CEQA Portal Updates: 2020 Published CEQA Cases

The CEQA Portal was developed by the Association of Environmental Professionals to provide a set of tools for anyone interested in learning about the California Environmental Quality Act. It is intended for CEQA practitioners, attorneys, elected and appointed officials, students, and citizens to aid in understanding the goals of CEQA, its process and content requirements, and how to prepare CEQA documents.

The following is a listing of published cases that are available for review on AEP's CEQA Portal for 2020: 

2020 Published CEQA Cases

King and Gardiner Farms v. County of Kern (Feb. 25, 2020) Cal.App.5th

This case centered on the County’s ordinance for new oil and gas wells in agricultural areas. Prior to the ordinance’s adoption, oil and gas wells (and exploration) were allowed by right in agriculturally zoned areas of the county. King and Gardiner Farms (KG Farms) sued, alleging that the EIR prepared for the ordinance was inadequate. The trial court held in favor of KG Farms on some issues and in favor of the County on others. The Court of Appeal found that a number of KG Farms arguments had merit and set aside the ordinance and the EIR. The Court ordered that the baseline for the updated water supply analysis be “brought up to date,” rather than relying on a baseline that ignored the new countywide groundwater sustainability plan adopted under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The mitigation measures for the project’s significant impacts to water supplies inappropriately deferred formulation of the measures or delayed their actual implementation. The Court of Appeal also determined that the Final EIR did not adequately respond to comments on the Draft EIR where mitigation measures were suggested. The analysis of changes in noise levels from the project was determined to be inadequate.

Environmental Council of Sacramento v. County of Sacramento (March 2, 2020) Cal.App.5th

The case involved the EIR certified for the “Cordova Hills” development on the edge of urbanization in Sacramento County. The project encompasses a 2,669-acre site, currently vacant and used for cattle grazing. Proposed land uses include residential, office, retail, schools, parks, a trail network, and a future university. To put the project’s size into perspective, the future population of the development is estimated to be approximately 25,500, including the university population. The Environmental Council of Sacramento brought suit, alleging that the EIR had an inadequate project description and inadequate impact analysis, including impacts to land use, and did not include feasible mitigation measures. A key argument was that the EIR failed to analyze a scenario in which the university would not be built. The trial court held in favor of the County, and the Court of Appeal affirmed that judgment.

Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll v. City of Agoura Hills (March 17, 2020) Cal.App.5th

This case involves the MND adopted by the City with approval of a mixed-use commercial and residential development of 35 residential apartment units plus retail, restaurant, office, and open space on an 8.2-acre site. The project site is on an undeveloped hillside in the city, most of which is located within the Agoura Village Specific Plan. The trial court held in favor of Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll (STACK), concluding there was a fair argument that the project may have significant environmental impacts on cultural resources, sensitive plant species, oak trees, and aesthetic resources and that the MND’s proposed mitigation measures are inadequate to reduce those impacts to less than significant levels. The trial court also granted attorneys’ fees to STACK. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans Decision v. Department of Transportation (April 24, 2020) Cal.App.5th

The First District Court of Appeal reversed a judgment of dismissal with prejudice, entered by the San Diego County Superior Court after sustaining a demurrer without leave on statute of limitations grounds to a group’s action challenging the CEQA review for Caltrans’ Interstate 5/State Route 56 freeway interchange project. The opinion (1) interprets, as a matter of first impression, the scope and operation of the statutory CEQA exemption in Streets and Highways Code Section 103, and (2) holds that Caltrans’ repeated misrepresentations and misleading conduct during and concerning the project’s CEQA and approval process precluded the trial court from finding as a matter of law that Caltrans was not estopped to assert the ban of the 35-day statute of limitations based on its filing of a Notice of Exemption with the State Clearinghouse.

Coalition for an Equitable Westlake/MacArthur Park v. City of Los Angeles et al. (Adrian Jayasinha et al., Real Parties in Interest) (April 2, 2020) Cal.App.5th

The court affirmed a judgment dismissing a CEQA action challenging the City’s project approvals and MND for a mixed-use development project. The reaffirmed trial court decision followed Supreme Court precedent “ma[king] clear that the filing of a facially valid notice [of determination or notice of exemption] starts the running of the statute of limitations, even where the underlying CEQA determinations may be flawed.”

Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management District (Tesoro Refining and Marketing Company, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (April 7, 2020) Cal.App.5th

The Second District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment upholding the EIR for Tesoro’s “Los Angeles Refinery Integration and Compliance Project.” The project involved Tesoro’s adjacent Carson and Wilmington oil refining facilities, which date from the early 1900s. This project proposed to integrate these facilities to increase flexibility and improve regulatory compliance by reducing air pollution. The court upheld the EIR’s description of baseline conditions and identified that the plaintiff failed to bring environmental concerns before the District.

Willow Glen Trestle Conservancy v. City of San Jose (May 18, 2020) Cal.App.5th

The Sixth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial of a historic preservation group’s writ petition that challenged the City’s entry into a Streambed Alteration Agreement with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which agreement was needed to implement the City’s pedestrian bridge project involving demolition of the historic Willow Glen Railroad Trestle. The court applied Public Resources Code Section 21166 and CEQA Guidelines Section 15162 to hold that no subsequent discretionary approval triggering a duty on the City’s part to conduct supplemental CEQA review had occurred.

Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego (June 12, 2020) Cal.App.5th

The Fourth District Court of Appeal mostly affirmed the trial court’s judgment invalidating San Diego County’s approvals of a 2018 Climate Action Plan, related Guidelines for Determining Significance, and related Supplemental EIR (SEIR). The court found that the CAP’s reliance on a greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation measure—M-GHG-1—lacked enforceable performance standards and improperly deferred and delegated mitigation. The SEIR failed to adequately analyze the environmental effects of probable future projects as required by CEQA to avoid a “piecemeal” review approach that fails to disclose those future projects’ cumulative impacts. The court also ruled against the SEIR regarding the range of alternatives provided and responses to comments.

Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods v. The Regents of the University of California (June 25, 2020) Cal.App.5th

The First District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment entered after sustaining a demurrer without leave to amend. It held that a nonprofit group’s petition and complaint for declaratory relief adequately stated a cause of action on the basis that UC Berkeley’s approval of student enrollment increases far beyond those projected in its 2005 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP), and analyzed in the related 2005 Program EIR, constituted a “project” requiring CEQA review and mitigation. This decision held that the enrollment increases were not statutorily exempt under Public Resources Code Section 21080.09, which requires an EIR for LRDPs.

Golden Door Properties v. Superior Court of San Diego County (July 30, 2020) Cal.App.5th

The Fifth Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision and held that the County of San Diego acted in error by permanently destroying copies of emails that are not marked as "official records" after 60 days. The Court of Appeal held that “[p]reparing a record under Public Resources Code Section 21167.6 is not an end in itself, but rather the means for judicial review of CEQA determinations. A thorough record is fundamental to meaningful judicial review. Therefore, we hold that Section 21167.6 requires the lead agency to retain such writings.”

Martis Camp Community Association v. County of Placer, et al. (Retreat at Northstar Association, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (August 17, 2020) Cal.App.5th

The plaintiffs requested a writ of mandate challenging the County’s abandonment of public access rights to Mill Site Road, which was denied by the trial court. The County prepared an addendum to the EIR for the Martis Camp project (formerly known as the Siller Ranch project) instead of to the EIR for the Retreat at Northstar project, which is where the County's desired change (restricting public access to Mill Site Road) would take place. While the Court of Appeal held that the County’s mistake was understandable since the “sole effect of the abandonment was to alter traffic circulation patterns in the Martis Camp community, which was analyzed in the Martis Camp EIR,” it also held that this was “inconsistent with the requirements of CEQA,” since abandoning public access to Mill Site Road was a discretionary change to the Retreat at Northstar project, not to the Martis Camp project.

Parkford Owners for a Better Community v. County of Placer (Silversword Properties, LLC, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (August 26, 2020) Cal.App.5th

The plaintiff challenged a building permit granted by the County for expansion of a self-storage facility under CEQA and the Planning and Zoning Law. The plaintiff’s request for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction was denied, as the plaintiff's suit was filed five months after construction of the disputed project began, and the permit granted was a ministerial approval not subject to CEQA. The plaintiff appealed but by the time briefs had been filed, the disputed project was “up and running.” The Court of Appeal found that “completion of the [project] has rendered moot [plaintiff's] challenge to the building permit authorizing construction of the expansion.”

Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources v. County of Stanislaus (August 27, 2020) Cal.App.5th

The California Supreme Court rejected both the defendant’s position that all its well permits are ministerial approvals exempt from CEQA and the plaintiff’s position that all such permits are discretionary approvals subject to CEQA. The Court held that “[w]hether County’s issuance of the challenged permits is discretionary or ministerial depends on the circumstances. As a result, County may not categorically classify all these projects as ministerial. For the same reason, plaintiffs have not demonstrated that all issuance decisions are properly designated as discretionary.”

San Francisco Taxi Coalition v. City and County of San Francisco (November 9, 2020) (9th Cir.2020)_F.3d_.

On November 9, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a published opinion affirming a judgment on the pleadings, granted by Northern District Presiding Judge William Alsup, in a removed action filed by a group of taxicab drivers and companies against the City of San Francisco. Of primary interest for present purposes was the Ninth Circuit’s treatment of its remand of plaintiffs’ state law claims, one of which was a CEQA claim. The Ninth Circuit held plaintiffs had failed to plausibly allege that the challenged regulations constituted a “project” within the meaning of CEQA.

Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (November 24, 2020) Cal.App.5th

On November 24, 2020, the Fifth District Court of Appeal filed its partially published opinion in the latest installment of the long-running CEQA litigation over Fresno County’s approval of the Friant Ranch project. Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (Friant Ranch, L.P., Real Party in Interest) (2020). The Court of Appeal’s most recent 34-page opinion (19 pages of which are unpublished) affirms the trial court’s 2019 judgment issuing a writ of mandate following the post-Supreme Court decision remands from the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, respectively. The Court held that CEQA does not allow partial decertification of an EIR as a remedy and even if CEQA were to allow a partial decertification remedy such a remedy would be inappropriate in this case as a matter of fact because the necessary severance findings under Public Resources Code Section 21168.9(b) cannot appropriately be made.

Santa Clara Valley Water District v. San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (Dec. 29, 2020) Cal.App.5th

The First District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying a petition for writ of mandate filed by the Santa Clara Valley Water District challenging waste discharge requirements (WDR) imposed by a responsible agency, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (Board), on lead agency District’s flood control project after its initial approval. The Court reached this decision through application of Public Resources Code Section 21174, which it held preserved the Board’s “independent authority” under the Porter-Cologne Act to later impose the mitigation requirements in its WDR order.

CEQA Topic Papers

The following updates have been added to the Portal regarding CEQA Topic Papers:

  • Cumulative Impacts (New!)
  • Findings (New!)