In Respect Life South San Francisco v. City of South San Francisco (2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 449, the First District Court of Appeal, Division One, upheld the City of South San Francisco’s (City) finding that a conditional use permit for the conversion of an office building into a medical clinic was categorically exempt from CEQA, as well as the City’s implied finding that the unusual circumstances exception did not apply.
The challenged project proposed converting an existing office building into a medical clinic providing a range of services and operated by Planned Parenthood. The City Planning Commission approved the application after a public hearing and found that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA review. Respect Life South San Francisco (Respect Life) appealed that decision to the City Council, arguing that, because of the nature of Planned Parenthood’s services, the project might draw protests that could have environmental impacts. The City Council rejected the appeal and found that the project qualified for three categorical exemptions. Respect Life and three individuals filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the City’s decision. The trial court denied the petition and Respect Life appealed. On appeal, Respect Life admitted that at least one of the exemptions applied, but alleged that the unusual circumstances exception applied, requiring full environmental review.
The court first rejected Planned Parenthood’s argument that Respect Life lacked standing. Planned Parenthood argued that Respect Life had failed to allege that it had a beneficial interest in the litigation, but the court found that the group’s petition included sufficient allegations to establish standing.
The court then articulated the standard of review for categorical exemptions and the unusual circumstances exception under the California Supreme Court’s recent decision in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2016) 60 Cal.4th 1086 (Berkeley Hillside). At the administrative level, a challenger must prove to the agency that 1) there are unusual circumstances, and 2) there is a reasonable possibility of a significant impact because of those circumstances. Upon judicial review, a court applies the deferential “substantial evidence” test to the agency’s decision regarding the first prong, and the non-deferential “fair argument” test to the agency’s decision on the second.
Here, the City denied the administrative appeal and found the project categorically exempt, but made no express finding on the unusual circumstances exception. Thus, the record did not reveal whether the City concluded that the project presented no unusual circumstances (a decision entitled to deference) or had found that, while there were unusual circumstances, there was no reasonable possibility of significant impacts due to those circumstances (a decision reviewed under the non-deferential “fair argument” test). The court determined that when an agency makes an implied finding regarding the unusual circumstances exception, the court must assume that the agency determined that there were unusual circumstances. To uphold the agency’s implied finding that the exception is inapplicable, a court must conclude that the record contains no substantial evidence supporting either 1) the existence of unusual circumstances, or 2) a fair argument that such circumstances will have a significant effect on the environment. Thus, the court applies a non-deferential test to both implied determinations.
In this instance, the court found that even assuming that the first condition had been met by Respect Life, it had not identified any substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the protests may result in significant effects. The court stated that Respect Life contradicted itself by conceding that CEQA review does not consider the identity of the applicant or operator, but also arguing that because the proposed operator is Planned Parenthood, the project might draw protests that will create indirect environmental impacts. The court held that “the possibility of ‘foreseeable First Amendment activity’” does not establish the unusual circumstances exception, where Respect Life “simply assert[ed] that protests will lead to environmental impacts.” The court also found that comments by opponents of abortion, even those that indicated they would protest, were not substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that there is a reasonable possibility that protests will have indirect significant effects on the environment. Ultimately, Respect Life was required, but unable, to point to evidence of the alleged indirect impacts, not just evidence of the protest activity that might lead to such impacts.