Fourth District Upholds City’s Project Approvals Despite Numerous Procedural Errors When Plaintiffs Failed to Show That Those Errors Resulted in Prejudice or Substantial Injury

On July 31, 2012, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth District certified its ruling for partial publication in Rialto Citizens for Responsible Growth v. City of Rialto  (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 44.  

Factual and Procedural Background

The City of Rialto approved a 230,000-square-foot commercial retail center to be anchored by a 24-hour Wal-Mart “Supercenter.” Rialto Citizens for Responsible Growth petitioned the trial court for a writ of mandate invalidating several project approvals, including the City’s resolution certifying the final environmental impact report (EIR) for the project, several resolutions  [2] amending the City’s general plan and the “Gateway Specific Plan” governing the project site, and an ordinance approving a development agreement for the project.

The trial court struck down the City’s approvals of the Project on the basis that the City had violated multiple provisions of the California Planning and Zoning Law and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  Specifically, the trial court found that (1) the notice of the public hearing before the City Council violated Government Code section 65094 because it failed to include the planning commission’s recommendation; (2) the City Council violated Government Code section 65867.5 by approving the development agreement without making a finding that it was consistent with the General Plan and the Gateway Specific Plan; (3) the EIR failed to identify the development agreement as an approval required to implement the project; (4) the EIR failed to adequately analyze the project’s cumulative impacts on traffic; (5) the EIR failed to adequately analyze the project’s cumulative impacts on air quality; (6) the EIR improperly dismissed the cumulative impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts because of an inability to analyze the individual impacts of the project; (7) the EIR failed to separately list greenhouse gas emissions among the significant impacts of the project; (8) the EIR improperly deferred mitigations to reduce biological impacts; and (9) the City improperly rejected the reduced density alternative as infeasible.

Court of Appeal Decision

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court on all counts and reinstated the Project approvals.  The appellate court agreed that the City had made significant procedural errors in violation various Government Code sections.   In particular, it agreed with the trial court that the public notice was flawed and that there was no finding of consistency when the development agreement was approved.  The court, however, found that Rialto Citizens failed to meet the requirements of Government Code section 65010.  Under that section, according to the court, Rialto Citizens had the burden of demonstrating prejudice, substantial injury, and the probability of a different result.  Because Rialto Citizens made no attempt to show, and the trial court did not find, that the City’s errors resulted in prejudice or substantial injury, or that a different result was probable absent the errors, there was no basis for overturning the City’s approvals.

In an unpublished portion of the opinion, the court addressed whether the City violated CEQA.  The court agreed with the trial court’s determination that the project description was inadequate because it did not identify the development agreement as an approval required to implement the project. The court held, however, that this omission did not preclude or undermine informed decisionmaking on the project as a whole or the development agreement, because the ordinance approving the development agreement was duly noticed and considered, along with other project approvals, at the public hearing on the project before the City Council.  The court also concluded, contrary to the trial court’s rulings, that the EIR adequately analyzed the project’s cumulative impacts on air quality, traffic, greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change, and did not improperly defer mitigation of potential impacts on any of the special status plant or wildlife species.  The appellate court also found that substantial evidence supported the City’s finding, at the project approval stage, that the reduced density alternative was infeasible.

Thus, the court found no prejudicial violations of either the Planning and Zoning Law or CEQA in the City’s approval of the project.