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California Court of Appeal Finds Streamlined Review Process under CEQA Guidelines Section 15183 Applied to Industrial Facility that Was Consistent with General Plan Update EIR

California Court of Appeal Finds Streamlined Review Process under CEQA Guidelines Section 15183 Applied to Industrial Facility that Was Consistent with General Plan Update EIR
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By Bridget McDonald

In an important opinion published on February 16, 2024, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Hilltop Group, Inc. v. County of San Diego reversed the lower court’s denial of a project owner’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) petition that challenged the County of San Diego’s (County) decision to reject a development application for a construction debris recycling facility on a parcel designated for industrial uses. The court held that the streamlined environmental review process under CEQA Guidelines section 15183 applied because the facility was consistent with the County’s general plan update and would not result in more severe impacts than those analyzed in the update’s certified program Environmental Impact Report (EIR). [Hilltop Group, Inc. v. County of San Diego, 99 Cal.App.5th 890 (4th Dist. 2024).]

Factual and Procedural Background

The County’s General Plan Update

In 2011, the County of San Diego certified a program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) for its General Plan Update (GPU), which programmatically analyzed the potential environmental impacts associated with the built-out and implementation of the GPU. The PEIR determined that development from the GPU’s land use designations could cause significant environmental impacts that would require mitigation measures; but, even with those measures, certain impacts to aesthetics, air quality, noise, and traffic would remain significant and unavoidable.

The NCER Project

In 2012, Hilltop Group, Inc. applied to the County to develop the North County Environmental Resources Project (NCER Project)—a construction, demolition, and inert debris recycling facility located on a parcel of land that the GPU designated for “high impact industrial” uses. The Project plan included an open space easement intended to protect 44 acres of natural habitat and maintain visual separation from nearby local landmarks and residential communities.

Environmental Review Process

In early 2014, after submitting the Project application, Hilltop Group asked the County to proceed with a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) that incorporated some of the analyses conducted in the GPU PEIR. The County conducted an initial study, which acknowledged that the Project was consistent with the GPU and its zoning designation, but also found potentially significant impacts related to aesthetics, air quality, biological resources, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, hydrology and water quality, hazards and hazardous materials, and noise. The County thus declined to proceed with an MND and instead issued a notice of preparation (NOP) of an EIR.

In 2015, Hilltop Group submitted an initial draft EIR and accompanying technical studies. The County reviewed the draft and determined it needed to be revised. In response, Hilltop Group asked the County to process the Project as a CEQA Exemption under Guidelines section 15183, noting that the Project would not have any specific environmental impacts beyond those already assessed and mitigated for in the GPU PEIR. The County initially disagreed, finding that the Project presented peculiar issues that were not sufficiently analyzed in the PEIR. But the County advised Hilltop Group that if they revised the proffered technical studies to address issues identified by staff, the County would analyze the Project under section 15183.

After Hilltop Group submitted the revised studies, County staff concluded that the Project could be processed under section 15183’s streamlining exemption. Staff found that: (1) the Project was consistent with the GPU’s zoning designations; (2) there were no project-specific impacts peculiar to the site or that were otherwise not analyzed in the PEIR; (3) there were no potentially significant and unanalyzed off-site or cumulative impacts; (4) there was no substantial new information that the Project would result in more severe impacts than those anticipated in the PEIR; and (5) the Project would undertake feasible mitigation measures from the PEIR.

Project Approval

In June 2020, the County’s Zoning Administrator (ZA) conducted a public hearing on the Project. Staff recommended that the ZA grant the section 15183 exemption, subject to conditions. The Project was met with staunch public opposition, with many commenters contesting the Project’s proximity to nearby residential communities. The ZA nevertheless approved the Project, finding that it was consistent with the GPU and the PEIR. The County’s Planning and Development Services (PDS) then approved the Project’s site plan and conditions of approval, which ensured environmental impacts remained less than significant.

Four groups appealed PDS’ approval to the Planning Commission. Planning Commission unanimously denied the appeals and approved the Project with conditions, finding that the Project still qualified for streamlining under section 15183 because its impacts to aesthetics, air quality, GHG emissions, noise, and traffic would be less than significant.

Appeals to the Board of Supervisors

The groups, along with the nearby City of Escondido, appealed the Planning Commission’s decision to the County Board of Supervisors (Board), arguing that additional environmental review via an EIR was required due to substantial new information about the Project’s potentially significant impacts and its incompatibility with surrounding land uses. The responding staff report rejected each contention.

At the public hearing, Board members expressed concern about the Project’s potentially significant impacts. Though they did not identify which specific aspects of the Project created these impacts, the Board found that an EIR was warranted and voted to grant the appeals. The Board’s findings concluded the GPU PEIR did not analyze Project-specific impacts to traffic, air quality, noise, and aesthetics that stemmed from the proximity of its industrial operations to nearby sensitive residential uses. The Board also found that implementing the PEIR’s uniformly applied development standards would not substantially mitigate these peculiar impacts, particularly given the site’s unique topographical and climactic conditions. Thus, further study was required to inform the public of and identify ways to mitigate these impacts.

At the Trial Court

Hilltop Group filed a petition against the County that asked the court to set aside the Board’s decision and direct the Board to affirm the ZA’s decision approving the section 15183 streamlining exemption. Although the trial court recognized that the Board’s findings were inconsistent with staff’s determination that the Project qualified for streamlining under section 15183, it nevertheless denied the petition. The court held that there was a fair argument that the Project may have significant, non-mitigable effects on the environment that were peculiar to the Project and that were otherwise not addressed as significant in the GPU PEIR. Hilltop Group appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, finding that the Project was eligible for the streamlined environmental review process under CEQA Guidelines section 15183, and that any additional review must be limited to the circumstances prescribed by subdivisions (b)(1)–(4). The court concluded that the Board failed to proceed in a manner required by law by requiring a comprehensive EIR that was not appropriately limited to these provisions. The court also found that substantial evidence did not support the Board’s finding that previously adopted mitigation measures and uniformly applicable applied policies and procedures would not mitigate Project-specific impacts.

CEQA Guidelines Section 15183 Applies to the Project

The court first considered whether Guidelines section 15183 applied to the Project by focusing on the statutory language of the exemption. Subdivision (a) provides that projects consistent with the development density established by the existing zoning, community plan, or general plan policies for which an EIR was certified “shall not require additional review, except as might be necessary to examine whether there are project-specific significant effects which are peculiar to the project or its site.” Subdivision (b) provides that an agency must limit its examination of significant impacts if it determines those impacts: (1) are peculiar to the project; (2) were not otherwise addressed or sufficiently analyzed as significant impacts in the prior EIR; (3) are potentially significant off-site or cumulatively; or (4) would have more severe adverse impact based on substantial new information.

The court therefore rejected the County’s argument that subdivisions (b)(1)–(4) functioned as disqualifying circumstances that render a project entirely ineligible for the exemption. The court reasoned that such a narrow interpretation would render the exemption unusable. Instead, section 15183 provides a partial exemption that limits the scope of a project-level EIR to those aspects not covered in a prior PEIR. Here, the record demonstrated that the Project was consistent with the GPU for which the PEIR was certified, which is why staff elected to utilize section 15183. Therefore, the issue was not whether the Project qualifies for streamlining at all, but instead the extent to which the subsequent environmental review process is streamlined and what further review is required based on substantial evidence of the Project’s peculiar environmental impacts.

Initial Study Did Not Preclude Application of Section 15183

The County argued that the Project was altogether ineligible for section 15183 because the initial study concluded an EIR was required. The court noted that the initial study did not indicate whether the Project was eligible for streamlining under section 15183, but instead found that further analyses were required to determine the extent of potential impacts. That the County lacked sufficient information to determine whether the Project would have peculiar impacts at the time the initial study was prepared did not preclude a later determination that the Project qualified for streamlining under CEQA. The court cautioned that unequivocally requiring preparation of an EIR based on the initial study would elevate form over substance, particularly given staff’s later findings.

The court also clarified the purpose of section 15183: the exemption permits streamlining environmental review not because a project does not have any potential environmental effects or because those effects should not be analyzed, but because the project’s effects were already sufficiently accounted for an addressed in a PEIR. The court noted that the Guidelines expressly authorize agencies to use a previously prepared EIR when the agency determines it would adequately analyze the project at hand; therefore, use of an initial study would not preclude application of the section 15183 exemption.

Insufficient Evidence Supported Board’s Findings About Mitigation

The court’s final task was to determine whether substantial evidence supported the Board’s finding that the Project would result in project-specific peculiar impacts that were not analyzed as “significant” in the PEIR, and therefore could not be substantially mitigated by uniformly applied standards or previously adopted mitigation measures. The court conceded that the environmental effects of constructing and operating the Project were certainly peculiar and not expressly considered by the GPU PEIR. But section 15183, subdivision (f) provides that, unless substantial new information establishes otherwise, a project-specific environmental impact shall not be considered “peculiar” if previously adopted and uniformly applied development standards will substantially mitigate the environmental effect.

Under this lens, the court first broadly observed that the Board’s findings lacked requisite specificity that bridged the analytic gap between the raw evidence and the ultimate decision. Notably, neither the Board’s findings nor its final decision identified the specific nature of the Project’s “peculiar” impacts that required environmental review—instead, they merely pointed to broad environmental categories. Nor did the Board specifically address the effect of uniform policies on these purported impacts. Rather, the County attempted to bridge the analytic gap on appeal by relying on various public comments that merely consisted of argument, speculation, and unsubstantiated opinion by non-experts who were qualified to proffer technical testimony. The court noted that most of these comments discussed the ways in which individuals and the broader community may be personally impacted by the Project, but altogether failed to address whether the purported Project-specific impacts will be substantially mitigated by the PEIR’s uniform policies. The court thus held that, while these residents “may very well be able to hear, see, or otherwise perceive some aspects of the NCER Project, this is not the threshold for determining the applicability of Guidelines section 15183.”

For these reasons, the court rejected each of the Board’s individual findings that the PEIR’s mitigation measures would not adequately mitigate the Project’s peculiar impacts to aesthetics, noise, traffic, air quality, and GHG emissions.

Conclusion and Implications

The Fourth District Court of Appeal’s opinion in Hilltop Group, Inc. v. County of San Diego marks an important development in CEQA precedent, as it interprets and applies CEQA Guidelines section 15183’s underutilized and rarely litigated streamlining exemption for projects that are consistent with the underlying zoning designation or general plan for which a prior EIR was certified. The opinion also clarifies that lead agencies cannot reject streamlining under section 15183 simply because the underlying project generates significant public controversy. For these reasons, the decision reflects a growing trend in recent CEQA jurisprudence that suggests the judiciary is becoming less tolerant of CEQA abuse that creates delayed or dilatory environmental review processes. The Fourth District’s opinion is available at:

Bridget McDonald is an associate attorney in the Sacramento-based boutique law firm of Remy Moose Manley, LLP, which specializes in environmental law, land use and planning, water law, initiatives and referenda, and administrative law generally. Bridget’s practice focuses on land use and environmental law, handling all phases of the land use entitlement and permitting processes, including administrative approvals and litigation. Her practice includes the California Environmental Quality Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the State Planning and Zoning Law, natural resources, endangered species, air and water quality, and other land use environmental statutes. Bridget serves on the Editorial Board of the California Land Use Law & Policy Reporter