Archives: April 2019

Sierra Club v. County of Fresno

In Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (2018) 6 Cal.5th 502, the California Supreme Court held that portions of the air quality analysis in Fresno County’s EIR for the 942-acre Friant Ranch Specific Plan violated CEQA. In reaching this decision, the Court made four important holdings:  (1) when reviewing whether an EIR’s discussion of environmental effects “is sufficient to satisfy CEQA,” the court must be satisfied that the EIR “includes sufficient detail to enable those who did not participate in its preparation to understand and consider meaningfully the issues the proposed project raises”; (2) an EIR must show a “reasonable effort to substantively connect a project’s air quality impacts to likely health consequences”; (3) “a lead agency may leave open the possibility of employing better mitigation efforts consistent with improvements in technology without being deemed to have impermissibly deferred mitigation measures”; and (4) “[a] lead agency may adopt mitigation measures that do not reduce the project’s adverse impacts to less than significant levels, so long as the agency can demonstrate in good faith that the measures will at least be partially effective at mitigating the Project’s impacts.”

The Friant Ranch project is a Specific Plan calling for approximately 2,500 age-restricted (ages 55+) residential units, and other uses, including a commercial center and a neighborhood electric vehicle network. Fresno County’s EIR for the project generally discussed the health effects of air pollutants such as Reactive Organic Gases (ROG), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and particulate matter (PM), but without predicting any specific health-related impacts resulting from the project. The EIR found that the project’s long-term operational air quality effects were significant and unavoidable, even with implementation of all feasible mitigation measures. The EIR recommended a mitigation measure that included a “substitution clause,” allowing the County, over the course of project build-out, to allow the use of new control technologies equally or more effective than those listed in the adopted measure.

After the trial court denied Sierra Club’s petition for writ of mandate, the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the EIR’s air quality analysis and air quality mitigation measures violated CEQA. The Supreme Court granted review of the appellate court’s decision. In a unanimous decision issued four years later, the Supreme Court reversed in part, and affirmed in part, the Court of Appeal’s decision.

The Court first considered which standard of judicial review applies to claims that an EIR’s discussion of environmental impacts is inadequate or insufficient. The Court explained that an EIR’s discussion of environmental impacts is adequate and sufficient where “the discussion sufficiently performs the function of facilitating ‘informed agency decisionmaking and informed public participation.” To that end, an EIR must “reasonably describe the nature and magnitude of the adverse effect.” The evaluation does not need to be exhaustive, but the courts will review the discussion “in light of what is reasonably feasible.” Claims that an EIR lacks analysis or omits the magnitude of the impact involve mixed questions of law and fact, and thus are generally reviewed de novo. The courts will apply the substantial evidence standard, however, to claims challenging the EIR’s underlying factual determinations, such as which methodologies to employ. “Thus, to the extent a mixed question requires a determination whether statutory criteria were satisfied, de novo review is appropriate; but to the extent factual questions predominate, a more deferential standard is warranted.”

The Court next considered whether the Friant Ranch EIR’s air quality analysis complied with CEQA. The Court held that an EIR must reflect “a reasonable effort to discuss relevant specifics regarding the connection between” and the estimated amount of a given pollutant the project will produce and the health impacts associated with that pollutant. Further, the EIR must show a “reasonable effort to put into a meaningful context” the conclusion that the project will cause a significant air quality impact. Although CEQA does not mandate an in-depth health risk assessment, CEQA does require an EIR to adequately explain either (a) how “bare [emissions] numbers” translate to or create potential adverse health impacts; or (b) what the agency does know, and why, given existing scientific constraints, it cannot translate potential health impacts further.

With respect to the Friant Ranch EIR, the EIR quantified how many tons per year the project will generate of ROG and NOx (both of which are ozone precursors), but did not quantify how much ozone these emissions will create. Although the EIR explained that ozone can cause health impacts at exposures for 0.10 to 0.40 parts per million, this information was meaningless because the EIR did not estimate how much ozone the Project will generate. Nor did the EIR disclose at what levels of exposure PM, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide would trigger adverse health impacts. In short, the EIR made “it impossible for the public to translate the bare numbers provided into adverse health impacts or to understand why such translation is not possible at this time (and what limited translation is, in fact, possible).”

The Court noted that, on remand, one possible topic to address would be the impact the Project would have on the number of days of nonattainment of air quality standards per year, but the Court stopped short of stating such a discussion is required. Instead, the County, as lead agency, has discretion in choosing the type of analysis to supply.

The Court further held that the EIR did not fulfill CEQA’s disclosure requirements in that it stated that the air quality mitigation would “substantially reduce” air quality impacts but failed to “accurately reflect the net health effect of proposed air quality mitigation measures.”

Next, the Court examined whether the air quality mitigation measure impermissibly deferred formulation of mitigation because it allowed the County to substitute equally or more effective measures in the future as the Project builds out. The Court held that this substitution clause did not constitute impermissible deferral of mitigation because it allows for “additional and presumably better mitigation measures when they become available,” consistent with CEQA’s goal of promoting environmental protection. The Court also explained that mitigation measures need not include quantitative performance standards. If the mitigation measures are at least partially effective, they comply with CEQA; this is true even if the measures will not reduce the project’s significant impacts to less-than-significant levels.

RMM Partners Jim Moose and Tiffany Wright and Senior Associate Laura Harris represented the Real Party in Interest in the case.

Georgetown Preservation Society v. County of El Dorado

In Georgetown Preservation Society v. County of El Dorado (2018) 30 Cal.App.5th 358, the Third District Court of Appeal held that the lay opinions of local community members created a fair argument of potentially significant aesthetic impacts of a proposed retail store.

The project at issue was a proposed Dollar General store in a designated rural commercial zone in downtown Georgetown, an unincorporated community in El Dorado County. Although the community is not a designated historic resource, it has a historical design overlay zone, and new construction is required to “generally conform” to the county’s Historic Design Guidelines. The county prepared a mitigated negative declaration. The county also determined, through an extensive design review process in which the proposed design was extensively revised to more fully express the desired “Gold Rush Era” aesthetic, that the project was consistent with the County’s design guidelines, relying in part on peer review by experts in historic architecture. Over the course of the design and environmental review processes, local residents expressed their opinions that the project was visually incompatible with the existing aesthetic character of the community. Nonetheless, the county adopted the MND, and the Georgetown Preservation Society sued. The Society prevailed in the trial court, asserting that local residents’ lay opinions on the compatibility of the proposed store design with the existing aesthetic character of the town provided substantial evidence in support of a fair argument and that an EIR was required. The applicant and the county appealed.

First, the court held that the county’s determinations that the project complied with applicable planning and zoning rules via the historic design review process were not entitled to deference in the context of the county’s compliance with CEQA, and the fair argument standard still applies. Although an agency’s planning and design review forms part of the entire body of evidence to consider when determining whether the fair argument standard has been met, application of such design guidelines does not insulate the project from CEQA review at the initial study phase under the fair argument standard.

Second, the court stated that lay testimony can establish a fair argument that the project may cause substantial environmental impacts. The court rejected the appellants’ arguments that here, the county’s design review criteria recommending specific architectural styles and features constituted a technical subject. Therefore the court held that lay commentary on nontechnical matters is admissible and probative. Here, the court cited the large number of local residents who submitted comments on this issue, including some claiming backgrounds in design and planning.

Relatedly, the court held that the county’s position in litigation that cited evidence from lay persons was not credible, the county’s decision-makers were first obligated to state, in the record and with particularity, which evidence lacked credibility and why. The appellants asserted that much of the cited testimony lacked basis in facts, but the court held that the county could not discount such evidence in litigation after failing to do so in the administrative record. The court further stated that even if the county had made such determinations here, doing so would have been an abuse of discretion because the court found the testimony constituted substantial evidence supporting a fair argument.

The court noted that it was not offering an opinion as to whether the project would have a substantial impact on aesthetics, but only that an EIR was required in order to fully examine the issue.

RMM Partner Sabrina V. Teller represented the real party in interest/applicant.

High Sierra Rural Alliance v. County of Plumas

In High Sierra Rural Alliance v. County of Plumas (2018) 29 Cal.App.5th 102, the Third District Court of Appeal rejected arguments that Plumas County violated the Timberland Productivity Act (Timberland Act) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when it adopted a general plan update, and affirmed the trial court’s judgment in the County’s favor. The opinion is the first precedent to explore the intersections of CEQA and the Timberland Act. It is also the first CEQA precedent clearly holding that a local government, in preparing an EIR for a general plan update, may base its impact analysis on reasonably foreseeable levels of population growth and development, as opposed to theoretically possible levels.

In 2005, the County began efforts to update its 1984 General Plan. Over the next eight years, the County engaged in a robust community engagement and education process to create the 2035 General Plan Update (GPU) that reflected the County’s planning goals and values. In December 2013, the County’s Board of Supervisors certified the Final Environmental Impact Report and adopted the GPU. High Sierra Rural Alliance filed suit, arguing that the GPU conflicted with the Timberland Act and that the EIR for the GPU did not adequately analyze impacts of potential growth outside of designated planning areas. The trial court disagreed and denied the petition and complaint in its entirety.

The Third District’s opinion began by contrasting the County’s large size with its small population. Although the County covers approximately 2,613 square miles or over 1.67 million acres, its vast lands supported only 20,007 residents in 2010. The court also highlighted the minimal expected population growth, with the Department of Finance estimating the County’s population to remain under 21,000 until 2025, at which point the population is expected to decline.

Turning to High Sierra’s Timberland Act claims, the opinion provides an overview of the Act and the GPU policies related to timberland production zone (TPZ) lands. The court settles a heretofore unresolved question under the Timberland Act–– namely, whether any residence approved on land zoned for timberland production must be “necessary for” the management of the relevant parcel as timberland. The court agreed with the County’s interpretation of Government Code section 51104, subdivision (h)(6), as providing that any “residence” on TPZ lands must be “necessary for” and “compatible with” the management of land zoned as timberland production. The court also made clear that “section 51104 suffices to supply the restrictions on residences and structures on timberland production zone parcels,” and thus the County’s GPU did not conflict with the Timberland Act simply because it failed to recite the statutory language in Section 51104 in its relevant policies.

In discussing the Timberland Act arguments, the court explained that “the finding [required by the Timberland Act] that a residence or structure is necessary for the management of a timberland production zoned parcel is not an exercise of discretion as used in the CEQA context.” The court provides local agencies and legal practitioners with important guidance on this issue by citing and quoting the discussion in the Friends of Westwood, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 259, 272, which provides that an agency can exercise CEQA discretion only where it has “the power (that is, the discretion) to stop or modify” a project in a “way which would mitigate the environmental damage in any significant way.” Because the court concluded that “the Timberland Act affords the County no discretion to stop or request modification of the proposed residence or structure in order to mitigate environmental impacts,” the court rejected High Sierra’s argument.

The court also rejected High Sierra’s CEQA claims. High Sierra argued that the EIR failed to acknowledge and analyze the potential for rural sprawl. But the EIR explained that full build-out under the GPU would not occur for another three hundred years. Based on the substantial evidence in the record, the court concluded that the County could properly focus its analysis on the reasonably foreseeable growth occurring under the GPU through year 2035. The court also agreed with the County that historic land use data supported the conclusion that growth would occur almost exclusively within the planning areas. The court rejected High Sierra’s speculation that one of the GPU policies would open the floodgates to residential subdivisions on agricultural, timber, and mining lands. High Sierra’s reliance on a working paper about real estate markets in the Northern Rockies failed to persuade the court because the paper did not cite any data specific to Plumas County.

Finally, the court held that the County did not violate CEQA by failing to recirculate the EIR. The court was unconvinced by High Sierra’s argument that the inclusion in the Final EIR of building intensity standards and more accurate maps showing potential development outside of planning areas triggered recirculation.

RMM Partner James G. Moose represented Plumas County.

Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment v. City of Los Angeles

In Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment v. City of Los Angeles et al. (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 1079, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the City of Los Angeles did not misinterpret its City Charter when it amended its general plan to change the land use designation of a single parcel for a transit-oriented development project.

In 2015, Real Parties in Interest, Dana Martin, Jr., Philena Properties, L.P. and Philena Property Management, LLC (applicant) applied to develop a mixed-use, transit oriented development project on a five-acre site that was formerly a car dealership. The site was on a corner of a major intersection in West Los Angeles, less than 500 feet from a new light rail station. As part of its application, the applicant requested that the City change the site’s general plan land use designation from light industrial to general commercial, among other entitlements. The City prepared an EIR for the project and approved the project and the general plan amendment. A community group, Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment, sued, challenging the legality of the process followed by the City for amendment under the City Charter.

Los Angeles City Charter section 555 governs general plan amendments in the city. Relevant here, subdivision (a) allows the plan to be amended “by geographic areas, provided that the … area involved has significant social, economic or physical identity.” Subdivision (b) of that section states, in pertinent part, that “[t]he Council, the City Planning Commission or the Director of Planning may propose amendments to the General Plan.” Westsiders argued that both of these provisions prevented the City from approving the amendment in this case. Westsiders alleged that the general plan could not be amended for a single project or parcel because a single parcel did not qualify as a “geographic area” with “significant social, economic or physical identity” as required by section 555, subdivision (a). Westsiders also argued that, by requesting the general plan amendment, the applicant had effectively “initiated” the amendment in violation of section 555, subdivision (b), which restricts the authority to start that process to the council, planning commission, or planning director. The trial court denied the petition and found that the city did not exceed its authority under its charter in approving the amendment in this case. Westsiders appealed.

The court of appeal found that, because the challenge was to the city’s amendment of the general plan, Government Code section 65301.5 required that the city’s action be reviewed under Code of Civil Procedure section 1085, governing traditional mandamus. In doing so, the court rejected Westsiders’ argument that, because the general plan amendment was for a single project and parcel, review should be under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5, governing administrative mandamus. In discussing the appropriate standard of review, the court recognized that charter cities are presumed to have power over municipal affairs, and that any limitation or restriction on that power in the charter must be clear and explicit. The court also stated that, while construing the charter was a legal issue subject to de novo review, the city’s interpretation of its own charter is entitled to great weight unless it is clearly erroneous, and must be upheld if it has a reasonable basis.

In interpreting the charter, the court found that the plain meaning of the terms “geographic area” and “significant social, economic or physical identity” did not contain any clear and explicit limitation on the size or number of parcels involved in amending the general plan by geographic area. The court rejected Westsiders’ request for judicial notice, which contained several documents that Westsiders claimed were legislative history showing that the voters had intended to include such a limitation. The court also rejected Westsiders’ argument that, in considering whether a geographic area has “significant social, economic or physical identity” the city may not consider the proposed project and future uses of the site. The court found that the city’s determination that the site had significant economic and physical identity because it was one of the largest underutilized sites with close proximity to transit in West Los Angeles, and that the project would be the first major transit oriented development met the requirements of Charter section 555, subdivision (a). The court also pointed out that not every individual lot in the city would necessarily meet the requirements of the charter and qualify for a general plan amendment.

Interpreting Charter section 555, subdivision (b), the court rejected Westsiders’ argument that, by filling out a land use application requesting that the city amend the general plan, the applicant had improperly “initiated” the amendment in violation of the charter. Similar to its analysis of subdivision (a), the court found that section 555, subdivision (b) did not contain a clear and explicit limitation on who could request that the city amend the charter. The court also stated that city followed the procedures required by the charter because, after the applicant made its request, it was the planning director who formally initiated the amendment process.

Next, the court found that, because amending the general plan is a legislative act, the city was not required to make explicit findings to support its decision. The court rejected Westsiders’ argument that the city was required to make findings that “bridge the analytical gap between the raw evidence and ultimate decision” in this case (quoting Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community v. County of Los Angeles (1974) 11 Cal.3d 506, 515). The court found that this requirement did not apply to legislative acts, such as the amendment of the general plan. The court also rejected Westsiders’ argument that the city’s use of the word “unique” in discussing the site’s identity (as opposed to “significant” used in the charter provision) made its “findings” inadequate. The court found that the city’s analysis showed that the site had significant economic and physical characteristics and met the requirements of section 555, subdivision (a).

Lastly, the court rejected Westsiders’ argument that the city impermissibly “spot-zoned” the project through the general plan amendment. The court found that Westsiders had failed to raise this argument in the trial court and was thus barred from raising it on appeal. The court affirmed the trial court’s judgment dismissing the petition for writ of mandate.

RMM Partner Sabrina V. Teller and Associate Nathan O. George represented the respondent City of Los Angeles.

First District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Mixed-Use Development Project

In the first published decision to apply the standard of review articulated by the Supreme Court in Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (Friant Ranch), the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision upholding an EIR for a mixed-use development project in South of Market Community Action Network v. City and County of San Francisco (2019) 33 Cal.App.5th 321.

The project at issue is a mixed-use development that covers four acres of downtown San Francisco and seeks to provide office, retail, cultural, educational, and open-space uses for the property, to support the region’s technology industry and offer spaces for coworking, media, arts, and small-scale urban manufacturing. The city certified an EIR, which described two options for the project—an “office scheme” and a “residential scheme.” The office scheme had a larger building envelope and higher density than the residential scheme but all other project components were the same and the overall square footage was substantially similar. Several community organizations raised a variety of claims challenging the environmental review. The trial court denied relief and the petitioners appealed.

Applying the three “basic principles” set forth by the Supreme Court in Friant Ranch regarding the standard of review for the adequacy of an EIR, the First District held the EIR was legally adequate.

The court rejected the petitioners’ argument that the project description was inadequate because it presented multiple possible projects. The court found that the EIR described one project—a mixed use development involving retention or demolition of existing buildings and construction of new buildings—with two options for different allocations of residential and office units. The court also rejected petitioners’ argument that the final EIR adopted a “revised” project that was a variant of another alternative identified in the draft EIR—emphasizing that the CEQA reporting process is not designed to freeze the ultimate proposal in the precise mold of the initial project, but to allow consideration of other options that may be less harmful to the environment.

Petitioners alleged that the cumulative impacts analysis was flawed because the EIR used an outdated 2012 project list, developed during the “Great Recession,” which did not reflect a more recent increase in development. The court noted the petitioners did not point to any evidence to establish that the project list was defective or misleading or that the city had ignored foreseeable projects. Accordingly, the court held that the petitioners had not met their burden of proving the EIR’s cumulative impacts analysis was not supported by substantial evidence.

With respect to traffic, the petitioners argued the EIR was inadequate because it failed to (1) include all impacted intersections, (2) consider the impact of the Safer Market Street Plan (SMSP), and (3) adequately evaluate community-proposed mitigation measures and alternatives. The court rejected each argument in turn. First, the court found that the EIR’s explanation for selecting certain intersections and excluding others and the related analysis was supported by substantial evidence. The court further held that the city did not need to include the SMSP in the EIR because it was not reasonably foreseeable when the city initiated the EIR, nor was there evidence that the SMSP would have an adverse impact on traffic and circulation related to the project. Lastly, the court deferred to the city’s selection of alternatives because the petitioners had failed to meet their burden to show the nine alternatives evaluated in the EIR were “manifestly unreasonable.” Similarly, the court found the petitioners had failed to meet their burden to demonstrate their proposed alternatives were feasible and met most of the project objectives.

In addressing wind impacts, an argument petitioners failed to exhaust, the court found such impacts were appropriately addressed in the EIR. The court reasoned an alternative configuration was not required under the city’s comfort criterion for wind speed impacts because the exceedance of the comfort criterion did not establish significant impacts for CEQA purposes.

The court also rejected an argument that the project failed to provide onsite open space because the EIR explained that the project provided more space than the city code required and the impact related to demand on existing parks and open spaces would be less than significant.

The court further upheld the EIR’s shade and shadow analysis, finding no evidence in the record to support that sunlight on a park is not a “special and rare resource” warranting “special emphasis” under CEQA Guidelines section 15125.

The court also held that the city had made a good faith effort to discuss inconsistencies with the applicable general plans, noting that CEQA does not “mandate perfection.”

Finally, the petitioners claimed that the statement of overriding considerations was invalid because the city improperly considered the benefits of the project before considering feasible mitigation measures or alternatives. The court disagreed, emphasizing that the project was modified to substantially conform to the identified environmentally superior alternative and stating that the revised project would not have been adopted if there had been no consideration of mitigation measures or alternatives.