News and Articles

August 8, 2011

California Supreme Court Affirms That Common Sense “Is an Important Consideration at All Levels of CEQA Review.”

California Supreme Court affirms that common sense "is an important consideration at all levels of CEQA review."

California Supreme Court Affirms That Common Sense “Is an Important Consideration at All Levels of CEQA Review.”


By Andrea A. Matarazzo

The City of Manhattan Beach (“City”) adopted an ordinance prohibiting the use of carry-out plastic bags by retailers, restaurants, and other vendors that typically provide customers with such bags at the point of sale.  The City’s CEQA document for the ordinance was a negative declaration, based on the City’s conclusion that banning plastic bags in this way would not cause significant adverse impacts on the environment.  A coalition of plastic bag manufacturers and distributors challenged the City’s CEQA compliance, alleging that an EIR was required before the ban could be imposed.  The coalition relied on comparative “life cycle” evidence to support a fair argument that using paper rather than plastic bags would cause significant environmental impacts.  The Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the coalition and held that the City was required to prepare an EIR.  The California Supreme Court granted review and reversed in a unanimous decision.

The coalition alleged that it had “public interest” standing to bring its action as a citizen suit under CEQA.  The City challenged the coalition’s standing to bring a CEQA suit, asserting that the coalition was not a “citizen” and had not demonstrated a genuine environmental concern sufficient to support public interest standing.  The Supreme Court concluded that the coalition’s CEQA arguments were appropriate for a citizen suit, and disapproved prior case law holding that corporate parties are subject to heightened scrutiny when they assert public interest standing.  The Supreme Court also noted that the coalition satisfied the general rule of “beneficial interest” standing, because the City’s ordinance banning plastic bags would have a severe and immediate effect on the business of the coalition’s members.  According to the Supreme Court, a petitioner need not demonstrate a particular environmental interest to qualify as a beneficially interested party in a CEQA suit.

The Supreme Court rejected the coalition’s CEQA claims on the merits, however.  Under CEQA, a public agency must prepare an EIR if the record supports a fair argument that a proposed project or action, such as adoption of an ordinance, may result in significant adverse environmental impacts.  While the City’s intent in banning plastic bags was to avoid environmental effects, the CEQA issue presented in this case was whether the ordinance itself could have significant unintended environmental consequences.  “Life cycle” studies in the City’s record showed that the manufacture, transportation, recycling, and landfill disposal of paper bags cause greater environmental harm than the same processes for plastic bags, including “greater nonrenewable energy and water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, solid waste production, and acid rain.”

The Supreme Court acknowledged these studies but concluded that the life cycle comparison was not determinative.  The City (population 33,852) and its retail sector were simply too small for the plastic bag ban to cause a significant impact or even make a significant contribution to the cumulative impacts of similar bans in other jurisdictions.  “When we consider the actual scale of the environmental impacts that might follow from increased paper bag use in Manhattan Beach, instead of comparing the global impacts of paper and plastic bags, it is plain the city acted within its discretion when it determined that its ban on plastic bags would have no significant effect on the environment.”  The Court found that “[s]ubstantial evidence and common sense support the City’s determination.”


By Andrea Matarazzo


Andrea advises and advocates for private and public clients in all aspects of project permitting and entitlements, environmental compliance, and litigation, particularly regarding environmental review under CEQA and NEPA, land use and zoning issues, air quality regulation, climate change law and policy, water supply and water quality mandates, state and federal endangered species laws, wetlands permitting, and other regulatory requirements.


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