First District Court of Appeal Finds Sonoma County Properly Approved a Coastal Permit and Use Permit for a Residential Project Despite a Reduced Setback

First District Court of Appeal Finds Sonoma County Properly Approved a Coastal Permit and Use Permit for a Residential Project Despite a Reduced Setback

In Hines v. California Coastal Commission, Board of Supervisors of Sonoma County, et al. (2010) 186 Cal.App.4th 830, the First District Court of Appeal held the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ (Board) approval of a residential project and the California Coastal Commission’s refusal to exercise jurisdiction over appellants’ appeal did not violate the Coastal Act (Pub. Resources Code, § 30000 et seq.). The court also held the project opponents failed to exhaust their administrative remedies, thus barring their CEQA claims. Regardless, the court found the County properly applied a categorical exemption under CEQA.

On July 31, 2006, Steven and Carol Star filed their application for a coastal permit and use permit for the construction of a residential home and garage. The project was to be constructed near riparian vegetation. The application sought a 50-foot setback instead of the 100-foot setback required by the Local Coastal Plan to protect riparian habitats. The Sonoma County Board of Zoning Adjustments approved the application on December 13, 2007.

The opponents appealed this decision to the Board. The Board denied the appeal and found the 50-foot setback was adequate to protect the resources in the riparian habitat. The Board also concluded the project was categorically exempt from CEQA as a single-family residence under CEQA Guidelines section 15303, subdivision (a). The opponents subsequently appealed the Board’s action to the Coastal Commission. The Coastal Commission dismissed the appeal, determining that it did not give rise to a “substantial issue” under the Coastal Act. The opponents sued. The trial court denied the writ petition.

The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision. The court rejected the appellants’ argument that their appeal presented substantial issues, which required the Coastal Commission’s review of the appeal. The court found that evidence in the record strongly supported the findings of both the Board and Coastal Commission to approve the reduced setback. The appellants presented no substantial issue regarding the project’s conformance with the Local Coastal Plan. The court also determined that the Board did not abuse its discretion in approving the coastal permit and use permit for the project.

Turning to the alleged CEQA violations, the court rejected the appellants’ argument that the County and the Coastal Commission violated CEQA in approving the project. The court first explained that the Coastal Commission did not “approve” the project when it rejected the appeal. The practical effect of the Coastal Commission’s decision was to leave the County’s decision intact.

The court also found that appellants failed to exhaust their administrative remedies with respect to their claim that the CEQA categorical exemption asserted by the County was inapplicable. In coming to this conclusion, the court recognized the general rule that the exhaustion requirement does not apply when there is no opportunity for the public to raise objections before project approval. In this case, however, the County’s public hearings held on the coastal use permit also included consideration of the categorical exemption under CEQA. Discussion of the project’s environmental review at the public hearings triggered the duty to raise all subsequently litigated arguments. The appellants submitted comments at the public hearings, but none of these comments addressed the applicability of the categorical exemption or even related to CEQA at all. Thus, the court concluded the appellants’ CEQA claim was barred.

In any event, the court found that the categorical exemption applied to the project. The appellants argued an exception to the categorical exemption applied, contending the cumulative impact of future projects of the same type in the same project area would be significant. The court found that claim to be entirely speculative, however, and unsupported by substantial evidence. Because of the failure to exhaust administrative remedies and to produce substantial evidence of alleged significant adverse impacts, the court did not address whether the County and the Coastal Commission failed to address alternatives or incorporate mitigation measures for alleged significant adverse impacts.