Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sequential Lot Line Adjustments Deemed Ministerial Acts Under New Napa County Ordinance

Sierra Club v. Napa County Board of Supervisors (April 20, 2012) No. A130980, available at CourtWebsite

In this case, the Sierra Club challenged Napa County’s approval of a lot line adjustment ordinance, arguing that the ordinance violated the law because it allowed for the ministerial approval of “sequential lot line adjustments” -- meaning additional adjustments performed after an initial lot line adjustment. Sierra Club contended that such lot line adjustments were discretionary acts within the meaning of CEQA, and thus the ordinance could have potentially allowed applicants to circumvent CEQA’s environmental review process. However, the court disagreed with the Sierra Club’s arguments, and instead held that the approval of a lot line adjustment under the ordinance was a ministerial act, and thus it was not subject to CEQA.

The court noted that the State CEQA Guidelines consider a local public agency as the most appropriate entity to determine what is ministerial based on its analysis of its own laws and regulations and that those agencies should make such determinations. (CEQA Guidelines sections 15022, subd. (a)(1)(B) and 15268, subds. (a) and (c).) The court also noted that the “touchstone” for discretionary acts subject to CEQA is “whether the approval process involved allows the government to shape a project in any way which could respond to any of the concerns which might be identified in an [EIR].” It further noted that a local government is foreclosed from influencing a project if the applicant can compel approval without changes in the design that might alleviate adverse environmental consequences.

The court considered that the Subdivision Map Act exempts certain lot line adjustments from discretionary review, and in keeping with this, it found that the procedure for approving lot line adjustments under the ordinance was ministerial unless a variance or use permit was involved. More specifically, it found that the approval process only involved determining conformity with a set of rules, but provided “no ability to exercise discretion to mitigate environmental impacts.” Finding that the ordinance also would not enable development beyond what was possible through prior policies and laws, the court concluded that approval of a lot line adjustment under the ordinance was ministerial and thus was not subject to CEQA.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

New Appellate Case Reins In The Sunnyvale Restrictions Against Using Future Baselines for Infrastructure Projects

Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (April 17, 2012) No. B232655 available at CourtWebsite

California's 2nd Appellate District for the Courts of Appeal has just issued a decision that rejects a line of cases in the 5th and 6th Appellate Districts stemming from Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (2010) 190 Cal. App. 4th 1351, 1383 -- a line of cases based on Sunnyvale's conclusion that a project's baseline that is used for analyzing the significance of impacts cannot be based on conditions existing after the anticipated time of project approval.

This new case involved a railway project that would run from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, but would not begin to operate until 2015 at the earliest. The court found that using existing conditions as a baseline for analyzing the project's impacts would have been wrong for the project, because it would rest the EIR's analyses on a false hypothesis that everything would remain the same many years later when the project was actually completed. Thus, the court found that using an appropriate projected future baseline (instead of existing conditions), when supported by substantial evidence, is an appropriate means to analyze the traffic and air quality effects of a long-term infrastructure project. Thus, contrary to the Sunnyvale line of cases, the court found that using a future baseline, even after the date of project approval was reasonable -- especially for long-term infrastructure projects (e.g., large-scale railway, highway, and water supply projects, etc.) where the project will not be completed, and thus the impacts from the project will not be realized, for decades to come.

This case is groundbreaking. It brings sweeping reform to the baseline selection process pursuant to CEQA. However, it is important to note that there is now a disagreement between the courts in California, and because of the conflict between appellate courts, even further changes in the selection of appropriate baselines could come if the Supreme Court weighs in.