An appellate court has reinstated a lawsuit over environmental review of a recreational trail proposed to be built in San Mateo County.

A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge had thrown out the suit because it was filed after the California Environmental Quality Act's usual 30-day statute of limitations expired. However, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled there was "reasonable probability" environmentalists could show that a 180-day statute of limitations applied here.

The longer period for filing a lawsuit applies in instances where an agency approves a project without determining whether the project would have a significant impact on the environment. The group Committee for Green Foothills argued that is just what the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors did when it approved an agreement with Stanford University regarding a new alignment for a trail required by earlier project approvals.

In late 2000, Santa Clara County approved a general use permit (GUP) allowing Stanford to develop 2 million square feet of academic facilities and 3,000 housing units. Condition I.2 of the GUP required Stanford to develop and maintain portions of two trail alignments across Stanford lands. In December 2005, the county Board of Supervisors approved an agreement with Stanford that was intended to satisfy condition I.2. The agreement selected a final alignment for the trails, known as the S1 and C1 trails.

At issue here was the C1 trail alignment. The agreement called for the Stanford-funded trail to be developed outside of Santa Clara County in unincorporated San Mateo County and the Town of Portola Valley, provided that those jurisdictions agreed. The Committee for Green Foothills sued, arguing that the agreement approved a new trail alignment without environmental review, and instead improperly deferred environmental analysis to San Mateo County and Portola Valley.

The county and Stanford responded by saying the suit was too late because CEQA prescribes a 30-day statute of limitations. The county filed a notice of determination on December 13, 2005, and a revised notice on December 20, 2005. The committee did not file its lawsuit until June 9, 2006. The trial court judge agreed with the county and Stanford that the lawsuit was too late, but a unanimous three-judge panel of the Sixth District overturned the lower court's decision.

The revised notice of determination described the project and referenced the EIR for the S1 trail alignment, the EIR for the GUP, and the EIR and supplemental EIR for the 1995 county trails master plan. A notice of determination is intended to follow certification of an EIR or negative declaration, and starts the 30-day statute of limitation.

The Committee said that, unlike with the S1 trail — which was realigned because an earlier proposed alignment would impact riparian habitat — the C1 realignment was never subject to environmental review. The Committee argued that because the county never determined whether the new C1 alignment would impact the environment, the 30-day statute of limitations did not apply. Instead, they committee argued that a section of CEQA (Public Resources Code § 21167, subdivision (a)) applied. That section permits suits for up to 180 days after an agency approves without environmental review a project that may have a significant environmental effect.

The Sixth District appeared convinced by the Committee and determined the group should at least have the opportunity to make this argument to the trail court.

"It appears that the Committee may be able to allege facts showing that the proposed changes with respect to the C1 trail alignment were sufficiently substantial to require an EIR subsequent or supplemental to the GUP EIR," Justice Franklin Elia wrote for the court. "In addition, the Committee may be able to state facts indicating that the proposed subsequent activities with regard to the C1 trail alignment should have been examined in light of the program EIRs to determine whether the activities were within the scope of the project covered by the program EIRs and whether those activities had potential environmental effects not fully examined in those EIRs."

The county and Stanford further argued that the committee was suing over implementation of the GUP condition, and the Government Code permits only 90 days for such suits. But the court concluded the suit was essentially a CEQA claim that was governed by the 180-day statute of limitations.

Stanford and Santa Clara County have asked the state Supreme Court to review the Sixth District decision. The Supreme Court already has one CEQA statute of limitations case pending, Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton (see CP&DR Local Watch, February 2008; Legal Digest, May 2008).

The Case:
Committee for Green Foothills v. Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, No. H030986, 08 C.D.O.S. 4188, 2008 DJDAR 5178. Filed April 10, 2008.
The Lawyers:
For the committee: William Parkin, Parkin & Wittwer, (831) 429-4055.
For the county: Lizanne Reynolds, county counsel's office, (408) 299-5940.
For Stanford: Barbara Schussman, Bingham McCutchen, (925) 937-8000.