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

Despite relatively few published opinions this year, there were significant appellate court rulings on a range of topics, including whether projects are properly classified as discretionary or ministerial, the adequacy of mitigation, agencies’ document retention obligations, the remedy for an inadequate EIR, mootness, and statutes of limitations.

The one California Supreme Court CEQA decision addressed the distinction between discretionary projects and exempt ministerial projects. In Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources v. County of Stanislaus, the court held that the agency’s issuance of  well permits was discretionary in certain circumstances because the permit approval process required the agency to exercise independent judgment and allowed it to modify a project in response to environmental concerns.

A key theme in several cases, involving both EIRs and negative declarations, was courts’ critical look at the adequacy of mitigation measures. In three cases, the court held that agencies had improperly deferred formulation of mitigation. In one case, the court held that a greenhouse gas mitigation measure allowing for carbon offsets was inadequate because it lacked assurances that the offsets would be effective mitigation and it did not specify objective standards for implementation. In another case, the court held that a mitigation measure requiring oil and gas drillers to develop and implement a plan to reduce their water use improperly deferred formulation and implementation of mitigation and lacked enforceability. The court also ruled that agricultural conservation easements are not adequate mitigation for the loss of farmland because they do not offset that loss or create new farmland. In a third case, the court held inadequate a mitigation measure that required construction monitoring and development of a data recovery excavation program if avoidance of archaeological sites was not possible; the agency had not analyzed whether archaeological sites could be avoided and the mitigation measure did not specify performance criteria for evaluating the feasibility of avoidance.

In a significant decision on administrative records, a court held that a lead agency must save all emails about a project, notwithstanding any contrary records retention policy. The court further held that a lead agency could be compelled to produce potential administrative record documents through discovery.

One court applied the mootness doctrine to dismiss a case where construction of the project was completed during litigation. In that case, the developer did not begin construction in violation of any court orders or in bad faith, and the petitioners waited to seek an injunction until construction was nearly completed.

In a decision that conflicts with holdings from other appellate districts, the Fifth District held that partial decertification of an EIR is never permissible when the EIR has been adjudged inadequate; rather, decertification of the entire EIR is the only remedy. The court also held that even under the rule followed by other courts, partial decertification was not appropriate because the EIR’s defects could not be severed from the statement of overriding considerations that supported the agency’s approval of the project.

The following summaries are intended to identify the key issues in the cases decided in 2020. Each summary is linked to a more detailed post on this site describing the court’s opinion.
Continue Reading CEQA YEAR IN REVIEW 2020

The First District Court of Appeal held that Public Resources Code section 22531 unconstitutionally restricted judicial review of licensing decisions by the Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission regarding thermal power plants over 50 megawatts. Communities for a Better Environment v. Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission, No. A157299 (1st Dist., Dec. 8, 2020).

A claim that a contract for construction of a school violated public bidding requirements did not become moot after construction was completed because effective relief — in the form of disgorgement of public funds paid to the contractor — was still available in plaintiff’s taxpayer action. Davis v. Fresno Unified School District (Davis 2)

An anti-SLAPP motion was properly denied because the claims for damages arose from breach of contract and tort actions, not from any protected First Amendment activity.  Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal, LLC v City of Oakland, 54 Cal.App.5th 738 (2020).

This case arose from an ongoing dispute between the City of Oakland and Oakland Bulk

The State Density Bonus Law, Government Code section 65915, provides the opportunity to develop additional market-rate housing and receive other benefits in exchange for including affordable units in a project.  Governor Newsom recently signed legislation, Assembly Bill 2345, that makes several amendments to the Density Bonus Law, the most significant of which will increase how

Governor Gavin Newsom has issued Executive Order N-80-20, extending through March 31, 2021 Executive Order N-28-20, which allows local governments to impose commercial eviction moratoriums and restrictions for commercial tenants who are unable to pay their rent because of COVID-19.

The governor’s order only addresses commercial evictions (as AB 3308 fully addressed residential evictions through

The Third Appellate District determined that Placer County met relevant statutory requirements when it partially abandoned public easement rights in a road originally intended to be used only for emergency access and public transit vehicles that residents of the area had been using as an unauthorized short cut between two neighboring residential subdivisions. Martis Camp Community Association v County of Placer, No. C087759 (Third. Dist., Aug 1, 2020).

Background.

The road at the center of the dispute connects Martis Camp, a private gated community adjacent to the Northstar ski resort development, and the Retreat at Northstar, a residential development next to Martis Camp located within the Northstar resort itself.

In 2003, Placer County adopted the Martis Valley Community Plan, which provided that a road connecting Martis Camp and the Retreat would be restricted to public transit and emergency access only. The EIRs for the Martis Camp and Retreat developments, approved two years later, also envisioned that the road would be restricted to these uses. Despite these restrictions, several years after the road was constructed, Martis Camp residents began using it as a short cut through the Retreat community to Northstar village.

By 2014, from 100 to 250 private vehicles were using the road on a daily basis, and it was estimated that once Martis Camp was built out, traffic could triple.  After various efforts to stop the unauthorized use of the road failed, Retreat property owners requested that the County abandon public road easement rights in the road.  Following a series of public hearings, the Board of Supervisors approved a partial abandonment, thereby restricting use of the road to Retreat property owners and emergency and public transit vehicles only, consistent with the uses described and analyzed in the Community Plan and the EIRs for the two developments.

The Martis Camp homeowners’ association and some individual property owners (the “Martis Camp homeowners”) filed suit to challenge the County’s action, claiming it violated the statutory requirements for abandonment of a public road; that it impaired their abutter’s rights to access the road giving rise to an inverse condemnation claim; and that the Board  had violated both the Brown Act and CEQA when it approved the abandonment.  The trial court ruled for the County on each of these claims and the Martis Camp homeowners appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Abandonment of a Public Road.   The court of appeal rejected the Martis Camp homeowners’ claim that the County’s decision violated the statutory requirements for the abandonment of a public road, explaining that under the Streets and Highways Code, a county is authorized to vacate all or part of a street, highway, or public service easement where it makes two findings — first, that the road is unnecessary for present or prospective public use, and second, that the abandonment is in the public interest.
Continue Reading County May Abandon Public Easement Rights to Prevent Unauthorized Use of Road

The court of appeal held that the City’s approval of mixed-used development projects was not an “artificial, arbitrary, or unnecessary barrier[]” to fair housing necessary to support disparate-impact claims under the FHA and FEHA.  AIDS Healthcare Foundation v. City of Los Angeles, No. B303308 (2nd Dist., June 15, 2020).

The City of Los Angeles

The City of Lafayette violated the Brown Act by not including a litigation threat discussed in closed session in the agenda packet made publicly available before the meeting, but plaintiffs failed to show any prejudice resulting from the violation. Fowler v. City of Lafayette, 46 Cal. App. 5th 360 (2020).

Homeowners sought approval from the City build a cabaña near a tennis court on their property. Plaintiff neighbors appealed the Planning Commission’s approval to the City Council. During consideration of the appeal, the homeowner’s attorney threatened to sue the City if it denied the project. The City Attorney notified the City Council of the litigation threat orally in a closed session. The threat was not noted in the agenda for any of the public meetings, and there was no mention of it in the information packets made available to the public before the meetings. At its final public meeting, the City Council denied the appeal and upheld the Planning Commission’s approval of the application.

Plaintiffs sued, contending that the City violated the Brown Act by discussing the application in closed hearings, and that plaintiffs were deprived of their right to a fair hearing.

Brown Act Violation

Plaintiffs claimed the City violated the Brown Act by failing to announce or make available for public inspection the litigation threat that served as the basis for closed session discussions. The City argued it was not required to include the litigation threat in the pre-meeting agenda packet because the threat was not distributed in written form to the City Council. The court of appeal rejected this argument, stating that under the Act, the record of a litigation threat to be discussed in closed session must be reduced to writing and included in the agenda packet made available upon request before a meeting. Therefore, the City violated the Brown Act.
Continue Reading Brown Act Violation Did Not Require Nullification of Project Approval Where No Prejudice Was Shown