Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Expansion of Rock Quarry Operation

Stop Syar Expansion v. Cty. of Napa
(No. A158723) __ Cal.App.5th __ [2021 WL 1596347], as modified (Apr. 23, 2021)

The California Court of Appeal (First Appellate District) recently delivered a victory to the County of Napa in a long-running challenge to the expansion of a rock quarry located outside the City of Napa. The published portion of the opinion focuses on the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements for environmental impact reports (EIRs) to discuss any inconsistencies between the proposed project and applicable planning documents. The opinion also provides a detailed overview of general CEQA principles, including the standard of judicial review of EIRs and the requirement for petitioners to exhaust their administrative remedies.

As background, in 2008, the rock quarry operator proposed to expand the existing 472-acre operation by 291 acres, and to increase quarry production from 1 million to 2 million tons annually. After more than seven years of environmental review and numerous hearings, in October 2015, the County Planning Commission certified the project’s final EIR. The Planning Commission also approved a modified version of the project, which included an expansion “half the size originally sought” — an expansion by 106 acres and an increase in production to 1.3 million tons annually. The approval was also subject to more than 100 pages of conditions and mitigation measures.

The petitioner in this case, Stop Syar Expansion (SSE), appealed the EIR certification and project approvals to the County Board of Supervisors, claiming deficiencies “in a multitude of respects.” The County Board then conducted nearly a year of additional environmental review and hearings and, in a 109-page decision, rejected SSE’s appeals, certified the EIR, and approved a further modified project. SSE then filed a lawsuit challenging the certification of the EIR under CEQA. After “winnowing down” its claims, SSE asserted 16 alleged deficiencies with the EIR. The trial court denied the petition in a 42-page ruling, and the Court of Appeal affirmed, in a partially published 86-page opinion.

General Plan Consistency

The published portion of the Stop Syar Expansion opinion focuses on SSE’s claim that the EIR failed to address the project’s asserted inconsistencies with the County’s general plan. As an initial matter, the Court of Appeal agreed with the County and quarry operator that whether a proposed project is consistent with the applicable planning documents “is not a CEQA issue” and, therefore, the petitioner was required to raise this issue by way of a separate cause of action (or separate proceeding) for ordinary mandamus, under Code of Civil Procedure section 1085.

Specifically, in the context of planning and land use law, every California county and city is required to adopt “a comprehensive, long-term general plan for the development of the county or city.” (Gov. Code, §65300.) The propriety of virtually any local decision affecting land use and development depends upon consistency with the applicable general plan and its elements. As to the standard of judicial review, when courts review an agency’s decision that a project is consistent with its own general plan, they accord “great deference” to the agency’s determination. This is because the agency which adopted the general plan policies in its legislative capacity has “unique competence” to interpret those policies when applying them in its adjudicatory capacity. A reviewing court’s role is simply to decide whether the agency “considered the applicable policies and the extent to which the proposed project conforms with those policies.” Courts can reverse an agency’s finding of general plan consistency only if the petitioner shows the determination was unreasonable.

Here, the County determined the rock quarry expansion project is consistent with the general plan. The petitioner SSE did not challenge this finding based on the applicable standard of review. Instead, it contended there was a CEQA violation because the EIR failed to disclose alleged inconsistencies with the general plan, which violated CEQA’s informational requirement to “adequately inform the public and decisionmakers” about the project’s potential impacts.

The CEQA Guidelines require an EIR to discuss any inconsistencies between the proposed project and applicable general plans, specific plans, and regional plans. (14 Cal. Code Regs., §15125(d).) Thus, while there is no requirement that an EIR itself be consistent with the relevant general plan, it must identify and discuss any inconsistencies between the proposed project and the governing general plan. Such inconsistencies may be evidence of a significant environmental effect. However, no analysis is required if the project is consistent with the relevant plans.

The Stop Syar Expansion opinion shows that if a petitioner alleges an EIR fails to discuss general plan inconsistencies in violation of CEQA Guideline §15125(d), the petitioner must first establish that the proposed project is inconsistent with the applicable general plan. To do so, it must meet the “highly deferential” standard of review applicable to an agency’s consistency determination under the general planning and land use law, discussed above. There is no separate standard of review to determine “inconsistency” for purposes of alleged violations of CEQA’s informational requirement. SSE’s attempt to create a separate CEQA standard failed.

The Court also considered — and rejected — the merits of SSE’s general plan consistency argument. The Court found that the project’s consistency with the general plan was addressed at length “throughout the environmental review process.” For example, each technical section of the EIR included a detailed discussion of consistency with general plan policies. The County also prepared a “General Plan Consistency Analysis” that was considered during proceedings before both the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. The Court found that this provided ample basis for public discussion of the project’s consistency with the general plan and informed decision-making. In fact, the record showed that the general plan policies contemplate and allow rock aggregate mining on the subject property — neither a general plan land use re-designation nor a rezoning of the property are necessary to accommodate the expansion of the quarry, which has been in existence since the 1800s.

In short, Stop Syar Expansion makes clear that “inconsistency” for CEQA purposes is no different than for purposes of general planning and land use law. To determine if a proposed project is “inconsistent” with an applicable general plan, specific plan, or regional plan, courts will give great deference to the agency’s determination of consistency, and petitioners bear a heavy burden to show that the agency’s interpretation of its own plan was in error — courts will decline to “micromanage” such decisions.

CEQA “101” – Standard of Review and Issue Exhaustion

Finally, as mentioned above, the partially published Stop Syar Expansion opinion also provides a detailed overview of general CEQA principles.

First, the opinion enumerates the standard for judicial review where petitioners challenge the content and analysis of an EIR. Most notably: (i) an EIR is presumed adequate and the petitioner has the burden of proving otherwise; (ii) the court’s inquiry extends only to whether there was a prejudicial abuse of discretion, and courts accord greater deference to the agency’s substantive factual conclusions than to alleged procedural errors; and (iii) the ultimate inquiry is whether the EIR includes enough detail “to enable those who did not participate in its preparation to understand and to consider meaningfully the issues raised by the proposed project.” Courts look “not for perfection but for adequacy, completeness, and a good faith effort at full disclosure.” (CEQA Guideline, §15151.)

In addition, the opinion provides a comprehensive overview of the “exhaustion of administrative remedies” doctrine. Before a CEQA challenge may be presented to a court, the petitioner must first exhaust the remedies available with the administrative agency. The essence of the exhaustion doctrine affords the public agency an opportunity to receive and respond to articulated factual issues and legal theories before its actions are subjected to judicial review. The petitioner has the burden of proof to show exhaustion occurred. In this regard, string-cites to the record without explanation is not sufficient — the petitioner must show that the public agency was “fairly apprised” of the asserted noncompliance with CEQA.

Further, whether exhaustion has occurred will depend upon the procedures applicable to the public agency in question. Stop Syar Expansion involves the fairly common scenario where the local ordinance provides for an administrative appeal ­— the Planning Commission’s actions are appealable to the County Board. In such a case, the failure to appeal the Planning Commission’s actions in the manner prescribed by the ordinance is a failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Thus, compliance with the local administrative procedures is key to establishing standing to bring a CEQA lawsuit.

Key Takeaways

Stop Syar Expansion is among the key opinions discussing the interplay between CEQA and the requirement that land use decisions must be consistent with the applicable general plan. The opinion also provides a great resource for those looking for an in-depth discussion of core CEQA principles, such as the standard of review for challenges to an EIR, and the jurisdictional requirement to exhaust administrative remedies before a CEQA lawsuit may be brought.

[This alert does not constitute legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is created by viewing or responding to this alert.  Legal counsel should be sought for answers to specific legal questions.]