The filing of a notice of determination triggers a 30-day statute of limitations for all California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) challenges to any decision announced in the notice, regardless of the nature of the alleged CEQA violation, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

In a decision filed on February 11, 2010, in Committee for Green Foothills v. Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, the unanimous Supreme Court reversed the Sixth District Court of Appeal, which had ruled that a 180-day statute of limitations applied in the case.

Factual Background

On December 12, 2000, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors certified an environmental impact report (EIR) and approved a community plan and general use permit for Stanford University to add buildings to its campus. The EIR found that the project would significantly impact public access to recreational facilities. As mitigation, condition I.2 of the permit required Stanford to identify and dedicate easements for, develop, and maintain the portions of two trail alignments that cross Stanford lands as shown in the 1995 Santa Clara countywide trails master plan (routes S1 and C1). Route S1 was not challenged in this action. In 2005, the board instructed county staff to pursue an agreement with Stanford on the C1 trail alignment. In December 2005, the trails agreement was presented to the Board of Supervisors for consideration as mitigation for the permit.

The trails agreement realigned the trail routes so that portions of route C1 would be located within San Mateo County and the Town of Portola Valley, so long as the named jurisdictions cooperated. The resolution adopted by Santa Clara County declared that the agreement satisfied condition I.2. Admittedly, alternatives for the C1 route were not studied for their potential environmental impacts due to the uncertainty of where the routes would be located, but the board approved the agreement pertaining to the C1 alignment as satisfying permit condition I.2, stating: "The county's approval of the agreement for trail easements does not constitute county approval of construction, operation or maintenance of specific trail improvements along those routes. The agreement for trail easements contemplates that, prior to any trail improvements, detailed construction plans will be reviewed and considered by the jurisdictions of San Mateo County, Town of Portola Valley and Town of Los Altos Hills, and that those jurisdictions will have discretion to consider whether and how to improve trail improvements."

The board obligated Stanford to provide requisite funds and easements to the jurisdictions to ensure the trail was completed. Alternatively, if the named jurisdictions did not enter into agreements to permit the construction of the trail, Stanford was to pay Santa Clara County up to $11.2 million. (San Mateo County has since declined to permit the trail.) Santa Clara County would use the funds – in an unspecified way – to mitigate the adverse effects on recreational opportunities for existing or new campus residents and users who resulted from the larger project under the permit. With that, the board determined no further CEQA review of route C1 was required prior to the execution of the agreement.

Two notices of determinations (NODs) were filed for the approval of the agreement. The first NOD did not include a reference to the C1 trail alignment. The second NOD was filed on December 20, 2005, and changed the project description to include the board's actions with respect to the C1 and C2 trail alignments. The later NOD referenced the EIR for the S1 trail alignment, the 2000 permit EIR and the countywide trails master plan EIR/supplemental EIR as supporting CEQA documents.

The organization Committee for Green Foothills filed a lawsuit after the 30-day period following the second NOD, but within 180 days of the board's adoption of the agreement. The petitioner asserted the county had violated CEQA by approving a C1 trail alignment without conducting a CEQA review.

Court of Appeal Decision

The Court of Appeal, Sixth District, held that the longer 180-day statute of limitations contained in CEQA Guidelines § 21167(a) applied. In sum, the appeals court was largely focused on procedural issues – mainly, that the Committee for Green Foothills was entitled to amend its petition to allege facts sufficient to bring its case within the 180-day statute of limitations (see CP&DR Legal Digest, July 2008).

Supreme Court's Decision

The California Supreme Court held that the 30-day statute of limitations under § 21167(e) – rather than the 180-day statute of limitations under subdivision (a) – applied. The court based its decision not only on the language of § 21167, but on the law's legislative history. In looking at the statutory language, the court reasoned that applying subsection (a) of § 21167 as proposed by the petitioner would have made no sense because "the limitations period in subdivision (a) starts when a project is approved or begun, and it continues for 180 days." Further, subdivision (a) specifically contemplates that no NOD is filed by an agency. Here, the county filed an NOD.
An analysis of the CEQA Guidelines conducted by the court revealed that "the applicable statute of limitations depends in the first instance on whether a public notice was filed," and that the 180-day statute of limitations applies only where no public notice has been given (e.g., no notice of exemption or determination has been filed). The CEQA Guidelines further indicate that the filing of a notice of exemption starts a 30-day statute of limitations (see 14 California Code of Regulations, §§ 15075(g) and 15049(g)).

The legislative history of § 21167 indicates that subsections (d) and (e) were added to the statute in 1974. A report prepared by the Department of Water Resources regarding AB 2338 for the 1973-1974 legislative session, in which the amendments were proposed, said, "[E]ssentially any determinations made by public agencies under the Environmental Quality Act will be subject to a 30- or 35-day challenge limitation, provided a notice of determination has been filed. If no notice is filed or utilized, a 180-day period of limitation applies."

Finally, the Supreme Court looked to the policy considerations posed by CEQA – the prompt resolution of challenges to decisions of public agencies regarding land use, and the fact that bright line rules provide certainty to public agencies and developers.

The Supreme Court's decision could be a preview of its ruling in Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton, (2007) 157 Cal.App.4th 332, cert. granted, (2008) 72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 622, which was argued before the Supreme Court in January. The Third District Court of Appeal ruled that the CEQA statute of limitations never commenced because there was no valid approval of the project in question.

The Case:
Committee for Green Foothills v. Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, No. S163680, 2010 DJDAR 2313. Filed February 11, 2010.
The Lawyers:
For Committee for Green Foothills: William P. Parkin, Wittwer & Parkin, (831) 429-4055.
For the county: Lizanne Reynolds, deputy county counsel, (408) 299-5940.
For Stanford University: Barbara J. Schussman, Bingham McCutchen, (415) 393-2380.