Voter-driven initiatives meeting California Elections Code requirements may be adopted directly by local governments without first conducting a full review under the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA"), according to a unanimous decision issued on August 7, 2014, by the California Supreme Court. The decision in Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. Superior Court, No. S207173, resolves a split of opinion in the appellate courts, and establishes a further limitation on the application of CEQA review to the voter-sponsored initiative process.

Voter-driven initiatives are exempt from CEQA review – whether they are put to special elections or are directly adopted by local governments

Generally, when a voter-driven initiative is presented to a local legislative body under the Elections Code, the legislative body must either: (1) adopt the initiative directly; (2) submit the initiative for special election; or (3) order an abbreviated report after which the legislative body must either again adopt the initiative or hold a special election. The Tuolumne matter addresses whether CEQA review is required where a legislative body elects to adopt the initiative without holding a special election.

In reviewing the Tuolumne matter, the Supreme Court distinguished its prior decision in Friends of Sierra Madre v. City of Sierra Madre (2001) 25 Cal.4th 165, by explaining that its holding that a city council-driven initiative is not exempt from CEQA review is only relevant where an initiative is generated by the local legislative body (i.e., the city council), and does not apply to voter-driven initiatives such as the one at issue in Tuolumne. The Court then analyzed the plain language and legislative history of Section 9214 of the Elections Code as well as relevant public policy and concluded that the direct adoption of a voter-driven initiative is exempt from CEQA review, just as initiatives that are submitted for special election. The Court's decision was based on its determination that the plain language of the Elections Code precludes the application of CEQA and that requiring prior CEQA review on a land-use, voter-driven initiative is unsupported by the relevant legislative history or by public policy.

Thus, the Tuolumne opinion clarifies that projects are exempt from CEQA review not only for voter-driven initiatives that are put to special election, but also for voter-driven initiatives that are directly adopted by local governments pursuant to Elections Code § 9214.

Case background

In Tuolumne, Wal-Mart sought to expand and turn an existing store in the City of Sonora (the "City") into a Wal-Mart "Supercenter" and submitted an application to the City which was recommended for approval by the City's Planning Commission. Before the expansion project was considered for approval, the City was served with a notice of intent to circulate an initiative petition under Elections Code § 9214 to approve the proposed construction and operation of the Supercenter. The requisite percentage of signatures was then obtained and submitted, and the initiative was adopted as an ordinance by the City Council under § 9214 without a special election.

Following the adoption, petitioner Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance sought a writ of mandate claiming, in part, that the City violated CEQA by failing to conduct a complete environmental review prior to adoption. Wal-Mart's demurrer to the claim was sustained by the trial court without leave to amend. On appeal, the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the voters' power of initiative under Elections Code § 9214 cannot support a CEQA exemption where the voter-driven initiative is directly adopted by the City and not put to a special election. In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeal expressly disagreed with the decision reached in the Fourth Appellate District case Native Am. Sacred Site & Environmental Protection Assn. v. City of San Juan Capistrano (2004) 120 Cal.App.4th 961, in which the court had held that the adoption of an ordinance pursuant to a voter-sponsored initiative was a mandatory, ministerial act that qualified for the ministerial exemption under CEQA and that the purpose of Elections Code § 9214 would be thwarted if an exemption was not applied. In particular, the court noted that requiring CEQA review would make compliance with the deadlines in § 9214 impossible.