Court Holds That Stipulated Compliance Orders Do Not Require CEQA Review

Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation v. County of San Diego (2017) Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 6988

In an unpublished decision of interest to quarry operators, California’s Fourth Appellate District
held that San Diego County did not need to perform a CEQA review before entering into a compliance
agreement which allowed a firearms training facility to operate on an interim basis while the owner
applied for a conditional use permit.

The case arose after the private landowner began using his approximately 152-acre parcel as a
firearms training facility for law enforcement agencies. After receiving complaints from neighbors, the
County issued the owner a notice to cease. Subsequently, the owner entered into a series of “stipulated
administrative orders” with the County that allowed the facility to continue operating, subject to certain
limitations, while the owner applied for use permit. Neighbors sued, claiming among other things that the
compliance orders constituted a “project” under CEQA which required environmental review. The trial
and appellate courts disagreed. In the appellate court’s view, the compliance orders were not “project”
approvals that committed the County to authorizing the facility; rather, they were “interim enforcement
mechanisms to limit the activities at the property” pending a complete discretionary review. They were
simply the means by which the County administered and enforced its own laws, something that CEQA
does not control.

While the decision is unpublished, meaning it has limited precedential value, it still tends to
validate the practice of resolving alleged land use violations through stipulated orders, a common practice
under SMARA. In the SMARA setting, a lead agency may allow mining operations to continue during
the period that an amended reclamation plan or use permit is processed. This decision indicates that such
orders are not subject to CEQA review.

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