Articles Posted in Environmental Law

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This appeal focused on circumstances in which local water and irrigation districts were entitled to subvention for unfunded state mandates. The Commission on State Mandates (Commission). The Commission denied consolidated test claims for subvention by appellants Paradise Irrigation District (Paradise), South Feather Water & Power Agency (South Feather), Richvale Irrigation District (Richvale), Biggs-West Gridley Water District (Biggs), Oakdale Irrigation District (Oakdale), and Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (Glenn-Colusa). The Commission determined the Water and Irrigation Districts had sufficient legal authority to levy fees to pay for any water service improvements mandated by the Water Conservation Act of 2009. The trial court agreed and denied a petition for writ of mandate brought by the Water and Irrigation Districts. On appeal, the Water and Irrigation Districts presented a question left open by the Court of Appeal’s decision in Connell v. Superior Court, 59 Cal.App.4th 382 (1997). Based on the statutory language, Connell held local water districts were precluded from subvention for state mandates to increase water purity levels insofar as the water districts have legal authority to recover the costs of the state-mandated program. In so holding, Connell rejected an argument by the Santa Margarita Water District and three other water districts that they did not have the “practical ability in light of surrounding economic circumstances.” This appeal considered whether the passage of Proposition 218 changed the authority of water and irrigation districts to recover costs from their ratepayers so that unfunded state mandates for water service had to be reimbursed by the state. The Court of Appeal affirmed, finding the Water and Irrigation Districts possessed statutory authority to collect fees necessary to comply with the Water Conservation Act. Thus, under Government Code section 17556(d), subvention was not available to the Water and Irrigation Districts. The Commission properly denied the reimbursement claims at issue in this case because the Water and Irrigation Districts continued to have legal authority to levy fees even if subject to majority protest of water and irrigation district customers. View "Paradise Irrigation Dist. v. Commission on State Mandates" on Justia Law

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In 2012, the County of Amador (County) certified a final environmental impact report (EIR) and approved the Newman Ridge Project (Project), an aggregate quarry and related facilities near Ione owned by real parties in interest Newman Minerals and others (Applicants). Ione Valley Land, Air, and Water Defense Alliance, LLC (LAWDA) filed a petition for writ of mandate under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) challenging the certification and approval. The trial court granted the petition as to traffic impacts because the 2012 draft EIR did not accurately portray the data from the traffic impact study and did not disclose traffic information in a manner reasonably calculated to inform the public and decision-makers. The errors required correction and recirculation of the EIR as to traffic issues only. As to all other issues, the petition was denied. After the County issued a partially recirculated draft EIR in 2014, certified the partially recirculated EIR, and again approved the Project, LAWDA again filed a petition for writ of mandate. The trial court denied the petition, and LAWDA appealed, contending the trial court erred by denying the petition: (1) as to impacts other than traffic impacts; and (2) as to traffic impacts. After review, the Court of Appeal concluded: (1) the arguments relating to impacts other than traffic impacts were precluded by res judicata; and (2) LAWDA failed to establish that CEQA statutes and guidelines required reversal as to traffic impacts. View "Ione Valley Land, Air, and Water etc. v. County of Amador" on Justia Law

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Hany Dimitry obtained a coastal development permit (CDP) from the City of Laguna Beach (the City) to demolish his Laguna Beach house. Mark Fudge challenged the permit, appealing to the California Coastal Commission (the Commission), and at court, to attach the merits of the City’s decision to grant Dimitry the CDP. The Commission accepted Fudge’s appeal, which meant it would hear that appeal “de novo.” Because the Commission’s hearing would be “de novo,” the trial court followed Kaczorowski v. Mendocino County Bd. of Supervisors, 88 Cal.App.4th 564 (2001) and McAllister v. County of Monterey, 147 Cal.App.4th 253 (2007) in concluding that there was no relief that Fudge might be able to obtain in his court action. The trial court concluded Fudge’s challenge to Dimitry’s CDP was entirely in the hands of the Commission, and dismissed the civil action. Fudge appealed, arguing the Commission’s hearing was not going to be truly “de novo” because the Commission would use different rules and procedures than the City used. When it comes to a local coastal entity’s decision on a CDP, the Court of Appeal determined the Legislature constructed a system in which appeals to the Commission would be heard de novo under the Coastal Act even though the original local decision was decided under CEQA. “Fudge’s mistake lies in his belief the Legislature was bound by the Collier court’s observation about de novo hearings being conducted in ‘the same manner’ as the original. We must disagree. It’s the other way around.” The Court determined the Legislature was not bound by the California Supreme Court’s observation about the common law nature of “de novo” hearings. Rather the courts were bound by the intent of the Legislature as to what the hearings would look like – plainly expressed in Public Resources Code section 21080.5. Therefore, the Court affirmed dismissal of the state court action. View "Fudge v. City of Laguna Beach" on Justia Law

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The city approved the agreement with Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), authorizing the removal of up to 272 trees within its local natural gas pipeline rights-of-way. The staff report explains that this is a Major Tree Removal Project, requiring a tree removal permit and mitigation for the removed trees. PG&E was willing to provide requested information and mitigation but claimed to be exempt from obtaining any discretionary permits. “To ensure that the [community pipeline safety initiative] can move forward and to protect the public safety, PG&E and City staff have agreed to process the ... project under [Code] section 6-1705(b)(S). This section allows the city to allow removal of a protected tree ‘to protect the health, safety and general welfare of the community.’“ Opponents sued, alleging violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) (Pub. Resources Code 21000), the planning and zoning law, the general plan, and the tree ordinance, and the due process rights of the petitioners by failing to provide sufficient notice of the hearing. PG&E argued that the suit was barred by Government Code 65009(c)(1)(E), which requires an action challenging a decision regarding a zoning permit to be filed and served within 90 days of the decision. The original petition was timely filed but not served until after the deadline. The trial court dismissed without leave to amend. The court of appeal affirmed as to the ordinance claims but reversed with respect to CEQA. View "Save Lafayette Trees v. City of Lafayette" on Justia Law

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Berkeley approved the construction of three houses on adjacent parcels in the Berkeley Hills, citing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Pub. Resources Code, 21000 exemption for “up to three single-family residences” in urbanized areas. Plaintiffs opposed the approval, citing the “location” exception: “a project that is ordinarily insignificant in its impact ... may in a particularly sensitive environment be significant … where the project may impact on an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern where designated.” The projects were within the Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zone and in a potential earthquake-induced landslide area mapped by the California Geologic Survey. The court of appeal affirmed the denial of the petition for writ of mandate. Giving meaning to the phrase “environmental resource,” the location exception was not intended to cover all areas subject to such potential natural disasters as a matter of law; it applies “where the project may impact on an environmental resource.” The exception reflects a concern with the effect of the project on the environment, not the impact of existing environmental conditions (such as seismic and landslide risks) on the project or future residents Plaintiffs produced no evidence that construction of the three proposed residences would exacerbate existing hazardous conditions or harm the environment View "Berkeley Hills Watershed Coalition v. Berkeley" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, opposed the development of an eight-unit multifamily residential building in a high-density residential district, challenged a resolution granting demolition and design review permits. They claimed the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA; Govt. Code, 21000) because the city council failed to consider aspects of the project other than design review and that the city abused its discretion under CEQA by approving the demolition permit and design review without requiring an environmental impact report (EIR) based on its determination that the proposed project met the requirements for a Class 32 (infill) categorical exemption under CEQA Guidelines. The court of appeal affirmed. The city council properly limited the scope of its review as required by the ordinance, did not abdicate its duty to act, and did not delegate its ultimate duty to the planning commission. St. Helena's Municipal Code did not require the city council to consider the environmental consequences of a multi-family project in an HR district Because of that lack of any discretion to address environmental effects, it was unnecessary to rely on the Class 32 exemption. View "McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group v. St. Helena" on Justia Law

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The Department of Water Resources (DWR) applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or Commission) to extend its federal license to operate Oroville Dam and its facilities as a hydroelectric dam (referred to as the Oroville Facilities Project, Project, Settlement Agreement or "SA"). The plaintiffs brought this action in the superior court to stay the license procedure on the premise the environmental effects of relicensing the dam concern the operation of the dam and that jurisdiction to review the matter lies in the state courts pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act. They claimed that a CEQA document offered to support the DWR’s application to FERC failed to consider the impact of climate change on the operation of the dam for all the purposes served by the dam. The superior court dismissed the complaint on the ground that predicting the impact of climate change is speculative. The plaintiffs appealed. A federal license is required by the Federal Power Act for the construction and operation of a hydroelectric dam. The license is issued by FERC. With one relevant exception, the FPA occupies the field of licensing a hydroelectric dam and bars review in the state courts of matters subject to review by FERC. Plaintiffs did not seek federal review as required by 18 C.F.R part 4.34(i)(6)(vii)(2003). The Court of Appeal concluded it lacked jurisdiction to hear this case. It returned the case to the trial court with an order to dismiss. View "County of Butte v. Dept. of Water Resources" on Justia Law

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Georgetown was a "quaint unincorporated Gold Rush-era hamlet" in rural El Dorado County (the County, including defendant Board of Supervisors). Developer SimonCRE Abbie, LLC and its principals wanted to erect a Dollar General chain discount store on three vacant Main Street lots. Local residents acting through plaintiff Georgetown Preservation Society (Society) objected, claiming this would impair the look of their town. After the real parties slightly modified the project, the County adopted a mitigated negative declaration, finding there was no basis to require an environmental impact report (EIR). In response to the Society’s mandamus petition, the trial court duly applied Pocket Protectors v. City of Sacramento, 124 Cal.App.4th 903 (2004), and found the Society’s evidence supported a fair argument that the project may have a significant aesthetic effect on the environment, but rejected the Society’s claims about traffic impacts and pedestrian safety, and declined to address the Society’s claim the project was inconsistent with planning and zoning norms. Accordingly, the court issued a writ of mandate compelling the County to require an EIR. On appeal, the County and real parties, supported by the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties (which together filed one amicus curiae brief), contended the trial court erred in finding an EIR was needed. They principally relied on the fact that the County applied its Historic Design Guide principles and found the project met aesthetic standards. The Court of Appeal disagreed with this proposed method of bypassing CEQA and instead reinforced Pocket Protectors, holding that the Society’s evidence of aesthetic impacts was sufficient to trigger the need for an EIR. "A planning or zoning decision may be entitled to greater deference than a mitigated negative declaration, but such a determination is no more than it purports to be and is not a CEQA determination." View "Georgetown Preservation Society v. County of El Dorado" on Justia Law

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By a stipulated decree issued in 1920, the Tehama County Superior Court adjudicated water rights in Mill Creek. It declared the natural flow of the water up to a total rate of 203 cfs had been appropriated by the parties appearing before it for use upon their and other persons’ lands. The decree entitled these original owners of the water rights and their successors to continue diverting from Mill Creek a total of 203 cfs of water, and it allotted them shares in the amount of water each could divert. It entitled the owners to use or dispose of their share of water in any manner, at any place, or for any purpose, or in accordance with whatever agreement the owners may make with any other person or entity. As part of the decree, the court also appointed a water master of Mill Creek to implement its order. The decree gave the water master exclusive authority to divert and apportion the water during the irrigation season according to the decree’s terms, measure the diversions, and control and superintend the diversions and the gates and ditches used to divert the water. The owner of an appropriative right to water in Mill Creek sought declaratory relief to determine whether, under the judicial decree that established the right, it could: (1) use water appropriated to it on a year around basis and not only during the irrigation season; (2) use or transfer its water outside of the creek’s watershed; and (3) make these changes in the use and location of use without obtaining prior approval of the creek’s water master or the superior court. The trial court declared the decree did not give the owner these rights. The Court of Appeal agreed with the Orange Grove Irrigation District that the trial court’s holding was incorrect: the court created a condition that did not exist in the decree, and it did so based on a misunderstanding of the extent of control the decree granted to Los Molinos Mutual Water Company and of the operation of Water Code section 1706. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded the trial court's judgment and remanded for further proceedings. View "Orange Cove Irrigation Dist. v. Los Molinos Mutual Water Co." on Justia Law

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In 1998, the State Lands Commission granted Hanson’s predecessor 10-year leases, authorizing commercial sand mining from sovereign lands, owned by the state subject to the public trust, and managed by the Commission, under the Central San Francisco Bay, Suisun Bay, and the western Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. In 2006, Hanson requested extensions of several leases, but they expired before the Commission made its decision. The Commission granted four new 10-year leases covering essentially the same parcels in the San Francisco Bay. In 2012, opponents sought a writ of mandate to compel the Commission to set aside its approval of the project. In 2015, a different panel of the court of appeal found that the Commission’s environmental review of the project complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) (Pub. Resources Code 21000), but that the Commission violated the public trust doctrine by approving the project without considering whether the sand mining leases were a proper use of public trust lands. The Commission reapproved the project; the court discharged a writ of mandate. The court of appeal affirmed. While the Commission erred by concluding that private commercial sand mining constitutes a public trust use of sovereign lands, there is substantial evidence that the project will not impair the public trust. View "San Francisco Baykeeper, Inc. v. State Lands Commission" on Justia Law