Justia Environmental Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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In the case of Planning and Conservation League et al., v. Department of Water Resources heard in the California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, the court considered whether the Department of Water Resources’ (department) approval of amendments to long-term contracts with local government agencies that receive water through the State Water Project violated various laws. The amendments extended the contracts to 2085 and expanded the facilities listed as eligible for revenue bond financing. Several conservation groups and public agencies challenged the amendments, arguing they violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act (Delta Reform Act), and the public trust doctrine. However, the court held that the department did not violate CEQA, the Delta Reform Act, or the public trust doctrine, and therefore affirmed the trial court's judgment in favor of the department. The court found that the department used the correct baseline for its environmental impact report (EIR), properly segmented the amendments from related projects, and adequately considered the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of the amendments. The court also held that the department adequately described the project and considered a reasonable range of alternatives, and that recirculation of the EIR was not required. The court rejected arguments that the amendments violated the Delta Reform Act or the public trust doctrine, finding that they did not impact "water that is imbued with the public trust." The court concluded that the department acted within its authority in approving and executing the amendments. View "Planning and Conservation League v. Dept. of Water Resources" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal of the State of California was asked to review a decision by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that adopted a new tariff (pricing structure) for utility customers who generate their own power from renewable sources, such as solar panels. This new tariff significantly reduces the price utilities pay for customer-generated power. The petitioners, a group of environmental organizations, argued that the new tariff fails to comply with various requirements imposed by state law, including that it doesn't take into account the societal benefits of customer-generated power, it favors utility customers who don't own renewable systems, it doesn't promote sustainable growth of renewable energy, and it doesn't promote the growth of renewable systems among customers in disadvantaged communities. The court upheld the PUC's decision.The court found that the PUC's decision to base the price paid for exported power on the marginal cost of energy to the utilities served the goal of equity among customers. The court also determined that the PUC's decision complied with the statutory mandate to ensure that the tariff does not grant unwarranted benefits or impose unwarranted costs on any particular group of ratepayers. Lastly, the court found the PUC's efforts to stimulate the adoption of renewable systems in disadvantaged communities sufficient to meet its statutory obligation. View "Center for Biological Diversity v. Public Utilities Com." on Justia Law

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In December 2018, the State Water Resources Control Board (the Board) adopted amendments to the water quality control plan for the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary and certified a substitute environmental document supporting the amendments. The San Joaquin Tributaries Authority (SJTA), along with other entities, filed lawsuits against the Board challenging the amendments. These lawsuits were coordinated in Sacramento County, and the SJTA filed a motion to intervene in all of the cases that were part of the coordination proceeding. The trial court denied the motion, and the SJTA appealed.The Court of Appeal of the State of California Third Appellate District affirmed the trial court's decision. It found that SJTA did not meet the requirements for mandatory intervention because it was already a party to the coordination proceeding and could adequately represent its own interests. The court also found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying permissive intervention, as SJTA's participation would largely be duplicative and would complicate an already complex case. The court noted that intervention was not necessary because SJTA was already a part of the coordination proceeding and could fully protect its interests. View "State Water Board Cases" on Justia Law

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A dispute arose under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA; Water Code 10720) regarding which local groundwater sustainability agency is authorized to manage the groundwater in a portion of the 180/400 Foot Aquifer Subbasin of the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin called the CEMEX area. The City of Marina challenged the groundwater sustainability plan of the Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency (SVBGSA) as adopted by Monterey County and posted by the Department of Water Resources as the operative groundwater sustainability plan for most of the Subbasin. The County sought a declaration that the formation of the City’s groundwater sustainability agency was void.The court of appeal affirmed the trial court, agreeing with the Department that under section 10724 the County could step in as the presumptive groundwater management agency for the CEMEX area when the City and SVBGSA failed to reach an agreement to allow prompt designation of a groundwater sustainability agency; the Department properly posted the County’s notice of the formation of a groundwater sustainability agency for the CEMEX area on its website and properly identified the County’s groundwater sustainability agency as the exclusive groundwater sustainability agency for the area. View "City of Marina v. County of Monterey" on Justia Law

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The California Construction and Industrial Materials Association and the Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (Project Opponents) separately petitioned for writs of mandate to require the County of Ventura (County) to vacate an ordinance (the Project) creating overlay zones to protect wildlife migration corridors in rural portions of the County. The Project Opponents claim the Project violates the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1975 (SMARA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The trial court denied the petitions.   The Second Appellate District affirmed. The court explained that the Project Opponents claim that the Project’s location distinguishes it from other projects in its exempt class. They point out that the Project overlays 10,000 acres of classified mineral resources. However they cite no evidence that other projects in Classes 7 and 8 do not overlay similar resources. Neither mining nor ordinances that attempt to preserve wildlife are unique to the County. The Project Opponents compare the Project to the Class 33 exemption. That exemption is for projects not to exceed five acres to assure the maintenance, restoration, enhancement, or protection of habitat for fish, plants, or wildlife. But the County is not relying on the Class 33 exemption. It is relying on the Classes 7 and 8 exemptions. They are separate exemptions and not comparable. View "Cal. Construction & Industrial Mat. Assn. v. County of Ventura" on Justia Law

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The Historic Architecture Alliance and the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition (collectively, the Alliance) appealed the denial of their petition for mandamus relief. The action involved a decision by the City of Laguna Beach and its City Council (collectively, the City) to approve real parties in interest Ian Kirby and Cherlin Kirby’s (the Kirbys) application to renovate and build an extension on an existing single-family dwelling listed in the City’s “Historic Resources Inventory.” Because of this listing, the Kirbys’ residence was considered a presumptive historical resource under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The Alliance asserted the showing it made before the City was sufficient to support the historical resource exception, which stated: “A categorical exemption shall not be used for a project which may cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of a historical resource.” The Alliance asserted the project caused a substantial adverse change in the significance of a historical resource and preparation of an EIR or a mitigated negative declaration was required. The Court of Appeal concluded substantial evidence supported the City’s finding the project was exempt under the historical resource exemption because it was consistent with the Secretary’s Standards. The Court further concluded the fair argument standard did not apply where application of the historical resource exemption and the historical resource exception depended on the same issue—whether the project complies with the Secretary’s Standards. Accordingly, the judgment was affirmed. View "Historic Architecture Alliance v. City of Laguna Beach" on Justia Law

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This case arose from the California Department of Water Resources’s (DWR) release of water from Lake Oroville down the Oroville Dam’s gated flood control spillway and emergency spillway in February 2017. The Butte County District Attorney filed suit under Fish and Game Code section 5650.11 on behalf of the State seeking civil penalties and injunctive relief against DWR. The statute authorized civil penalties against any “person” who deposited harmful materials into the waters of the state. The statute also authorized injunctive relief. The trial court granted summary judgment for DWR, finding DWR was not a “person” under section 5650.1. On appeal, the State contended the trial court erred in granting DWR’s motion because DWR was a “person” under section 5650.1. Alternatively, the State argued that, even if DWR was not a “person” under this provision, DWR did not negate the State's cause of action with respect to injunctive relief. The Court of Appeal disagreed and affirmed the judgment. View "Oroville Dam Cases" on Justia Law

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Cal-Am, an investor-owned utility that supplies water to much of the Monterey Peninsula, was subject to a state order to cease its decades-long overuse of certain water sources. Cal-Am sought to comply by drawing seawater and brackish water from coastal aquifers for desalination. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), acting under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA, Pub. Resources Code, 21050), certified a final environmental impact report (EIR), and granted Cal-Am a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity. The City denied Cal-Am coastal development permits to install the intake wells. Cal-Am appealed to the California Coastal Commission.The County approved a permit to construct the desalination plant in unincorporated Monterey County. Marina Coast Water District challenged that approval, arguing that the County violated CEQA by failing to prepare a subsequent or supplemental EIR and adopting an unsupported statement of overriding considerations, and violated its own general plan by approving a project that lacked a long-term sustainable water supply. The trial court ruled that the County was not required to prepare another EIR and did not violate its own general plan, but unlawfully relied on the water-related benefits of the desalination plant in its statement of overriding considerations without addressing the uncertainty introduced by the City’s denial of the coastal development permit. The court of appeal reversed; the County’s statement of overriding considerations was supported by substantial evidence and any remaining deficiency in the statement was not prejudicial. View "Marina Coast Water District v. County of Monterey" on Justia Law

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UCSF's 107-acre Parnassus Heights campus currently accommodates two hospitals, various medical clinics, four professional schools, a graduate program, and space for research, student housing, parking, and other support uses. In 2014, UCSF prepared a long-range development plan for its multiple sites around San Francisco, to accommodate most of UCSF’s growth at the Mission Bay campus. There were concerns that the Parnassus campus was overwhelming its neighborhood. In 2020, UCSF undertook a new plan for the Parnassus campus with multiple new buildings and infrastructure resulting in a 50 percent net increase in building space over 30 years.An environmental impact report (EIR) was prepared for the Plan's initial phase (California Environmental Quality Act, Pub. Resources Code 21000, identifying as significant, unavoidable adverse impacts: wind hazards, increased air pollutants, the demolition of historically significant structures, and increased ambient noise levels during construction.The court of appeal affirmed the rejection of challenges to the EIR. The EIR considers a reasonable range of alternatives and need not consider in detail an alternative that placed some anticipated development off campus. The EIR improperly declines to analyze the impact on public transit, but the error is not prejudicial. The aesthetic effects of an “employment center project on an infill site within a transit priority area” are deemed not significant. The EIR is not required to adopt a mitigation measure preserving certain historically significant buildings and its mitigation measure for wind impacts is adequate. View "Yerba Buena Neighborhood Consortium, LLC v. Regents of the University of California" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Tsakopoulos Investments, LLC (Tsakopoulos) sought mandamus and declaratory relief against defendants the County of Sacramento (County) and the Sacramento County Office of Economic Development and Marketing, challenging the County’s approval of a project known as the Mather South Community Master Plan (the project) under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The trial court denied the petition and entered judgment in favor of defendants. Tsakopoulos appealed, arguing the Court of Appeal should reverse the judgment because the final environmental impact report (final report) was deficient because: (1) the climate change analysis was based on a methodology that the California Supreme Court in Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Fish & Wildlife, 62 Cal.4th 204 (2015) and the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego, 27 Cal.App.5th 892 (2018) previously rejected as unsupported by substantial evidence; (2) the County “failed to assess the impacts from construction-related greenhouse gas emissions” in its climate change analysis; and (3) the County “failed to analyze the human health impacts associated with the” project’s emissions from criteria pollutants. In the published portion of its opinion, the Court of Appeal explained why the County’s climate change analysis was not previously rejected by the Supreme Court or the Fourth District Court of Appeal for lack of substantial evidence. In the unpublished portion of opinion, the Court found Tsakopoulos presented no meritorious contentions to challenge the County’s construction-related and human health impacts analyses. View "Tsakopoulos Investments, LLC v. County of Sacramento" on Justia Law