Use of Tolling Agreements Upheld in CEQA Cases
The California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") imposes very short time limits – some as short as 30 days – to commence litigation to challenge environmental review. Parties in CEQA disputes frequently rely upon tolling agreements to put costly litigation "on hold" while they pursue settlement. Until now, no court had ever ruled on whether such tolling agreements are permissible under CEQA. In Salmon Protection and Watershed Network v. County of Marin (2012) __ Cal.App.4th __ (April 20, 2012), the First District Court of Appeal decided that question in the affirmative.
In Salmon Protection, a non-profit environmental group (whose acronym, "SPAWN," is a colorful addition to the roster of cleverly named CEQA plaintiffs) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging an EIR prepared by the County of Marin for a general plan update that the County had certified in 2007. The suit was filed in 2010, long after expiration of the normally applicable statute of limitations, due to a series of tolling agreements entered into by the parties while settlement negotiations were ongoing. Concerned about the risk of a possible injunction, a local group of property owners filed a complaint in intervention and requested that the court dismiss the lawsuit as untimely based on the (novel) argument that CEQA's statute of limitations are mandatory and jurisdictional, and that the tolling agreements were therefore illegal and without effect. Alternatively, the property owners argued that Government Code section 65009, which imposes similarly short statute of limitations periods for challenges under the State Planning and Zoning Law, precluded the parties from agreeing to toll the limitations periods. The Court of Appeal disagreed. Finding that tolling agreements further important public policies and are not contrary to CEQA, the Court concluded that the tolling agreements at issue were valid and effective. Click here to read the full opinion.
The decision should come as a relief to public agencies and others throughout the State. Although few doubted the ultimate outcome, the case was sufficiently contentious to warrant amici briefs from the California League of Cities, the Sierra Club, the California Building Industry Association, and others.ShareThis