Reversing an appellate court decision, the California Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that courts should substitute their “abstract” judgment for the lead agency’s judgment as to what constitutes a “new” project that requires more extensive environmental analysis.

The ruling appears to clear up a conflict between appellate rulings from different districts. But the plaintiffs said they still believe they can win the case on remand.

The case involved a proposed building program at College of San Mateo, a community college located in the City of San Mateo, that would have involved demolishing some buildings and renovating others. Initially, the college certified a mitigated negative declaration for the building program. Years later, however, the college changed the building program so that some buildings that would have been demolished would be renovated, while the Horticulture Building, which wraps around a horticultural garden, would be demolished.

Concluding that the change did not constitute a “new project” under the California Environmental Quality Act, the college issued an addendum to the MND. A group of residents and students calling themselves Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens sued and won in both San Mateo County Superior Court and the First District Court of Appeal. But in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed the First District.

“When an agency proposes changes to a previously approved project, CEQA does not authorize courts to invalidate the agency’s action based solely on their own abstract evaluation of whether the agency’s proposal is a new project, rather than a modified version of the old one,” wrote Justice Leondra Kruger in an exceptionally clear and well-written argument.

“… An agency that proposes project changes … must determine whether the previous environmental documents retains any relevance in light of the proposed changes and, if so, whether major revisions to the previous environmental document are nevertheless required due to the involvement of new, previously unstudied significant environmental impacts. These are determinations for the agency to make in the first instance, subject to judicial review for substantial evidence.”

That was the important legal ruling, and it was pretty clear. Sabrina Teller, a lawyer, for Remy Moose & Manley who argued the case for the college, told SFGate: “The court is still urging a deferential standard.”

However, Kruger acknowledged that the case before the Supreme Court did not address all issues in the case – including the question of the legal validity of the CEQA Guidelines sections that allow an MND addendum on a modified project rather than an environmental impact report. That’s one reason why the plaintiffs say they are confident of victory on remand.

Susan Brandt-Hawley, lawyer for the plaintiff, said she is still hopeful that the lower courts will distinguish the original and revised project in such a way that her client will win. “Here we have an addendum to a neg dec, and the neg dec was for a preservation project. And the new addendum (actually therefore a revised neg dec) is for a demolition project,” she said in an email to CP&DR.

The controversy in the case revolves around so-called “Building 20,” the college’s horticulture building and an adjacent garden that students and nearby residents value for its peacefulness. In 2006, the college adopted a building program that called for retention of Building 20 and demolition of other buildings on campus. The college also certified an MND for the project.

Five years later, however, the college changed the building program, calling for renovation of the other buildings and demolition of Building 20 and the garden, along with replanting some of the herbs and bushes in the garden elsewhere on campus. The Friends group sued.

In an unpublished opinion three years ago, the First District Court of Appeal ruled against the college, concluding that as a matter of law the 2011 building program was a new project rather than a modified project. The First District relied heavily on Save Our Neighborhood v. Lishman (2006), 140 Cal.App.4th 1288. In that case, the Third District concluded that the question of a new or modified project was a “threshold question of law”.

The following year, the Second District issued a somewhat conflicting ruling in Mani Brothers Real Estate Group v. City of Los Angeles (2007), 153 Cal.App.4th 1385. In that case, the court found that a 3.3-million-square-foot project was a modification of a 2.7-million-square-foot project on which the city had done an EIR 15 years before. The Second District criticized Save Our Neighborhood, saying it undermined judicial deference of agency decisions.

The appellate court in the College of San Mateo case acknowledged this conflict but used the Save Our Neighborhood reasoning, saying that “it is clear from the record tha tht enature of the project has fundamentally and qualitatively changed to the point where the new proposal is actually a new project altogether.”

In her ruling for the Supreme Court, Kruger rejected the Save Our Neighborhoods reasoning put forth by the plaintiffs in this case. She wrote that this approach “would assign to court the authority – indeed, the obligation – to determine whether an agency’s proposal qualifies as a new project, in the absence of any standards to govern the inquiry.”

She added: “[T]o ask whether proposed agency action constitutes a new project, purely in the abstract, misses the reason why the characterization matters in the first place….A decision to proceed under CEQA’S subsequent review provisions must thus necessarily rest on a determination – whether implicit or explicit – that the original environmental document contains some informational value.”

The Case:

Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District, S215061 (September 19, 2016)

The Lawyers:

For Friends: Susan Brandt-Hawley,

For College: Sabrina Teller,