Legal Victories for CEQA Streamlining

Earlier this month, the California Court of Appeal ruled that a qualifying development project in San Diego County could use the County’s General Plan Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) to streamline the project’s environmental review, over the objections of neighbors and the County’s Board of Supervisors. A similar result was recently achieved in San Francisco.  RJR partner Tuija Catalano secured a victory at the Board of Supervisors for a housing project, with the Board determining that the project properly used San Francisco’s recently certified Housing Element EIR to streamline CEQA processing for the project. The Court of Appeal’s opinion further strengthens the use of CEQA streamlining and exemption provisions and validates San Francisco’s established process of “tiering” project specific CEQA review off its General Plan and Area Plan EIRs.

In San Diego, County planning staff determined that a recycling plant project that was consistent with the County’s most-recent General Plan could be evaluated for a CEQA evaluation pursuant to CEQA Guidelines Section 15183, which generally limits the CEQA evaluation for a project consistent with a General Plan (including a Housing Element) or an Area Plan to potential unique (“peculiar”) impacts. After several technical studies confirmed the recycling center project did not result in significant or peculiar impacts not already evaluated in the General Plan EIR, County staff prepared a 15183 evaluation with mitigation measures from the General Plan EIR’s Mitigation Monitoring and Reporting Program.

If that fact pattern sounds simple enough, the administrative CEQA review process was actually more complicated and unfavorable for the developer: the developer originally pursued an initial study to prepare either an EIR or Negative Declaration before pivoting to a 15183 evaluation only after all of the background technical studies were completed.  The Board of Supervisors sided with neighbors and upheld an administrative appeal over the recommendation of the staff to deny the appeal. The trial court also sided with the Board of Supervisors. The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision with a surprisingly straightforward opinion.

Importantly, the Court held that the project could pivot to a 15183 evaluation and confirmed the eligibility of this streamlining evaluation for projects using a General Plan or Area Plan. The Court next found that the Supervisors failed to base their conclusions on any substantial evidence in the record. It also explicitly rejected layperson testimony from neighbors at the Board of Supervisors appeals hearing (related, it also confirmed that the substantial evidence standard—which is less deferential—applied even when a court reviews a city or county’s determination an exemption is not applicable). The crux of the Court’s argument:

the Board of Supervisors failed to identify the specific nature of the … project’s ‘peculiar’ impacts that required environmental review, except to point to broad environmental categories. Nor did the Board of Supervisors address, with specificity, the effect of uniform policies and procedures on their purported impacts.

Hilltop Group, Inc., et al v. County of San Diego, et al. (2024) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.

The Court’s opinion confirms the use of 15183 can be appropriate, even for a large-scale project like a recycling plant, and should make cities and counties more comfortable using their General Plan or Area Plan EIRs on larger-scale projects. The opinion also emphasizes that politics only goes so far when an administrative record is lacking: a city or county cannot simply decree that a certain environmental topic addressed in a 15183 exemption— for example, preservation—is not adequately analyzed. The local agency needs to provide specifics with adequate factual and legal backing (as mentioned above, “lay opinion and personal observations” by neighbors was not substantial evidence). And that determination needs to address why mitigation measures or otherwise-applicable laws could not further reduce or eliminate the peculiar impacts.

Closer to home, San Francisco has a 15-year history of using CEQA Guidelines Section 15183 in the context of Plan Area EIRs (such as Eastern Neighborhoods Plan Area EIR and Central SoMa Plan Area EIR) to issue Community Plan Evaluations for projects within the applicable Plan Areas. With the certification of San Francisco’s Housing Element (2022 Update) EIR in November 2022, many projects outside Area Plans became eligible for similar streamlined CEQA review based on the General Plan (i.e. Housing Element) EIR that applies Citywide.

On February 6, 2024, the Board of Supervisors heard the first CEQA General Plan Evaluation appeal, and with a 10-1 vote the Board found that the use of Section 15183 streamlining provision based on the Housing Element EIR was proper.  The recent Board of Supervisors appeal decision, as well as the San Diego Court of Appeal opinion are important.  Cities and counties can look to these decisions to support streamlined process based on General Plan EIRs on projects that are consistent with the development density within the General Plan policies. The Board decision and the Court of Appeal opinion are especially good news for projects that are located outside Area Plans that until now were required to complete a negative declaration or an EIR if they were not eligible for any of the categorical CEQA exemptions.


uthored by Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP Attorneys Tuija Catalano and Mark Loper.

The issues discussed in this update are not intended to be legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is established with the recipient.  Readers should consult with legal counsel before relying on any of the information contained herein.  Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP is a full service real estate law firm.  We specialize in land use, development and entitlement law.  We also provide a wide range of transactional services, including leasing, acquisitions and sales, formation of limited liability companies and other entities, lending/workout assistance, subdivision and condominium work.