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 District 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 buildings cited in the original plan. The revised plan added one more building complex to the demolish 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 the 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 this lay testimony 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 declined 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.