HIGHLIGHTS:

  • In Highway 68 Coalition v. County of Monterey, et al., California's Sixth District Court of Appeal endorses the trial court's use of interlocutory remand as a prejudgment tool to allow a lead agency to supplement deficient findings.
  • The case involves Monterey County's 2012 certification of an environmental impact report pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and its approval of entitlements for a 10-building shopping center in an unincorporated area of the County.
  • The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's judgment because "the court in a mandamus action has inherent power, in proper circumstances, to remand to the agency for further proceedings prior to the entry of a final judgment," and agreed that the issuance of an interlocutory remand to clarify a discrete issue was well within the trial court's discretion.

Highway 68 Coalition v. County of Monterey et al., No. H042891 (6th Dist. Jul. 31, 2017), involves the County's 2012 approval of the Corral de Tierra Neighborhood Retail Village, a 10-building shopping center in unincorporated Monterey County. In its decision, California's Sixth District Court of Appeal endorses the trial court's use of interlocutory remand as a prejudgment tool to allow a lead agency to supplement deficient findings.

Case Background 

In approving Corral de Tierra, the County certified an environmental impact report (EIR) pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and adopted CEQA findings that potentially significant impacts on ground water had been mitigated to a less than significant level, resulting in a net water balance for the project. The County also approved the project's development permit and adopted separate findings that the project was consistent with the County's General Plan and had an "adequate long-term water supply and manages development ... so as to minimize adverse effects on the aquifers." (Slip op. at 5.)

The petition, as relevant to the published portion of the decision, alleged that the County failed to adequately analyze the project's water supply and that the County failed to make findings required by the General Plan that the project had "a long-term sustainable water supply." (Slip op., at 2, 6.)

The trial court rejected the petitioner's CEQA arguments, finding that the County's water supply analysis was supported by substantial evidence, but held that the County's General Plan consistency finding lacked detail where the General Plan required that projects have a "long-term sustainable water supply." (Slip op. at 7.) Instead of issuing a writ, the trial court stayed its intended decision and entered an order of interlocutory remand so that the County could decide the discrete issue of "whether or not there is a Long Term Sustainable Water Supply." (Slip op. at 7.) The County Board of Supervisors held a hearing on remand and, after introduction of additional evidence to the record, reaffirmed the project approvals with clarified findings as to why the project did indeed have a "long-term sustainable water supply, both in quality and quantity." (Slip op. at 8.) After supplemental briefing on the propriety of the remand, the court ruled that the new findings supported the County's determinations and denied the petition. (Slip op. at 9.)

Court of Appeal Decision

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's judgment, interlocutory remand and reliance on the County's subsequent findings, holding that "the court in a mandamus action has inherent power, in proper circumstances, to remand to the agency for further proceedings prior to the entry of a final judgment," and that the issuance of an interlocutory remand to clarify a discrete issue was well within the trial court's discretion. (Slip op. at 12, citing Voices of the Wetlands v. State Water Res. Control Bd. (2011) 52 Cal.4th 499, 527.)

In addition to Voices of the Wetlands,the court also relied on the landmark CEQA case No Oil Inc. v. City of Los Angeles for the proposition that a trial court has the power in a mandamus action to remand a matter to an administrative agency for clarification of ambiguous findings. (Slip op. at 12, citing No Oil Inc. (1974) 13 Cal.3d 68, 81.)

Highway 68 Coalition is thus new support for the principle that a trial court has inherent power to use prejudgment remand, when circumstances warrant, to clarify discrete issues without overturning agency approvals.