Friday, February 12, 2010
Supeme Court: Challenge to Stanford University Trail Project Untimely
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday threw out a challenge to an agreement between Stanford University and Santa Clara County dedicating certain trail easements for public use as a mitigation measure for the school’s expansion of its campus as untimely.
Reversing the Sixth District Court of Appeal, the unanimous court explained that the filing of a “notice of determination” triggers a 30-day statute of limitations for all California Environmental Quality Act challenges to the decision announced in the notice, regardless of the alleged violation.
The dispute arose after Stanford applied for a community plan and general use permit to add buildings on its campus in 2000. An environmental impact report prepared for the overall project found that the proposed development would significantly impact public access to recreational facilities.
One of the mitigation measures in the EIR directed Stanford to dedicate certain trail easements to the county and coordinate with the county parks department regarding the trails’ locations, uses, construction and management. The county’s board of supervisors certified the EIR and granted the permit to Stanford, expressly conditioned on the school’s satisfaction of the EIR’s mitigation measures.
Stanford and the county subsequently reached an agreement obligating the school to build trail segments on its own land and provide funding for trial construction and environmental compliance. The board of supervisors found this agreement satisfied the EIR’s requirements and filed a notice of determination with the county clerk on Dec. 16, 2005.
Four days later, the county filed a revised NOD, which was posted for 30 days, from Dec. 20, 2005, through Jan. 19, 2006. The revised notice reported that the county had approved an agreement for two trail alignments, but had not approved any specific trail improvements.
On June 9, 2006, 171 days after the revised NOD was filed and posted, the Committee for Green Foothills filed a petition for writ of mandamus challenging the county’s approval of the trails agreement.
The committee, which describes itself as a “grass-roots” organization established in 1962 dedicated to protecting and preserving open space on the San Francisco Peninsula, alleged that the county had violated CEQA by approving the trail alignments without having conducted the necessary environmental review.
Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Leslie C. Nichols sustained the county’s demurrer, finding the notice of decision had triggered the 30-day statute of limitations in Public Resources Code Sec. 21167 subsections (b), (c) and (e).
The Sixth District Court of Appeal reversed, concluding there was “a reasonable possibility” the committee could allege facts sufficient to bring its case within Sec. 21167(a)’s 180-day statute of limitations for actions claiming that an agency approved a project without having determined its potential environmental effects.
Writing for the high court, Justice Carol A. Corrigan explained that the committee’s challenge was to the approval of an activity that was undertaken to ameliorate the impact of Stanford’s campus expansion and which was required as a condition of the school’s permit, and therefore could not be considered an independent project, but a subsequent activity encompassed within the original project.
Once an EIR has been prepared, subsequent activities for that project must be examined in light of that EIR to determine whether additional environmental review is necessary, and if no new environmental effects are expected, the agency can approve the activity as within the scope of the prior EIR, she said. But, if the agency determines that supplemental review is not required, CEQA mandates public notice of this decision.
“When an agency gives the public notice of its decision that a project is exempt from CEQA, just like a notice of any other determination under CEQA, the public can be expected to act promptly in challenging this decision,” she said. “However, when an agency does not give the statutorily required notice, and the public is held to constructive notice based on the start of the project, the Legislature has determined that a longer limitations period should apply.”
Thus, Corrigan reasoned, “the determinative question, for purposes of defining the statute of limitations, is not what type of violation the plaintiff has alleged, but whether the action complained of was disclosed in a public notice.”
If there has not been an environmental impact determination, the statute of limitations is 180 days, measured from the date of the agency’s approval or the start of the project, she said. But if a notice of decision has been filed, “the statute of limitations for all types of CEQA claims related to the project is 30 days from the date the notice was filed.”
“The statutory language does not authorize an extension of this 30-day period if the suit alleges that, despite the filing of an NOD, the project was approved without a prior environmental assessment,” Corrigan added. She also rejected challenges to the validity of the NOD, characterizing them as untimely efforts to attack the merits of the supervisors’ decision.
The case is Committee for Green Foothills v. Board of Supervisors of Santa Clara County (Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University), 10 S.O.S. 827.
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