On April 25, 2013, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ordered publication of its decision in Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending v. San Diego Unified School District (2013) __ Cal.App.4th __ (Case No. D060999). The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision to reject a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) cause of action brought against the school district for adopting a mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a project to upgrade a high school’s athletic facilities. In particular, the court found it was improper for the district to adopt the MND because the athletic facilities project may have significant traffic and parking effects.
Around October 2010, the San Diego Unified School District completed an initial study for a project to upgrade Hoover High School’s athletic facilities, including replacement of the bleachers and installment of new field lighting at the football stadium. The district planned to use funds from a 2008 proposition that authorized the school district to sell $2.1 billion in bonds for various construction and rehabilitation projects listed or described in the proposition measure. The district adopted the initial study and an MND for the Hoover High project on January 11, 2011, and filed a notice of determination the next day. In February 2011, the plaintiff organization (“Taxpayers”) filed suit against the district, ultimately alleging four causes of action: 1) violation of CEQA, 2) misuse of proposition funds, 3) violation of the city’s zoning and land use laws, and 4) improperly exempting the project from the city’s zoning and land use laws. After the trial court dismissed all four causes of action, Taxpayers appealed.
The Fourth District started its discussion of the CEQA claim with an overview of general principles and proceeded to apply the fair argument standard in its de novo review of the issues. First, the court found the initial study’s project description was not misleading just because it did not place a limit on the number of evening events that would be held each year. The district had estimated in the initial study that there would be about 15 evening events plus a “few more” due to unforeseen events. The court interpreted a “few more” to mean about three or four more evening events, for a total of 15-19 evening events per year. Since Taxpayers did not cite any statutory or other legal authority requiring the District to identify a finite limit on the number of events that could be held annually, the court found this description was accurate and complied with CEQA. It did, however, warn that additional CEQA review would be necessary if the district chose to increase the number of events beyond the 15-19 range in the future.
Next, the court found the project’s installment of lighting would not have a significant environmental effect. The court expressly noted that testimony of individual community members regarding the aesthetic or lighting effects of the project could not constitute substantial evidence showing a significant effect because CEQA is concerned with how a project will affect the environment in general, not how it will affect particular persons. The court also agreed with the initial study’s conclusion that the vertical illuminance caused by the four new 90- or 100-foot light standards would not significantly impact nearby residences because of the lighting’s limited hours of operation, the limited number of evening events, landscaping features, and the small number (seven or less) of affected residences.
The court then dismissed Taxpayers’ argument that the project would have a significant impact on historical resources. The court found the record did not contain substantial evidence that any historical resources existed near Hoover High, nor any evidence showing that any potential historical resources may be substantially affected by the project.
Finally, the court addressed issues regarding traffic and parking impacts. As a preliminary matter, the court noted that the lack of a reasonable estimate of expected attendance at future events could make the district’s assessment of traffic and parking impacts inadequate. The court disapproved of the district’s choice to base projected attendance at future Hoover High evening football games on the average attendance of games at five other high schools in the district. The court found that the district should have calculated and considered the actual attendance at past Hoover High afternoon football games as a baseline figure for estimations of attendance at future evening games. Because the district did not have sufficient information about the estimated attendance, the court determined it could not have properly reached a conclusion about the potential significance of the project’s impacts on parking and traffic.
The court further agreed with Taxpayers that the district could not rely on San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. City and County of San Francisco (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 656 (SFUDP), for the argument that a parking shortage cannot constitute a significant physical impact on the environment because it is merely a “social inconvenience.” The court found the SFUDP court’s discussion of parking was likely dicta, and disagreed with any holding that parking shortages can never constitute a physical impact on the environment. The court reasoned that vehicles are “physical objects that occupy space when driven and when parked” so they “naturally must have some impact on the physical environment.” In contrast to its discussion of aesthetic and lighting impacts, the court found that personal observations by local residents about parking could constitute substantial evidence that the project may have a significant impact on parking. Similarly, the court found that comment letters from residents about the traffic impacts were sufficient to support a fair argument the project may have a significant effect on traffic. Because the project may cause significant parking and traffic effects, the court held that the district must prepare an Environmental Impact Report.