An amendment to a local coastal plan is not subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, even if the local agency adopts an environmental impact report for the amendment, the Second District Court of Appeal has ruled.

Adoption of, and amendments to, a local coastal plan (LCP) are exempt from CEQA because the Coastal Commission — which has ultimate authority over LCPs — has an environmental review process that is functionally equivalent to CEQA. The fact that Santa Barbara County adopted an EIR under CEQA for a proposed LCP amendment does not invalidate the statutory exemption, the court ruled.

In 1982, the Coastal Commission certified Santa Barbara County’s LCP for territory in the coastal zone. Among other things, the plan called for discretionary approval of greenhouse developments of at least 20,000 square feet in the Carpinteria Valley, between Santa Barbara and Ventura. When it certified the LCP, the Coastal Commission directed the county to prepare a “master environmental impact assessment” to determine how much greenhouse development the valley could handle.

The county never produced the assessment, so the Commission in 1998 again directed the county to complete the study and prepare an LCP amendment for regulating greenhouse developments in Carpinteria Valley. The Commission suggested it might not approve more greenhouses until the county completed the assignment.

The county then spent three years working on the issue before certifying a final EIR and approving an LCP amendment in February 2002. The following month, the Santa Barbara County Flower and Nursery Growers Association sued the county over the adequacy of the EIR.
In court, the county argued that the EIR was legally unnecessary. Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge James Brown ruled for the county, finding that the LCP amendment was exempt from CEQA and concluding that the association’s lawsuit was premature because the Coastal Commission had not decided on the amendment. The association appealed, but a unanimous three-judge panel of the Second District, Division Six, upheld the lower court.

The association argued that the exemption for LCPs in Public Resources Code § 21080.5 is discretionary. When the county prepared an EIR under the rules of CEQA — a procedure apparently blessed by the Coastal Commission — the county waived the exemption, the association argued.

These arguments did not get far with the appellate court, which agreed with the trial court that the exemption did apply and that the suit was filed too early.

“Nothing in CEQA or the Coastal Act gives local government the power to opt out of the Commission’s regulatory program and choose to be governed by CEQA’s regulatory scheme,” Justice Steven Perren wrote for the court. “To the contrary, the § 21080.5 exemption is necessary to facilitate the Commission’s legislative mandate under the Coastal Act to implement statewide policies for coastal zone development rather than local policies that would be critical to an EIR for a local project.”

Besides, Perren wrote, “[J]udicial review would be premature because there has been no final Commission determination.” That review could still occur in the future.

“[T]he county unnecessarily prepared an EIR and the association unnecessarily participated in the approval process applicable to EIRs,” Perren concluded. “The association understandably may have been dismayed that a significant administrative proceeding was conducted through error. Nevertheless, the court cannot provide a remedy to the association without interfering with the statutory authority and established regulatory process of the Commission. Furthermore, the association does not establish that it was prejudiced in any material respect. The association remains free to seek judicial review of any decision by the Commission regarding the county’s LCP amendment and to challenge the adequacy of the environmental assessment supporting that decision.”

The Case:
Santa Barbara County Flower and Nursery Growers Association, Inc. v. County of Santa Barbara, No. B170027, 04 C.D.O.S. 7583, 2004 DJDAR 10166. Filed August 17, 2004.
The Lawyers:
For the association: David Hughes, Price, Postel & Parma, (805) 962-0011.
For the county, Alan Seltzer, chief assistant county counsel, (805) 568-2950.