Last month, we blogged about the writ petition brought against the County of San Mateo by petitioners who alleged non-compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).
CEQA requires environmental review of discretionary projects to inform the public and government decision makers of the environmental consequences of their decisions. The law must be interpreted in such manner to afford the fullest possible protection to the environment within the reasonable scope of the statutory language. Unless exempted, all discretionary projects must receive environmental review pursuant to CEQA.
Under CEQA, the “lead agency”—the public agency principally responsible for approving a proposed project—is responsible for preparing the environmental documents for a project, including any negative declaration or environmental impact report (EIR). If a project is not exempt from CEQA, the lead agency must prepare an initial study to determine whether the project will have a significant impact on the environment, or skip the initial study and conduct an EIR if it is obvious that an EIR is required.
The County of San Mateo’s challenged ordinance allowed cannabis cultivation subject to ministerial approval of license applications. This means there was no deliberation or discretion involved, and the County could issue licenses over the counter, if an applicant checked all applicable boxes.
As we explained in our last post, the County issued a negative declaration with the challenged ordinance following an initial study, determining that there was not substantial evidence that the ordinance would have a significant effect on the environment. Petitioners disagreed, claiming the record contained substantial evidence supporting myriad arguments that the ordinance would adversely impact hydrology and water quality, sensitive species and habitat, air and light pollution, climate change, and other effects.
Further, as ministerial licenses, each cannabis cultivation project under the challenged ordinance would have been exempt from CEQA and none would require their own environmental analysis. That fact alone seems like an end-run around the law.
At the end of February, petitioners and the County held a settlement conference. Shortly thereafter, the County repealed and replaced their cultivation ordinance with one that subjects each cultivation project to discretionary approval. Now, each cultivation project will be subject to CEQA unless otherwise exempt.
MAUCRSA provides a temporary exemption to CEQA to cities and counties adopting a cannabis ordinance subject to specific conditions. So long as a city or county ordinance requires discretionary review and approval of permits, licenses, or other authorizations to engage in commercial cannabis activity, and includes any applicable environmental review pursuant to Division 13 of the Public Resources Code, the adoption of the ordinance itself is exempt from CEQA. Bus. & Prof. Code, § 26055(h). This exemption expires July 1, 2019.
Arguably, the County of San Mateo’s new ordinance is exempt from CEQA pursuant to Business and Professions Code section 26055(h), and the petition is moot. There are no future hearings on calendar, but the writ petition is still pending. We will keep you posted on any developments: The viability of San Mateo’s approach could have a significant impact on the approach taken by other local jurisdictions with respect to California marijuana licenses.