In Committee for Green Foothills v. Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2008 WL 962884, Cal.App. 6 Dist., Apr. 10, 2008), a California Court of Appeal found that a state environmental group’s petition against Santa Clara County should not have been dismissed for being barred by the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) statute of limitations. Although the petition was filed too late to meet the 30-day limitations period applicable to some CEQA violations, the court found the plaintiffs had a reasonable likelihood of amending the petition to allege facts that would bring their claim within the purview of a CEQA provision that contained a 180-day limitations period.
On June 9, 2006, the Committee for Green Foothills (“Committee”) filed a petition seeking to enforce CEQA against Santa Clara County and its Board of Supervisors. The litigation arose from the Board’s December 2005 resolution approving an agreement with Stanford University (“Stanford”) to satisfy a condition of a General Use Permit (“GUP”) requiring Stanford to dedicate easements for, develop, and maintain portions of certain trails on the County’s 1995 Master Plan that crossed Stanford’s lands. The 2005 resolution determined that no further CEQA review was required by the County prior to its execution of the trails agreement with Stanford insofar as concerned two trail alignments, and approved the execution of the trails agreement. Among other things, the agreement authorized portions of one trail to be developed outside Santa Clara County instead of within the County, and declared that the agreement’s execution satisfied the GUP.
The Committee claimed the Board’s resolution approved activities concerning the trail without requisite CEQA environmental review and that it improperly deferred environmental review or left review to other jurisdictions. The trial court sustained the defendants’ demurrer without leave to amend, finding that under Public Resources Code § 21167(c), all challenges to the County’s action were required to be filed within 30 days from the Board’s December 2005 notice of determination to carry out the project, and that the petition could not be amended to demonstrate otherwise. The Committee appealed.
The Court of Appeal found the nature of County’s action was such that the Committee might allege facts that would bring its claim within § 21167(a), which pertains to claims that charge a public agency with “approving or undertaking a project having a significant effect on the environment without any attempt to comply with CEQA,” and contains a 180-day rather than 30-day limitations period. The applicable limitations period depends upon the type of CEQA violation that has been alleged. The Committee’s allegations implicated the provisions of § 21167(a), the court said. It concluded there was “a reasonable possibility” that the Committee could allege facts sufficient to bring the case within the purview of section 21167(a) because the Board had approved changes and subsequent activities, as to one of the trails, that could effect the environment without first determining whether the project might have a significant effect on the environment. Reaching a contrary conclusion “would not interpret the law in a manner that afforded the fullest possible protection to the environment within the reasonable scope of the statutory language.” The California Legislature’s imposition of a longer limitations period for challenging approvals lacking any determination of potential significant effect “is entirely consistent with CEQA’s fundamental purpose of compelling meaningful decision-making,” it stated.
The court rejected the Committee’s attempt to characterize the County’s obligation to enforce the GUP condition as “a present and continuing duty enforceable through a writ of mandamus,” however, finding instead that it was essentially a CEQA claim. Under the allegations of the Committee’s petition, the Board’s resolution “must be viewed a de facto modification of that permit condition and the only alleged basis for the resolution’s invalidity is the Board’s failure to conduct environmental review of the proposed changes with respect to the C1 trail alignment,” the court said. As such, the Committee’s claim that County and Board had a mandatory duty to enforce the original permit condition was also subject to the limitations period of section 21167(a), it held.
The court also rejected an attempt by County and Board to characterize the Committee’s claim as an attack on the GUP under Government Code section 65009 and therefore subject to that statute’s 90-day limitations period. The Committee was not “challenging ‘the reasonableness, legality, or validity’ of GUP Condition I.2,” (the condition at issue), the court said, but the validity of the Board’s resolution that Stanford’s commitments under the trails agreement satisfied the permit condition. The court found that the Committee’s claims in essence were all CEQA claims and “governed by the CEQA statute of limitations rather than the more general provisions of Government Code section 65009.”
Based on its determination that Committee could allege facts sufficient to overcome the statute of limitations pursuant to section 21167(a), however, the court reversed the trial court’s judgment of dismissal and remanded the matter with instructions to allow the Committee leave to amend its petition.