Fourth District Upholds City’s Reliance on Class 3 Categorical Exemption for Wireless Telecommunications Project in Dedicated Park

In Don’t Cell Our Parks v. City of San Diego (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 338, the Court of Appeal held that the approval of a wireless telecommunications facility (WCF) on the edge of a dedicated park did not violate the San Diego City Charter. The court also held that the city’s determination that the project qualified for the Class 3 categorical exemption was supported by substantial evidence, and the project challengers failed to meet their burden of showing that any of the potential exceptions to the use of categorical exemptions precluded the city’s reliance on the exemption here.

In 2014, Verizon Wireless filed an application with the city to build the WCF on the outskirts of Ridgewood Neighborhood Park in San Diego. The project consisted of a 35-foot-tall faux eucalyptus tree and a 220-square-foot equipment enclosure with a trellis roof and a chain link lid.

The city approved the project in 2015 after finding that it was consistent with the city’s charter and was exempt from CEQA under the Class 3 categorical exemption. A local group dubbed Don’t Cell Our Parks (DCOP) filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s decision. The trial court ruled in favor of the city and DCOP appealed.

The court first rejected DCOP’s argument that the project violated the city’s charter. Pursuant to section 55 of the charter, any changed use of a dedicated park must be approved or ratified by the voters. The court concluded this provision did not apply because there was ample evidence to support the conclusion that the project would not change the park’s use or purpose. Nor would the project would disrupt or interfere with park or recreation uses.

DCOP next argued that the project did not qualify for a Class 3 exemption because it was a new stand-alone utility that was not an intended type of urban infill development encompassed by the Class 3 exemption. The court disagreed.

Applying the plain language of CEQA Guidelines section 15303, the court held that the project consisted of the construction and location of a new small facility or structure, within the meaning of the Class 3 exemption. The project was a new small facility totaling 534 square feet, including the above-ground branch diameter of the faux tree. The court noted that while none of the project examples listed in the exemption were exactly like the proposed project, the facility was much smaller than the listed examples of a single-family residence, store, motel, office or restaurant.

DCOP argued that even if the project qualified for the Class 3 exemption, the “unusual circumstances” exception precluded the city’s reliance on the exemption. Under that exception, an agency cannot rely on a categorical exemption if there is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances. In order to prove the exception, project opponents generally must prove (1) that there are unusual circumstances that distinguish the project from other projects in the exempt class and (2) that there is a reasonable possibility of environmental impacts due to those unusual circumstances. DCOP could not satisfy either part of that test.

For the first part, DCOP argued that the project’s location within a dedicated park was an unusual circumstance in and of itself. The court disagreed, noting that there was substantial evidence in the record that at least at least 37 similar facilities already existed in dedicated parks elsewhere in the city. Therefore the city’s determination that the project did not present or arise under unusual circumstances was upheld by the court.

Even assuming, for argument’s sake, that the project was unusual, the court found that DCOP failed to show a reasonable possibility that the unusual circumstances (i.e., the project’s location in the park) would cause any significant environmental impacts. DCOP claimed that the project would have an adverse environmental impact on aesthetics and the park and recreational uses, but the court found that the evidence relied on by DCOP was insufficient even under the “fair argument” standard.

Finally, DCOP argued that the placement of the project in a sensitive and protected resource area— a dedicated park—precluded the use of a categorical exemption under subdivision (a) of Guidelines section 15300.2. The “location exception” is restricted to projects that “may impact on an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern where designated, precisely mapped, and officially adopted pursuant to law by federal, state, or local agencies.” According to the court, DCOP presented no evidence that the park was a location “designated” as an “environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern” by any federal, state or local agency. The court explained that the lack of such a formal designation defeated the application of the exception.