Archives: August 2019

In First Opinion Addressing a Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment, the Third District Upholds the City of Sacramento’s Approval of an Infill Project

In Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento (2019) 37 Cal.App.5th 698, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the City of Sacramento’s reliance on a Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment (SCEA), a relatively new method for conducting streamlined CEQA review for certain projects that help the state meet its greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. (See Pub. Resources Code, § 21155.2, subd. (b).) The decision is the first published opinion addressing the propriety of an SCEA. The court held that the transit priority project at issue was consistent with the region’s sustainable communities strategy and therefore the City’s reliance on the SCEA complied with CEQA.

The court also upheld the City’s reliance on a unique provision in its general plan that allows the City to approve projects that are inconsistent with the City height and density limits if the projects offer significant community benefits.


The Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (SB 375) was created to integrate transportation and land use planning to reduce GHG emissions. SB 375 directed the California Air Resources Board to develop regional targets for automobiles and light trucks to reduce emissions. In turn, federally designated metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) must now include a “sustainable communities strategy” (SCS) in their regional transportation plans/ metropolitan transportation plan (MTP). (Gov. Code, § 65080, subd. (b)(2)(B).) MTP/SCSs direct the location and intensity of future land use developments on a regional scale to reduce vehicle emissions. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) is the MPO for the Sacramento area. SACOG adopted an MTP/SCS for the region in 2012 and certified an EIR for the MTP/SCS at that time.

Under SB 375, the mandated reductions may be achieved through a variety of methods, including “smart growth planning.” The Legislature determined that one type of development that can help reduce vehicular GHG emissions is a “transit priority project.” This type of project contains at least 50% residential use, has a minimum density of 20 units per acre, and is located within one-half mile of a major transit stop.

To boost development of transit priority projects, SB 375 allows for streamlined CEQA review through an SCEA if the project: (1) is consistent with the general use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies specified for the project area’ in the strategy; and (2) incorporates all feasible mitigation measures, performance standards, and criteria set forth in the prior applicable environmental impact reports’ and which were adopted as findings. (Pub. Resources Code, §§ 21155, subd. (a), 21155.2, subds. (a), (b).)

The “Yamanee” project at issue in Sacramentans is a proposed 15-story multi-use building made up of one floor of commercial space, three levels of parking, residential condominiums on 10 floors, and one floor of residential amenities. The building is proposed to be located near public transit in Sacramento’s growing “Midtown” area, adjacent to the City’s downtown. The project is located in the MTP/SCS’s central city subarea of a “Center and Corridor Community.” Under the MTP/SCS, Center and Corridor Communities are typically higher density and more mixed than surrounding land uses. SAGOG organized the MTP/SCS in such a way that policies for reducing GHG emissions were embedded in the MTP/SCS’s growth forecast assumptions. Thus, projects that are consistent with the MTP/SCS’s growth forecasts are automatically consistent with the MTP/SCS’s emission-reduction policies.

The City determined that the Yamanee project qualified as a transit priority project and that the project was consistent with the general land use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies in the MTP/SCS. Therefore, the City used an SCEA to review the project under CEQA. The SCEA explained that, as a transit priority project, the Yamanee project would increase housing options near high quality transit and reduce vehicle miles traveled. It also explained that the project is consistent with the MTP/SCS’s forecast of low to high-density residential and mixed uses in the center subarea of the Center and Corridor Community.

The City Council upheld the City planning and design commission’s approval of the project and rejected the petitioner’s appeal of that decision. The petitioner sought a writ of mandate in the superior court, claiming that the City’s approval of the project violated CEQA and the planning and zoning law. The superior court denied the petition and the Court of Appeal affirmed.


The Court of Appeal rejected the petitioner’s claim that the City erred by relying on SACOG’s MTP/SCS to justify using an SCEA. The petitioner argued that because the MTP/SCS lacked specific density and building intensity standards, the City could not rely on it as a basis for an SCEA. Further, claimed the petitioner, the MTP/SCS undermines the City’s general plan because it treats the City’s center as “higher density,” whereas the general plan sets forth a more nuanced approach under which building intensities and densities increase the closer a development gets to the downtown. These arguments, concluded the court, were premised on a misunderstanding of the MTP/SCS’s role. An MTP/SCS does not regulate land use. The purpose of an MTP/SCS is to establish a regional development pattern, not site-specific zoning. SB 375 authorized the City to review the project in an SCEA if the project was consistent with the regional strategy. Because it was, the city was allowed to rely on an SCEA. Although, as the petitioner contended, reliance on an SCEA could mean that certain projects receive less environmental review than traditionally required under CEQA, the court advised that the petitioner should take this concern to the Legislature, not the courts.

The court also rejected the petitioner’s claim that the City erred by relying on previous EIRs for the general plan and MTP/SCS to avoid analyzing the project’s cumulative impacts. In particular, the petitioner claimed that streamlined review was inappropriate in this case because no prior environmental analysis had considered the cumulative impacts of high-rise development in Sacramento’s midtown. The court explained that CEQA required the City to prepare an initial study (IS) before drafting the SCEA. The City’s IS for the project concluded that cumulative effects had, in fact, been adequately addressed and mitigated, and therefore did not need to be analyzed further in the SCEA. Additionally, the project included all applicable mitigation measures recommended in the prior EIRs. The petitioner failed to show that the City’s analysis was not factually supported. Accordingly, the City did not err by relying on prior cumulative impact analyses.

Planning and Zoning Law

The development proposed by the project is denser and more intense than what would ordinarily be allowed under the City’s general plan and zoning code. The City approved the project, however, under a provision in its general plan that allows the City to approve more intensive development when a project’s “significant community benefits” outweigh strict adherence to the density and intensity requirements. The City determined that the project would have several significant community benefits, including helping the City to achieve its goal of building 10,000 new residential units in the central city by 2025, and reducing dependency on personal vehicles. These, and other benefits, outweighed strict adherence to the City’s density and intensity limits.

The petitioner argued that the City’s decision to allow the Project to exceed the general plan and zoning code’s intensity and density standards constituted unlawful “spot zoning.” The court explained that spot zoning occurs where a small parcel is restricted and given fewer rights than the surrounding property (e.g., when a lot is restricted to residential uses even though it is surrounded by exclusively commercial uses). This case, explained the court, is not a spot-zoning case in that the property was not given lesser development rights than its neighboring parcels. The petitioner argued that the neighboring parcels had, in fact, been given lesser development rights through the City’s approval of the project, but there was no evidence in the record that any neighboring owner sought and was denied permission to develop at a greater intensity or that the City would arbitrarily refuse to consider an application for such development.

The petitioner also argued that the phrase “significant community benefit” as used in the City’s general plan was unconstitutionally vague. The court disagreed, explaining that zoning standards in California are required to be made “‘in accord with the general health, safety, and welfare standard,’” and that the phrase “significant community benefit” was no less vague than the phrase “general welfare.” Additionally, held the court, the phrase “significant community benefit” provides sufficient direction to implement the policy in accordance with the general plan.

The court also held that the City had articulated a rational basis for the policy allowing the City to waive the density and intensity standards for projects that provide significant community benefits, which is all that the Constitution required.


In this case, the City of Sacramento successfully employed CEQA’s streamlined provisions for transit priority projects to expedite and simplify its environmental review of an infill project that will help the City meet its aggressive new housing goal and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The City’s general plan allowed the City to approve the project because the project would provide significant public benefits, even though the project is inconsistent with the general plan and zoning code’s density and intensity standards. As California continues to combat the dual threats of a housing shortage and climate change, cities and counties are likely to increasingly rely on streamlined approaches to the approval process for mixed-use projects near public transit.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal Rejects Community Service District’s Attempt to Exempt Itself from City’s Zoning Ordinance

In City of Hesperia v. Lake Arrowhead Community Services District (2019) 37 Cal.App.5th 734, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s conclusion that the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District’s (“District”) Solar Project is not exempt from – and must comply with – the City of Hesperia’s (“City”) zoning ordinances.

The District, which is only authorized to provide water and wastewater treatment services within its boundaries, planned to develop a solar energy project on property zoned as “Rural Residential” that it owns within the City. The City’s Municipal Code dictates that solar farms are only permitted in nonresidential and nonagricultural areas with the approval of a conditional use permit by the City’s planning commission.

Pursuant to CEQA, the District prepared and circulated an Initial Study and Mitigated Negative Declaration for comments on the Solar Project in May 2015. The City commented that the Project required a general plan amendment and zone change to be filed with the City and that the Project would violate the City’s Municipal Code, which prohibits solar farms within 660 feet of agriculturally designated property. Government Code section 53091 requires that local agencies comply with the building and zoning ordinances of the county or city in which they are located.

On December 15, 2015, the District’s Board adopted a resolution that purported to render the City’s zoning ordinances inapplicable to the Solar Project. In passing this resolution, the District relied on Government Code section 53091, subdivision (e), an absolute zoning exemption for electrical energy generation facilities, and Government Code section 53096, a qualified zoning exemption for projects with no feasible alternative location.

The City subsequently filed a lawsuit contending that the Solar Project is beyond the scope of the District’s authority and is subject to the City’s zoning ordinances. The court agreed with the City and held that the Project was not exempt under either of these sections.

Section 53091, subdivision (e)

Section 53091, subdivision (e), of the Government Code states that the “[z]oning ordinances of a county or city shall not apply to the location or construction of facilities . . . for the production or generation of electrical energy.” The court explained that while the section 53091, subdivision (e), exemption does apply to the Project, the same section also includes an exception to the exemption that applies to the Project and negates the exemption. The exception to the exemption provides that “[z]oning ordinances of a county or city shall apply to the location or construction of facilities for storage or transmission of electrical energy by a local agency, if the zoning ordinances make provision for those facilities.” Here, the court agreed with the City that the Solar Project involves the transmission of electrical energy and is therefore not exempt from the City’s zoning ordinances under section 53091, subdivision (e).

In reaching this conclusion, the court was influenced by the fact that the District had earlier entered into an agreement with Southern California Edison Company, which stated that the District “will export electrical energy to the grid” and be responsible for “delivery of electricity.” The dictionary definitions for “export” and “delivery” are consistent with the “transmit” terminology in the exception. The court rejected the District’s argument that using the plain meaning of the word “transmission” would prohibit any electrical energy facility from qualifying for a zoning exemption because section 53096, subdivision (a) (discussed below), provides a qualified exemption for energy facilities under certain conditions.

Section 53096, subdivision (a)

Government Code section 53096, subdivision (a), provides a qualified exemption from zoning ordinances for facilities related to the transmission of electrical energy upon a four-fifths vote by the agency’s board that there is no feasible alternative to the proposed use. Here, the District’s Board determined that it was not feasible to install the Solar Project at any alternative locations, as doing so “would result in a significant cost increase, measurable power loss, and project delay.”

The court concluded that while the Board followed the proper procedural requirements of the qualified exemption, the administrative record did not contain substantial evidence to support the District’s findings. The City successfully demonstrated to the court that the administrative record did not include evidence of “economic, environmental, social, or technological factors associated with an alternative location.” The court was persuaded by the fact that the Board failed to consider any alternative location for the Solar Project in reaching its discretionary determination under section 53096, subdivision (a).

In determining the definition of “feasible” for purposes of this exemption, the court relied on case law related to CEQA’s definition for feasible alternatives and mitigation measures. The court cited Citizens of Goleta Valley v. Board of Supervisors (1988) 197 Cal.App.3d 1167, which dictates that the consideration of feasible alternatives is governed by the “rule of reason” – where alternatives must be analyzed if doing so is “necessary to permit a reasoned choice.” Here, the court concluded that the “any ‘rule of reason’ requires consideration of alternatives.” (Italics original.) The District therefore needed to provide evidence that it considered an alternative location and “economic, environmental, social, and technological factors” related to the alternative, but it merely provided evidence that the site was a “good location” for the Project. Thus, the court held that the section 53096, subdivision (a), exemption also does not apply to the Solar Project.