On Remand, Court of Appeal Finds Berkeley Hillside Home Exempt from CEQA

The First District Court of Appeal reversed its prior holding and, under the substantial evidence standard established by the Supreme Court, upheld the City of Berkeley’s determination that exemptions applied to a single-family home project, and that no exception applied to those exemptions. The court therefore affirmed the denial of appellants’ petition. (Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) ___Cal.App.4th___ , Case No. A131254.)

The case was discussed in our previous post, found here.

The decision on remand highlights the effect of the deferential substantial evidence standard. The court also importantly distinguished the Salmon Protection & Watershed Network (SPAWN) and Lotus decisions.

On remand, the Court of Appeal noted it had previously—incorrectly—held that where there is a fair argument that a proposed activity may have an effect on the environment, that in itself is an unusual circumstance triggering an exception to CEQA’s categorical exemptions. The Supreme Court held this reasoning was inconsistent with the Legislature’s purpose in creating categorical exemptions which, by definition, encompass classes of projects that are found not to have a significant effect on the environment. The Court held, however, that showing the project will have a significant effect on the environment does tend to prove that the project is unusual in some way. Thus, the court must find both substantial evidence of unusual circumstances and a fair argument that there is a reasonable probability of potentially significant effects due to those unusual circumstances.

On remand, the court noted that despite acknowledging that substantial evidence supported application of the exemptions, appellants continued to argue that the home would nevertheless be “unusual.” Appellants “fail[ed] to come to terms with the stringent standard of review that Berkeley Hillside directs us to apply” and similarly failed come to terms with evidence pointing against their contention. Where there is substantial evidence supporting an agency’s exemption determination, the court must affirm the finding even if contradictory evidence exists.

The court also found the project’s traffic control measure was not a proposed subsequent action taken to mitigate any significant effect of the project, and therefore was not a mitigation measure precluding application of the categorical exemptions. In SPAWN, the project was specifically conditioned on measures intended to mitigate impacts to threatened species habitat, which precluded application of a categorical exemption. In Lotus, the project EIR improperly compressed environmental impacts and mitigation measures into a single issue, rendering it impossible to determine whether the project would have a significant effect on the environment absent mitigation. The court here found the construction traffic management plan distinguishable. It noted that “managing traffic during the construction of a home is a common and typical concern in any urban area, and especially here given the narrow roads in the area and the volume of dirt to be removed.” Thus, the plan did not constitute mitigation that would otherwise preclude application of a categorical exemption or improperly entwine mitigation measures and project features.