Court Broadly Applies CEQA's Remedial Provisions

Golden Gate Land Holdings LLC v. East Bay Regional Park District

(2013) ___ Cal.App.4th ___

A California Appellate Court has ruled that project approvals may remain intact while lead agencies cure certain violations under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). The Court’s ruling was preceded by an extensive discussion regarding the courts’ remedial powers under CEQA, which concluded that a CEQA violation will not always require the lead agency to start the planning entitlement process anew.

The decision centered on the East Bay Regional Park District’s (“District”) approved resolution to condemn eight shoreline acres of Golden Gate Land Holdings LLC’s (“Golden Gate”) property to help complete a park project and to construct a segment of the San Francisco Bay Trail (“Bay Trail”). The District concluded that the proposed project was exempt from CEQA under the Class 25 exemption, which exempts real property acquisitions to preserve park space.

Golden Gate sued, alleging that the exemption did not apply because the project included the construction of the Bay Trail, an activity which, according to Golden Gate, was not exempt under the Class 25 exemption or any other exemption under CEQA. The trial court agreed with Golden Gate, holding that for CEQA purposes, the project included three different “project activities” – initiation of the eminent domain proceedings, actual acquisition of the property rights and the proposed Bay Trail construction. Although the first two activities fell under the Class 25 exemption, the last activity, according to the court, was not exempt from CEQA. The court also found that the eminent domain proceedings were a “severable” project activity which would not prejudice CEQA compliance, so long as the District stopped short of actual acquisition. Based on this finding, the court did not order the resolution to be vacated in its entirety, but instead allowed the District to proceed with its eminent domain action before completing CEQA review with respect to the proposed Bay Trail construction.

Golden Gate appealed, contending that the trial court was required to vacate the resolution in its entirety after concluding that CEQA had been violated. Golden Gate’s contention was premised on CEQA’s express requirement that environmental review occur before project approval so as to inform the lead agency’s decision making process. The Appellate Court rejected Golden Gate’s argument, holding that CEQA’s remedial provisions authorize trial courts to fashion remedies which permit part of the project to proceed while an agency seeks to remedy its CEQA violations. In other words, the issuance of a writ need not always halt all work on a project.

The decision is noteworthy because it reinforces trial courts’ broad authority to fashion equitable remedies under CEQA. Perhaps more significantly, the decision offers the most extensive discussion than any other published case regarding the legislative and judicial history of CEQA’s remedial provisions.

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