Articles Posted in CEQA

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Less than one week remains to comment on important proposed changes to the CEQA Guidelines that flow from the 2013 adoption of “SB 743.” Once phased in, these Guidelines will change the evaluation of a project’s potential transportation impacts and, if the Guidelines function as the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) desires, alter the pattern of California land development. Under the Guidelines, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) will replace level of service (LOS) as the standard a lead agency must measure a project’s traffic impacts. Under the new metric, what was mitigation for traffic impacts, such as the widening of roads, will soon be considered a significant impact. Accordingly, the implications of these Guidelines go beyond the need for traffic engineers to retool their traffic models (itself a complex task).

Of course changing CEQA is bound to be controversial. OPR’s first Guideline proposal generated numerous and diverse comments, reflecting differences among California’s lead agencies’ size and access to transit, and stakeholders’ individual (often ideological) views on transportation. As a result, OPR issued a second set of proposed Guidelines on January 20, 2016, which can be viewed on OPR’s website. Comments on this latest draft must be submitted to by 5:00pm on February 29, 2016.

Practical Implications of the New Guidelines

OPR proposes to revise Appendix G, which is the heart of the proposed Guidelines. Although Appendix G is provided for guidance only, agencies typically follow it almost to the letter. As proposed, the transportation significance thresholds in Appendix G would eliminate questions related to LOS and instead focus on VMTs, including whether a project would induce additional automobile travel by increasing physical roadway capacity. In addition, OPR proposes technical guidance, to be published as a separate document, to help lead agencies implement the new Guidelines. This technical guidance includes recommended quantitative thresholds and analysis methods for determining the transportation impacts from various types of projects, including residential, retail, office, and roadway development. Following are some of the practical consequences that we foresee resulting from the proposed changes: Continue reading →

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The Cox Castle & Nicholson land use team has prepared a summary of all the 2015 legal developments relating to the California Environmental Quality Act, including all the published court decisions, a very few legislative changes, and developments regarding the CEQA Guidelines.  There were a number of important developments in 2015 court decisions, but little significant activity in the Legislature or with respect to CEQA Guideline changes.  The California Supreme Court issued four decisions, covering topics such as whether EIRs are required to evaluate impacts to a project from existing environmental conditions, how to evaluate greenhouse gas emissions, and the legal standards governing the use of categorical exemptions from CEQA review.  There were over 20 appellate decisions under CEQA, and generally these decision  upheld EIRs, particularly on questions of how to determine the environmental baseline that is used in measuring impacts.


Please click here to read the full 2015 CEQA Summary.

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As we start to look back on significant new laws approved by California’s Legislature in 2015, climate change once again took a prominent role. In particular, SB 350 ups the State’s targets for the amount of electricity to be generated in future years from eligible renewable energy resources and sold to retail customers, setting the goal of 50% by 2030. The law also requires the California Energy Commission to set annual targets to double energy efficiency in buildings by 2030. With SB 350, California has strongly reaffirmed its role as a leader in the effort to confront global climate change, while also providing a clear signal to renewable energy developers that solar and wind will continue to play a growing role in the state’s energy future.

SB 350 also emphasizes the important role of electric vehicles in California’s overall scheme to combat climate change, declaring that “[d]eploying electric vehicles should assist in grid management, integrating generation from eligible renewable energy resources, and reducing fuel costs for vehicle drivers . . . .” The bill promotes the development of additional electric vehicle charging infrastructure to encourage greater use of electric cars.

SB 350 follows the renewable energy equation inherent in previous California climate change legislation by relying not only on increasing the sources of renewable energy generation, but also on the reduction of statewide electricity and natural gas demand. As consumers see not only the environmental benefits of energy efficiency, but also the personal economic savings, many renewable energy policies have come to be seen as “win-win.” As a result, Continue reading →

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Most of us know that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is the state agency in charge of administering the California Endangered Species Act, which is the state’s version of the federal Endangered Species Act.  CDFW is also the state agency that regulates certain work activities within streambeds.  Under the California Fish and Game Code, CDFW has regulatory authority over the installation of culverts, bridge supports, erosion controls, or other such work within streambeds.  But beware!  CDFW’s regulatory reach has been extended significantly.  A recent decision by a California Court of Appeal now gives CDFW regulatory authority over the mere taking of water out of its natural flow for agricultural purposes, even if the streambed itself is not altered to facilitate the taking of that water.

By way of background, before a person may start work in a streambed, typically he or she must submit a “notification” to CDFW informing the agency of the nature of the work and any anticipated impacts to waterways or special species habitats within or adjacent to those waterways due to that work.  If CDFW determines the work may “substantially adversely affect” any fish and wildlife resources, then the agency will attempt to negotiate a “streambed alteration agreement” with the party.  These agreements often include significant, and sometimes quite onerous, conditions and restrictions on development.  Moreover, the whole process can take several months and typically requires some form of environmental clearance under the California Environmental Quality Act.  Only after both (i) CDFW and the party performing the work have signed the agreement and (ii) all other necessary approvals have been obtained may work in the streambed commence.

In Siskiyou County Farm Bureau v. Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Third District Court of Appeal determined Continue reading →

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The California Supreme Court’s latest California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) decision contains important rulings affecting three areas of land use and environmental law practice.  The decision, Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (November 30, 2015, Case No. 217763), was a 5-1-1 decision, and it arose out of one of many environmental impact reports (EIRs) that have been prepared for the large Newhall Ranch development that is proposed in northern Los Angeles County.  This particular EIR followed earlier EIRs certified by Los Angeles County in 1999 and 2003 in connection with the County’s primary project approvals.  The new EIR was a joint EIR/EIS prepared by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the impacts of several additional project approvals, including a resource management plan, a conservation plan for the endangered spineflower plant, a streambed alteration agreement, and two permits for the incidental take of protected species.

Several of the rulings in the case are likely to make the CEQA process, and the analysis of greenhouse gas emissions in CEQA documents, more complicated.  The primary rulings in the case are discussed below.

EIR Analysis of greenhouse gas emissions upheld in part, rejected in part.  The Court upheld some aspects of the EIR’s lengthy analysis of greenhouse gas emissions, but found that the analysis was not thorough enough.  There are three components to this ruling. Continue reading →

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Does CEQA require an evaluation not only of a proposed project’s potential impacts on the environment, but also of the potential impacts of the existing environment on the proposed project and its future residents or users? If the answer is “both,” then public agencies will be required to expand what has been the traditional scope of environmental review under CEQA. The practical effects would likely include an increase in the cost of preparation of CEQA documents, an expansion of the scope and cost of project mitigation measures, greater reliance by agencies on statements of overriding consideration, and enhanced litigation opportunities for project opponents.

This issue, which has come to be known by the shorthand expression “reverse CEQA,” is now under consideration by the California Supreme Court in California Building and Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Oral arguments were heard on October 7, 2015, and a decision is expected by the first week of January 2016. Cox, Castle & Nicholson Partner Andrew Sabey argued before the Court on behalf of the California Building and Industry Association.

While the specific context of this case involves air-quality issues, during oral argument the Justices focused on the broader question of whether CEQA requires evaluation of those existing environmental conditions that may affect future residents or users of a proposed project. Depending on the scope and direction of the Court’s upcoming ruling, many existing conditions could become subject to CEQA evaluation, such as degraded air quality, odors, shadows from existing buildings, urban blight, impaired views, loss of night sky, noise, and so forth. Continue reading →

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Although we, as lawyers, don’t much care for it, one of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines is “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Hopefully, our clients don’t subscribe to that wish, but developers must at times wish that they had more control over which lawyers gets paid and how much.

The problem arises after a project is approved. Frequently, a city or a county will include a condition of project approval which requires the developer to indemnify the city or county and hold it harmless if an opponent sues to set aside the approval. This will include paying the costs incurred by the city or county to pay its lawyers in defending the lawsuit seeking to set aside the approval. This means that the developer is immediately on the hook for two sets of lawyers: its own and the agency’s.

Often in the past, cities and counties left the defense – and thus the cost of the lawyers – up to the developer. It wasn’t cheap, but at least it meant that the developer didn’t have to pay twice. That may be changing. Continue reading →

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It’s frequently important to know when a land use project’s approvals are safe from judicial review. Sales often won’t close until the buyer is certain that the project’s approvals won’t be lost and lenders generally won’t lend until they can be certain that the approvals are good. Unfortunately, litigation is an all too often component of the real estate development process in California. Opponents have been presented by the Legislature and the courts with a whole panoply of weapons to attack the approval of a project, the three main ones being the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), the Planning and Zoning Act and the Subdivision Map Act. However, all of the acts contain statutes of limitations which specify how long an opponent has to start litigation but the time limits and who has to be served differ.

The first thing to know is what level of government is granting the approval and whether it is appealable to a higher level. As an example, many cities and counties will allow a planning commission to approve a tentative subdivision map subject to appeal to the city council or board of supervisors. The appeal must be filed within ten days of the planning commission’s approval of the tentative map. A failure to appeal means that an opponent has failed to exhaust its administrative remedies and is therefore barred from having a court review the approval regardless of the claimed violation of law. The law is similar for conditional use permits and variances which are also generally approved by planning commissions, subject to appeal to the city council or board of supervisors.

Other approvals, such as general plan amendments, rezonings and development agreements, can only be approved by a city council or a board of supervisors. There are no administrative remedies to exhaust because no further appeal is available. The only way to attack these approvals is to file a lawsuit within the time allowed by the appropriate act. For this reason, a transactional document should never condition an action on the time in which to bring an “appeal” has passed without one having been filed when it is the city council or board of supervisors which is the approving entity. Continue reading →

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As California developers and public agencies well know, the entitlement process in our state is driven by CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act.  CEQA, in turn, functions pursuant to the CEQA statute and the “CEQA Guidelines.” If you’ve ever wondered who writes those CEQA Guidelines, the answer is “the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research,” or “OPR.”  The CEQA Guidelines reflect OPR’s interpretation of CEQA’s statutory requirements, its reading of case law construing CEQA, and its take on “practical planning considerations.”  As a result, this little known operation in the Governor’s office plays a pivotal role in California’s entitlement process.  CEQA Guidelines are formally adopted by the Natural Resources Agency following review by the Office of Administrative Law, but OPR basically writes the Guidelines.

This year, OPR is engaged in two separate endeavors to amend the CEQA Guidelines.  One ongoing effort is the product of SB 743, legislation adopted in 2013 which likely will revolutionize the way traffic impacts in California are evaluated and mitigated by focusing on vehicles miles travelled (VMT) rather than level of service (LOS).  We have discussed with you in prior “Lay of the Land” posts the potential implications of the new SB 743 Guidelines being prepared by OPR.

The other effort began two years ago, when OPR announced its intent to consider a broad range of revisions to the CEQA Guidelines.  OPR solicited public comments and received a very large number of comments making a wide variety of suggestions.  Since then, OPR has been considering the many comments and suggestions received, and OPR has now, on August 13, released a preliminary draft of proposed Guidelines amendments based on the public suggestions and OPR’s own ideas.  The public is invited to comment, through October 12, and this is an important opportunity for stakeholders in the CEQA process to evaluate the proposals and weigh in with comments.  In contrast to recent Guideline amendments on particular topics such as greenhouse gas emissions, this is the first overall update of the Guidelines in many years. Continue reading →

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In the legal world, the word “dictum” refers to words in a court opinion which are best considered non-binding “remarks” or “comments.”  Relying on dictum in a 2006 Supreme Court decision, the California State University Board of Trustees (the “University”) concluded that paying its fair share of offsite mitigation related to the traffic impacts of its proposed expansion of the San Diego State University campus was “infeasible.” Under CEQA, a proper finding of infeasibility would have allowed the University to adopt a Statement of Overriding Considerations and avoid the University’s fair share of offsite traffic mitigation.  The only factual basis for the University’s finding of infeasibility was that the Legislature had not earmarked specific funds to cover the University’s traffic mitigation costs and was not likely to do so.

This week, the California Supreme Court issued a decision in City of San Diego v. Board of Trustees of the California State University stating in a moment of candor that the dictum which had been relied upon by the University was “simply an overstatement.” The Court concluded that the University failed to address the availability of funding from other sources and could not support its claim that using other funds available to the University for offsite mitigation would be an illegal gift of public funds. The Court agreed with the position urged by the City of San Diego, stating that under the University’s reasoning “off-site mitigation would likely be found infeasible for many, if not all, state projects that receive non-state funding, and more such projects would proceed without mitigation pursuant to statements of overriding considerations.”  Because the Court concluded that the absence of earmarked funds did not make the University’s participation in the mitigation infeasible, the Statement of Overriding Considerations was invalid.

Although the specific holdings of this case apply to State agencies, the decision is an important reminder of the care that must be taken with any project, whether private or public, in making proper findings to support a Statement of Overriding Considerations.  To support a Statement of Overriding Considerations, CEQA requires both (i) that a finding be made that there are specific considerations which make identified mitigation measures or alternatives infeasible and (ii) that there are “overriding economic, legal, social, technological, or other benefits of the project” which outweigh the project’s significant unmitigated impacts. For the first finding, CEQA defines “feasible” to mean “capable of being accomplished in a successful manner within a reasonable period of time, taking into account economic, environmental, legal, social, and technological factors.”  Therefore, in the City of San Diego case, once the Court determined that reliance on the Legislature’s failure to earmark mitigation funds did not alone make the University’s fair share traffic mitigation obligation “infeasible,” the Statement of Overriding Considerations was doomed.

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