Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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In a consolidated appeal, defendant County of Placer decided to partially abandon public easement rights in Mill Site Road, a road that connected two adjacent residential subdivisions: Martis Camp (previously known as Siller Ranch) and the Retreat at Northstar (the Retreat). As originally planned, the connection between Martis Camp and the Retreat was intended for emergency access and public transit vehicles only. When the developments were approved in 2005, the environmental documents assumed there would be no private vehicle trips between Martis Camp and the Retreat or the Northstar community beyond; Martis Camp residents wishing to drive to Northstar-at-Tahoe (Northstar) would use State Route (SR) 267. However, sometime in or around 2010, residents of Martis Camp began using the emergency/transit connection as a shortcut to Northstar. In 2014, after efforts to have county officials stop Martis Camp residents from using the emergency access road failed, the Retreat owners filed an application requesting that the County Board of Supervisors (the Board) abandon the public’s right to use Mill Site Road. In 2015, the Board approved a partial abandonment, thereby restricting use of Mill Site Road to Retreat property owners and emergency and transit vehicles, consistent with what was described and analyzed in the prior planning documents. Then lawsuits followed. Plaintiffs, the Martis Camp Community Association (MCCA) and three individual Martis Camp property owners, appealed the denial of their petitions for writ of mandate challenging the County’s abandonment of Mill Site Road, as well as the dismissal (on demurrer) of the Martis Camp Homeowners’ inverse condemnation claim. After review, the Court of Appeal affirmed the portion of the judgment and order concluding that the County did not violate the Brown Act or the statutory requirements for abandonment of a public road, and affirmed the dismissal of the Martis Camp Homeowners’ inverse condemnation claim, but reversed and remanded as to plaintiffs’ California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) claim. View "Martis Camp Community Assn. v. County of Placer" on Justia Law

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Under California Public Resources Code section 21167.6, documents "shall" be in the record in a CEQA challenge to an environmental impact report (EIR). The County of San Diego (County), as lead agency for the Newland Sierra project, no longer had "all" such correspondence, nor all "internal agency communications" related to the project. If those communications were by e-mail and not flagged as "official records," the County's computers automatically deleted them after 60 days. When project opponents propounded discovery to obtain copies of the destroyed e-mails and related documents to prepare the record of proceedings, the County refused to comply. After referring the discovery disputes to a referee, the superior court adopted the referee's recommendations to deny the motions to compel. The referee concluded that although section 21167.6 specified the contents of the record of proceedings, that statute did not require that such writings be retained. In effect, the referee interpreted section 21167.6 to provide that e-mails encompassed within that statute were mandated parts of the record - unless the County destroyed them first. The Court of Appeal disagreed with that interpretation, "[a] thorough record is fundamental to meaningful judicial review." The Court held the County should not have destroyed such e-mails, even under its own policies. The referee's erroneous interpretation of section 21167.6 was central to the appeals before the Court of Appeal. The Court issued a writ of mandate to direct the superior court to vacate its orders denying the motions to compel, and after receiving input from the parties, reconsider those motions. View "Golden Door Properties, LLC v. Super. Ct." on Justia Law

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The Imperial Irrigation District (District) supplied water from the Colorado River system to California's Imperial Valley, holding its water rights in trust for the benefit of its users, and was empowered by California law to manage the water supply for irrigation and other beneficial uses. In 2013, the District implemented an equitable distribution plan with an annual water apportionment for each category of users (2013 EDP). Michael Abatti presently owns and farms land in the Imperial Valley. Abatti, as trustee of the Michael and Kerri Abatti Family Trust, and Mike Abatti Farms, LLC (collectively, Abatti) filed a petition for writ of mandate to invalidate the 2013 EDP on the grounds that, among other things, the farmers possess water rights that entitle them to receive water sufficient to meet their reasonable irrigation needs—and the plan unlawfully and inequitably takes away these rights. Abatti's position, fairly construed, is that farmers are entitled to receive the amounts of water that they have historically used to irrigate their crops. The District contended the farmers possessed a right to water service, but not to specific amounts; the District was required to distribute water equitably to all users, not just to farmers; and that the 2013 DEP allowed the District to do so, while fulfilling its other obligations, such as conservation. The superior court granted the petition, entering a declaratory judgment that prohibited the District from distributing water in the manner set forth in the 2013 EDP, and required the District to use a historical method for any apportionment of water to farmers. The District appealed, and Abatti cross-appealed an earlier order sustaining the District's demurrer to his claims that the District's adoption of the 2013 EDP constitutes a breach of its fiduciary duty to farmers and a taking. The Court of Appeal concluded the farmers within the District possessed an equitable and beneficial interest in the District's water rights, which was appurtenant to their lands. "Although the superior court acknowledged certain of these principles, its rulings reflect that it took an unduly narrow view of the District's purposes, thus failing to account for the District's broader obligations, and took an overly expansive view of the rights of farmers." The superior court was directed to enter a new judgment: (1) granting the petition on ground that the District's failure to provide for equitable apportionment among categories of water users constituted an abuse of discretion; and (2) denying the petition on all other grounds, including as to declaratory relief. View "Abatti v. Imperial Irrigation Dist." on Justia Law

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The California Environmental Quality Act (Pub. Resources Code 21000; CEQA) requires public universities to mitigate the environmental impacts of their growth and development, including student enrollment increases. To ensure that the University of California “sufficiently mitigate significant off-campus impacts related to campus growth and development,” the University is required periodically to develop a comprehensive, long-range development plan for each campus, based on the academic goals and projected enrollment. (Ed. Code 67504(a)(1).) The plan must be analyzed in an environmental impact report (EIR). A 2005 EIR that analyzed a development plan and projected enrollment increases for the U.C. Berkeley campus. Opponents claimed the University violated CEQA by increasing enrollment well beyond the growth projected in the 2005 EIR without conducting any further environmental review. The trial court ruled in favor of the University. The court of appeal reversed. Section 21080.09 does not shield public universities from complying with CEQA when they make discretionary decisions to increase enrollment levels. Opponents adequately pled that respondents made substantial changes to the original project that trigger the need for a subsequent or supplemental EIR. The court stated that its decision did not constitute an enrollment “cap.” View "Save Berkeley's Neighborhoods v. Regents of the University of California" on Justia Law

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Stanford Vina Ranch Irrigation Company (Stanford Vina) sued the California Water Resources Control Board (the Board), among other defendants, challenging the Board’s issuance of certain temporary emergency regulations in 2014 and 2015, during the height of one of the most severe droughts in California’s history. The challenged regulations established minimum flow requirements on three tributaries of the Sacramento River, including Deer Creek in Tehama County, in order to protect two threatened species of anadromous fish, Chinook salmon and steelhead trout, during their respective migratory cycles. Furthermore, Stanford Vina challenged the Board’s implementation of those regulations by issuing temporary curtailment orders limiting the company’s diversion of water from Deer Creek for certain periods of time during those years in order to maintain the required minimum flow of water. Judgment was entered in favor of the Board and other defendants. Stanford Vina appealed. Finding the Board possessed broad authority to regulate the unreasonable use of water in California by various means, including the adoption of regulations establishing minimum flow requirements protecting the migration of threatened fish species during drought conditions and declaring diversions of water unreasonable where such diversions would threaten to cause the flow of water in the creeks in question to drop below required levels, the Court of Appeal affirmed. The Board’s adoption of the challenged regulations was not arbitrary, capricious, or lacking in evidentiary support, nor did the Board fail to follow required procedures, and the Court declined to override the Board’s determination as to reasonableness set forth in the regulations. View "Stanford Vina Ranch Irrigation Co. v. State of Cal." on Justia Law

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San Diego County (County) challenged a judgment, writ of mandate, and injunction directing it to set aside its approvals of a Climate Action Plan (2018 CAP or CAP), Guidelines for Determining Significance of Climate Change, and supplemental environmental impact report (SEIR). The primary issue was whether a greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation measure in the SEIR, called M-GHG-1, was California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)-compliant. The superior court ordered the County to vacate its approvals of the CAP, Guidelines for Determining Significance, and the certification of the SEIR. The court also enjoined the County from relying on M-GHG-1 during review of greenhouse gas emissions impacts of development proposals on unincorporated County land. The Court of Appeal limited its holding to the facts of this case, particularly M-GHG-1. "Our decision is not intended to be, and should not be construed as blanket prohibition on using carbon offsets—even those originating outside of California—to mitigate GHG emissions under CEQA." The Court held: (1) M-GHG-1 violated CEQA because it contained unenforceable performance standards and improperly defers and delegates mitigation; (2) the CAP was not inconsistent with the County's General Plan; however (3) the County abused its discretion in approving the CAP because the CAP's projected additional greenhouse gas emissions from projects requiring a general plan amendment was not supported by substantial evidence; (4) the SEIR violated CEQA because its discussion of cumulative impacts ignores foreseeable impacts from probable future projects, (b) finding of consistency with the Regional Transportation Plan was not supported by substantial evidence, and (c) analysis of alternatives ignored a smart-growth alternative. The judgment requiring the County to set aside and vacate its approval of the CAP was affirmed because the CAP's greenhouse gas emission projections assumed effective implementation of M-GHG-1, and M-GHG-1 was itself unlawful under CEQA. Except to the extent that (1) the CAP is impacted by its reliance on M-GHG-1; and (2) the CAP's inventory of greenhouse gases was inconsistent with the SEIR, the Court found the CAP was CEQA-compliant. View "Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego" on Justia Law

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An oil refinery, Valero, undertook a three-year construction project to comply with a consent decree with the federal government and to upgrade its facility. The project resulted in a significant reduction in air pollution. After the construction, Valero sought approval from the regional air quality management district to bank the resulting emissions reductions as environmental credits. It was denied a significant portion of the requested credits. The superior court set aside the hearing board’s decision, holding that the board did not apply the correct standard of review in declining to consider evidence that denial of the banking application was “unfair” under the circumstances. The court of appeal reversed. The agency official charged with considering the application in the first instance denied the credits; applying a local air district regulation that prescribes the methodology for measuring emissions reductions, the official calculated a significantly lower reduction in air pollution than the refinery calculated. The hearing board upheld that interpretation of the regulation; its standard of review neither requires nor empowers it to consider whether applying the regulation to the particular case is "fair." The board is limited to a quasi-judicial inquiry entailing the exercise of its independent judgment to decide if the agency official’s interpretation of the regulation was correct. The board could, and did, appropriately consider Valero’s evidence regarding the fairness of applying the regulation to Valero in addressing Valero’s claim that the district was equitably estopped from applying it. View "Valero Refining Co. v. Bay Area Air Quality" on Justia Law

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In 2011, San Jose acquired the Willow Glen Railroad Trestle, constructed in 1922, planning to demolish the Trestle and replace it with a new steel truss pedestrian bridge. The city approved the project, adopted a mitigated negative declaration (MND) under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) (Pub. Resources Code 21000), and found that the Trestle was not a historical resource. The Trestle was not listed in the California Register of Historical Resources. Had it been listed, the city would have been statutorily mandated to consider it a historical resource. In 2017, the California State Historical Resources Commission approved the listing of the Trestle.In 2018, the city submitted to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) a “Notification of Lake or Streambed Alteration” for the project. The city's 2014 Streambed Alteration Agreement (SAA) had expired. CDFW signed the final SAA, finding that the project would not have any significant impacts on fish or wildlife “with the measures specified in the 2014 MND and the [SAA].” The Conservancy unsuccessfully sought judicial intervention. The court of appeal affirmed. The city’s actions in obtaining the 2018 SAA did not require supplemental environmental review; the approval of the MND in 2014 included approval of the SAA and obtaining the new SAA did not involve any “new discretionary approval.” View "Willow Glen Trestle Conservancy v. City of San Jose" on Justia Law

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This case concerns the management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta). In 2009, the California Legislature found and declared the “Delta watershed and California’s water infrastructure are in crisis and existing Delta policies are not sustainable,” and that “[r]esolving the crisis requires fundamental reorganization of the state’s management of Delta watershed resources.” It enacted the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act of 2009. As part of the Act, the Legislature created the Delta Stewardship Council (Council) as an independent agency of the state and charged it with adopting and implementing a legally enforceable “Delta Plan,” a comprehensive, long-term management plan. Following the preparation of a program-level environmental impact report (PEIR) pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the Council adopted the Delta Plan in May 2013, which included a set of recommendations and regulatory policies to achieve the Plan's goals. Thereafter, seven lawsuits were filed by various groups challenging the validity of the Delta Plan, the Delta Plan regulations, and the PEIR for the Delta Plan. After the lawsuits were coordinated into one proceeding, the trial court issued written rulings in May and July 2016 collectively rejecting the legal challenges predicated on violations of the Delta Reform Act and the APA, with a few exceptions. In April 2018, while appeals were pending, the Council adopted amendments and certified the PEIR for the Delta Plan Amendments. In the "merits" case, the issue before the Court of Appeal was the validity of the trial court’s rulings on legal challenges to the Delta Plan and Delta Plan regulations. In the "fee" case, the issue presented was the validity of the trial court’s attorney fee order. The Court agreed with the Council that the trial court erred in finding that it violated the Act by failing to adopt performance measure targets to achieve certain objectives of the Act. The Court also agreed with the Council that the remaining issues raised in its appeal regarding the statutory violations found by the trial court were mooted by the adoption of the Delta Plan Amendments. The Court found no error in the fee award. In light of the mootness determination, the Court reversed and remanded judgments entered in the four cases appealed by the Council in the "merits" case with directions the superior court dismiss the portions that were moot. In all other respects, the Court affirmed judgment entered in each of the six coordinated cases in the merits case. View "Delta Stewardship Council Cases" on Justia Law

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In this California Environmental Quality Act suit, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's judgment rejecting the Communities' challenges to an environmental impact report about an oil refinery project. The court held that the agency properly used its discretion to adopt a logical and convenient baseline; the law did not require the report to detail immaterial information about input crude oil composition; Communities forfeited its right to complain about the 6,000-barrel figure because it was essential for Communities to raise this issue before the agency but Communities never did; and the law did not require the agency to list either the refinery's pre-project volume or its unused capacity because these data were immaterial. View "Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management District" on Justia Law