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Union of Med. Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego - 7 Cal. 5th 1171, 250 Cal. Rptr. 3d 818, 446 P.3d 317 (2019)


When a public agency is asked to grant regulatory approval of a private activity or proposes to fund or undertake an activity on its own, the agency must first decide whether the proposed activity is subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq. Cal. Code Regs., tit. 14, § 15060, subd. (c). In practice, this requires the agency to conduct a preliminary review to determine whether the proposed activity constitutes a project for purposes of CEQA. Pub. Resources Code, § 21065; Cal. Code Regs., tit. 14, § 15378, subd. (a). If the proposed activity is found not to be a project, the agency may proceed without further regard to CEQA.


In 2014, the City of San Diego (City) adopted an ordinance authorizing the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries and regulating their location and operation. The central provisions of this ordinance amended various City zoning regulations to specify where the newly established dispensaries may be located. Because the City found that adoption of the ordinance did not constitute a project for purposes of The California Environmental Quality Act, Public Resources Code §§ 21000 et seq. (CEQA), it did not conduct any environmental review. Petitioner Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. (UMMP), challenged the City's failure to conduct CEQA review in a petition for writ of mandate, which was denied by the trial court. On appeal, UMMP argued that the amendment of a zoning ordinance, one of the public agency activities listed in § 21080, was conclusively declared a project by that statute, and the City’s ordinance, in any event, satisfied the definition of a project under § 21065. The appellate court found no error in the City's conclusion that the ordinance was not a project because it did not have the potential to cause a physical change in the environment.


Was the ordinance, which authorized the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries, a “project” for purposes of CEQA, and hence, required the conduct of an environmental review?




The Court held that the adoption of the Ordinance was a project. According to the Court, prior to the Ordinance, no medical marijuana dispensaries were legally permitted to operate in the City. The Ordinance therefore amended the City’s zoning regulations to permit the establishment of a sizable number of retail businesses of an entirely new type. As such, the ordinance was capable of causing indirect physical changes in the environment, such as new retail construction and changed traffic patterns; the likelihood that such changes could occur, which was a preliminary determination made without considering the specific circumstances, was more than speculative. Therefore, the Court reversed the decision of the appellate court.

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