Taylor, Waterman and Cho Discuss California Supreme Court Decision's Effect on CEQA


Stoel Rives attorneys  Tim Taylor, Ryan Waterman and Juliet Cho co-authored an article in Law360 titled “Calif. High Court Case Has Not Made CEQA Obsolete.” The article discusses a recent California Supreme Court decision that held the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) does not apply in a circumstance where a lead agency receives a voter-sponsored initiative petition and chooses to adopt the initiative without putting the decision to an actual public vote (as agencies may do when the petition is signed by at least 15 percent of registered voters).

The dispute arose in 2007 from the proposed expansion of a Wal-Mart store in Sonora, California, into a supercenter. Rather than go through the often contentious permitting process for a supercenter, Wal-Mart submitted a petition, signed by more than 20 percent of Sonora’s registered voters, and the City Council adopted the initiative on its own authority as allowed by the California Elections Code.

In 2004, the Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District concluded that a lead agency’s approval of a voter initiative was exempt from CEQA. A writ of petition filed in 2012 by the Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance alleged the city violated CEQA by adopting the ordinance before conducting a complete CEQA review, and the Court of Appeal for the Fifth Appellate District agreed, holding that Sonora’s adoption of the initiative required CEQA review.

The California Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Court of Appeal decision based on the plain language and legislative intent behind the Elections Code, finding that the Legislature never intended limited environmental review for initiatives.

The authors conclude that the Supreme Court’s decision may not be widely employed as a means to circumvent the requirements of CEQA—no attempts to do this were made between 2004 and 2012 while voter initiatives were exempted from CEQA—but it will likely take time before the full range of implications come to light.

Read “Calif. High Court Case Has Not Made CEQA Obsolete,” published on August 25, 2014. (Subscription required.)

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