During the week of August 19, 2019, both the Appellate and Supreme Courts of California issued decisive opinions clarifying the parameters of agency action subject to environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act, Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21000, et seq., (“CEQA”). The courts were responding to repeated efforts by public entities to circumvent their CEQA obligations by redefining the actions that constitute a “project” subject to analysis under CEQA. Those public entities which have attempted to so minimize their exposure under CEQA include several airports in California, most notably, Los Angeles International Airport (“LAX”). In its environmental review of the Specific Plan Amendment Study of several years ago, LAX relied on precisely the Project Definition soundly rejected by the California courts as set forth below.

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Thirty-one airports throughout the State of California, including Los Angeles International Airport and San Bernardino International Airport, have been made the subject of new investigative orders pursuant to California Water Code § 13267. These airports, with training/fire response facilities will be required to prepare and submit work plans for review and approval by the State

On October 24, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) published its final rule documenting the failure of the California Air Resources Board (“CARB”) to submit a State Implementation Plan (“SIP”) revision containing measures to control California’s significant contribution to the nonattainment, or interference with maintenance, of the 2006 24 hour fine particulate matter (“PM2.5”) National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”) in other states (“Interstate Transport SIP”).

More specifically, CARB’s failure to submit constitutes a violation of the general provisions of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”), § 110(a)(2)(D)(i)(I) which requires that CARB submit a SIP revision to comply with the implementation, maintenance and enforcement provisions related to new or revised NAAQS within three years after the promulgation of the revised NAAQS; and that such plan contain adequate provisions to prohibit emissions from the state that will contribute significantly to nonattainment of the NAAQS (“Prong 1”), or interference with maintenance of the NAAQS (“Prong 2”), in any other state.  The final rule implementing the “Finding of Failure” transfers to EPA the obligation to promulgate a Federal Implementation Plan (“FIP”) to address the interstate transport requirements, within 24 months.
 
The issue has come to prominence as a result of the federal/state partnership that is the foundation of the CAA, see 42 U.S.C. § 7401(a)(3) and (4), giving EPA the power of approval over locally developed plans.  


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California’s unprecedented drought provided the impetus in Sacramento in the closing weeks of the Legislature’s 2013-14 session for the passage of sweeping new regulations governing groundwater. The new rules, which Gov. Brown likely will sign, amount to a broad re-write of California’s existing groundwater law, the first substantial changes to the law in approximately one hundred years. And with the new rules comes significant new authority for a state agency, drawing upon potentially billions of dollars in new fees, to implement new groundwater management plans over the objections of local water authorities. 

Orange County’s groundwater management system, accomplished across numerous governmental jurisdictions and which has, so far, spared Orange County from the full effects of the drought, is held up as the model for the new state scheme. But the legislation goes well beyond anything done in Orange County. Major changes are coming in the way California regulates and allocates its ground water, and in the way our citizens pay for that water.


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Taking its queue from the legislature (see Senate Bill 743 [Steinberg 2013]), the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (“OPR”) published, on August 6, 2014, a preliminary discussion draft of revisions to OPR’s California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) Guidelines, which serve as regulations implementing CEQA, Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21000, et seq.,  “Updating Transportation Impacts Analysis in the CEQA Guidelines” (“Update”).  The Update revises existing CEQA Guidelines § 15064.3 to comport with Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21099(b)(1) which establishes new criteria for determining the environmental significance of surface traffic impacts such as traffic delay and increased emissions resulting from a proposed project.  The purpose of both the amended statute and the Update is to shift the focus of the CEQA analysis of significance from “driver delay” to “reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, creation of multi-modal  networks and promotion of mixed land uses.”  Update, page 3.  

 
The change is effected through a change in the metric for determining environmental significance Level of Service (“LOS”), which measures delay at intersections, to vehicle miles traveled (“VMT”), which is a measure of the number of automobile trips resulting from the project.  The stated rationale underlying the change is that the use of LOS encourages mitigation aimed at reducing delays by increasing traffic flow, including expanded roadways, construction of more lanes and other automobile traffic facilitation measures; which theoretically leads to “induced demand,” i.e., more capacity at intersections allowing additional cars to use them; and, ultimately, to more air quality and greenhouse gas impacts from those additional cars.  As the story goes, a standard of environmental significance based on VMT will encourage the use of mitigation measures such as increased bicycle paths, accommodations for pedestrians, and other measures that will reduce automobile ridership in the long term.  The problem is that the theory underlying the Update is made up more of holes than of cheese. 
 


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As far back as 1946 when the California Legislature first passed legislation enabling the establishment of redevelopment agencies, the concept of restoring aging urban neighborhoods has played a key role in the character and identity of California cities. This role, which was enhanced by government money during the era of “urban renewal” in the 1960s, has now been effectively obviated by a ruling of the California Supreme Court which, on Thursday, December 27, 2011, held in favor of a recent State law abolishing the State’s 400 local redevelopment agencies. The Court also ruled against a compromise measure which would have allowed the redevelopment agencies to continue in operation with the sharing of their revenues with the State General Fund. Localities are now faced with the quandary of how to make up the shortfall. Several new ideas have been advanced at both the State and local levels.


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The recently published Southern California Association of Governments (“SCAG”) Draft Regional Transportation Plan 2012-2035, Sustainable Communities Strategy (“Draft RTP”) is a study in contrasts. The Draft RTP is meant to be a roadmap to “increasing mobility for the region’s residents and visitors.” Draft RTP, p. 1. Its “vision” purportedly “encompasses three principles that collectively work as the key to our region’s future: mobility, economy and sustainability.” Draft RTP, p. 1. SCAG’s jurisdiction falls largely into compartments: (1) surface transportation such as roadways and rail; and (2) aviation. SCAG has funding authority over the former, but none over the latter.

The purpose of the Draft RTP is to portray transportation from a broader regional, rather than merely local, perspective. On the one hand, the Draft RTP’s analysis of surface transportation growth estimates, trends and proposed policies for the Southern California Region to the year 2035 contains relatively sophisticated and substantially complete analysis and projections that meet its goals. On the other hand, the Draft RTP’s analysis of aviation trends and policies for meeting airport demand is reminiscent of a high school science project.
 


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On September 27, 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 292 and Assembly Bill 900, both of which are aimed at expediting, or “fast-tracking,” the litigation of lawsuits brought under the California Environmental Quality Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 (“CEQA”). SB292 is basically an earmark that will “fast-track” CEQA challenges to the Farmer’s Field National Football League Stadium proposed for downtown Los Angeles, next to the Los Angeles Convention Center and Staples Center, by requiring that such challenges be brought directly in California Courts of Appeals and be heard within 175 days. AB900 reaches more widely, “fast-tracking” all projects costing $100 million or more.

The stated intentions of the Bills’ sponsors are, on their faces, noble ones — to provide more job opportunities, and spur increased spending and attendant tax revenue for the State, matters which seem urgent in light of the State of California’s economy. The problems raised by the Bills are less immediate, but no less important.
 


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The California Department of Transportation, Aviation Division (“Caltrans”) has announced yet another delay in the publication of the “California Airport Land Use Planning Handbook” (“Handbook”). The Handbook constitutes guidance for California’s airport land use commissions (“ALUC”) in the establishment of height, density and intensity restrictions for land uses around California airports. This delay continues and even increases the risk of conflict between ALUCs and local land use jurisdictions throughout California. 

ALUC restrictions are not the last word concerning land uses around airports, as local land use jurisdictions have final authority to approve or disapprove land uses within their own boundaries. However, ALUC restrictions can make it more difficult for a local jurisdiction to effectuate previously enacted development plans in the vicinity of an airport. This is because, to overcome the ALUC determination of inconsistency with ALUC restrictions, the local jurisdiction must overrule the ALUC by a two-thirds vote, a hurdle often difficult if not impossible to overcome because of fears of liability.


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It has come to our attention that the most recent revision of the California Airport Land Use Planning Handbook (Handbook) has just been released for public review and comment. The review period will end December 27, 2010.

The Handbook and the Airport Land Use Compatibility Plans (ALUCP) approved by many jurisdictions based on