California Environmental Quality Act
This week brought yet another critique from the right of the California Environmental Quality Act. Unlike most, this one isn’t confined to concerns over land use, unnecessary regulation, and high housing cost. Rather, CEQA’s ills have grown so vast that, apparently, it now deserves blame for California’s low educational attainment, lousy job growth, extreme wealth inequality, and significant domestic out-migration.
Jennifer Hernandez and David Friedman are attorneys with the firm of Holland & Knight, which has been an astute observer of, and enthusiastic participant in, the evolution of CEQA caselaw. (See for example the firm’s analysis of CEQA lawsuits over infill projects.) They are the authors of “California’s Social Priorities," a new report published by Chapman University’s Center for Demographics and Policy, whose director is that well-known free-market critic of regulation, Joel Kotkin.
The report (and it is a report, not a study) offers some compelling—dare I say original—claims about California’s decline and its misplaced “social priorities.”
The City of San Diego did not violate the California Environmental Quality Act when it used as a baseline situation conditions that existed after emergency repairs were made under a CEQA exemption, the Fourth District Court of Appeal. The plaintiffs had argued that the city used the post-emergency baseline as a way to avoid CEQA review of a larger project.
The ruling overturned a trial court’s ruling, and was a defeat for perpetual plaintiffs’ attorney Cory Briggs, who frequently files CEQA lawsuits against the City of San Diego. The only victory Briggs got on appeal was a refund of his client’s $100 appeal fee charged by the city.
A couple of weeks ago, CP&DR reported on two land use measures on local ballots in California related to oil drilling – one in Hermosa Beach that would have allowed it, which failed, and one in La Habra Heights that would have restricted it, which also failed.
We dutifully recorded it as a split decision, but I think the biggest news isn’t how these ballot measures turned out. The biggest news is that oil drilling is back on the ballot in California at all.
The Santa Barbara oil spill was the event that birthed the modern environmental movement. But it’s been 30 years since we’ve seen much ballot activity related to oil.
Now that the fracking boom has hit California, local anti-oil activists are increasingly pushing to get fracking bans passed – and place broader oil-related measures on local ballots. And it’s clear that the oil industry is willing to spend enormous sums of money to try to influence these local elections.
In a ruling critical to moving forward Sacramento’s downtown basketball arena, the Third District Court of Appeal has given the City of Sacramento a clean win in a wide-ranging CEQA challenge brought by a group of individual environmentalists.
Most significantly, the appellate court found that the city did not violate the California Environmental Quality Act by committing itself to a downtown arena site prior to the completion of the environmental impact report and did not have to consider the site of the existing Sleep Train Arena in Natomas in its alternatives analysis.
By a 5-2 vote, the California Supreme Court has issued a complex ruling that tends to support CEQA exemption for a large house in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (Logan).
Monday’s opinion is largely favorable to computer industry pioneer Mitch Kapor, founder of the Lotus software company, and Freada Kapor-Klein, who have been trying since 2009 to build a large house in the Berkeley hills. Their proposed single-family house and garage together would measure nearly 10,000 square feet, on a lot that is itself much larger, but that is situated on a steep slope reached by a small road. Berkeley applied two categorical exemptions from CEQA to the project: single-family and infill. Project opponents argued that the house was so big that it presented "unusual circumstances" and should be denied the safe harbor of a categorical exemption. Among other things, the issuance of the ruling will permit another CEQA “unusual circumstances” Supreme Court case to move forward.
Considering their importance, the public hasn't heard much about Friends of Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority and Kings County v. Surface Transportation Board. The two cases, respectively before the California Supreme Court and the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, could end California environmental review of public rail projects in California – most notably the High Speed Rail project and might indirectly affect private rail operations including oil trains.
The cases shaped up this winter into tests of whether the Surface Transportation Board (STB) can block environmental reviews of rail projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The STB and two state rail agencies contend that CEQA review crosses onto the STB's exclusive regulatory turf under the 1995 Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA), 49 U.S.C. §10101 et seq.
In addition to the state Supreme Court dispute on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's action, three other Newhall Ranch cases continue in litigation, all brought by plaintiffs and attorneys overlapping with the group before the high court. (See http://www.cp-dr.com/node/3461 for more links on these cases.)
The Newhall Ranch environmental review litigation, itself a mighty matter of land use legend, has an important strand of its multiply braided conflicts awaiting an oral argument date before the state Supreme Court.
The parties' briefing is complete. The court has accepted a deep layer of amicus briefs from state-level land use players. And with the confirmation of Justice Leondra Kruger, the court has finally returned to full membership. So the court has little reason to delay setting an argument date.
The State Supreme Court heard oral arguments December 2 in the major Berkeley Hillside CEQA exemptions case, focusing on the legal significance of the term "unusual circumstances".
While the genesis of the case is a single residence, the ruling may have statewide impact on the application of exceptions to categorical exemptions from CEQA. Thus, the case has attracted interest from environmental advocates, public agencies, preservation activists, and the development community across the state.
You think this is going to be another piece about the shortcomings and backfires of the California Environmental Quality Act. It’s not.