The need for “reform” of the California Environmental Quality Act is acknowledged by development interests and environmental groups alike. The challenge is that these stakeholders have very different ideas of what that reform should look like. As a result, despite the extraordinary costs of CEQA implementation and litigation, there appears to be little prospect for meaningful CEQA reform from the State Legislature. This article examines whether there is any prospect for meaningful CEQA “reform” from California’s Supreme Court.
CEQA is 46 years old, yet CEQA litigation remains remarkably unpredictable. State and local agencies still cannot be confident that the courts will uphold their actions. The chances that an EIR will be upheld in court remain close to a coin-flip, even lower for a negative declaration. That level of uncertainty remains the great cost of CEQA—greater even than the enormous expense of trying to comply with CEQA.
In the first 40 years of CEQA, the California Supreme Court issued only about 40 decisions interpreting it. Then, a few years ago, the High Court started granting review in CEQA cases at an unprecedented pace. It rather quickly had nine cases on its docket for review. Many commentators speculated that the Court was going to undertake CEQA reform from the bench, perhaps recognizing that the Legislature seemed incapable of coalescing around any meaningful reform.
In the past year, the Court has issued four CEQA decisions, with five more pending. The early returns are mixed in terms of offering newfound certainty. But the Court will have several opportunities in the coming months and years to offer assistance to all participants in the CEQA process by resolving pending cases in a clear and decisive manner.
The Court considered various issues in its decisions over the past year. In Berkeley Hillside, it addressed the standard of review for categorical exemptions and adopted a somewhat tricky two-part test. It also held in City of San Diego v CSUSD that the state university system cannot limit its mitigation measures to those specifically funded by the Legislature, affirmed in Newhall Land that greenhouse gas (GHG) emission impacts can be measured against statewide GHG-reduction targets set out in AB 32, while at the same time finding the State’s GHG analysis lacking. In a key decision addressing CEQA fundamentals, the Court held in CBIA v BAAQMD that CEQA generally applies to a project’s impact on the environment, not the environment’s impact on the project. While some might characterize this decision as “reform by court,” it really reflects a plain reading of the law, rather than reform. Continue reading →