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First Appellate District Rules CEQA’s One-Year Rule for Certifying an EIR not Mandatory

On December 2, the First Appellate District issued an important decision in Schellinger Brothers v. City of Sebastopol rejecting a developer’s ability to challenge a lead agency’s decision to continue processing an environmental impact report (EIR) under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), even after the expiration of the one-year period for certification of an EIR set forth in CEQA section 21151.5.

The City of Sebastopol had engaged in a long and complex processing of Schellinger Brothers’ development application beyond the one-year period. After considering the final EIR for Schellinger Brothers’ project in 2007, the City Council determined that the EIR was not legally adequate and ordered recirculation. Schellinger Brothers sued the City alleging, among other things, that the City could not order recirculation of the EIR because the one-year time period had elapsed, relying on both CEQA and an earlier decision concerning CEQA section 21151.5, Sunset Drive Corp. v. City of Redlands.

The Court rejected Schellinger Brothers’ arguments for several reasons. First, the Court noted that Sunset Drive was decided under traditional mandamus and simply held that CEQA required that a lead agency must exercise its discretion in some fashion. Here, Schellinger Brothers sued under administrative mandamus challenging the particular exercise of discretion by the City. The Court held that there is no authority allowing the Court to examine the particular exercise of discretion by a lead agency in the CEQA process. Similarly, the Court found that CEQA actually prohibits courts from dictating to lead agencies that the lead agency exercise discretion in any particular way. Second, the Court distinguished Sunset Drive on the facts, again noting that there the City of Redlands had refused to exercise its discretion whereas here the City of Sebastopol never stopped exercising. Third, on the facts of this particular case, the Court held that Schellinger Brothers’ arguments were barred by the doctrine of laches. The Court found that Schellinger Brothers itself was solely responsible for considerable portions of the delay in the process. Moreover, the Court noted, despite Schellinger Brothers’ current arguments that the City was without discretion to continue processing the EIR, Schellinger Brothers had asked the City to exercise its discretion for several years following the passage of the one-year time period. These facts combined, the Court found, led to Schellinger’s claims being barred by the doctrine of laches.

In other parts of the opinion, the Court reiterated long standing authority that CEQA contains no “deemed approved” clause. The Court also held that the Housing Accountability Act (Gov’t Code, § 65589.5) could not be construed to read a “deemed approved” clause into CEQA or otherwise modify any of the provisions of CEQA.

Meyers Nave’s land use and CEQA attorneys, Julia Bond, Steve Mattas, Tim Cremin and Ed Grutzmacher, represented the City of Sebastopol in both the public hearing process and the litigation. For questions regarding the impact this decision may have on your city or any other CEQA issues, contact Julia Bond or Ed Grutzmacher.