Author Archives: Nathan George

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

In Friends of Riverside’s Hills v. City of Riverside (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 1137, 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  (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 844, 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.”