In San Diegans for Open Government v. City of San Diego (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 1306, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the City of San Diego’s denial of an administrative appeal of the City Planning Commission’s determination that an applicant’s modified design plans substantially conformed to the conditions and requirements of a previously issued development permit and that there was no need for further environmental review.
The challenged project involved a master plan, initially approved in 1997 and modified several times, for a mixed-use, industrial, commercial, and residential development. In 2012 the city approved a planned development permit to allow construction of the first phase of development. In November 2013, the applicant proposed design changes triggering the city’s Substantial Conformance Review (SCR) process under the permit. City staff reviewed the proposed changes to determine if the modified project was consistent with the previously approved project, including the existing environmental mitigation conditions. On January 30, 2014, the city’s development services department issued a written notice of decision approving the project and finding it to be in substantial conformance.
The petitioners appealed the decision to the planning commission, contending that the changes were substantial and that SCR review was not appropriate. The commission denied the appeal and upheld the SCR decision. The petitioners then attempted to appeal the decision to the city council, but the city refused to process the appeal, citing CEQA Guidelines section 15162 and San Diego Municipal Code section 113.0103. The petitioners filed a petition for writ of mandate asserting they were entitled to an administrative appeal before the city council. The trial court denied the petition and the petitioners appealed.
The court first rejected the petitioners’ arguments that they were entitled to an administrative appeal to the city council under Public Resources Code section 21151, subdivision (c). That section provides that if a “nonelected decisionmaking body of a local lead agency certifies an environmental impact report, approves a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration, or determines that a project is not subject” to CEQA, that decision can be appealed to the agency’s elected decision-making body, if any. The court held that section 21151, subdivision (c), did not apply because the SCR decision did not certify an EIR, approve a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration, or decide that the project was not subject to CEQA.
The petitioners further argued that the SCR decision was a decision that the project is not subject to CEQA, but the court rejected this argument. The court stated that city had already held that the project was subject to CEQA, and had required several environmental review documents and a mitigation monitoring and reporting program, all of which were considered as part of SCR process.
The petitioners also argued that a provision of the San Diego Municipal Code allowed appeals of “environmental determinations” to the city council, but the court disagreed. The court observed that the municipal code provision defining “environmental determination” was substantially similar to the activities in Public Resources Code section 21151, subdivision (c). Hence, the petitioners were not entitled to an administrative appeal of the planning commission’s decision to the city council under CEQA or the municipal code.