California Supreme Court Holds City’s Adoption of Ordinance Constitutes Project for Purposes of CEQA
In Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego (No. S238563), the California Supreme Court determined that the City of San Diego’s adoption of an ordinance authorizing the establishment of marijuana dispensaries constitutes a “project” for the purposes of CEQA. The City of San Diego adopted the ordinance at issue in 2014 without conducting environmental review. An interest group challenged the City’s approval, arguing that amendment of a zoning ordinance is conclusively a project under section 21080, and otherwise satisfies the definition of a project under section 21065.
The California Supreme Court concluded that Section 21080, subdivision a, was not dispositive regarding its reference to the amendment of zoning ordinances and other activities as being the types of discretionary projects proposed to be carried out by public agencies. Rather, the Court found the definition of project contained in section 21065 controls. Under section 21065, CEQA applies to discretionary projects that have the potential to cause a physical change to the environment. Thus, section 21080 serves as a list of examples of potential projects that CEQA could apply to, but which might not if the projects do not result in potential environmental changes.
The Court concluded that the City’s zoning amendment was a project for the purposes of CEQA. Under the precedent established in Muzzy Ranch, whether a specific activity is a project subject to CEQA is a question of law. This question asks whether the proposed activity is the type of activity that is capable of causing environmental impacts. In this case, the Court found that the proposed ordinance amendments might cause potential changes to the environment. Thus, the amendments were a CEQA project, even if the potential changes might be small.