In Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton,( __ Cal. App. 4th __, 68 Cal. Rptr. 3d 632 (2007)), a California Court of Appeal held that under the California Environmental Quality Act “(CEQA”), a Community Development Director (“Director”) lacks the authority to approve a project that may have environmental consequences. The court also held that even if the Director had such authority, his attempted approval of the project was not valid because the approval had not been made public, thereby depriving the public of the opportunity to administratively appeal the decision.
The City of Stockton approved a development plan for a business park near Interstate 5 that contemplated residential and business/retail uses on 560 acres. The approvals included a development agreement that required the developer to construct 935 units of high density housing.
A.G. Spanos (“Developer”) applied to build a Wal Mart store, which had not been analyzed in the Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”). The development plan, development agreement and EIR stated that Parcel 17 would consist of high density housing. The Developer proposed that the Wal Mart store be located on this same parcel. The Wal Mart project would eliminate 627 of the 935 residential units planned for the parcel.
The City Council amended the general plan, zoning ordinance and development agreement to transfer the site of the high density housing to parcels zoned for mixed use. But the development plan continued to state that Parcel 17 was designated for residential development.
In a December 2003 letter to the Developer entitled status report, the Director stated that the store was in substantial conformance with the development plan. The letter was not posted, published or made public.
The City filed a notice of determination in February 2004.
In a lawsuit filed in July 2004, Petitioner asserted that the Director’s letter did not constitute an approval of the Wal Mart. The trial court ruled that the change from residential to superstore retail was a major change in the development plan that triggered CEQA review.
The trial court ruled that (1) the approval of the Wal-Mart project triggered the need to conduct further CEQA review; and (2) the February 2004 notice of determination did not commence the running of the 35 day limitation period, and therefore the lawsuit was timely filed.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision. The court first held that the approval was required to be made public because the public had the right to appeal the Director’s decision to the Planning Commission. Here, however, the Director’s December 2003 letter was never posted, published or otherwise made public, and therefore the public never had an opportunity to appeal. Accordingly, the purported project approval was invalid, in the court’s view.
Next, the court announced that although lead agencies may delegate their decision making authority to any person within the agency permitted by law to approve the project (CEQA Guidelines § 15356), this delegation of authority does not extend to decisions to approve a project that may have environmental consequences. Here, the Director attempted to approve a Wal-Mart project that had never been analyzed in an EIR. Given the potential for this project to have environmental impacts, the Director’s approval of the Wal Mart project exceeded his authority under CEQA, ruled the court.
Turning to the statute of limitations, the court observed that the 35 day statute of limitations of Public Resources Code § 21167(d) requires a valid project approval in order to be triggered. Here, however, since the Director’s attempted project approval was not valid, the 35 day limitations period never was triggered, and the statute of limitations was instead 180 days from commencement of the project. The complaint in this case was filed less than 180 days after the filing of the notice of determination, and therefore was not barred by the statute of limitations, the court concluded.