San Mateo Tree Removal Suit Felled by CEQA Statute of Limitations

by Stoel Rives LLP

In Citizens for a Green San Mateo v. San Mateo Cnty. Comm. College Dist. et al., No. A137612 (Cal. Ct. App. 1st Dist., June 17, 2014), the First District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision and found that a lawsuit filed by Citizens for a Green San Mateo (“Citizens”) against the San Mateo County Community College District and San Mateo County College District Board of Trustees (collectively the “District”) under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) was barred by CEQA’s statute of limitations.

The District owns and operates the College of San Mateo (“College”), a public community college on a hilltop in the City of San Mateo overlooking the San Francisco Bay.  The Project began as the result of a 2006 Facilities Master Plan with the goal of “creating physical connections resulting in a cohesive campus concept.”  (Slip Op. at p. 2.)  The District studied potential environmental impacts in an Initial Study and Mitigated Negative Declaration (“IS/MND”), which concluded that all potentially significant impacts, including negative impacts on aesthetics and “scenic vistas” could be avoided or reduced to less-than-significant through mitigation measures.  (Id. at p. 2-3.)   The District is not required to comply with the City of San Mateo’s Heritage Tree Ordinance, and the Initial Study concluded that tree plantings would mitigate removals that were unavoidable.  (Id. at p. 3.)

At the public hearing to adopt the Initial Study and Mitigated Negative Declaration (“IS/MND”) on January 24, 2007, there was no challenge to either document.  The Board of Trustees unanimously voted to adopt the IS/MND and filed a notice of determination (“NOD”).  There were again no public comments or challenges during the public hearing to award a construction contract for the “North Gateway Phase I” of the Project on November 17, 2010. 

Citizens first raised concerns about the Project to the District on January 5, 2011, when a member “contacted the District expressing concern over the ongoing tree removal and pruning activities.”  (Slip Op. at p. 11.)  Citizens filed a petition for writ of mandate on July 1, 2011, alleging that the District’s pruning and tree removal was outside the scope of the Project.  (Ibid.) The trial court agreed with Citizens, and the District appealed.  (Ibid.)

The appellate court reversed.  It found that Citizens’ suit was time-barred by CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations because the District filed a NOD after approving the Project (Pub. Res. Code, § 21167, subd. (b).), and because the tree removal was not a “materially different” activity but rather was within the scope of the entire Project.  (Slip Op. at pp. 18-19.) 

Furthermore, the appellate court found that Citizens’ suit would be time-barred even if CEQA’s 180-day statute of limitations applied.  A 180-day statute of limitations is triggered if an agency “is carrying out or has approved a project that may have a significant effect on the environment without having determined whether the project may have a significant effect on the environment” and “shall be commenced within 180 days from the date of the public agency’s decision to carry out or approve the project . . . .” (Pub. Res. Code, § 21167, subd. (a).)  The court found that the District’s earliest commitment to the Project occurred on November 17, 2010, when it awarded the construction contract.  (Slip Op. at pp. 22-23.)  Thus, Citizens’ July 1, 2011, petition for writ of mandate was untimely under any interpretation of CEQA’s statute of limitations.



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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