Our Cases

Second District Upholds City of Los Angeles’ Determination That EIR Not Required to Assess Population or Housing Impacts for Hotel Project on Site of Vacant Former Apartment Building

In an opinion certified for partial publication on July 22, 2019, the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision and held that the City of Los Angeles was not required to prepare an EIR to assess housing-related impacts for a boutique hotel project on the site of a now-vacant former apartment building. Hollywoodians Encouraging Rental Opportunities (HERO) v. City of Los Angeles (B285552; filed 6/28/19, ordered published 7/22/19) ___ Cal.App.5th___ (“HERO”).

The project at issue in HERO is a proposed 24-room boutique hotel in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles. Prior to 2013, the project site was occupied by an 18-unit apartment building that was subject to the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance. In 2013, the owner filed a notice of intent to withdraw all 18 units from the rental housing market pursuant to the Ellis Act in order to pursue construction of a condominium project on the site. While the condo project was later abandoned due to a lack of financing, the building never returned to the rental market and remained uninhabited for nearly two years.

In July 2015, the owner of the property submitted a new application to the city, this time seeking to convert the site into a 24-room hotel. The city prepared an initial study for the hotel project. The initial study concluded that, with mitigation, the project would have no significant environmental impacts. With respect to population and housing impacts specifically, the initial study concluded that the project would not displace housing units or residents because the apartments had been withdrawn from the rental market and the building was uninhabited. Accordingly, the zoning administrator adopted a mitigated negative declaration (MND) and approved the project. The zoning administrator’s decision was subsequently affirmed following appeals to the area planning commission and city council.
Following the city council’s approval of the project, three petitioners, including a resident of a nearby building, a former tenant of the apartments, and HERO, filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the approval. The thrust of the petitioners’ CEQA claims was that the city was required to prepare an EIR to analyze the project’s direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts on the supply of rent-stabilized housing and the displacement of tenants. The trial court denied the petition in full, holding that the city properly concluded the project would have no impact on housing or population because the rental units had been removed from the market and vacated long before the hotel project was proposed. The trial court further ruled that, aside from the baseline issue, the petitioners failed to demonstrate that the project would have a significant effect on the physical environment, and not just socioeconomic impacts.

On appeal, the petitioners’ primary argument was that the city was required to prepare EIR because substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the cumulative effect of the project and other similar projects would be to eliminate rent-stabilized housing units in Hollywood and displace residents that depend on such housing. The Court of Appeal rejected the petitioners’ argument, holding that the proper baseline against which the project’s impact must be assessed is a vacant building, not a tenant-occupied rental property. As the court explained, at the time the environmental analysis for the project commenced in 2015, the property did not include rent-stabilized apartments. Rather, as noted above, the all units had been withdrawn from the rental market in 2013 and the building sat uninhabited since that time. Because these events occurred prior to the project proposal and initial study, the court explained, they were not attributable to the project. Thus, the city properly determined an EIR was not required to analyze such impacts on housing and population. Moreover, the court added, there was nothing in the record to suggest that the 2015 hotel project was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the initial condominium project for which the apartments were originally removed from the rental market, and there was no evidence that the city was attempting to chop up or evade CEQA review.

Turning to the issue of cumulative impacts, the court held that the city was not required to prepare an EIR to inquire into the cumulative impact of the project on housing and population. Because there was no substantial evidence of a project-specific potentially significant impact, the court explained, the city properly determined that the effects of the project would not be cumulatively considerable and no further analysis was required.

Remy Moose Manley partner Sabrina Teller and associate Christina Berglund represented the Real Parties in Interest in this matter.

Sierra Club v. County of Fresno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgetown Preservation Society v. County of El Dorado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Sierra Rural Alliance v. County of Plumas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RMM Partner James G. Moose represented Plumas County.

Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment v. City of Los Angeles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District II

On remand from the Supreme Court’s holding in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College (2016) 1 Cal.5th 926 (San Mateo I ), the First District interpreted the Supreme Court’s direction as requiring the application of the fair argument standard of review to claims challenging an addendum to a negative declaration in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District (2017) 11 Cal. App.5th 596.

The Supreme Court’s holding in San Mateo I

The San Mateo cases concern the San Mateo County Community College District’s campus renovation project, approved with a mitigated negative declaration (MND) in 2006. In 2011, the college decided to demolish an area of the campus (the Building 20 Complex) that was planned for renovation under the 2006 plan, and construct a parking lot in its place. The updated plan was analyzed in an addendum to the 2006 MND. The suit in San Mateo I followed, with the petitioner alleging that the updated plan was a “new project” under CEQA, and not a modified project subject to CEQA’s subsequent review provisions (Pub. Resources Code, § 21166; CEQA Guidelines, § 15162.). Both the trial court and the First District held that it was a new project, and therefore, the college was not entitled to rely on an addendum.

The Supreme Court reversed, noting first that the proper inquiry under CEQA was not whether or not a project is new or modified, but whether or not the initial environmental document retains informational value in light of the proposed modifications, or if it had become irrelevant.  This is a factual determination to be made by the agency and reviewed for substantial evidence.

If the agency’s decision to proceed under CEQA’s subsequent review provisions is supported by substantial evidence, a court may consider the type of subsequent document prepared by the agency. The standard of review applied by the court in reviewing that decision turns on the nature of the original documents. The agency must first determine if there are substantial changes to the project that require “major revisions” in the original environmental analysis. This determination is reviewed for substantial evidence. When the project was previously reviewed in an EIR, there are no “major revisions” if the initial EIR has already adequately addressed any additional environmental effects expected to result from the proposed modifications. In contrast, when a project is initially approved with a negative declaration, a “major revision” to the negative declaration will necessarily be required if the proposed modification may produce a new or previously unstudied significant environmental effect. If there is no major revision required, the agency can issue a subsequent mitigated negative declaration, addendum, or no further documentation.

Application in San Mateo II

The court applied the two-part test of San Mateo I to the college’s decision to rely on an addendum to the 2006 MND. First, the court conceded that the agency determination—that the MND retained informational value in light of the revised campus plan—was supported by substantial evidence. It retained informational value because the revised plan considered in the addendum did not affect plans to demolish 14 of the buildings cited in the original plan. The revised plan added one more building complex to the demolition list, but the college had previously removed two others, deciding to renovate them instead. The mitigation measures adopted with the original plan remained in place.

Applying the second prong of the Supreme Court’s test, however, the court held that the college violated CEQA’s subsequent review provisions by preparing an addendum to the MND, because the removal of gardens in the Building 20 Complex could result in a significant aesthetic impact, under the fair argument standard of review.

Interpreting this second prong of the San Mateo I test, the San Mateo II court stated that when the initial environmental review document is an negative declaration, the court must apply the more exacting standard applicable to negative declarations—whether there is substantial evidence to support a fair argument that the proposed changes to the project might have a significant effect on the environment. The court acknowledged that aesthetic impacts are necessarily subjective, but agreed with the petitioner that substantial evidence of a fair argument could be found in lay opinions based on direct observation. The impact is not determined by the size of the area, but measured in light of the context in which it occurs, and this can vary by setting.

Here, the court relied on the opinions of campus employees and students regarding the garden’s aesthetic value and quality. Although not a significant portion of the campus’ open space (less than one-third of one percent), the garden’s vegetation and landscaping were alleged by its admirers to be unique. The garden’s social value as a gathering space was also considered. Because the court determined that these opinions qualified as substantial evidence to support a fair argument of a potentially significant aesthetic impact, the college’s decision to rely on an addendum violated CEQA’s subsequent review provisions, as an addendum is only appropriate if there are no new or more severe significant impacts than were previously analyzed.  However, the court refused to order the preparation of an EIR, stating that the college could choose to prepare a subsequent MND if the impacts to the garden could be mitigated to a less-than-significant level.

RMM Partner Sabrina V. Teller represented the respondent college district.

Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California

In Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 187, the Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District upheld the San Francisco County Superior Court’s denial of a petition for writ of mandate challenging the Judicial Council of California’s decision to certify a Final EIR and approve a new courthouse in the City of Placerville.

Background

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

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

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

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

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

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

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

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

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

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

Mission Bay Alliance v. Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure

Mission Bay Alliance v. Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure (2016) 6 Cal.App.5th 160

The First District Court of Appeal upheld the city’s approval of a new arena in the Mission Bay neighborhood of San Francisco. The arena will serve as the home of the Golden State Warriors’ basketball team. The Court held the environmental impact report certified by the city was adequate, finding among other things that (1) the city had properly “tiered” the EIR off an earlier program EIR covering redevelopment of Mission Bay, (2) the city could rely on the project’s consistency with the city’s adopted climate action plan, and (3) the city could rely on implementation of various transit improvements to address traffic traveling to and from the arena. Whit Manley argued the case for the Warriors.

Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach

Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918

The California Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Impact Report prepared for the proposed “Banning Ranch” project was inadequate because the EIR did not identify “environmentally sensitive habitat areas” (ESHA) under the Coastal Act that might be present on the property, and therefore did not consider mitigation measures and alternatives designed to reduce impacts on those areas. Although the project required a coastal development permit, and the Coastal Commission would make a determination regarding ESHA as part of that permit, the Court held the EIR had to include a prediction of where ESHA would likely be found in order to serve its information purposes under CEQA. Whit Manley argued the case for the City of Newport Beach.