Court Clarifies that Projects Consistent with Adopted Plans or Zoning May be Exempt from CEQA

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A Court of Appeal recently issued a decision on an important provision that exempts qualifying projects consistent with general plans, community plans, or zoning from environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), or reduces the scope of such reviews.  Although this provision is often overlooked by project applicants, cities, and counties, it should always be considered in evaluating the CEQA compliance strategy for projects consistent such plans or zoning.

Background: County Considers Application for a Project Consistent with General Plan

The new decision is Hilltop Group, Inc., et al. v. County of San Diego et al. (Fourth District Court of Appeal Case No. D081124, published February 16, 2024).  In Hilltop, the court held that a proposed recycling facility was exempt from CEQA review because the project met the requirements in Public Resources Code section 21083.3 and CEQA Guidelines section 15183 (collectively, “Guideline 15183”). Section 15183 exempts from additional environmental review any project that is consistent with either the development density established by existing zoning or a community plan, or with an existing general plan, for which an environmental impact report (“EIR”) was previously certified, with limited exceptions.  Those exceptions, which defeat the use of this exemption, are (1) the existence of project-specific impacts “peculiar” to the project or its site, (2) a significant impact not evaluated in the prior EIR on the plan or zoning (3) significant off-site or cumulative impacts not evaluated in the prior EIR, and (4) a showing that previously identified impacts are more severe based on new information not known when the prior EIR was certified.  If any such peculiar or new impacts can be mitigated to a less than significant level by application of uniformly applied development policies or standards, those impacts will not defeat the use of the Guideline 15183 exemption and a further EIR is not required.

The Hilltop decision not only demonstrates the importance of considering the Guideline 15183 exemption in initially planning a project’s CEQA compliance, but also demonstrates that the Guideline 15183 exemption can be used even when an applicant and an agency have initially commenced preparation of an EIR and supporting studies.  In this case, a proposed recycling facility was consistent with the County’s industrial land use designation, and the County had prepared a programmatic EIR when it adopted the governing general plan.  When the developer submitted its application for the recycling facility, the County initially required the developer to submit a draft EIR and numerous supporting technical studies.  As the EIR process was underway, however, it became clear that the project did not have any peculiar or site-specific significant environmental impacts. Instead, the impacts of the project had all been adequately considered at a general level in the general plan EIR and uniformly applied development standards would reduce project-specific impacts below applicable significance thresholds.  Based upon that, County staff prepared a Guideline 15183 checklist (a type of form used by a number of cities and counties) to demonstrate that the project was consistent with the development permitted by the GPU and had no project-specific impacts.

County staff then recommended approval of the recycling facility based on the Guideline 15183 exemption, and the County zoning administrator approved the project on that basis. Several community groups, homeowners’ associations, and the nearby City of Escondido appealed that approval to the County Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors; the Board of Supervisors granted the appeals and directed the County zoning administrator to require an EIR for the project.  In so doing, the Board expressed a general concern that the project would result in project-specific impacts, but did not specifically identify how the project would create potentially significant impacts not analyzed in the General Plan EIR or addressed through uniformly applied development standards.

Key Holdings in the Hilltop decision

The developer filed a petition for writ of mandate to set aside the Board decision and affirm the zoning administrator’s approval of the project based on the Guideline 15183 exemption. The trial court denied the petition and upheld the Board’s action, and the developer appealed the trial court’s decision. On appeal, the court held that the County was required to use the Guideline 15183 exemption.  The court’s decision includes the following important holdings:

  • Consistent with prior case law, court review of Guideline 15183 exemptions is based on the deferential “substantial evidence” standard whereby agency decisions are to be upheld if any substantial evidence supports the decision.  This makes the use of the Guideline 15183 exemption more secure than certain other CEQA compliance options, such as a mitigated negative declaration.
  • The fact that an agency has started an EIR process does not mean the exemption cannot be applied instead of preparing an EIR.  As long as the agency can make a fact-based finding that the exemption applies and is not defeated by exceptions, including the presence of a peculiar significant project impact not evaluated in the plan EIR, the exemption can be used.
  • If there is a peculiar project-specific impact that must be evaluated in a further EIR, the Guideline 15183 exemption can still be used to limit CEQA review to that one impact, so that a full EIR is not required just because one new impact is identified.

Takeaway: the Guideline 15183 Exemption Should Always be Considered for Projects Consistent with Plans or Zoning

Public Resources Code section 21083.3 has been in effect in its current form since January 1993 (and an earlier version for residential projects was in effect since 1982), but many cities and counties are either not aware of its provisions or hesitant to apply those provisions to streamline or reduce repetitive CEQA reviews.  When it applies, this exemption is one of the more secure routes for CEQA compliance and should always be considered for projects that are consistent with existing zoning, community plans, or general plans.

If you have any questions regarding the use of the Guideline 15183 exemption, please contact Michael Zischke, Linda Klein, or another member of the Cox Castle land use team.

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