Author Archives: Nathan George

Second District Upholds City’s Interpretation of Its Charter Allowing General Plan Amendment for Transit Oriented Development Project

In Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment v. City of Los Angeles et al., No. B285458 (2018) (published 10/1/2018), the Second District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s conclusion 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 nearly five-acre parcel for a transit-oriented development project on the west side of the city.

In 2015, Real Parties in Interest, Dana Martin, Jr., Philena Properties, L.P. and Philena Property Management, LLC (Philena) applied to develop a mixed-use, transit oriented development project on a former car dealership site of approximately five acres. The site is on the corner of Bundy Drive and West Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles, less than 500 feet from a new light rail station. As part of its application, Philena requested that the City change the site’s general plan land use designation from light industrial to general commercial, and several other entitlements. The City prepared an EIR for the project and in September 2016, approved the project and the general plan amendment. Appellant, Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment sued, challenging the amendment under City Charter section 555, subdivisions (a) and (b).

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). Petitioner also argued that, by requesting the general plan amendment, Philena 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 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, Philena 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 Philena 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”) 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.

Fourth District Finds San Diego County’s Climate Change Guidance Document Contains Improperly Adopted Thresholds of Significance that Violate CEQA and a Previously Issued Writ of Mandate

In Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego (2018) _ Cal.App.5th _ (Case No. D072406—consolidated with Case No. D072433), Division One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s determination that the County of San Diego’s “2016 Climate Change Analysis Guidance Recommended Content and Format for Climate Change Analysis Reports in Support of CEQA Document” (“2016 GHG Guidance”) was ripe for adjudication, constituted piecemeal environmental review, and contained an improper threshold of significance, in violation of CEQA and a previously-issued writ of mandate.

In 2011, the county updated its general plan. The Environmental Impact Report for the update incorporated mitigation measures to address greenhouse gas emissions from county operations. Two such measures are at issue here. First, Mitigation Measure CC-1.2 required the county to prepare a Climate Action Plan (CAP), and to adopt GHG emission targets and deadlines for achieving the targets. Second, Mitigation Measure CC-1.8 required the county to revise its guidelines for determining GHG significance based on the CAP. The county adopted a CAP, which was set aside when the court granted a petition for writ of mandate filed by the Sierra Club. While that case was on appeal, the county adopted the “2013 Guidelines for Determining Significance for Climate Change” (“2013 Guidelines”). Sierra Club challenged the 2013 Guidelines through a supplemental petition, which the parties stipulated to stay pending the appeal. In 2014, the court of appeal upheld the trial court’s decision to set aside the CAP. On remand, the trial court issued a supplemental writ directing the county to set aside both the CAP and the 2013 Guidelines and retained jurisdiction to ensure compliance.

In 2016, while in the process of developing the CAP, the county published the 2016 GHG Guidance. In one section, the county stated that it represented “one potential set of criteria and methodologies, along with supporting evidence that would be appropriate for Climate Change Analysis,” while in another section it stated that “[t]he County Efficiency Metric is the recognized and recommended method by which a project may make impact significance determinations.” Sierra Club filed a second amended petition in the trial court, and Golden Door Properties, LLC filed a separate challenge to the 2016 GHG Guidance. The cases were consolidated through a stipulation and the trial court determined that the claims were ripe, that the 2016 GHG Guidance created a threshold of significance, violated Mitigation Measures CC-1.2 and CC-1.8, was not supported by substantial evidence, and violated the previous writ of mandate because it constituted piecemeal review. The county appealed.

First, the court addressed the issue of ripeness. The county argued that the action was not ripe because it was still developing the CAP and because the controversy did not involve a specific set of facts (that is, no project using the 2016 GHG Guidance to perform Climate Change Analysis had been challenged). The court disagreed, finding that the situation here involved a threshold of significance that would “be used routinely to determine environmental effects…” and thus generally applicable. The court distinguished Pacific Legal Foundation v. California Coastal Commission (1982) 33 Cal.3d 158 because that case involved a challenge to policies in a guidance document, under which the Commission might impose certain permit conditions should any of the landowner/plaintiffs apply for such a permit. The court found that, although the 2016 GHG Guidance acknowledged that other methods for determining significance may apply, the efficiency metric was stated to be “the recognized and recommended method” for determining GHG significance, making it generally applicable and thus justiciable.

The county argued that the 2016 GHG Guidance did not set a threshold of significance, but instead, provided a recommended method for evaluating GHG emissions. The court disagreed and found that, because the 2016 GHG Guidance provided one “recognized and recommended” efficiency metric to measure the significance of a project’s GHG emissions, the efficiency metric was a threshold of significance. That the county’s 2013 Guidelines were more explicit than the 2016 GHG Guidance did not make the efficiency metric any less of a threshold of significance. The court found that the metric violated CEQA because the county had failed to follow the adoption procedures for such thresholds laid out in CEQA Guidelines section 15064.7, which required formal action by the county after a public review period. The court also found that Mitigation Measure CC-1.8 required the county to adopt the CAP before updating its guidance documents because Measure CC-1.8 required the updated guidance to be based on the CAP.

The court also found that the threshold of significance was not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, the court held that the county needed to support the efficiency metric with substantial evidence establishing a relationship between the statewide data used to establish the metric and the county’s reduction targets. The 2016 GHG Guidance stated that the efficiency metric represented the county’s “fair share” of statewide emissions mandates, but did not explain why that was so. Additionally, the efficiency metric was recommended for all projects, but the 2016 GHG Guidance did not explain why the efficiency metric (based on service population) would be appropriate across all project types.

The court also agreed with the plaintiffs that the county had “piecemealed” its environmental review because the 2016 GHG Guidance preceded the completion of the CAP. The county argued that, because the CAP was on schedule to be released in compliance with the previous writ, the 2016 GHG Guidance did not violate the writ. The court applied the law-of-the-case doctrine and stated that its previous decision held that the CAP and the updated county guidance were a single project for CEQA purposes. For that reason, the CAP and updated guidance must be publicly reviewed and adopted by the county together. Because the CAP had not been adopted when the 2016 GHG Guidance was issued by the county, the 2016 GHG Guidance violated the writ.

 

High Court Decides that Voters Can Challenge Zoning Ordinance by Referendum, Even When It Results in a More Prolonged Period of Inconsistency Between Zoning Ordinance and General Plan

In City of Morgan Hill v. Bushey, (2018) No. S23042 __Cal.5th__, the California Supreme Court upheld the decision of the court of appeal, and ruled that voters can challenge a zoning ordinance by way of referendum, even if this results in a more prolonged period of inconsistency between the zoning ordinance and general plan, at least when local government has other means available to them to make the zoning ordinance and the general plan consistent. Furthermore, the referendum process does not violate a Planning and Zoning Law provision (Gov. Code, § 65860) which mandates that inconsistencies between a zoning ordinance and a general plan be reconciled within a “reasonable time.” The court remanded the matter back to the trial court to resolve whether there were other means available to the local agency to make the general plan consistent with the referendum, should it be successful. Justice Chin filed a brief concurrence.

In making this ruling, the court expressly disapproved of deBotarri v. City of Norco (1985) 171 Cal.App.3d 1204 and cited with approval the reasoning of the recently decided Save Lafayette v. City of Lafayette (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 657.

Factual and Procedural History

In November 2014, the City of Morgan Hill amended its general plan to change the land use designation of a vacant parcel from industrial to commercial, in order to allow the applicant to develop a hotel on the site. The zoning designation in the zoning code, ML-Light Industrial, remained unchanged. In April 2015, the city council voted to approve a zoning change for the site from ML-Light Industrial to CG-General Commercial, to make the zoning consistent with the amended General Plan. General Commercial is one of 12 potential commercial zoning designations in the city. Shortly afterwards, voters successfully petitioned to put forward a referendum challenging the zoning ordinance change. However, the city council directed the city clerk to discontinue processing the ordinance, believing it would make the General Plan and zoning ordinance inconsistent. In 2016, the council placed referendum on the ballot, and petitioned for a writ of mandate to have the referendum invalidated.

The trial court found for the city, relying on deBotarri for the proposition that a referendum is invalid when it would enact a zoning ordinance that is inconsistent with the general plan.

The Sixth District Court of Appeal reversed in a published decision, City of Morgan Hill v. Bushey (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 34. The court of appeal expressly disagreed with deBotarri’s holding that referendums are always invalid if they reject a zoning ordinance which was enacted by the local government in order to bring a property’s zoning into compliance with the jurisdiction’s general plan. The California Supreme Court granted review.

The Supreme Court Decision

The California Constitution reserves the power of referendum for the people. It allows voters to approve or reject statutes, or parts of statutes, including enactments by local government. This power is subject to a “limited preemption” by the Legislature, and can only be abrogated by a “definite indication” or “strong showing” that preemption was intended.  Local control over land use is subject to the State Planning and Zoning Law (Gov. Code, § 65000 et seq.), which mandates that the land use element of a general plan must be consistent with local zoning ordinance, and that if an inconsistency exists, that it be reconciled within a “reasonable time” (Gov. Code, § 65860). The statutory scheme does not define “reasonable time” or give benchmarks for determining when the passage of time becomes unreasonable. To avoid the uncertainty inherent in such inconsistencies, the Government Code strongly encourages simultaneous general plan amendments and zoning code changes, although this is not required.

The core question is whether the Legislature, in enacting Government Code section 65860, intended to preempt the power of referendum, such that voters would be prohibited from placing a referendum on the ballot that, if successful, would prolong or create a create an inconsistency between the zoning and the general plan.  A related question is whether a “reasonable time” to bring a general plan and a zoning ordinance into harmony can include the time to hold a referendum, and, if successful, pursue another means of making the general plan and zoning consistent.

The court accepted the petitioner’s contention that, generally, local voters can exercise their referendum power without creating a conflict with section 65860, at least when there are other zoning designations available that would be consistent with the general plan. In announcing this rule, the court rejected defendant’s supposition that a successful referendum “revives” an out-of-compliance zoning ordinance, because a referendum does not enact a law. Rather, a successful referendum merely rejects an amendment before it takes effect. Here, even though the referendum sought to overturn the new, consistent zoning designation, the referendum would not be invalid because the original designation was valid when it was enacted (that is, the general plan amendment created the inconsistency, a situation which the Government Code permits, for a “reasonable time”).

The court acknowledged that a referendum such as this creates or prolongs a period of inconsistency between a general plan and the applicable zoning, but the Government Code allowed for such periods “to ensure an orderly process of bringing the regulatory law into conformity…”(quoting Lesher Communications, Inc. v. City of Walnut Creek (1990) 52 Cal.3d 531, 546 (Lesher)). Relatedly, while the “reasonable time” allowed for city or county to conduct an “orderly process” is not defined, the court reasoned that the term was context-dependent, and, given the court’s duty to protect the referendum power, a “reasonable time” within the meaning of section 65860 must include the time necessary to bring at least one referendum challenge, and to rectify the inconsistency between the zoning ordinance and the general plan in a manner consistent with the referendum.

Answering the questions before it as it did led the court to expressly disapprove of the reasoning in deBottari and its progeny, because, although Government Code section 65860, subdivision (a) voids enactments, including initiatives from creating zoning ordinances inconsistent with the general plan, a referendum that creates a temporary period of inconsistency falls within the exception in subdivision (c) of that statute. The court also rejected the city’s argument that allowing the referendum could create a period of inconsistency lasting months if not years, finding that its duty was to harmonize, to the extent possible, the government code with the referendum power. Moreover, the inconsistency could be avoided altogether by amending the general plan and zoning code simultaneously, as suggested in the Government Code itself.

Consistent with its general rule, the court provided guidance on the types of tools that local governments have available to maintain consistency. Here, the city has twelve potential other commercial zoning designations, six of which allow hotels. The city and the petitioners disagreed as to the extent that the other zoning designations were viable for this site, but that issue was never addressed by the trial court. Nor did either party fully address the possibility that the city could create a new zoning designation that would be compliant with the general plan as amended, if no current zoning options were suitable. For these reasons the court remanded the case back to the trial court to determine whether it would be impossible for the city to make the zoning ordinance and general plan consistent.

The court also stated that the city could amend its general plan to make it consistent with zoning ordinance, and the referendum. The court noted that, in Lesher, supra, 52 Cal.3d 531, it had determined that an initiative instituting an invalid zoning ordinance cannot be used to alter a general plan, but the question of whether a referendum would be void if the city or county’s only option was to amend the general plan had not been answered. Nor did the court consider whether a local government could show that it would be futile to amend the zoning code, because no zoning designation consistent with the general plan amendment would be consistent with the intent of the referendum.

Justice Chin’s brief concurrence noted that a remand might not have been necessary, given that there appear to be other designations available. But, he acknowledged that the city could still challenge the validity of the referendum, if the city could establish that it would be impossible to make the general plan and zoning code consistent, should the referendum succeed.

Sara F. Dudley

Fourth District Upholds Negative Declaration, Finding No “Fair Argument” of Land Use Impacts

In Friends of Riverside’s Hills v. City of Riverside, et al., No. E068350 (2018) (decided 8/10/2018, ordered published 9/7/2018), the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s conclusion that the City of Riverside properly adopted a negative declaration and was not required to prepare an EIR for a six-unit Planned Residential Development in the city’s Residential Conservation Zone. The court also found that the city did not abuse its discretion by approving the project with six homes on six lots.

In 2015, Real Parties in Interest, Carlton and Raye Lofgren, applied to develop approximately twelve acres of property they owned in the city’s Residential Conservation Zone (RCZ). The RCZ places special requirements on proposed residential development in order to protect the natural landscape in the zone. These requirements include submitting information on the natural slope of lots in the parcel to determine the minimum lot size (the greater the average slope, the larger the minimum lot size), and, ordinarily, a maximum density of 0.5 dwelling units per acre. Projects that qualify as Planned Residential Developments (PRDs) allow smaller minimum lot sizes and higher density. PRDs must be designed to protect and retain the natural topographic features of the site and may cluster homes in less steep areas of the site to protect such features and preserve open space. The Lofgrens also sought a density bonus to allow 0.63 dwelling units per acre by preserving 4.85 acres of the site as managed open space and selecting from a list of “superior design” elements.

As the project moved through the city’s administrative process, the acreage information fluctuated on the maps submitted by the Lofgrens (between just over 12 acres and just over 11 and a half acres) and the design of the site changed. After preparing an initial study, the city issued a negative declaration for the project. Petitioner Friends of Riverside’s Hills (Friends) commented several times during the administrative process concerning the acreage (and thus the number of allowable lots) and density. Twice, the city and/or the Lofgrens amended the project to address Friends’ concerns. Friends also argued that: the city had failed to require the Lofgrens to have a recognized conservation group oversee the open space preservation because an early version of the conditions of approval designated a homeowners’ association, the project would require excessive grading, the natural slope information submitted by the Lofgrens was inconsistent, and the project violated CEQA because it was inconsistent with the city’s zoning and grading ordinances. Ultimately, the city approved the project with the density bonus to allow six single-family homes on six lots ranging from just over a half-acre to just over an acre in size and with average natural slopes ranging from 21% to 29.5 percent.

Friends sought a writ of mandate to set aside the city’s approval and require an EIR. Friends argued that the project did not comply with the RCZ because it failed to cluster the proposed lots on the less steep portions of the site and preserve the natural features. Friends argued that the project would require excessive grading, and that the Lofgrens were required to seek a variance for lots smaller than two acres. Friends also argued that the city abused its discretion by failing to support its determination regarding the natural slope of the proposed lots and by deferring selection of the “superior design” elements to the grading permit stage of development. The trial court found that there was no evidence that the project violated any of the land use provisions identified by Friends and denied the petition. Friends appealed.

On appeal, the court found that the RCZ was adopted by the city for environmental protection purposes, so violating those provisions could create a significant impact on the environment. But, the court found that there was no evidence in the record of any of the land use impacts alleged by Friends. First, Friends claimed that the project might violate the RCZ in the future, if it did not buildout as proposed in the PRD. The court found this to be speculation because the Lofgrens had not yet submitted final plans for the location of the homes. The court also found that while the RCZ required site design to be sensitive towards the natural topographic and habitat features of the site, clustering homes in less sensitive and steep portions of the site was one way that the applicant could choose to demonstrate the required sensitivity. There was no requirement to build in the least steep area of the site.

The court also pointed out that Friends were not challenging the actual conditions of approval, but arguing that the Lofgrens might not comply with them in the future, and that could have environmental impacts. The court stated that such an argument was true in nearly all cases, and that, if the project did not comply with the permit conditions, Friends could seek supplemental environmental review at that time. Further, the conditions required the project to be built in substantial conformance with the proposed PRD. Next, the court dismissed the variance argument, finding that the minimum two-acre lot size only applied where a proposed development was not a PRD. Lastly, the court rejected the abuse of discretion claims, finding that there was substantial evidence in the record of the average natural slope of the lots to support the city’s determination that the site could support six lots. The court also found that RCZ did not require an applicant to select the “superior design” elements prior to permit approval, but, in any case, the Lofgrens had selected their preferred “superior design” elements.

Third District Declares the State Has a Duty Under the Public Trust Doctrine to Regulate Groundwater Extractions That Affect Public Trust Resources

In Environmental Law Foundation et al. v. State Water Resources Control Board, No. C083239 (2018) (published 8/29/2018), the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision that Siskiyou County had a duty to consider the public trust doctrine in permitting wells that could adversely affect flows in the Scott River. The court also upheld the trial court’s determination that the State Water Resources Control Board had the authority and duty to “take some action” regarding groundwater extractions that affect uses of the Scott River protected by the public trust doctrine. Lastly, the court found that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) neither supplanted, nor “fulfilled” the State’s duty to consider the public trust doctrine where groundwater extraction could affect protected uses.

In a declaratory relief action, plaintiffs the Environmental Law Foundation and others sought a declaration that Siskiyou County had a duty under the Public Trust Doctrine to consider whether groundwater extractions in the Scott River system could affect uses of the river protected by the doctrine. The County filed a cross-complaint seeking a declaration that the Water Board had neither the authority nor a duty to regulate groundwater extractions that could adversely affect uses of a river protected by the doctrine. To expedite an appeal, the parties stipulated to a set of 11 undisputed material facts, including that the Scott River is a navigable waterway for the purposes of the public trust doctrine, that extraction of groundwater interconnected with the Scott River system has an effect on surface flows, and that the County’s permitting and groundwater management programs regulate extraction of the interconnected groundwater.

The parties also agreed that the trial court had decided several questions of law relevant to the appeal. First, that the public trust doctrine applied where the extraction of groundwater in the Scott River system where the extraction affects public trust resources and uses in the Scott River. Second, that the County, in regulating the extraction of groundwater in the Scott River system, has a public trust duty to consider whether permitted wells will affect public trust resources and uses in the Scott River. Third, that neither the Groundwater Management Act, nor SGMA conflicted with the County’s duty under the public trust. Lastly, that the Board has both the authority and a duty under the public trust doctrine to regulate groundwater extractions that affect public trust uses in the Scott River. Both the trial court and the court of appeal concluded that the question of what the Board could or should do to regulate such groundwater was a question for another day.

On appeal, the County argued that the public trust doctrine does not apply to the extraction of groundwater, and as such, it did not have to consider the doctrine in issuing well permits and the Board could not regulate such extractions under the public trust doctrine. The court, after discussing the public trust doctrine in general, analogized the case before it to National Audubon Society v. Superior Court (1983) 33 Cal.3d 419, rejecting the County’s argument that public trust doctrine discussion there was dicta. National Audubon, the court found, stood for the proposition that, regardless of whether the water being diverted or extracted is itself protected by the public trust doctrine, the determinative fact is the impact of the activity on public trust resources. In National Audubon, the California Supreme Court had found that diversion of water from streams not protected by the public trust doctrine, nevertheless triggered the doctrine when the diversions impacted protected uses in Mono Lake. The court found that the same logic applied in the case before it. The court rejected the County’s argument that, because the groundwater being extracted was not itself “navigable” and thus, not protected by the public trust doctrine, the Board had no authority or duty to regulate its extraction.

The court also rejected a series of arguments raised by the County and amici, including accusing the trial court of confusing the general police power with the public trust doctrine, and arguing that the State’s constitutional mandate for the reasonable use of water subsumes any duty to consider the public trust. The court found no confusion or conflict between the police power or the reasonable use mandate and the public trust doctrine. In exercising its police power, and in ensuring the reasonable use of water, the State and the County could consider the public trust doctrine and protect its resources whenever feasible. Lastly, the court found that the Board’s power to regulate actions affecting public trust resources was not limited by its statutory permitting authority.

Turning to SGMA, the court rejected the County’s argument that the legislature intended to occupy the field of groundwater regulation and “fulfilled” the State’s obligations under the public trust doctrine. The court stated that, in general, statutes do not supplant the common law, unless there is no rational basis for harmonizing potential conflicts between the two. The court agreed that an exception to general rule exists where the legislature occupies the field, but found, similar to the National Audubon court, that neither SGMA nor the public trust doctrine occupied the field, and both should be accommodated. The court also agreed with plaintiffs’ argument that SGMA is not as comprehensive a body of law as the appropriative rights system at issue in National Audubon. Nor was there evidence that the legislature intended SGMA to supplant or fulfill the public trust doctrine.

Lastly, the court addressed the County’s argument that, even if the State had a duty under the public trust doctrine, that duty did not fall to the County to fulfill. The court found that the general use of the term “state” can include counties, as subdivisions of the state. Further, such subdivisions share the State’s responsibilities under the public trust doctrine to protect covered resources. Nor did the legislature, in enacting SGMA, christen itself as the sole keeper of the public trust. The court rejected the County’s argument based on cases where the legislature “freed” certain tidelands from protections of the doctrine, because those cases involved the ownership of land, not the regulation of water. The court did not reach the question of whether the legislature could abrogate the Board’s authority under the public trust, but found that it had not done so through the enactment of SGMA.

Second District Finds that CEQA’s Supplemental Review Provisions Applied to Modification of Commercial Development Project adding a Specific Plan Amendment and that the Amendment was not Impermissible “Spot Zoning”

In Citizens Coalition Los Angeles v. City of Los Angeles (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 561, the Second District Court of Appeal overturned the trial court’s decision that revisions to a commercial development project to include a specific plan amendment constituted a “new project” under CEQA, and found that supplemental review under Public Resources Code section 21166 applied instead. Additionally, the Court determined that, while the specific plan amendment created a “spot zone,” substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that the amendment was in the public interest, and thus not impermissible under the test announced in Foothill Communities Coalition v. County of Orange (2014) 222 Cal.App.4th 1302.

Target Corporation (Target) applied to build a Super Target retail store at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue in Hollywood. The project contemplated a nearly 75-foot tall, three-story building with the Target store occupying the third floor, parking on the second, and the first floor containing several smaller retail stores, a transit kiosk, and a pedestrian plaza. The City of Los Angeles certified the environmental impact report (EIR) prepared for the project, and granted eight variances from the Vermont/Western Transit Oriented District Specific Plan (SNAP) allowing the project to be built as proposed. Target began construction of the project. Several community associations (plaintiffs) filed separate petitions for writ of mandate challenging the City’s approval of the project, alleging violations of CEQA, and that the grant of the variances were not supported by substantial evidence in violation of the Los Angeles Municipal Code. The trial court upheld the EIR, but found that six of the eight variances were not supported by substantial evidence and ordered construction to cease.

While that case was pending on appeal, the City amended the SNAP to create a new subarea (Subarea F) that would allow projects similar to Target’s to be built in certain parts of the specific plan area without the need for variances, and designated the project site as Subarea F. There were two other locations in the specific plan area that could qualify for the Subarea F designation, but no projects meeting the requirements of Subarea F were proposed to the City at those locations. The appellate court dismissed the appeal as moot, leaving the trial court’s decision intact. The City prepared and approved an addendum to the Target project EIR, defining the revised project as the SNAP amendment and the completion of construction for the Target project. The same plaintiffs challenged the revised project approval, alleging that the City violated CEQA by relying on an addendum rather than a new, subsequent, or supplemental EIR, and that the City impermissibly “spot-zoned” by amending the SNAP for the project. The trial court found that the SNAP amendment was a new project, making the addendum improper but did not reach the “spot zoning” issue. The City and Target appealed.

The court of appeal, in analyzing whether the addendum violated CEQA asked three questions: what did the SNAP amendment do? Do CEQA’s supplemental or initial project review provisions apply? And, did the City comply with the applicable CEQA provisions? The court answered each question in turn. First, the court found that SNAP amendment, though it created a new subarea, only placed the project location into that subarea. While two other locations in the SNAP area could meet the proximity to transit and acreage requirements, they did not meet the commercial square footage requirement and no projects meeting that requirement had been proposed to the City. The court also rejected plaintiffs’ “haphazard” development argument, finding that the amendment was consistent with the SNAP’s policies and that the City could rationally take planning and development “one step at a time.”

In determining whether CEQA’s supplemental review provisions applied, the court found that there had been prior CEQA review of the Target project. Thus, the question was “whether the previous environmental document retains any relevance in light of the proposed changes.” (Citing Friends of College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College Dist. (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937, 944.) The court found that substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that the previous EIR retained relevance for the revised project. The court rejected the argument that, because the previous EIR was limited to a specific development “project” and the SNAP amendment involved more general policy considerations, the “project” EIR was insufficient. The court found that the label placed on the EIR said little about its sufficiency as an informational document. The proper question is whether the EIR retains any value in addressing the impacts associated with the revised project.

Next, the court asked whether the City complied with CEQA’s supplemental review requirements, and found that substantial evidence supported the City’s decision to rely on an addendum for the revised project. Plaintiffs made four arguments, all of which the court rejected. First, petitioners argued that the addendum did not discuss the SNAP amendment, which the court stated was factually inaccurate. Second, they argued that the City intended further development in the SNAP area through the new subarea because of some of the language the City used in describing the requirements of the new subarea. The court found that the cited language did not negate the substantial evidence supporting the City’s finding that no additional development was foreseeable. Third, plaintiffs argued that additional development projects at the two locations that could qualify for the new subarea, and any other locations that could be “cobbled together” were reasonably foreseeable consequences of the SNAP amendment that required a subsequent or supplemental EIR. The court found that whatever incentive for development the amendment created, evidence of that incentive did not overcome the substantial evidence supporting the City’s determination. Lastly, plaintiffs argued that de novo review should apply because the challenge to the amendment required the court to construe its meaning. The court found that the issue before it involved the amendment’s environmental impact, not its meaning, and thus review was for substantial evidence.

Though the trial court did not address the “spot zoning” issue, the court of appeal did, finding that it was important enough to resolve the fully briefed, longstanding issue. Under the analysis in Foothill Communities, the court found that the SNAP amendment did create a zoning “island,” though it was unclear whether the zoning was less or more stringent than the surrounding parcels because of the specific requirements for the new subarea. Regardless, the question was whether the zoning decision creating the “island” was arbitrary, irrational or unreasonable. The court found that, under that standard, the spot zone was valid. Further, the City’s determination that the amendment was in the public interest was supported by substantial evidence, and the SNAP, as amended, remained compatible with the City’s general plan. The court rejected plaintiffs’ challenge to the City’s alleged motive in amending the SNAP, and plaintiffs’ questioning of whether the SNAP amendment represented good policy, as neither issue was appropriate for the court’s inquiry. The court also found that even if future projects proposed to use the new subarea, the City retained its power to determine whether each project is in the public interest. Lastly, the court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the amendment to the SNAP was “incompatible” with it because the amendment would “alter” the SNAP.  The court found that the law unambiguously allows specific plan amendments.

Nathan O. George

First District Court of Appeal upholds EIR for San Francisco’s Housing Element

On August 22, 2018, the First District issued its decision in San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods v. City and County of San Francisco (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 596. The appellate court upheld an EIR that San Francisco prepared for its 2004 and 2009 Housing Elements, notably rejecting a challenge to the use in the EIR of a future-conditions baseline for the plan’s traffic and water supply impacts.

In an earlier appeal involving San Francisco’s 2004 Housing Element, the First District concluded that the City should have prepared an EIR rather than a negative declaration. By the time the trial court issued an amended writ in April 2009 requiring the preparation of an EIR for the 2004 Housing Element, the City was already in the process of preparing its 2009 Housing Element. Consequently, the City combined the environmental review of the two versions and prepared one EIR for both the 2004 and 2009 Housing Elements. After the City adopted the 2009 Housing Element in June 2011, San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods (SFLN) filed a new suit and this appeal followed.

For traffic and water supply impacts, the EIR used a baseline of 2025 conditions based on population projections from the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). The court concluded that the City was “within its discretion to adopt a baseline calculation forecasting traffic and water impacts in 2025” rather than “comparing the existing conditions with and without the Housing Element.” Citing POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 52 (“POET II”), SFLN argued that the City took an improperly narrow view of the Housing Element and “sidestepped review of the reasonably foreseeable indirect physical changes in the environment.” The court was unpersuaded because the Housing Element consisted of growth-accommodating policies but did not induce or lead to population growth. Discussing the rule described in Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2013) 57 Cal.4th 439, the court found that substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that an existing-conditions baseline would be misleading as to traffic and water supply impacts. The court also rejected SFLN’s corollary argument about the baseline for land use and visual resources impacts, noting that the EIR did compare the changes in the Housing Element to the existing environment.

Second, the court tackled SFLN’s challenges to the EIR’s analysis of various impacts. It found that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s analysis, explaining that: (1) the EIR reasonably concluded that the 2009 Housing Element would not result in significant impacts on visual resources or neighborhood character because there would be no changes to allowable land uses or building heights, and residential growth would be directed to areas with existing residential uses; (2) the EIR for the Housing Element was not required to study traffic impacts of specific development projects in the pipeline because those projects were proceeding under their own EIRs or CEQA documents; (3) the EIR for the Housing Element was not required to establish a likely source of water and satisfied CEQA by acknowledging the possibility of a post-2030 water supply shortfall during a multiple-dry-year event and discussing the water rationing plan that would balance supply and demand; and (4) the City did not abuse its discretion in determining that the Housing Element was consistent with ABAG’s Land Use Policy Framework because policies would further the goals of the Framework by placing housing near transit and encouraging infill development.

Third, the court turned to SFLN’s argument that the EIR failed to consider feasible reduced-density alternatives. The EIR analyzed three alternatives, including a No Project Alternative, a 2004 Housing Element Alternative, and an Intensified 2009 Housing Element Alternative. The 2004 Housing Element Alternative was identified as the environmentally superior alternative because it would reduce the sole significant and unavoidable impact (cumulative impact on transit) even though it would not reduce the impact to a less than significant level. The court concluded that this was a reasonable range of alternatives. In particular, the court approved of the City’s explanation in responses to comments that the reduced density alternatives suggested by SFLN would not add any meaningful analysis to the EIR because they would not reduce the project’s potential cumulative transit impacts. The court also found that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that the SFLN-proposed alternative dubbed the No Additional Rezoning Alternative was infeasible because increasing the density of two major projects within existing neighborhoods as suggested would require rezoning.

Finally, the court rejected SFLN’s argument that the City should have considered additional mitigation measures to reduce transit impacts. The EIR explained that the only way to eliminate the significant transit impacts would be to increase the number of transit vehicles or reduce transit travel time. Since funding for these measures is uncertain and cannot be guaranteed, the EIR deemed them infeasible. Although SFLN suggested two mitigation measures, one was simply a permutation of the No Project Alternative and the other was infeasible because it involved imposing transit impact fees that the City had already decided would be infeasible because they cannot be guaranteed.

Elizabeth Sarine

First District Finds a “Fair Argument” in Comments that a Project’s Height and Density Were Incompatible with a Historic Overlay District and that Traffic Safety and Congestion Issues Could Be Worsened

In Protect Niles v. City of Fremont (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 1129, the First District Court of Appeal held that the record contained a “fair argument” that a mixed-use project in an historic district might have significant aesthetic impacts on the historic character of the community due to the project’s size and scale. The court also cited residents’ concerns regarding traffic hazards and congestion, and concluded that the city was required to prepare an EIR.

The City of Fremont adopted a zoning overlay district to protect the historic character of the community of Niles, a small commercial strip dating to the 19th century. A developer proposed a mixed-use project with 98 residential units on a vacant six-acre property at the gateway to this district. Neighbors complained that the buildings were too tall, and the project was too dense, so that it was incompatible with the area and would increase traffic congestion. The city’s architectural review board recommended denying the project. The planning commission recommended approval, and the city council adopted a mitigated negative declaration and approved the project. Neighbors sued. The trial court found that the record contained a “fair argument” of potentially significant impacts relating to aesthetics and traffic, and granted the writ. The developer appealed.

In May 2018, the city published a draft EIR for the project. The neighbors moved to dismiss the appeal as moot because the city had decided to comply with the trial court’s writ. The appellate court declined to dismiss the appeal. The city was not a party to the appeal. The developer’s submittal of a revised application did not mean the original project was abandoned. Moreover, the appeal was not moot because, were the developer to prevail, the city’s original approvals would be reinstated regardless of the new application.

Turning to the merits, the court concluded that the project’s visual impact on its setting – in this case, an historic commercial “main street” recognized as sensitive by the city – was a proper subject of review, over and above the analysis of the project’s impact on historic resources. According to the court, the record “clearly” contained a fair argument that the project would have a significant aesthetic impact on the historic district. The city’s initial study found that the project was aesthetically compatible with the district because it reflected the architectural style of the industrial buildings that previously occupied the site, and the city’s design guidelines recognized that architecture within the district was varied. Members of the architecture review board and of the public, however, stated that the project was too tall and dense, and inconsistent with Niles’ village-like character. These complaints continued even after the developer modified the project. The court recognized the “inherently subjective” nature of aesthetic judgments, but found that the comments “were not solely based on vague notions of beauty or personal preference, but were grounded in inconsistencies with the prevailing building heights and architectural styles of the Niles [district] neighborhood and commercial core.” Commenters included members of the city’s historic architectural review board, who recommended denial.

The court rejected the developer’s various arguments that the project’s aesthetic impact was not significant. First, although the site was largely vacant and unkempt, that did not automatically mean that development of the site would be an upgrade. Second, the site, though on the edge of the historic district, was nevertheless located at a recognized gateway to Niles, and was within the district’s boundaries. Third, the architectural review board’s recommendation to deny the project was not a bare conclusion, but was supported by record evidence of the board members’ (whom the court presumed to have historic aesthetic expertise) underlying aesthetic judgments about the effect of the project. Thus, the board’s “collective opinions” on project compatibility with the historic overlay district were substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project may have significant aesthetic impacts. Though the court noted that, were the city to prepare an EIR, the city could conclude that the project would not have a significant impact on aesthetics “because aesthetics is an inherently subjective assessment.”

The court also found that the record contained a fair argument concerning traffic safety. The project’s traffic study concluded a left-turn pocket lane was warranted at the project entrance. Staff did not recommend the pocket, however, because left-turn pocket lanes generally were not located elsewhere along the street, and because omitting a pocket would make vehicles slow down. Testimony from residents, however, stated that drivers did not adhere to the posted speed limit, and sight lines might not be adequate if multiple drivers queued up to turn left into the project site. These “fact-based comments” were substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that a new intersection at the project entrance could have significant traffic impacts.

The record also contained a fair argument that the project could contribute to existing traffic congestion. Residents testified that traffic at a nearby intersection was already terrible, and that during the morning commute traffic already backed up from this intersection to the project site. The city’s own traffic study found that traffic at this intersection was Level of Service (“LOS”) E – an unacceptable level of congestion under the city’s standards – and that project-related traffic would cause congestion there to worsen to LOS F. The developer argued that, under the city’s thresholds of significance, a shift from LOS E to LOS F was not a significant impact. The court held, however, that the city’s significance threshold could not be applied to foreclose consideration of substantial evidence that the impact might be significant. The court again found that the “fact-based comments of residents and city staff and officials supported a fair argument that unusual circumstances in Niles might render the thresholds inadequate to capture the impacts of congestion on Niles Boulevard.”