In Saint Ignatius Neighborhood Association v. City and County of San Francisco (2022) 85 Cal.App.5th 1063, the First District Court of Appeal held that the installation of four 90-foot light towers in a high school’s athletic stadium is not exempt from CEQA under the class 1 and class 3 categorical exemptions.


Saint Ignatius College Preparatory High School is located in the City of San Francisco’s “Outer Sunset District.” The school has an athletic stadium with a 2,008-person capacity, situated across the from several two-story, single-family homes. In February 2018, the school applied for approval of the installation of four permanent 90-foot-tall outdoor light towers on its athletic field. In June 2020, the City’s planning department determined that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA under the class 1 exemption for existing facilities and the class 3 exemption for new construction or conversion of small structures. (See CEQA Guidelines, §§ 15301, 15303.)

In July 2020, the Planning Commission upheld the exemption determinations and approved a conditional use permit for the project with several conditions, including that the lights be used no more than 150 nights per year, as well as other various time and event size restrictions. The Planning Commission also required close communication with neighbors about events and the distribution of a large-event management plan and code of conduct for event attendees. The Board of Supervisors affirmed the planning department’s exemption determination and approved the conditional use authorization with additional and stricter conditions related to time restrictions, event size restrictions, required use reporting by the school, off-site parking accommodations, and the addition of trees to serve as a light screen for neighboring homes.

The Saint Ignatius Neighborhood Association filed suit, alleging that the City erred in exempting the project from CEQA, and that its approval was inconsistent with its planning code and General Plan. The trial court denied the petition. Petitioner appealed.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

Class 1 “Existing Facilities” Exemption

The class 1 exemption applies to “the operation, repair, maintenance, permitting, leasing, licensing, or minor alteration of existing public or private structures, facilities, mechanical equipment, or topographical features, involving negligible or no expansion of the existing or former use.” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15301.)

While the court agreed with the City’s findings that the project will not increase the overall capacity and use of the stadium, it concluded that the project will significantly expand the nighttime use of the stadium. The court pointed to the “undisputed” fact that nighttime use, during which temporary lighting is used, will significantly expand from the current 40 to 50 nights per year, to potentially 150 nights. The court also noted petitioner’s assertion that the current use of temporary lighting is unauthorized. Accordingly, the court found that the class 1 exemption for “existing facilities” did not apply.

Class 3 “Small Structures” Exemption

The class 3 exemption applies to “construction and location of limited numbers of new, small facilities or structures; installation of small new equipment and facilities in small structures; and the conversion of existing small structures from one use to another where only minor modifications are made in the exterior of the structure.” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15303.) To determine what constitutes a “small” structure pursuant to the class 3 exemption the court looked to the examples listed in the exemption. While acknowledging that this list is not exhaustive, the court stated that “the examples do provide an indication of the type of projects to which the exemption applies.”

The court found that “[t]he light standards are fundamentally dissimilar from all of the examples,” which primarily include residential and commercial structures below certain unit and square footage maximums, utility structures, and accessory structures such as garages and fences. The court decided that looking at only the square footage of the base of the light towers was inapposite. It explained that commercial and residential structures were subject to applicable zoning requirements that ensure their height will be consistent with the surrounding neighborhood, whereas here, the 90-foot-tall light towers will be “significantly taller than any other structure in the neighborhood,” where homes are typically 20 to 25 feet tall with a zoning limitation of 40-feet. Consequently, the court determined that “a 90-foot tall light standard does not qualify as ‘small’ within the meaning of the exemption.”

The court also distinguished the instant case from a string of cases allowing the class 3 exemption to apply to several telecommunication projects, including a cell tower (Don’t Cell Our Parks v. City of San Diego (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 338) and cell transmitters on utility poles (Aptos Residents Assn. v. County of Santa Cruz (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 1039), by highlighting that the light towers, unlike a 35-foot-tall cell tower to be situated amongst tall trees or the installation of transmitter boxes on existing utility poles, will be 90-feet tall and “by far the tallest structure in the surrounding area.” Accordingly, the court held that “the light standards cannot fairly be considered small structures within the meaning of the class 3 exemption.”

Unusual Circumstances Exception & General Plan Consistency

Because the court found against the use of both exemptions based on its interpretation of exemption language and the evidence in the record, it declined to address petitioner’s alternative argument that “unusual circumstances preclude application of the exemptions” or the claim that the City violated its code and General Plan.

By Casey Shorrock