Recently in CEQA Category

Last-Minute CEQA Bill Brings Significant Changes for Major Infrastructure Projects and Projects within Transit Priority Areas

September 24, 2013

By Garrett Colli

This session's California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") reform bill, Senate Bill 743 ("SB 743") packs a potentially large punch, but only for a narrow group of projects. SB 743 is the brainchild of Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who made CEQA reform a top political priority for 2013. While Senator Steinberg's primary objective was to deliver on a promise to NBA Commissioner David Stern to streamline approval of the Sacramento Kings arena project, SB 743 also provides new rules of general applicability that significantly benefit select projects. First, with regard to projects in transit priority areas, SB 743 reduces the scope of CEQA's impact analysis and may also change the standard traffic evaluation. Second, SB 743 substantially expedites judicial review of so-called "environmental leadership development projects." Thus, while many will be disappointed that SB 743 does not completely overhaul CEQA, certain project proponents will benefit tremendously from the new rules.

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California Supreme Court to Local Agencies: Hypothetical Future Baselines in CEQA are not per se Improper in All Cases, but likely are Improper in the Vast Majority

August 5, 2013

by Neill Brower

An August 5, 2013, the California Supreme Court provided some additional flexibility to local agencies in deciding what conditions properly constitute the "baseline" for analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA"). The decision, Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority ("Neighbors"), Case No. S202828, narrowly upholds the environmental impact report ("EIR") prepared for phase 2 of the Exposition Corridor Transit Project ("Expo Phase 2") and strikes a middle ground among previous decisions regarding the use of various future baselines. The court ruled, among other things, that although an agency may, in very limited circumstances, evaluate project impacts on the basis of conditions anticipated to exist at the time of certification of an environmental impact report ("EIR") for the project, or on a hypothetical longer-term future baseline, these cases remain the exception, rather than the rule. If using only a hypothetical future conditions and omitting existing conditions as a baseline, an agency must demonstrate that an analysis based on existing conditions "would detract from an EIR's effectiveness as an informational document" by providing an uninformative or misleading analysis. In most cases, an agency must still evaluate the impacts of a project in comparison to existing conditions, though nothing prevents additional analysis of long-term impacts, particularly in the context of a cumulative analysis or a "no project" alternatives analysis.

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Citizens for Ceres v. Superior Court: New California Court of Appeal Opinion Addressing Privilege Issues in Connection with Review Under California's Environmental Quality Act Will Have Lasting Impact on Litigation Involving Land Use Entitlements

July 26, 2013

By Matthew Hinks

Effective environmental review of a real estate development project under the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") often requires that the approving agency and representatives of the developer work together collaboratively to ensure that environmental review is carried out according to the dictates of the law. However, doing so raises the question of the protectability of communications shared between the developer, the CEQA lead agency and their lawyers. Communications between an attorney and his or her client are privileged and are therefore not subject to disclosure as part of the discovery process or the administrative record in CEQA litigation. But what about in situations where communications take place or are shared among a developer, a lead agency and their lawyers?

A new California Court of Appeal opinion -- Citizens for Ceres v. Superior Court -- offers a new answer to that question, which will have significant practical implications for property owners and developers engaged in the CEQA process. However because the opinion appears to conflict with a prior Court of Appeal opinion, it is unclear how the rule announced by the Ceres court will get applied in future litigation. Moreover, there is significant question as to whether the Ceres rule will get applied outside of the CEQA context.

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CEQA Claimants Be Warned: New California Court of Appeal Opinion Holds That CEQA Filing Deadlines are Mandatory and Not Subject to Extension for Good Cause

April 25, 2013

By Matthew Hinks

Statues of limitations issues frequently loom large in litigation under the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") and can confound litigants and their counsel. Depending on the challenge being made and the context in which it is made, claims brought under CEQA may be subject to a range of limitations periods -- from 30 to 180 days. Moreover, the date on which a CEQA claim accrues is not always clear. For example, an agency making a CEQA decision may file a Notice of Determination, which generally triggers the shorter CEQA limitations periods, but parties with an interest in that same decision may not always get notice of the filing. For these reasons, among others, calculating the correct statute of limitations period applicable to a CEQA claim can be risky business. A new opinion from the California court of appeal, Alliance for the Protection of the Auburn Community Environment v. County of Placer, raises the stakes even higher and holds that a party may not obtain relief from a late filing by reason of mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect.

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Save Cuyama Valley v. County of Santa Barbara: JMBM Scores Significant Victory in CEQA Ruling on Significance Thresholds and Mitigation Measures

February 15, 2013

By Scott Castro

In a decision published on February 8, 2013, the Second Appellate District ruled in favor of the JMBM client Troesh Materials, LLC in a challenge brought pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") against the County of Santa Barbara's approval of Troesh's Diamond Rock Sand and Gravel Mine and Processing Facility (the "Diamond Rock Mine"). The decision, Save Cuyama Valley v. County of Santa Barbara (Case No. B233318), ruled on several important grounds under CEQA, and is further notable because it upholds the County's approval of an in-stream mining project within the bed of the Cuyama River. Troesh Materials, LLC was represented before the trial court and court of appeal by JMBM partner Scott N. Castro. The underlying County approval effort for Troesh's Diamond Rock Mine was led by JMBM partner Kerry Shapiro, leader of the Firm's land use group in San Francisco and co-chair of the Firm's Building Materials Group.

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Development Rights and CEQA Challenges: Court of Appeal Upholds 3-Year Tolling Agreement in CEQA Lawsuit - Cause of action governed by a 30-day limitations period

May 29, 2012

by Matthew Hinks

The California Legislature and the courts have recognized that challenges to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), if allowed to drag on, would impede the decisions of public agencies regarding land use. For this reason, CEQA imposes very short limitations periods and requires CEQA cases be given priority in both the trial courts and the courts of appeal.

But in a potentially troubling new case, the California Court of Appeal explicitly blessed the type of unreasonable litigation delay the Legislature protected against in enacting CEQA.

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CEQA: State Agencies and Extra-Jurisdictional Impacts

December 16, 2011

Neill Brower

The Fourth District of the California Court of Appeal recently ruled that the California State University system could not use budgetary uncertainty as a basis for determining the feasibility of mitigation for off-campus impacts. In City of San Diego v. Board of Trustees of the California State University, 2011 DJDAR 17803, filed on December 13, the court upheld a broad-based challenge to the EIR for the San Diego State University Master Plan.

Among other things, the EIR claimed that the University could not feasibly mitigate project-related traffic impacts that would occur off-campus. Consistent with mitigation measures in the EIR, the resolution approving the project and certifying the EIR required the University to request from the State legislature the necessary funding for the University's fair share of off-campus traffic- and transit-related improvements. The resolution also stated that because the University ultimately relied on funding from the State legislature, the University could not guarantee the allocation of sufficient funds or the timing of that allocation, nor could the University guarantee that the local agencies would fund the measures for which those agencies were responsible. Nevertheless, the resolution directed the Chancellor of the University to proceed with the project even if the legislature allocated insufficient funds for mitigation, finding that due to the various funding uncertainties, the off-campus traffic impacts would remain significant and unavoidable, but "are necessarily outweighed by the Statement of Overriding Considerations adopted by [the University]."

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CEQA: Sunnyvale Court Affirms Use of Multiple Baseline Scenarios in EIRs

November 23, 2011


Neill Brower

A recent court decision upheld the use of multiple scenarios in a traffic analysis in an environmental impact report ("EIR") for a redevelopment project. On November 22, 2011, the Sixth District of the California Court of Appeal certified for publication its decision in Pfeiffer v. City of Sunnyvale City Council ("Pfeiffer"), Case No. H036310, which rejected, among other claims, a challenge to an EIR traffic analysis that used future baseline scenarios to evaluate impacts. The decision highlights and reinforces (1) the necessity of discussing existing conditions in addition to other scenarios that may provide more useful information regarding project impacts; and (2) the importance of substantiating a decision to deviate from existing conditions as the analytical baseline.

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JMBM proposes amendments to CEQA

May 24, 2011

Sheri Bonstelle

JMBM's land use attorneys partnered with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, including its developer members, to draft amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") (Public Resources Code, Division 13, Sections 21000 et al) that will provide developers more certainty and protection from frivolous lawsuits that have threatened Hollywood development in a time of economic turmoil. Hollywood Chamber president, Leron Gubler, stated that thousands of construction and permanent jobs were lost in Hollywood, because CEQA lawsuits against eight key projects delayed the developments for one year to eighteen months. As a result, owners decided to put their projects on hold or abandon construction, because either the project lost financing backing or the onset of the recession eliminated the anticipated market. JMBM and the Hollywood Chamber met with State Senator Curren Price in January 2011 to discuss the serious implications of the lawsuits that threaten Hollywood's growth, even when the developer ultimately prevails. Senator Price lauded these amendments as changes that would strengthen CEQA, and agreed to sponsor the bill in the 2011 Senate term.

CEQA is the foundation for environmental law in California, and its primary objective is to require disclosure of any significant environmental effects of proposed projects and mitigation of these effects to the extent feasible. CEQA also provides strict timelines and expedited litigation schedules for cases involving a challenge to such environmental reviews. However, the law allows for lenient extensions by judges, and the one-year time limit to proceed to hearing is often extended to over two years. In recent years the State legislature considered numerous amendments to CEQA to further expedite the litigation schedule and eliminate frivolous claims to allow more certainty for owners and developers in the process. However, the amendments did not ultimately provide a timely resolution of pending lawsuits. As a result, owners decided to put their projects on hold or abandon construction, because either the project lost financing backing or the onset of the recession eliminated the anticipated market.

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Court decision changes CEQA-related traffic impact analyses

May 24, 2011

Neill Brower

A recent court decision has already changed the way many public agencies evaluate traffic impacts in analysis reports prepared to satisfy the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA"). On December 16, 2010, the Sixth District of the California Court of Appeal issued its decision in Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association v. City of Sunnyvale, invalidating an environmental impact report (EIR) for a major roadway extension project. Sunnyvale should be considered as a logical extension of case law regarding the proper baseline for CEQA analysis and the end of the future baseline scenario as the only basis of a traffic impact analysis.

Prior to Sunnyvale, an accepted practice for traffic impact analysis involved crafting a future baseline scenario, usually based on the anticipated year of project build-out, and evaluating project impacts based on the difference between future conditions with and without project-related traffic. This approach makes intuitive sense, as under very few circumstances would traffic levels and street configurations plus project traffic represent an accurate picture of the project's ultimate effect on local and regional roadways. The Sunnyvale decision even recognized this.

However, CEQA Guidelines require an evaluation of the effects of a project on "the environment." Generally, "the environment" means the physical conditions that exist in an area during publication of the Notice of Preparation (NOP) or, if no NOP is published, the time that environmental review began.

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