California Supreme Court Rules Local Governments Are Not Required to Comply With CEQA Before Adopting a Voter-Sponsored Initiative

Opinion Clarifies When CEQA Review is Required for Local Land Use Initiatives

Local governments may adopt voter-sponsored initiatives without conducing environmental review pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Supreme Court has ruled. In a unanimous decision handed down Thursday, the court held in Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. Superior Court that the City of Sonora properly adopted a land-use ordinance brought by a voter-sponsored petition, even though the City did not undertake an environmental review.

The opinion clarifies that land-use initiatives proposed by voters are not subject to CEQA review, even when a local government adopts an initiative proposed by voters. The court also distinguished initiatives generated by city councils, confirming the existing rule that cities must comply with CEQA before placing a city-generated initiative on the ballot.

At issue in Tuolumne Jobs was the expansion of a Wal-Mart store into a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Before the City approved the project, a group of citizens brought an initiative petition to the City that would streamline approval of the project. The City had three choices: (1) adopt the initiative, (2) submit the initiative to a vote at a special election or (3) order a report prepared regarding the project, and, after review of the report, either adopt the initiative or submit it to the electorate. The City chose to have a report prepared and, afterward, adopted the ordinance that the initiative proposed.

Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance sued, arguing that the City should have conducted CEQA review before adopting the voter-sponsored initiative ordinance. After reviewing the statutory language, legislative history and public policy, the Supreme Court disagreed. It found that it would be impossible for a city to complete a CEQA review within the timeframes allowed for adopting a voter-sponsored initiative. It also noted that several bills that attempted to require CEQA or other environmental review of local initiatives had failed. In addition, the court determined that, from the inception of the initiative power, cities have had the option to directly adopt voter initiatives. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that the City was not required to conduct a CEQA review before adopting the ordinance.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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