CEQA Case Report: Understanding the Judicial Landscape for Development[i]
In a partially published opinion issued September 18, 2018, Atwell v. City of Rohnert Park, Case No. SCV256891, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment that the petition for writ of mandate challenging the City of Rohnert Park’s (City’s) approval of a Walmart expansion project (the Project) was barred by res judicata because a prior petition challenging City’s initial approval raised the same claim of inconsistency with City’s General Plan. In summary, the court held:
- In determining whether two challenges constitute the same cause of action under the doctrine of res judicata, if a subsequent claim is based on a project proposal that has not changed since the prior action, then a city’s approval will only raise a new issue or injury if the city included new or revised conditions or measures that are at issue in the subsequent petition.
In 2015, Petitioner Nancy Atwell (Petitioner) filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking an order to vacate City’s project approvals alleging inconsistency with the General Plan. After a briefing on the merits was complete, City filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, asserting that Petitioner’s claims were barred by the doctrine of res judicata. The trial court concluded that the petition was barred by res judicata and the statute of limitations, and that substantial evidence supported the City Council’s determination that the Project complied with the General Plan.
Background for Appeal
In 2010, City approved the expansion of an existing Walmart store to accommodate a 24-hour grocery/supermarket. Subsequently, Sierra Club and Sonoma County Conservation Action (SCCA) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the City Council’s environmental impact report (EIR) and project approvals (the Sierra Club action), citing the Project’s incompatibility with the goals, policies, and objectives of the City’s General Plan, including Policy LU-7. (Under that policy, City is obligated to “encourage new neighborhood commercial facilities and supermarkets to be located to maximize accessibility to all residential areas.”) Although the Sierra Club and SCCA did not ultimately pursue this cause of action, the trial court granted the petition, ordered City’s approvals vacated, and remanded the Project for additional environmental review with regard to traffic mitigation. City then prepared and certified a revised EIR, which did not alter the original EIR’s analysis of the Project’s consistency with the General Plan.
In 2015, Petitioner filed the action challenging the Project’s consistency with Policy LU-7, arguing that the Project was located in a large commercial area with few residents, which would lead to the closure of neighborhood-serving grocery stores and contribute to an over-concentrated area around a highway interchange.
The trial court denied the petition and granted City’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, concluding that the petition was barred by res judicata and the statute of limitations because the General Plan consistency issue could have been litigated in the Sierra Club action. Petitioners appealed in a timely manner, and the appellate court (the Court) affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
The Court held that Petitioner’s claim was barred by res judicata because:
- The claim of General Plan consistency was identical to the claim in the Sierra Club action.
- The prior proceeding resulted in a final judgment on the merits.
- Petitioner was in privity with Sierra Club and SCCA.
The Court also noted that even though the General Plan consistency issue was not actually litigated in the Sierra Club action, res judicata bars issues that could have been litigated. Petitioner had argued that City’s 2015 resolutions, which were approved after the Sierra Club action, could not have been litigated in the Sierra Club action. In response, the Court explained that even though City’s 2015 resolutions were not specifically addressed in the Sierra Club action, Petitioner’s challenges to City’s 2015 resolutions were the same as Sierra Club’s challenges to City’s 2010 resolutions. The petition included no changes in material facts and raised the same claims as those in the Sierra Club action. Further, the petition’s findings with respect to General Plan consistency remained the same; no new or revised conditions or mitigation measures were included in the EIR regarding Policy LU-7, and the arguments regarding Policy LU-7 were identical to those raised in 2010. Therefore, the Court found that the claims were identical.
The Court explained that Petitioner was in privity with the petitioners in the Sierra Club action because neither petition alleged personal harms that were distinct from those that would be incurred by the larger community related to the impact on neighborhood supermarkets. Since both petitions pursued claims on behalf of the community, the petitioners in both actions shared an identity or community of interest. Therefore, the Court concluded that res judicata barred Petitioner’s action, and that it need not address whether the petition was also barred by the statute of limitations.
Project Consistency With the General Plan
In the unpublished portion of the opinion, the Court held that even assuming that Petitioner’s claim was not barred by res judicata, the Court could not conclude that no reasonable person could have found the Project consistent with the General Plan and Policy LU-7. Even though the parties had identified contradictory evidence of how the Project would impact supermarket access, the trial court’s decision that substantial evidence supported the City Council’s determination that the Project was consistent with Policy LU-7 was not unreasonable. The record showed that the Project was in a growth area with increasing residential communities and would provide 24-hour operations and enhanced supermarket access for residents.
Accordingly, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment upholding City’s approval of the Project.
- Opinion by Justice Sandra L. Margulies, with Presiding Justice James M. Humes and Justice Kathleen M. Banke concurring.
- Trial Court: Sonoma County Superior Court, Case No. SCV256891, Judge Rene A. Chouteau.
[i] California court decisions on California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) related cases can impact business not only in California, but more broadly in other US jurisdictions (e.g., under the US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), though statutory provisions may differ). Latham’s case summary series provides a comprehensive archive of both published and unpublished cases, in order to track judicial interpretations of CEQA and new legal developments. Unpublished or “non-citable” opinions are opinions that are not certified for publication in Official Reports and generally may not be cited or relied on by other courts or parties in any filing with California courts in other court proceedings. (see California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115).