project.  Following the City’s approval, the Sierra Club and Sonoma County Conservation Action (SCCA) filed a petition challenging the project on grounds that it violated CEQA and conflicted with the City’s General Plan Policy LU-7.  Policy LU-7 sought to “encourage new neighborhood commercial facilities and supermarkets to be located to maximize accessibility to all residential areas. … to ensure that convenient shopping facilities such as supermarkets and drugstores are located close to where people live and facilitate access to these on foot or on bicycles … this policy will encourage dispersion of supermarkets rather than their clustering in a few locations.”

While the plaintiffs in the 2010 proceeding alleged that the project conflicted with Policy LU-7 in their petition, the plaintiffs did not pursue the claim during the proceeding.  The trial court ultimately granted the petition on the CEQA claims and ordered that the resolutions approving the Project be vacated, and that the Project be remanded for additional environmental review with respect to traffic and noise impacts.

The City prepared a revised EIR;  however, the EIR did not alter the original EIR’s analysis of the project’s consistency with the General Plan.  Following the City’s reapproval of the project in 2015, the plaintiffs filed this current proceeding challenging the project’s consistency with Policy LU-7.  The trial court denied the petition finding that the petition was barred by the 2010 proceeding under the doctrine of res judicata.

The doctrine of res judicata applies where a claim or issue raised in the present action is identical to a claim or issue litigated in a prior proceeding, the prior proceeding resulted in a final judgment on the merits, and the party against whom the doctrine is being asserted was a party or in privity with a party to the prior proceedings.
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The Supreme Court of California has granted review of two cases to resolve a split among courts of appeal over whether the issuance of well permits pursuant to state standards is subject to CEQA. California Water Impact Network v. County of San Luis Obispo and Protecting Our Water & Environmental Resources v. Stanislaus County.

At the forefront of these cases is whether the standards issued by the Department of Water Resources for well construction give local agencies any discretion when issuing well permits. Water is a critical resource in the state and with enactment of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014, groundwater, particularly its sustainable withdrawal and quality, are issues receiving more attention. Consequently, the practice of ministerial approval of well construction permits by local agencies without discretionary environmental review have come under increasing scrutiny.

In both California Water Impact Network and Protecting Our Water & Environmental Resources, plaintiffs alleged that the counties’ practice of treating approval of well construction permits as a ministerial action results in hundreds of permits being issued each year without CEQA review. The plaintiffs assert that this practice, and the counties’ respective ordinances, violate CEQA because the state standards are not entirely objective, rather, they give the counties discretion to consider local environmental factors when issuing a permit. It is against this backdrop that the Court will consider both cases. The Court’s decision will likely affect how well construction permits are reviewed and issued by local agencies throughout the state.

Water Code Section 13801 requires local agencies to adopt the minimum standards established by DWR for well construction. These standards, in DWR Bulletins No. 74-81 and 74-90, provide guidance on well construction, location, surface features, seals, casing materials and so forth with the goal of preventing groundwater contamination and pollution. Stanislaus County’s well ordinance incorporates both DWR Bulletins, while San Luis Obispo County’s ordinance only incorporates DWR Bulletin 74-81, though in practice, the county also applies the standards in DWR Bulletin 74-90.
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The California Natural Resources Agency has adopted new CEQA Guidelines that will leave behind level of service in favor of vehicle miles traveled.

Following years of development and public comment, the Office of Planning and Research (OPR) and the Natural Resources Agency have issued new CEQA Guidelines for analyzing transportation impacts.  These new regulations represent a significant shift in analyzing transportation impacts under CEQA.  By July 1, 2020, all CEQA lead agencies must analyze a project’s transportation impacts using vehicle miles traveled (VMT).  VMT measures the per capita number of car trips generated by a project and distances cars will travel to and from a project, rather than congestion levels at intersections (level of service or “LOS,” graded on a scale of A – F).  California’s largest cities have already adopted VMT standards and abandoned LOS, but many other jurisdictions will continue to require LOS analysis — not for CEQA purposes, but because their general plans or other policies require LOS analysis.

In this update, we highlight key aspects of the VMT guidelines and how projects could be impacted by this important change in conducting transportation impacts analysis.


Background

In 2013, the California legislature enacted SB 743, which required, among other things, that OPR adopt new guidelines for assessing transportation impacts and that when enacted, traffic congestion would no longer be considered in assessing a significant impact under CEQA.  The purpose was to better align transportation impacts analysis under CEQA with the state’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and traffic-related air pollution and promoting multimodal transportation networks and a diversity of land uses.  Under the existing framework of congestion-based analysis using LOS, infill and transit-oriented development is often discouraged because such projects are in areas of existing traffic congestion.  As policymakers and legislators have recognized, congestion-based analysis does not necessarily improve the time spent commuting and is often at odds with state goals of reducing vehicle usage and promoting public transit.  Indeed, a frequent solution to reducing level of service at intersections is to increase roadway capacity, which studies have found can actually lead to an increase in system-wide congestion and an increase in travel time.  It is also now better understood that LOS does not accurately reflect vehicle travel as it only focuses on individual local intersections and roadway segments and not on the entire vehicle trip.

VMT is not a new tool for assessing environmental impacts under CEQA.  It is used to assess a project’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, and energy.  Using VMT for analyzing transportation impacts will emphasize reducing the number of trips and distances vehicles are used to travel to, from, or within a development project.  Projects located near transit and/or within infill areas generally have lower VMT than projects in rural or undeveloped areas.  The shift to VMT analysis under CEQA is intended to encourage the development of jobs, housing, and commercial uses in closer proximity to each other and to transit.
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Where a petitioner in a CEQA case has elected to prepare the administrative record but unreasonably delays such preparation, the defendant agency may prepare the record itself and be awarded costs for doing so.  LandWatch San Luis Obispo Co. v. Cambria Comm. Serv. Dist., 25 Cal. App. 5th 638 (2018).

LandWatch, a nonprofit organization,

A court of appeal has overturned a city’s mitigated negative declaration for a small mixed-use development in a historic overlay district, holding that aesthetic and traffic issues require the preparation of an environmental impact report. Protect Niles v. City of Fremont, 25 Cal. App. 5th 1129 (2018).

The proposed project, comprising 98 housing units