Voter Initiatives Not Subject to CEQA Review: Calif. Sup. Ct.

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on August 12, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When a city council wants to engage in land use planning, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires a study (which can take months) before the city council can do anything. Ah, but not so when citizens themselves propose a land use initiative: there, an abbreviated environmental impact study will suffice. It must be completed in 30 days, if at all.

This issue arose after Walmart wanted to open a new 27,000 square foot "Supercenter" in Sonora (Tuolumne County). But before it could, the city had to conduct a full CEQA study. In response, Sonora resident James Grinnell began a voter initiative (authored by Walmart, according to the Sonora Union-Democrat) that ultimately garnered the requisite number of votes. After the city council adopted the ordinance without submitting it to an election, a local small business group sued to stop it on the grounds that the city had to conduct a full environmental review first.

Last week, the California Supreme Court, unanimously overruling an appellate court decision, ruled that the city does not have to conduct a full CEQA analysis when the initiative comes from voters, as opposed to the legislature.

Citizen Initiatives

Environmental impact studies are a favorite strategy for preventing development. Such studies are arduous and expensive, and as a result, act as a disincentive for corporate expansion. Walmart, however, found a way around them: by using the voter initiative process, it could bypass the full environmental impact study and have a land use initiative in front of the electorate in 30 days.

Yes, said the California Supreme Court, that's a perfectly acceptable thing to do. At the outset, the court observed that its duty under state law was to "jealously guard" the right of citizen initiatives, which are enshrined in the state constitution and -- for better or worse -- a large part of the state's political culture. To that end, on the face of it, the Elections Code doesn't require a full environmental impact report when a legislature adopts voter initiatives. Requiring an impact study where, as here, there is both a legislature-fronted initiative and a citizen-fronted one would frustrate the purpose of citizen initiatives, the court said, which is to pass legislation quickly.

Public Policy

The court was at least receptive to the idea that Walmart and others would use the citizen initiative process to bypass CEQA studies (just like they did here). That may be true, the court said, but it could "also be used to thwart development." As is often the case, the court told plaintiffs to address their concerns to the legislature: "The [initiative] process itself is neutral. The possibility that interested parties may attempt to use initiatives to advance their own aims is part of the democratic process."

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