In City of Irvine v. County of Orange (“City of Irvine”) (published and modified on November 22, 2013), the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the County of Orange’s (“County”) application for state funding for jail expansion was not a “project” requiring environmental review pursuant to CEQA.
In City of Irvine, the County submitted an application, pursuant to Assembly Bill 900 (AB 900), for state funds to expand County jail facilities. In its resolution approving submission of the application, the County Board of Supervisors provided various assurances that the County would comply with CEQA before accepting any of the state funds. The City of Irvine (“City”) challenged the County’s decision to submit the application, contending that the application was a “project” pursuant to CEQA requiring an EIR prior to approval and submission.
Explaining the principles of both Save Tara and Cedar Fair, the court articulated the “critical question” as “whether the totality of the circumstances surrounding the public agency’s action has effectively committed the agency to the project even though it has not provided all approvals or entitlements necessary to proceed.” (Slip Opin. at 13 [citing Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116, and Cedar Fair v. L.P. v. City of Santa Clara (2011) 194 Cal.App.4th 1150].) Ultimately, the court found that submission of the application allowed the County “to explore the possibility of using state funds to expand the [jail]”, but did not commit the County to expansion of the jail or any other Project, and thus, it was not an approval requiring environmental review. (Slip Opin. at 19.)
The court further noted that the state’s Request for Applications did not require the County to initiate CEQA review until after approval of the application and receipt of a conditional award. Moreover, upon receipt of a conditional award, the County was still required to take multiple steps toward actually securing the funding. In submitting the application, the County was not committed to expanding the jail facilities or precluded from considering any project alternatives or mitigation measures. Because the application did not commit the County to expansion of the jail or even proceeding with the application process, it was not a project requiring environmental review.
Additionally, the County had not committed itself to expanding the jail facilities by promoting or advocating for the expansion, or committing resources to preparing the application. The County’s inclusion of a high level of the detail in its application regarding the proposed expansion was also insufficient to constitute the commitment necessary to render the application a “project”.
City of Irvine emphasizes the necessary element of commitment to render any approval a project approval for purposes of CEQA.