Second District Court of Appeal Upholds Class 3 Categorical Exemption for a Car Wash Project on a Vacant Lot and Finds No Unusual Circumstances

In Walters v. City of Redondo Beach (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 809, the Second District Court of Appeal determined that the City of Redondo Beach did not err in finding a combination car wash and coffee shop project categorically exempt from CEQA and that unusual circumstances exception did not apply. The site was previously a car wash, but was unused since 2001 and the original structure had been demolished, leaving a vacant lot. The city approved a conditional use permit (“CUP”) and determined that the project was exempt under CEQA Guidelines § 15303, as “new, small facilities or structures [and] installation of small new equipment and facilities in structures.”

The dispute between the parties on the exemption concerned whether a car wash fits within the category of “commercial buildings” as defined in CEQA Guidelines section 15303, subdivision (c), and whether the car wash met the size restrictions of that section. The court held that the list in 15303(c) is illustrative and the section expressly includes “similar structure[s].” The car wash qualified because it was a consumer-facing commercial business, similar to those listed in 15303(c), and it included a coffee shop which qualifies as a restaurant. On the issue of size, the court found that, because the project was going to be in an “urbanized area,” the size limit was 10,000 square feet instead of 2,500. So the project’s 4,080 square feet was well under the limit. Lastly, the court found that there was no evidence that the project would “involve the use of significant amounts of hazardous substances” and was thus exempt.

On the unusual circumstances exception issue, the court applied the two tests discussed by the California Supreme Court in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086 (“Berkeley Hillside”). Under the first test, the court first determines whether there are unusual circumstances under the substantial evidence standard, and, if unusual circumstances are found, “whether there is a reasonable possibility of a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances” under the fair argument standard. The second test requires the challenger to establish unusual circumstances by showing that the project will have a significant effect on the environment.

In applying the first test, the court found that presence of other car washes in the surrounding area, and the fact that the site had been a car wash previously, indicated that the circumstances were not unusual. The court also stated that common operational effects, like noise, traffic, and parking do not constitute unusual circumstances in and of themselves. The court concluded that the petitioners had failed to produce substantial evidence supporting unusual circumstances based on the project’s features. The court therefore never reached the second, fair argument prong of the first test.

The court applied the second test from Berkeley Hillside, and found that petitioners failed to meet their burden under that test as well. Petitioners argued that the project will have a significant effect on the environment because operating a car wash would violate the city’s noise ordinance. The court found this unpersuasive because the city had found that the project would not violate the noise ordinance and took the extra step to condition approval of the project on its meeting the noise ordinance. Petitioners also argued that the project would have a significant adverse effect on traffic because the design of the car wash would cause backups within the property. The court stated that the flow of cars within the property was not “traffic” as defined by CEQA, and there was substantial evidence supporting the city’s finding that any such backups would not affect traffic on the streets.

The court concluded that neither of the Berkeley Hillside tests had been satisfied, and therefore the petitioners had failed to show unusual circumstances. The court upheld the city’s issuance of the CUP and finding that the project was exempt from CEQA.