Second District Court of Appeal Upholds City’s Analysis of Mitigation Measures for Climate Change, Rejects Challenge to Hospital Expansion Project

On July 26, 2011, the Second District Court of Appeal ordered the publication of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment v. City of Santa Clarita (2011) __Cal.App.4th__. The appellate court affirmed the denial of a petition for writ of mandate that challenged the City of Santa Clarita’s approval of a Master Plan and a development agreement to allow the expansion of hospital and medical office building facilities. The court rejected the petitioner’s argument that the city’s conclusion regarding the infeasibility of completely mitigating the project’s impact on climate change was not supported by substantial evidence. The court also found the city could properly engage in a balancing of the project’s perceived benefits against its adverse impacts on neighboring residents.

The Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, a 221-bed, non-profit hospital, opened in 1975. By 2004, the increasing community demand for medical care had exceeded the capacity of existing hospital facilities, a campus of 11 buildings and 972 surface parking spaces. In 2005, the hospital and developer (real parties) applied to the city for a Master Plan that would permit the expansion of the hospital into a project site zoned “Residential Low.” In 2006, real parties also requested a development agreement from the city. The expansion project sought to double the size of the hospital, adding nine new buildings, a total of 147 new beds, and 1,263 parking spaces. The city completed a draft environmental impact report (EIR) in November 2005, and after several revisions, certified a final EIR on November 19, 2008. Then, on December 9, 2008, the City approved an ordinance adopting the development agreement between the City and real parties.
On December 22, 2008, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment (SCOPE) filed a petition for writ of mandate. The trial court denied the petition, holding among other things, that the city was not required to adopt all of the climate change mitigation measures suggested in an Attorney General’s letter that SCOPE had submitted during the public comment period. SCOPE appealed.

The appellate court first addressed whether SCOPE had exhausted administrative remedies as to certain issues related to the climate change mitigation measures. Despite acknowledging that SCOPE’s previous experiences demonstrate it is adequately familiar with the technicalities of administrative proceedings and subsequent judicial proceedings, the court chose to follow the less stringent standard in Citizens Association for Sensible Development of Bishop Area v. County of Inyo (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 151, for how much specificity is required to preserve an issue for appeal in an administrative proceeding. The court found that one of SCOPE’s comment letters, which had requested the city incorporate the attached list of mitigation measures developed by the Office of the Attorney General, was enough to satisfy the requirement to exhaust administrative remedies.

The court next turned to SCOPE’s arguments that the city’s findings regarding climate change mitigation measures were inadequately explained and not supported by substantial evidence. First, the court found that it would be unreasonable to require the city to explore each of the 50 general suggestions in SCOPE’s comment letter. Since the city did incorporate some of the mitigation measures SCOPE suggested, the court found the city was not legally required to do more. Second, the court concluded that substantial evidence did support the city’s determination that complete mitigation of the project’s cumulative impact on climate change was not feasible. The EIR included the city’s calculations of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, using the three-step analysis required by the Office of Planning and Research in its June 2008 technical advisory. The EIR identified and quantified the GHG emissions, found the impacts with respect to Scope 1 (direct sources like boilers and furnaces) and Scope 2 (purchased energy, water use, and energy from waste disposal) emissions were insignificant, and identified mitigation measures for the significant impacts of Scope 3 emissions (mobile sources like vehicles and transportation). In particular, the EIR included mitigation measures to improve the flow of traffic and to add two bus stops. Furthermore, the city was required to comply with new sustainable policy standards and the city’s transportation demand management program. Given the substantial evidence described above, the court upheld the city’s determination.

Finally the court rejected SCOPE’s claims that the city’s own Unified Development Code (UDC) prevented it from balancing the project’s perceived benefits against its adverse impacts on neighboring residents. Looking to the plain language of the UDC, the court found the ordinance in question did not limit the factors that the city could consider in making the pertinent finding that the project would not detrimentally affect the health and welfare of neighboring residents.