FOURTH DISTRICT UPHOLDS EIR FOR MULTI-FAMILY HOUSING PROJECT AND FINDS CITY PROPERLY USED A PLANNED DEVELOPMENT PERMIT TO ALLOW A VARIATION FROM CONVENTIONAL ZONING REGULATIONS

In Ocean Street Extension Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Cruz (December 16, 2022, D079064) __ Cal.App.5th __ [2021 WL 6428713], the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that an EIR for a multi-family housing project properly relied on the biological resources analysis and mitigation measures identified in the initial study for the project, and sufficiently addressed the project objectives, alternatives, and cumulative impacts to water supply and traffic. Reversing the trial court, the Court of Appeal also held that the City complied with its municipal code by using a planned development permit as a variation from its conventional slope regulations.

Background

The proposed project consisted of a 40-unit residential complex on a vacant lot in the City of Santa Cruz. The City prepared an initial study that discussed, among other topics, biological impacts that would be reduced to less-than-significant with mitigation, and later circulated a draft EIR and recirculated draft EIR before certifying the final EIR. The City Council approved a reduced-housing alternative with 32 units.

Along with a general plan amendment, rezone, and other entitlements, the City approved a planned development permit (PDP) to allow a variation from the conventional slope regulations in the City’s zoning code.

The Ocean Street Extension Neighborhood Association (OSENA) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the EIR and the City’s approval of the PDP. The trial court ruled that the City complied with CEQA, but found the City violated its municipal code by not requiring compliance with the conventional slope regulations. OSENA appealed and the City and Real Parties in Interest cross-appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

CEQA and Adequacy of the EIR

Upholding the trail court’s ruling on the CEQA claims, the Court of Appeal concluded that the EIR was adequate. The court held that impacts that are less than significant with mitigation may be discussed in an initial study rather than in the EIR as long as the EIR fulfills its purpose as an informational document. The court noted that the EIR summarized the impacts and mitigation measures, and the EIR’s reference to the initial study—which was attached to the EIR as appendix—sufficiently alerted the public to the environmental issues and provided readers with adequate information. Accordingly, the court determined that it was appropriate for the EIR to rely on the biological resources analysis and mitigation measures identified in the initial study.

The court also rejected OSENA’s argument that the mitigation measures were vague and improperly deferred because OSENA failed to exhaust its administrative remedies as to this issue and did not raise it in the trial court proceedings. The court nonetheless explained that even if it considered this issue on the merits, it would reject OSENA’s arguments because the question of effectiveness of a mitigation measure is a factual one, which, in this case, was supported by substantial evidence in the record.

The court further concluded that the project’s objectives and alternatives analyses were adequate, and that OSENA’s arguments amounted to mere disagreement with the City’s conclusions. The court explained that rejecting or approving an alternative is a decision only for the decisionmakers, and they may reject alternatives that are undesirable for policy reasons or fail to meet project objectives. While the project objectives included specific targets, those objectives did not improperly restrict the range of alternatives analyzed in the EIR, and the City justified its reasons for rejecting alternatives with even less housing than the 32-unit alternative.

Additionally, the court determined that the EIR sufficiently analyzed the project’s cumulative impacts on water supply and traffic. Regarding water supply, the court explained that the EIR’s analysis properly considered the water supply impact in light of city-wide needs and future demand, and properly relied on the City’s Urban Water Management Plan. Regarding traffic, the court held that OSENA’s arguments challenging the EIR’s analysis of LOS impacts were moot because CEQA Guidelines section 15064.3, which took effect after the case was initiated, provides that a project’s effects on automobile delay shall not constitute a significant environmental impact.

Therefore, the Court affirmed the portion of the trial court’s order and judgment concluding that the City complied with CEQA.

Santa Cruz Municipal Code

Reversing the trial court’s ruling on OSENA’s municipal code claims, the Court of Appeal held that the City did not violate its municipal code by granting a PDP without also requiring compliance with the conventional slope modification regulation procedures in its zoning code. The City’s PDP ordinance allows a variation from certain zoning regulations including “Slope Regulations Modifications, pursuant to procedures set forth in Chapter 24.08, Part 9 (Slope Regulations Modifications).” Rejecting OSENA’s claim that the City was required to comply with the conventional regulations in Chapter 24.08, Part 9, in addition to the requirements for a PDP, the court explained that the City should be afforded deference in the interpretation of its own municipal code. The court upheld the City’s determination that the granting of a PDP does not require compliance with the conventional slope regulations, as this interpretation was consistent with the text and purpose of the ordinance and interpreting the PDP ordinance as requiring compliance with both the PDP ordinance and the slope regulations would have served no readily apparent purpose.

RMM Partners Christopher L. Stiles and Tiffany K. Wright represented the Real Parties in Interest in this case.  Chris Stiles argued the case in Court of Appeal on behalf of the City and Real Parties.

-Veronika S. Morrison