By Michelle Ouellette, Sarah Owsowitz, Hannah Park, Charity Schiller : bbklaw – excerpt
Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego
In a long-awaited decision, the California Supreme Court held this week that whether an activity is a “project” subject to environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act must be based on whether the activity may result in environmental impacts – not merely the type of approval involved. Specifically, the Court held in Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego that zone changes were not per se CEQA “projects.” However, the Court went on to find that the City of San Diego’s zone change ordinance, allowing medical marijuana dispensaries within specific areas of the City, was a CEQA project in this instance due to its potential to cause reasonably foreseeable indirect environmental impacts.
This opinion provides important clarification for public agencies because it confirms that zone changes and, arguably, other activities described in Public Resources Code section 21080, are not automatically CEQA projects. However, the case also emphasizes the importance of carefully considering potential direct and indirect impacts when deciding whether an activity is a project under CEQA.
The case concerns an ordinance that the City adopted in 2014. The ordinance amended several zoning regulations to allow medical marijuana dispensary establishments and location and operation regulations. The City determined that the ordinance was not a “project” subject to CEQA because it did not have the potential to cause direct or reasonably foreseeable indirect physical changes in the environment. In adopting the ordinance, the City also stated, “[f]uture projects subject to the ordinance will require a discretionary permit and CEQA review, and will be analyzed at the appropriate time in accordance with CEQA.” The trial court and Court of Appeal both agreed with the City that the ordinance was not a project subject to CEQA, and that no environmental review was required.
In examining CEQA’s purpose and intent, the Supreme Court first summarized the “multistep decision tree” that a lead agency must engage in for its proposed activities:
1.) First, the lead agency must determine whether the proposed activity is a “project” subject to CEQA.
2.) If so, the lead agency must next decide whether the activity is exempt from CEQA.
3.) Finally, assuming the activity is not exempt, the lead agency must undergo environmental review… (more)
I am sharing this with a number of people outside of Livable California who are dealing with this issue on local projects. This case is being claimed as a significant precinct setting case so it may be helpful to share it.