CEQA Inapplicable to Voter Initiatives


In a decision published on August 7, the California Supreme Court decided that CEQA review does not apply to a voter initiative presented to a local government and approved by that body without an election. The case, Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. Superior Court (Wal Mart) (2014) S207173, involved a voter initiative seeking to enact a specific plan for a Wal-Mart Supercenter, which was presented to the City Council for consideration pursuant to Section 9214 of the Elections Code. Under that procedure, the city may either adopt the initiative or place the initiative on a special election ballot. An earlier case held that CEQA review was not required where such a voter initiative was placed before the electorate. (DeVita v. County of Napa (1995) 9 Cal.4th 763.) In this case, the Court decided to extend that holding to voter initiatives that are approved without an election. The decision only applies to initiatives proposed by voters, and does not apply to initiatives drawn up by public agencies.

In rendering its decision, the Supreme Court noted that, the Elections Code mandates very tight timeframes for voter initiatives, too short to allow for CEQA review. Moreover, an agency cannot modify a voter initiative, which, in the court’s view rendered CEQA review a meaningless exercise. The petitioner warned that the decision would open the door for a developer to use the initiative process to evade CEQA review by presenting its plan to a friendly city council in the form of an initiative. The Court brushed off this concern, noting that such an approval would remain subject to voter approval by referendum. By reversing the lower court, the decision reconciles the formerly inconsistent application of CEQA to the initiative context.

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