Sixth District Rules County of Santa Cruz Did Not Engage in Piecemeal Review of Zoning Ordinances and Upholds Negative Declaration

In Aptos Council v. County of Santa Cruz (2017) ___Cal.App.5th___ (Case No. H042976), the Sixth District held that the County of Santa Cruz did not engage in piecemeal review when it separately adopted three different zoning ordinances. The court also upheld the negative declaration for an ordinance increasing the height and density of hotels.

The County planning department undertook an effort to overhaul various County code sections, including those dealing with zoning. As part of this effort, the following occurred: (1) in March 2013, the County considered an addendum to a negative declaration prior to adopting an ordinance that authorized administrative approval of minor exceptions to zoning site standards; (2) in September 2013, the planning department circulated a negative declaration finding that an ordinance increasing the height and density for hotels (the “Hotel Ordinance”) would not have a significant effect on the environment; and (3) in October 2013, the planning department prepared a notice of exemption for an amendment modifying the County’s sign ordinance (the “Sign Ordinance”). The Board adopted the Hotel Ordinance and the Sign Ordinance in 2014.

Petitioner argued that the three ordinances in question constituted a single project and the County’s actions amounted to piecemealing in violation of CEQA. The court disagreed. The court found that reforming certain zoning regulations—such as altering density requirements for hotels—was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the other regulatory reforms challenged. Because each ordinance operated independently and could be implemented separately, they were not considered a single project. While the ordinances all served the same stated objective of “modernizing the County code,” the court held that this was not the type of tangible objective that forms the basis of a single CEQA project.

The court also upheld the negative declaration for the Hotel Ordinance, finding that the County did not need to consider potential future development because it was too speculative to be reasonably foreseeable. Evidence in the record supported the argument that the County intended to stimulate development when it passed the ordinance, but the court found that still did not demonstrate that such development was reasonably foreseeable. Additionally, the initial study disclosed that the Hotel Ordinance would allow higher density and taller hotels but that the effects of future development were speculative until a specific development was proposed. And, the initial study explained that such development projects would be subject to their own CEQA review. Moreover, the court found that petitioner failed to meet its burden to show a fair argument that significant environmental effects may result from the ordinance.