Archives: October 2017

First District Court of Appeal Upholds Judicial Council of California’s Determination That Closure of Downtown Placerville Courthouse Would Not Lead to Significant Urban Decay Impacts

On October 16, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal published its decision in Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 187, upholding the San Francisco County Superior Court’s denial of a petition for writ of mandate challenging the Judicial Council of California’s decision to certify a Final EIR and approve the New Placerville Courthouse Project.

Background

El Dorado County’s court facilities are currently divided between the Main Street Courthouse, a historic building in downtown Placerville, and the County administrative complex. The Judicial Council proposed to consolidate all court activities in a new three-story building to be built on undeveloped land adjacent to the County jail, less than two miles away from the existing Main Street Courthouse.

In October 2014, the Judicial Council published a draft EIR for the proposed new courthouse. The draft EIR acknowledged that retiring the downtown courthouse could have an impact on downtown Placerville. The EIR also recognized that the Judicial Council was required address neighborhood deterioration as a significant environmental effect under CEQA if urban decay was a reasonably foreseeable impact of the project. The draft EIR defined “urban decay” as “physical deterioration of properties or structures that is so prevalent, substantial, and lasting a significant period of time that it impairs the proper utilization of the properties and structures, and the health, safety, and welfare of the surrounding community.” The draft EIR concluded that urban decay, so defined, was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the new courthouse project.

Comments received both during and after the public review period on the draft EIR voiced the concern that closing the historic Main Street Courthouse could negatively affect businesses in downtown Placerville. In response to such concerns, the Judicial Council reiterated the draft EIR’s conclusion that the project was not likely to lead to urban decay. In support of this conclusion, the Judicial Council observed that it was working with both the city and county to develop a re-use strategy for the building that would support the downtown businesses and local residences. The Judicial Council also cited evidence of the City and County’s efforts to find a new use for the historic courthouse building.

Following the Judicial Council’s certification of the final EIR, the Placerville Historic Preservation League (League) filed a petition for writ of mandate, which the trial court denied. The Court of Appeal affirmed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, the League argued that the Judicial Council erred in concluding that urban decay is not a reasonably foreseeable indirect effect of relocating the courthouse activities from downtown Placerville to their new location. The court held that substantial evidence in the record supported the Judicial Council’s conclusion that the type of physical deterioration contemplated in the term “urban decay” is not reasonably foreseeable. The court explained that there is no presumption that urban decay would result from the project. To the contrary, as defined by CEQA—which focuses on the physical environment—urban decay “is a relatively extreme economic condition.” Evidence in the record, including comments submitted by the public, suggested that downtown Placerville was an economically stable area, and could withstand business closures without falling into urban decay.

The League also characterized the likelihood of the re-use of the historic courthouse building as an “‘unenforceable and illusory”’ commitment. The court explained, however, that the lack of a binding requirement for the re-use of the building does not undermine the EIR’s reasoning. Specifically, the issue before the Judicial Council was whether urban decay was a reasonably foreseeable effect of the project, not whether its occurrence was a certainty. It would be the best interest of the City of Placerville and the County of El Dorado to re-use the historic courthouse building, suggesting that the building was likely to be put to a new use. While the re-use was by no means guaranteed, it was reasonably likely. Therefore, the Judicial Council did not err in relying on the possibility of re-using the building as one basis for concluding that urban decay was not reasonably foreseeable.

The League also argued that the administrative record contained evidence, in the form of comments submitted by local residents and businesses, of the impact of moving the courtroom activities outside of downtown Placerville. The court held that although these letters and comments provided credible grounds to conclude that relocating the courthouse activities would constitute a hardship for some local businesses, it was not substantial evidence to support the conclusion that such economic effects would lead to substantial physical deterioration of the downtown.

The League further argued that the Judicial Council should have prepared an economic study evaluating the effects of removing the courthouse functions from downtown. The court disagreed, noting that in “any endeavor of this type, financial resources are limited, and the lead agency has the discretion to direct resources toward the most pressing concerns.” Just because a financial impact study might have been helpful does not make it necessary.

The Judicial Council was represented by RMM attorneys Andrea Leisy and Laura Harris in the trial court and on appeal.

First District Upholds Categorical Exemption with Conditions of Approval and Conditional Use Authorization for Residential Project on Infill Site in Transit Priority Area

In Protect Telegraph Hill v. City and County of San Francisco (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 261, the First District Court of Appeal, Division Three, upheld the City and County of San Francisco’s (city) finding that a conditional use authorization for the restoration of a small cottage and construction of a three-unit condominium on Telegraph Hill was categorically exempt from CEQA, and found that the city’s conditions of approval relating to construction were not mitigation for pedestrian and traffic impacts.

The proposed project is a new three-unit condominium fronting on Telegraph Hill Boulevard, the restoration of an existing small cottage at the back of the property, and three off-street parking spaces. The city planning department determined that the renovation of the cottage was categorically exempt from CEQA under the Class 1 exemption (Guidelines, § 15301, subd. (d)), and construction of the new building was exempt under the Class 3 exemption as a residential structure totaling no more than four dwelling units (Guidelines, § 15303, subd. (b)). The planning commission approved a conditional use authorization with some conditions on construction activity. A neighborhood group appealed both decisions to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The board approved the exemption and the conditional use authorization, with additional conditions on the construction activity. Protect Telegraph Hill filed a petition for writ of mandate, arguing that the city’s findings relating to the exemptions and approval of the conditional use authorization were unsupported by the evidence, the city failed to consider the entire project, and unusual circumstances and the inclusion of mitigation measures made the reliance on categorical exemptions improper. The trial court denied the petition, and Protect Telegraph Hill appealed.

On appeal, the petitioner argued that granting the exemptions was unlawful because the conditions of approval imposed by the city were intended to mitigate environmental impacts from the project’s construction, indicating that the project would have significant impacts and thus could not be exempt from CEQA. The petitioner also argued that the project description was inadequate to determine whether the project was truly exempt and that the unusual circumstances exception applied.

The court concluded that while some of the conditions of approval addressed traffic and pedestrian safety, they were attached to the approval of the conditional use authorization, and not the exemptions. The exemptions were initially approved by the planning department without qualification, while the conditional use authorization was originally approved by the planning commission with certain conditions. The petitioner had to appeal both decisions separately to the Board of Supervisors, which voted separately on each decision, attaching further conditions to the conditional use authorization only. The court also found that there was no substantial evidence in the record suggesting that the project would have significant effects on traffic and pedestrian safety. The court stated that the appellant’s “expressions of concern” in the record were not substantial evidence. The court also rejected attacks on the project description, finding that the included description complied with the requirements in the San Francisco Administrative Code and there was no evidence in the record suggesting the description was deficient.

Turning to the unusual circumstances exception, the court applied the two-part test announced by the California Supreme Court in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086. The city’s conclusion that the unusual circumstances exception was not met is reviewed for substantial evidence. But, if there are unusual circumstances, the court considers whether there is a fair argument that there is a reasonable possibility that the project will have a significant effect.

Protect Telegraph Hill argued that the location of the project on Telegraph Hill was itself an unusual circumstance. But the court found that the city’s determination that there were no unusual circumstances was supported by substantial evidence. While Telegraph Hill is described in the design element of the general plan, the project conformed to the zoning requirements for that area and was similar in proportion to the immediately adjacent buildings. The petitioner also argued that the area was heavily traveled because of its proximity to Coit Tower landmark, but the court agreed with the city that large traffic and pedestrian volumes was “more commonplace than unusual” in San Francisco.

Next, the petitioner argued that the project would impair views of the downtown skyline from the public stairway. The court rejected this argument in part by applying new Public Resources Code section 21099, subdivision (d), which applies to residential urban infill projects in transit priority areas, and requires that aesthetic impacts “shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment.” Additionally, the city considered the project’s impact on views from Coit Tower and Pioneer Park and concluded it would not have an adverse effect. The petitioner also argued that the 30% slope of the lot was an unusual circumstance. The court again agreed with the city that the slope was not unusual for San Francisco and found that the city’s engineering report provided substantial evidence supporting its decision. The petitioner also submitted an engineering report that provided conflicting evidence, but that report did not negate the substantial evidence supporting the city’s conclusion.

Lastly, the petitioner argued that the conditional use authorization finding was unsupported because of the project’s potential to obscure views of the downtown skyline from the stairway. The court held that even if there were some conflict with one policy in the general plan, the policies were not strictly construed and the project was consistent with other policies and the Urban Design Element for Telegraph Hill. Ultimately, the court found that the record supported the city’s conclusion that the project would not change the character of Telegraph Hill, and denied the petition.

First Circuit Finds Environmental Review Under Certified Regulatory Program Inadequate

In Pesticide Action Network North America v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 224 (republished as modified) the First Appellate District reversed the Alameda Superior Court and found that environmental documents prepared by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, regarding amended labelling for two pesticides, inadequately analyzed potential impacts on honeybees. The court held that the Department was required to analyze the environmental baseline, alternatives, and cumulative impacts in documents promulgated under CEQA’s exemption for certified regulatory programs (CRP).

The Department of Pesticide Regulation registers all pesticides in California, after evaluating their efficiency and potential for impacts to human health and the environment. The Department has a continuing obligation to reevaluate pesticides, and may cancel a prior registration. Since 2006, there has been a documented widespread collapse of honey bee colonies in the United States. One suspected factor is exposure to pesticides such as dinotefuran, the active ingredient in pesticides sold by the real parties. For this reason, in 2009, the Department initiated the still-ongoing process of reevaluating dinotefuran’s registration. Simultaneously, in 2014, the Department issued public reports for a proposal to amend labels for pesticides containing dinotefuron. The amended labels would allow the pesticides to be used on fruit trees, and in increased quantities. The reports concluded that the use of each pesticide in a manner consistent with the new labels would have no direct or indirect significant adverse environmental impacts, and therefore the Department did not propose alternatives or mitigation measures. The Department issued a final approval of the label amendments in June 2014. Pesticide Action Network filed a petition for writ of mandate in Alameda Superior Court and after a lower court finding for the Department, this appeal followed.

The Department’s pesticide program falls under the CEQA section 21080.5 exemption for CRPs. This exemption permits a state agency to rely on abbreviated environmental review documents, which are the functional equivalent of CEQA documents. Here, the Department issued the functional equivalent of a negative declaration. The standard of review is whether there was a prejudicial abuse of discretion, which is established if the agency did not proceed in a manner required by law, or if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence.

First, the court rejected the Department’s assertion that because it operates a CRP, its functionally-equivalent environmental review documents are otherwise exempt from CEQA’s substantive requirements. The court found that section 21080.5 is a “limited” exemption, and environmental review must otherwise comply with CEQA’s policy goals, substantive requirements, content requirements stated in section 21080.5, and any other CEQA provisions, as well as the Department’s own regulations.

Second, the court found that the Department’s report was inadequate under CEQA because it failed to analyze alternatives and cumulative impacts, and did not describe the environmental baseline. With respect to alternatives, contrary to the Department’s assertion, a functionally-equivalent document prepared under a CRP must consider alternatives, as required by both CEQA and the Department’s own regulations. The Department argued that it did not need to consider alternatives because it concluded there would be no significant environmental impacts. The court explained that the standard for a CRP for determining whether an adverse impact may occur is the same as the “fair argument” standard under CEQA. Furthermore, the content requirements for environmental review under a CRP require that a state agency provide proof–either a checklist or other report–that there will not be adverse effects. The court found that the Department did not produce or consider such evidence.

The court also held that the substantive requirements and broad policy goals of CEQA require assessment of baseline conditions. The Department argued that it had acknowledged and assessed baseline conditions, but the court disagreed. The Department’s baseline discussion was based on one statement that “the uses are already present on the labels of a number of currently registered neonicotinoid containing products.” The court found that this general statement was not sufficient.

The court found that the Department also abused its discretion when it failed to consider cumulative impacts. In its report, the Department simply stated that the cumulative analysis would be put off until the reevaluation was complete. The court found that this one-sentence discussion lacked facts and failed to provide even a brief explanation about how the Department reached its conclusion.

Finally, the court found that the Department is required to recirculate its analysis. Recirculation is required when significant new information is added to an environmental review document, after notice and public comment has occurred, but before the document is certified. The court explained that, in light of the Department’s required reevaluation, its initial public reports on the amended labeling were so “inadequate and conclusory” that public comment on them was “effectively meaningless.”

Pesticide Action Network provides important guidance regarding environmental compliance under a CEQA-exempt CRP. The court emphasized that unless specifically exempt from a CEQA provision, even functionally-equivalent CRP documents must comply with CEQA’s substantive requirements and broad policy goals. Also notable was the court’s application of the “fair argument standard” to the analysis of whether an impact would be significant under the functional equivalent of a negative declaration.