California court decision could stymie CEQA as construction blocker

Appellate ruling limits use of environmental law to stop projects

(Court of Appeal, Fourth Appelate District/Division One/State of California, Getty)
(Court of Appeal, Fourth Appelate District/Division One/State of California, Getty)

An appeals court ruling could block environmental laws from being used to thwart some housing and commercial projects.

A state appellate court issued a ruling this month that, if not overturned by the state Supreme Court, would make it much harder to use the California Environmental Quality Act to stop projects that conform to local zoning laws, CalMatters reported.

The case involves San Marcos-based Hilltop Group, which wanted to build a facility to recycle construction debris on a site next to Interstate 15 in northern San Diego County. The area had been designated for industrial use in the county’s general plan.

The county’s staff said the North County Environmental Resources Project was entitled to a CEQA exemption because it met the criteria of the general plan, which had been certified as compatible with the environmental act.

Nearby residents and the City of Escondido opposed the facility, citing noise, traffic and aesthetic impacts.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors then declared the project needed more environmental mitigation under CEQA.

Hilltop sued and the county prevailed in a trial court.

But a three-judge panel on the 4th District Court of Appeal unanimously ruled the county could not impose additional conditions because the project was compatible with the industrial zone the county created in its general plan.

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Chris Elmendorf, a UC Davis law professor and the state’s foremost authority on development law, says the appellate court ruling is a major blow to those who employ CEQA to delay projects of any kind – not just housing – that conform to the standards of pre-existing general plans.

It could be a “judicial transformation of CEQA (that) won’t be rendered ineffectual by project-labor, community-benefit or other everything bagel conditions,” Elmendorf said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Elmendorf likened the appellate court decision to the Washington Legislature’s sweeping overhaul of its environmental quality act last year, also meant to minimize delays in housing development. It exempts zoning-compliant housing from further environmental review.

The California Environmental Quality Act has often been used, or misused, to block housing construction and other projects, according to CalMatters. The new state appellate court decision could reduce that practice.

Last year, state lawmakers passed legislation to crack down on CEQA delays.

Assembly Bill 1633, authored by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San San Francisco, clarified that excessive CEQA delays in high-density urban projects violate state law and subject officials to lawsuits.

But while AB 1633 gives pro-housing advocates a new legal weapon, it applies to only specific kinds of projects and falls short of a wider overhaul of CEQA called for by critics.

— Dana Bartholomew

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