Recent Cases - Land Use and Entitlements

In the belatedly-published Environmental Council of Sacramento, et al. v. County of Sacramento (Cordova Hills, LLC, et al. – Real Parties-in-Interest) (2020) ____ Cal.App.5th ____,[1] the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed judgment against a slew of California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) claims centered on Environmental Council’s and Sierra Club’s (collectively, “Environmental Council” or “petitioners”) contention that the project at issue included a component – a university – that is ultimately not likely to be built.  More specifically, petitioners contended that because the university was not likely to be built, the environmental impact report (“EIR”) prepared pursuant to CEQA was therefore insufficient for failing to analyze the project without the university and thereby understated project impacts to things such as air quality, climate change and transportation.
Continue Reading Failure to Include A No-Build Analysis in Project Description Does Not Violate CEQA

In Anderson v. City of San Jose (2019), the Sixth District Court of Appeal held that California’s charter cities must comply with the Surplus Land Act (Govt. Code § 54220 et seq.).[1] This decision, essentially, ruled that the statewide housing crisis is of paramount importance, and that all cities – even charter cities – must yield to the state law processes governing surplus land disposition and give affordable housing preference when building on surplus city land.
Continue Reading Appellate Court Holds Charter Cities Are Bound By State Housing Objectives, Signaling Erosion of Local Discretion

This Fall, the California Coastal Commission (“Commission”) was handed down two significant victories, further cementing its authority and jurisdiction within California coastal zones. These cases demonstrate that, in certain instances, compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (Pub. Res. Code §§ 21000 et seq.) (“CEQA”) and local regulations may not be enough to secure development rights for either private developers or local governments.
Continue Reading Fall Season Results in California Coastal Commission Victories

In rejecting a California Environmental Quality Act challenge to a mitigated negative declaration for conversion of a vacant apartment building into a 24-room boutique hotel (the “Project”), the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the City of Los Angeles’s use of an existing conditions baseline when assessing housing and population impacts. The decision in Hollywoodians Encouraging Rental Opportunities (HERO) v. City of Los Angeles et al. (2019) ___ Cal.App.5th ____ indicates that the time for courts to address population displacement, and more specifically affordable housing, as a CEQA-cognizable impact is fast approaching.
Continue Reading Court of Appeal Rules HERO Cannot Save Previously Vacated Rental Units

In Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento (2019) ___ Cal.App. 5th ___, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the City of Sacramento’s use of a sustainable communities environmental assessment (“SCEA”) pursuant to the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (SB 375), rather than a more traditional CEQA document (i.e., an environmental impact report or mitigated negative declaration), when it approved the Yamanee development (the “Project”) as a transit priority project (“TPP”). The mixed-use Project comprised one floor of commercial space, three levels of parking, 134 residential condominiums and one floor of residential amenities, for a total of 177,032 square feet on a 0.44-acre site. The Project also included inconsistencies with the City’s general plan density and building intensity standards. The court rejected arguments that the City improperly utilized a regional transportation and greenhouse gas (“GHG”) reduction plan in approving the SCEA; or that the SCEA should have further analyzed the Project’s cumulative impacts, and not relied on tiering off past EIRs. The holding further affirms the innovative and beneficial use of SCEAs in streamlining environmental review for qualifying TPPs.
Continue Reading Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment Upheld Under CEQA

In Tanimura & Antle Fresh Foods, Inc. v. Salinas Union High School District, the Sixth District Court of Appeal considered whether the Salinas Union High School District (“District”) acted reasonably in imposing a school impact fee on a new 100-unit residential development intended to only house adult seasonal farmworkers without dependents (the “Project”) employed by Tanimura & Antle Fresh Foods (“T&A”). After reviewing the relevant statutory schemes, the Legislature’s intent, and the District’s evidence for imposing the fee, the court found that the District properly determined a reasonable relationship existed between the fee and the new residential construction, even though the development would not generate any new students. Therefore, the District did not act arbitrarily by imposing the fee on the Project. In holding so, the court reversed the trial court judgment.

This decision reinforces the concept that, while school districts must demonstrate a nexus – or reasonable relationship – between development fees and the type of development, such as residential units, they generally are not required to evaluate the ultimate user of a particular development project before imposing district-wide fees on a developer. This ruling will likely have direct repercussions to a developer’s proforma in today’s marketplace, were both developers and local governments are implementing creative strategies for addressing certain housing shortages – such as the provision of specific workforce housing.
Continue Reading No Students? No Problem, Developer Still Pays

The belatedly published South of Market Community Action Network v. City and County of San Francisco (2019) ___ Cal.App.5th ___ (“South of Market”), is the first published decision in which the court applies the principles articulated by the California Supreme Court in the recent Sierra Club v. County of Fresno decision (commonly referred to as “Friant Ranch”) regarding the standard of review for the adequacy of an EIR (discussed in detail here).

The challenged EIR in South of Market set forth two proposed schemes for a mixed‑use development (the “5M Project”) on a 4-acre site in downtown San Francisco: an “Office Scheme” and a “Residential Scheme.” Under both schemes, the overall gross square footage was substantially the same, with varying mixes of office and residential uses. Additionally, each scheme would result in new active ground floor space, office use, residential dwellings, and open space. Both schemes would also preserve and rehabilitate the Chronicle and Dempster Printing Buildings, demolish other buildings on site and construct new buildings ranging from 195 to 470 feet in height.

Petitioners alleged a litany of CEQA violations in their petition, including claims regarding traffic and circulation, open space, inconsistencies with area plans and policies, and the adequacy of the statement of overriding considerations. Applying existing law and specifically relying on Friant Ranch, the South of Market court looked to whether the EIR at issue contained the details necessary for informed decision-making and public participation. The court emphasized that when assessing the legal sufficiency of an EIR, perfection is not required as long as a good faith effort at full disclosure has been made. Contrary to the petitioners’ allegations, the court held this standard was met here, demonstrating that, in this case at least, Friant Ranch does not appear to have led to a significantly different approach to resolving the various CEQA challenges alleged in the petition for writ of mandate.

To avoid redundancy and for the sake of brevity, the remainder of this post will address in detail only the more novel and/or nuanced holdings of the court.
Continue Reading EIR for Downtown San Francisco Mixed-Use Project Upheld Under Supreme Court’s Newly Articulated Standard of Review

In Fudge v. City of Laguna (G055711), published on February 13, 2019, the Fourth District Court of Appeal joined the First and Sixth Districts by reaffirming the need for a litigant to wait for the California Coastal Commission’s (“Commission”) determination on the appeal of a coastal development permit (“CDP”) prior to initiating litigation.

The key takeaway here is that a local agency’s California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) determination in cases where a CDP has been appealed is not final for purposes of adjudication if the Commission has not ruled on the appeal. While the exhaustion of administrative remedies doctrine is well established, this decision is unique in that it applies the doctrine even where a judicial challenge alleges only CEQA violations, providing insight into the relationship between CEQA and the Coastal Act. Moreover, this decision also addresses the extent to which the Commission’s standard of review is de novo.
Continue Reading CDP Applicant May Not Challenge Local Agency’s CEQA Decision on Coastal Development Permit While CDP Appeal to Coastal Commission Is Pending

In Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (S219783), the California Supreme Court unanimously reaffirmed that the substantial evidence standard of review does not always apply when a lead agency prepares an environmental impact report (“EIR”) for a development project. Rather, the court determined that the less deferential de novo standard applies if the EIR’s discussion of a potentially significant impact has been omitted or is factually insufficient. In other words, while a lead agency has considerable discretion as to the methodology and analysis it employs to analyze a potentially significant impact, an EIR must reasonably describe the nature and magnitude of the impact (i.e., include a meaningful explanation of why an impact is significant or not) if it is to survive judicial scrutiny. In County of Fresno, the court employed the de novo standard and held that the EIR’s air quality analysis was inadequate because it did not explain the connection between the project pollutants and negative health effects or explain why it could not make such a connection.
Continue Reading California Supreme Court Clarifies Scope of De Novo and Substantial Evidence Standards Of Review In CEQA Cases

WildEarth Guardians v. United States Bureau of Land Management, et al., 870 F.3d 1222 (10th Cir. 2017). WildEarth Guardians and the Sierra Club (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) brought a claim under the Administrative Procedure Act (the “Act”) against the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM), challenging the BLM’s decision to grant four coal leases in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. The basin accounts for almost 40 percent of the United States’ total coal production, and the subject leases would extend the life of two mines that provide almost 20 percent of the United States’ annual domestic coal production. Id. at 1227. Plaintiffs alleged the BLM’s determination that the leases would not have a significant effect on national carbon dioxide emissions, as compared to the “No Action” alternative, was arbitrary and capricious because (1) it was not supported by the administrative record and (2) the BLM failed to acquire information “essential to a reasoned choice among alternatives.” Id. at 1233–34. The Tenth Circuit agreed the decision was not supported by the record and remanded to the district court with instructions to enter an order requiring the BLM to revise its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Records of Decision, but refused to vacate the leases themselves. Id. at 1240.
Continue Reading Tenth Circuit Holds Bureau of Land Management Improperly Relied On Unsupported and Irrational Assumption in Analyzing Environmental Impacts of Coal Mining Leases