The California Supreme Court has issued its first California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) decision this year, resolving decades of dispute concerning a plaintiff’s obligation to raise objections to the use of an exemption for a project prior to its approval (i.e. exhaust their administrative remedies) before they may file a lawsuit regarding those objections. The decision will likely have significant ramifications on public agency practice with regard to the use of categorical exemptions.
Where public agencies proceed with project approvals via a categorical exemption, they now are guaranteed the opportunity to learn of, and respond to, any objections to the categorical exemption prior to being sued if a noticed public hearing is held on the exemption and project. Conversely, members of the public who fail to present their objections at such hearings can no longer bring lawsuits under cover of claims that they were not required to exhaust their administrative remedies.
In Tomlinson v. County of Alameda, the Supreme Court considered a challenge to the approval of a single-family housing subdivision on grounds that the County improperly found the project categorically exempt from CEQA under the so-called “in-fill development” exemption. The developer and county had unsuccessfully argued to the Court of Appeal that Tomlinson should not be allowed to challenge the categorical exemption as no objections were ever raised to its use despite the ample public notice concerning the project and the exemption, and despite the county’s noticed public approval hearing on the project. In direct conflict with the Court of Appeal’s decision in Hines v. California Coastal Commission (2011), the Court of Appeal held that that the Tomlinson plaintiffs were not required to exhaust their administrative remedies regarding the use of the exemption before filing a CEQA lawsuit to challenge the project. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement set forth in Public Resources Code section 21177(a) applies to a public agency’s decision that a proposed project is categorically exempt from CEQA, as long as the public agency gives notice of the ground for its exemption determination and that determination is preceded by a public hearing at which members of the public have the opportunity to raise any concerns or objections.
If you have any questions about this case or how it might impact your agency, please contact Michelle Ouellette, or an attorney in Best Best & Krieger Environmental Law & Natural Resources practice group.
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