In Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. Superior Court, No. S207173 (Supreme Court, Aug. 7, 2014), the California Supreme Court ruled that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) does not apply when a lead agency receives a voter initiative petition that qualifies under the Elections Code and the lead agency chooses to adopt the initiative without putting the decision to the voters. In doing so, the Court reversed the Court of Appeal for the Fifth Appellate District and kick-started speculation as to how wide-reaching the impacts of its decision may be.
In 2007, Wal-Mart sought to expand an existing Wal-Mart store to a Wal-Mart Supercenter in the City of Sonora and submitted a petition supported by the signatures of more than 20 percent of the city’s 2,489 registered voters. The City Council then chose not to submit the measure to an election, and instead, adopted the initiative as an ordinance on its own authority under California Elections Code Section 9214(a). Although an EIR was prepared in advance of the adoption of the petition, it was never certified by the City Council.
Under Section 9214, when a project applicant submits a voter-sponsored initiative petition to the legislative body of a public agency, signed by at least 15 percent of registered voters, with a request that the ordinance be immediately submitted to a special vote, that body must either: (a) adopt the ordinance, without alteration; (b) immediately order a special election; or (c) order a report pursuant to Elections Code section 9212, which allows for abbreviated environmental review.
In 2004, the Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District concluded that a lead agency’s approval of a voter initiative was exempt from CEQA. (Native American Sacred Site & Environmental Protection Assn. v. City of San Juan Capistrano (2004) 120 Cal.App.4th 961.) Notwithstanding that caselaw, the Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance (Tuolumne Alliance) filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging that the City violated CEQA by adopting the ordinance before conducting a complete CEQA review. The trial court sustained a demurrer filed by Wal-Mart and the City, and in turn, Tuolumne Alliance sought a writ from the Court of Appeal for the Fifth Appellate District. The Court of Appeal disagreed with the City of San Juan Capistrano decision, and held that the City’s adoption of the initiative was a discretionary act that required CEQA review.
In light of the conflicting holdings from the two Courts of Appeal, the California Supreme Court granted certiorari on two questions, but its decision focused on this one question: “(1) Must a city comply with the California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA] (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.) before adopting an ordinance enacting a voter initiative pursuant to Elections Code section 9214, subdivision (a)?”
After oral argument before all seven Supreme Court justices (for a summary of the oral argument, see our blog post here), the Court issued its decision, unanimously reversing the lower court’s judgment.Continue Reading Supreme Court Confirms CEQA Exemption for Voter-Sponsored Initiatives