Justia Environmental Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
Santa Clara Valley Water District v. San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board
Every 10-20 years, Berryessa Creek flooded nearby Milpitas and San Jose. The Army Corps of Engineers named the Santa Clara Valley Water District as a flood control project sponsor. The Corps was responsible for design and construction; the District was to acquire property rights and conduct operations. Regional Water Quality Control Board staff requested that the project include mitigation of wetlands impacts. The Corps refused some of the requested changes as exceeding the scope its authorization from Congress and the environmental review. The District issued a final EIR, finding that the project would have substantial impacts on some aspects of water resources, but that those impacts could be reduced to less-than-significant by mitigation measures.The Corps applied to the Board for a Clean Water Act section 401 certificate that the project complied with state law, 33 U.S.C. 1341. Because the Corps’ application did not contain wetlands mitigation, the Board deemed the application incomplete. There was pressure to protect a BART station under construction and to avoid losing federal funding. The Board agreed to issue a section 401 certification, indicating that it would subsequently issue waste discharge requirements (WDRs) under the Porter-Cologne Act to address issues that were not handled under the certification. The Board later issued a WDR order requiring additional mitigation, stating that it was rescinding and superseding the section 401 certification, and required enhancement of 15 acres of waters of the state. The Board was willing to allow another of the District’s planned projects to satisfy the requirement.The State Board denied the District’s petition for review. The court of appeal affirmed the denial of relief. The District has not shown that the allegedly invalid rescission and reissue of the section 401 certification would justify reversal; the Porter-Cologne Act provides independent authority for the WDR order. View "Santa Clara Valley Water District v. San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board" on Justia Law
Phelan Piñon Hills Community Services District v. California Water Service Co.
The Antelope Valley Groundwater Cases (AVGC) proceeding litigated whether the water supply from natural and imported sources, which replenishes an alluvial basin from which numerous parties pumped water, was inadequate to meet the competing annual demands of those water producers, thereby creating an "overdraft" condition. Phelan ultimately became involved in the litigation as one of the thousands of entities and people who asserted they were entitled to draw water from the aquifer.The trial court subsequently defined the boundaries for the AVAA to determine which parties would be necessary parties to any global adjudication of water rights, and then determined that the aquifer encompassed within the AVAA boundaries (the AVAA basin) had sufficient hydrologic interconnectivity and conductivity to be defined as a single aquifer for purposes of adjudicating the competing groundwater rights claims. Settlement discussions ultimately produced an agreement among the vast majority of parties in which they settled their respective groundwater rights claims and agreed to support the contours of a proposed plan (the Physical Solution) designed to bring the AVAA basin into hydrological balance. Phelan, which provides water to its customers who are located outside the AVAA boundaries, became subject to the AVGC litigation because a significant source of its water is pumping from a well located in the AVAA basin.The Court of Appeal held that substantial evidence supports the judgment as to Phelan and Phelan was not deprived of its due process rights to present its claims. In this case, substantial evidence supports the conclusion that Physical Solution will bring the AVAA basin into balance; the trial court correctly rejected Phelan's fourth cause of action asserting it had acquired water rights as a "public use appropriator;" the phased decisional procedure did not deprive Phelan of due process; and the trial court correctly concluded that Phelan had no priority claim to return flows from native safe yield. View "Phelan Piñon Hills Community Services District v. California Water Service Co." on Justia Law
Sierra Club v. County of Fresno
This appeal involves the application of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to a proposed master-planned community. In the published portion of this opinion, the Court of Appeal provided two alternate grounds for rejecting Developer's contention that the writ of mandate should have directed a partial decertification of the environmental impact report (EIR).First, the statutes require the public agency to certify "the completion of" the EIR. The court again rejected the statutory interpretation that allows for partial certification because an EIR is either completed in compliance with CEQA or it is not so completed. Second, even if CEQA is interpreted to allow for partial certification, it is inappropriate in this case because the CEQA violations affect the adoption of the statement of overriding considerations and, thus, taint the certification of the EIR as a whole. In other words, severance findings under Public Resources Code section 21168.9, subdivision (b) are not appropriate in the circumstances of this case. The court affirmed the judgment and directed the trial court to issue an amended writ of mandate. View "Sierra Club v. County of Fresno" on Justia Law
Spotlight on Coastal Corruption v. Kinsey
Defendants, who at the time of trial were current or former California Coastal Commissioners (Commissioners), appealed a nearly $1 million judgment after the court found they violated statutes requiring disclosure of certain ex parte communications. The Court of Appeal surmised the case turned on whether: (1) plaintiff Spotlight on Coastal Corruption (Spotlight) had standing to pursue these claims under Public Resources Code sections 30324 and 30327; and (2) the up to $30,000 penalty for “any” violation of the Coastal Act in section 30820(a)(2) applied to such ex parte disclosure violations. Concluding that Spotlight lacked standing and that section 30820(a)(2) was inapplicable, the Court reversed with directions to enter judgment for Defendants. View "Spotlight on Coastal Corruption v. Kinsey" on Justia Law
Communities for a Better Environment v. Energy Resources Conservation & Development Commission
Environmental groups challenged the constitutionality of Public Resources Code section 25531, which limits judicial review of decisions by the Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission on the siting of thermal power plants. Section 25531(a) provides that an Energy Commission siting decision is “subject to judicial review by the Supreme Court of California.” The plaintiffs contend this provision abridges the original jurisdiction of the superior courts and courts of appeal over mandate petitions, as conferred by California Constitution Article VI, section 10. Section 25531(b) provides that findings of fact in support of a Commission siting determination “are final,” allegedly violating the separation of powers doctrine by depriving courts of their essential power to review administrative agency findings (Cal. Const., Art. III, section 3; Art. VI, section 1).The court of appeal affirmed summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. The Article VI grant of original jurisdiction includes the superior courts and courts of appeal and may not be circumscribed by statute, absent some other constitutional provision. Legislative amendments to section 25531 have broken the once-tight link between the regulatory authority of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Energy Commission power plant siting decisions, such that the plenary power Article XII grants the Legislature over PUC activities no longer authorizes section 25531(a). Section 25531(b) violates the judicial powers clause by preventing courts from reviewing whether substantial evidence supports the Commission’s factual findings. View "Communities for a Better Environment v. Energy Resources Conservation & Development Commission" on Justia Law
Am. Chemistry Council v. Off. of Environ. Health Hazard Assessment
Proposition 65 was enacted by the voters to protect the people of California and its water supply from harmful chemicals. Proposition 65 required the Governor to publish, at least annually, a list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. Proposition 65 added Health and Safety Code section 25249.8, which provided the listing obligations and sets forth four independent “listing mechanisms” by which a chemical could be listed, including the “state’s qualified expert” listing mechanism and the “authoritative body” listing mechanism. At issue in this case was whether the decision by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to list Bisphenol A (BPA) as a chemical known to cause reproductive toxicity under Proposition 65, was an abuse of discretion. BPA is used primarily to coat food and beverage packaging and containers. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) commenced this action seeking to enjoin OEHHA from listing BPA. In an amended complaint, ACC sought a peremptory writ of mandate directing OEHHA not to list BPA. The trial court denied the requested relief. ACC appealed, asserting that OEHHA abused its discretion in: (1) refusing to consider the arguments against listing BPA; (2) concluding that the National Toxicology Program (NTP) formally identified BPA as a reproductive toxicant in the monograph; and (3) determining that NTP concluded that studies in experimental animals indicated that there was sufficient data to establish that an association between adverse reproductive effects in humans and BPA is “biologically plausible” within the meaning of that term as it was used in OEHHA’s own regulation. The Court of Appeal found OEHHA’s position as to biological plausibility was based on, among other things, the presumption that chemicals that cause harm in experimental animals will also cause similar harm in humans in the absence of evidence to the contrary. The Court concluded OEHHA did not abuse its discretion in listing BPA based on the monograph. Therefore, the Court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying ACC the relief requested in the amended complaint. View "Am. Chemistry Council v. Off. of Environ. Health Hazard Assessment" on Justia Law
Martis Camp Community Assn. v. County of Placer
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
Golden Door Properties, LLC v. Super. Ct.
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
Abatti v. Imperial Irrigation Dist.
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
Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods v. Regents of the University of California
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