In Friends of Riverside’s Hills v. City of Riverside (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 1137, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s conclusion that the City of Riverside properly adopted a negative declaration and was not required to prepare an EIR for a six-unit Planned Residential Development in the city’s Residential Conservation Zone. The court also found that the city did not abuse its discretion by approving the project with six homes on six lots.
In 2015, Real Parties in Interest, Carlton and Raye Lofgren, applied to develop approximately twelve acres of property they owned in the city’s Residential Conservation Zone (RCZ). The RCZ places special requirements on proposed residential development in order to protect the natural landscape in the zone. These requirements include submitting information on the natural slope of lots in the parcel to determine the minimum lot size (the greater the average slope, the larger the minimum lot size), and, ordinarily, a maximum density of 0.5 dwelling units per acre. Projects that qualify as Planned Residential Developments (PRDs) allow smaller minimum lot sizes and higher density. PRDs must be designed to protect and retain the natural topographic features of the site and may cluster homes in less steep areas of the site to protect such features and preserve open space. The Lofgrens also sought a density bonus to allow 0.63 dwelling units per acre by preserving 4.85 acres of the site as managed open space and selecting from a list of “superior design” elements.
As the project moved through the city’s administrative process, the acreage information fluctuated on the maps submitted by the Lofgrens (between just over 12 acres and just over 11 and a half acres) and the design of the site changed. After preparing an initial study, the city issued a negative declaration for the project. Petitioner Friends of Riverside’s Hills (Friends) commented several times during the administrative process concerning the acreage (and thus the number of allowable lots) and density. Twice, the city and/or the Lofgrens amended the project to address Friends’ concerns. Friends also argued that: the city had failed to require the Lofgrens to have a recognized conservation group oversee the open space preservation because an early version of the conditions of approval designated a homeowners’ association, the project would require excessive grading, the natural slope information submitted by the Lofgrens was inconsistent, and the project violated CEQA because it was inconsistent with the city’s zoning and grading ordinances. Ultimately, the city approved the project with the density bonus to allow six single-family homes on six lots ranging from just over a half-acre to just over an acre in size and with average natural slopes ranging from 21% to 29.5 percent.
Friends sought a writ of mandate to set aside the city’s approval and require an EIR. Friends argued that the project did not comply with the RCZ because it failed to cluster the proposed lots on the less steep portions of the site and preserve the natural features. Friends argued that the project would require excessive grading, and that the Lofgrens were required to seek a variance for lots smaller than two acres. Friends also argued that the city abused its discretion by failing to support its determination regarding the natural slope of the proposed lots and by deferring selection of the “superior design” elements to the grading permit stage of development. The trial court found that there was no evidence that the project violated any of the land use provisions identified by Friends and denied the petition. Friends appealed.
On appeal, the court found that the RCZ was adopted by the city for environmental protection purposes, so violating those provisions could create a significant impact on the environment. But, the court found that there was no evidence in the record of any of the land use impacts alleged by Friends. First, Friends claimed that the project might violate the RCZ in the future, if it did not buildout as proposed in the PRD. The court found this to be speculation because the Lofgrens had not yet submitted final plans for the location of the homes. The court also found that while the RCZ required site design to be sensitive towards the natural topographic and habitat features of the site, clustering homes in less sensitive and steep portions of the site was one way that the applicant could choose to demonstrate the required sensitivity. There was no requirement to build in the least steep area of the site.
The court also pointed out that Friends were not challenging the actual conditions of approval, but arguing that the Lofgrens might not comply with them in the future, and that could have environmental impacts. The court stated that such an argument was true in nearly all cases, and that, if the project did not comply with the permit conditions, Friends could seek supplemental environmental review at that time. Further, the conditions required the project to be built in substantial conformance with the proposed PRD. Next, the court dismissed the variance argument, finding that the minimum two-acre lot size only applied where a proposed development was not a PRD. Lastly, the court rejected the abuse of discretion claims, finding that there was substantial evidence in the record of the average natural slope of the lots to support the city’s determination that the site could support six lots. The court also found that RCZ did not require an applicant to select the “superior design” elements prior to permit approval, but, in any case, the Lofgrens had selected their preferred “superior design” elements.