The state Supreme Court and the Third District Court of Appeal appear to be feuding over a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) case concerning the water analysis for a 20,000-housing unit project in Rancho Cordova.

In 2005, the Third District upheld the environmental impact report for the Sunrise Douglas community plan, which was initially adopted by Sacramento County but is now being implemented by the newly incorporated City of Rancho Cordova. Earlier this year the state Supreme Court overturned the Third District and rejected the EIR because it did not adequately describe long-term water sources and the impacts of using those sources (see CP&DR, March 2007).

The state Supreme Court returned the case to the Third District for further proceedings. As expected, the appellate court sent the case back to Sacramento County Superior Court for review of updated environmental documents. At the same time, though, the Third District took the unusual step of issuing a lengthy opinion that closely mirrored its 2005 decision, which sharply criticized and rejected project opponents' arguments and legal strategies. In July, the Third District decided to publish the begrudging opinion in what appeared to be a direct jab at the state Supreme Court.

The Third District undertook detailed analysis of a number of issues, including project alternatives, which opponents argued had been improperly rejected. Justice Fred Morrison wrote for the Third District: "Because the record contains evidence supporting the county's findings that each alternative discussed on appeal was infeasible, their claims lack merit on this record. However, the further environmental review ordered by the California Supreme Court may require reconsideration of these or other proposed mitigation measures."

Project opponents asked the state Supreme Court to depublish the opinion, which would mean it cannot be cited as precedent. In a 5-1 vote, with Chief Justice Ronald George absent and Justice Marvin Baxter dissenting, the court ordered the Third District's opinion depublished.

The case is Vineyard Area Citizens for Responsible Growth v. City of Rancho Cordova, Nos. S155607 and C044653.

The Second District Court of Appeal has upheld an award of attorney's fees to a Los Angeles homeowner who successfully challenged the environmental review of a 21-lot subdivision in Los Angeles's Sunland district.

Two years ago, the appellate court ruled that the city should prepare an environmental impact report because homeowner Maria Mejia presented a fair argument that the Shadow Hills project may have a significant impact on wildlife and traffic (see CP&DR Legal Digest, August 2005). After that ruling was issued, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David Yaffe awarded Mejia $50,000 in attorney's fees, with half to be paid by the city and half by developer California Home Development.

The city did not appeal the fee award, but California Home did. The developer argued that Mejia was not eligible because her personal interest was her primary reason for bringing the lawsuit, the city was solely at fault, and the award impinged on its First Amendment right to petition the government. The Second District rejected all three arguments.

Noting that Mejia had spent her retirement savings and refinanced her home to fund the lawsuit, the appellate panel said that it could not overturn the lower court's ruling that Mejia's financial burden of enforcing CEQA outweighed her personal interest. The court said that an award of fees "does not require a finding of fault or misconduct by the opposing party." Finally, the court ruled that the statute permitting Mejia to recover fees, Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5, "is unrelated to the suppression of valid petitioning activity."

The Case:
Mejia v. City of Los Angeles, No. B189444, 07 C.D.O.S. 12357, 2007 DJDAR 15909. Filed October 17, 2007.
The Lawyers:
For Mejia: John Murdoch, (310) 450-1859.
For California Home Development: Douglas Brown, (310) 277-7747.