CEQA Case Report: Understanding the Judicial Landscape for Development[I]
In a published decision issued June 12, 2018, County of Ventura v. City of Moorpark, Case No. B282466, the California Court of Appeal rejected part of the County of Ventura and the City of Fillmore’s (Petitioners’) appeal and affirmed the trial court’s decision that a beach restoration project undertaken by Broad Beach Geologic Hazard Abatement District (BBGHAD) and a related settlement agreement with the City of Moorpark (City) were exempt from CEQA review.
In summary, the court determined:
- Two separate activities can constitute one “project” under CEQA so long as those activities serve a single purpose, have the same proponents, and are inextricably linked.
- Courts do not balance the policies served by statutory exemptions against the goal of environmental protection because the legislature has already determined that the policy benefits of the exemption outweigh the benefits of environmental review.
The trial court determined that the beach restoration project and the related settlement agreement between BBGHAD and City were a single statutorily exempt project. Petitioners appealed on the grounds that even if the beach restoration was exempt, the settlement represented a separate, non-exempt project that was not properly reviewed under CEQA.
Background for Appeal
The State of California formed BBGHAD to restore Broad Beach in Malibu, California. The restoration required 1.5 million cubic yards of sand to be dumped onto the beach over a 20-year period. Most of the dumping would occur via major deposits of 300,000 cubic yards of sand every five years. During the periods of major deposits, 44,000 one-way truck trips would be taken through the City, which lies between the sand quarries and the beach. The City expressed concerns to BBGHAD about potential impacts on residents from sand hauling while the restoration project was being approved. City’s complaints led to negotiations, which culminated in a settlement agreement between BBGHAD and City.
Petitioners challenged the project in a petition for a writ of mandate and a request for injunctive and declaratory relief. The trial court found that the project, including the settlement agreement, was statutorily exempt from CEQA as an emergency action. Petitioners appealed.
Settlement and Beach Restoration Project Comprise One Project
Petitioners argued that while the BBGHAD beach restoration project might have been statutorily exempt as an emergency action under California Public Resources Code section 21080(b)(4), the settlement between BBGHAD and City was a separate non-exempt project that was not properly reviewed and approved under CEQA.
The court found that under two separate tests, the beach restoration project and the settlement constituted one project:
- First, the court analyzed the question under Plan for Arcadia, Inc. v. City Council of Arcadia (1974) 42 Cal.App.3d 712, which held that two separate actions can constitute a single project so long as they are among various steps that taken together obtain an objective, and are otherwise related to each other. In County of Ventura, the court found that the beach restoration and the settlement agreement were each pieces of a single coordinated endeavor.
- Second, the court looked at the three-factor test laid out in Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 1209 for determining separate projects. The court in Banning Ranch found that two activities could constitute a single project under CEQA so long as the two activities had the same proponents, served the same purpose, and could not be implemented independently. In County of Ventura, the court found that because the settlement and the beach restoration had the same proponents (i.e., BBGHAD and City), served a single purpose, and were inextricably linked, they constituted a single project.
No Balancing Test for Statutory Exemptions
Petitioners also argued that, regardless of whether the beach restoration project and settlement agreement were a single project, these activities should not be exempt from CEQA. Petitioners argued that the trial court was required to balance the policies served by the exemption against the goal of environmental protection. Petitioners contended that without a balancing test, the court would not fulfill the legislature’s intention to afford the fullest possible protection to the environment.
However, the Court of Appeal held that statutory exemptions promote an interest important enough that the legislature decided to forego the benefits of environmental review. Thus, because the trial court found that the beach restoration project qualified as an exempt emergency action under California Public Resources Code section 21080(b)(4), the trial court could not use a balancing test to overrule the exemption.
Accordingly, the court affirmed the portion of the trial court’s judgment that the beach restoration and the settlement agreement constituted a single project that was exempt from CEQA review.
- Opinion by Justice Tangeman, with Presiding Justice Gilbert and Justice Yegan concurring.
- Trial Court: Superior Court County of Santa Barbara, No. VENCI00479937, Judge Thomas Pearce Anderle.
The authors would like to thank Kiera Murphy for her contribution to this blog post.