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September 2, 2014  |  Written by Brittany Lewis-Roberts

Supreme Court Finds That CEQA Review Is Not Required Before City Council Directly Adopts Voter Initiative

In Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. Superior Court issued on August 7, 2014, the Supreme Court of California held that a local legislative body does not have to conduct a full analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when it chooses to adopt a voter-sponsored initiative rather than submit the initiative to an election.

In the case, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. sought to expand an existing store in the City of Sonora.  The City circulated a draft environmental impact report for public comment, analyzing the effects of the project.  Before the project went before the City Council, the Council received a notice of intent to circulate an initiative petition.  The petition, which proposed a specific plan for the expansion, was signed by over 20 percent of the City’s registered voters.  After ordering a report, the City Council voted to adopt the ordinance.

The Court considered the question whether a local legislative body must obtain full CEQA review before adopting a voter initiative under section 9214(a) of the Elections Code.  Under the procedures for adopting municipal voter initiatives, when an initiative petition signed by at least 15 percent of the city’s registered voters is presented to the local municipal body, it must (1) adopt the initiative without changes within 10 days; (2) immediately submit the initiative to a vote at a special election; or (3) order a report under section 9212, which must be prepared and presented within 30 days of the initiative’s certification.  Under the latter option, within 10 days of receiving the report, the legislative body must either adopt the ordinance or order an election.

The Court found that the mandatory deadlines provided in the municipal voter initiative provisions made CEQA compliance impossible.  City governments have 40 days, at most, to act on a voter initiative.  At best, the CEQA process takes months.  It is presumed that the Legislature is aware of existing laws when it enacts or amends a statute.  The voter initiative statutes, including the expeditious timelines, were well in place when CEQA was enacted in 1970.  Thus, the Court reasoned that the Legislature could not have intended to impose CEQA review before direct adoption of a voter initiative.  Additionally, under this process, the local body must adopt the initiative or submit it to voters “without alteration.”  The municipal body does not have the ability to require changes to the project to mitigate environmental impacts, further supporting the conclusion that CEQA does not apply to this municipal initiative procedure

The Court did distinguish between voter-sponsored and city council-generated initiatives.  Thus, the holding that CEQA review is not required before direct adoption of an initiative only applies to voter-sponsored initiatives.

For more information about this case, please contact Brittany Lewis-Roberts at blewis-roberts@somachlaw.com.

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