In Lucas v. City of Pomona (2023) 92 Cal.App.5th 508, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the City of Pomona properly relied on the exemption provided in CEQA Guidelines section 15183 when approving a zoning overlay district allowing commercial cannabis activities on specific parcels located in certain areas within the City.
In the years following the 2016 voter passage of the state’s Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which legalized the cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, and sale of nonmedical cannabis and cannabis products, the City of Pomona passed several ordinances in anticipation of allowing cannabis operations within City limits—(i) an ordinance implementing a cannabis business tax; (ii) an ordinance establishing a formal application process to obtain a cannabis business license; and (iii) specifically relevant to the case, an ordinance to develop a commercial cannabis permit program overlay district within existing zoning designations in the City.
To establish this overlay district, constituting a “project” under CEQA, the City underwent a multifaceted process that included the establishment of buffers from sensitive uses such as schools, conducting research and site visits to other cities with legally operating cannabis businesses, meeting with applicable state agencies and the local police department, holding a series of community meetings, and conducting a City-wide parcel-level analysis.
Based on this process, the City determined that a total of six types of commercial cannabis activity could occur with the City—(1) store front retail, (2) manufacturing, (3) cultivation (indoor), (4) testing, (5) distribution, and (6) micro-business. The City prepared a “Determination of Significance” demonstrating that the proposed land uses “are consistent with and similar to already existing land uses” in “the Pomona Zoning Ordinance and the General Plan Update.” The City also prepared an initial draft overlay map showing 414 parcels where cannabis businesses could be established. The initial map included a parcel owned by petitioner Lucas (which he claimed to have spent two million dollars preparing for operation of a cannabis business), however, the final draft excluded this parcel.
The City then had a third-party consultant prepare a “Findings of Consistency” document, which demonstrated that the project would not “have new or increased significant environmental effects beyond those identified in the 2014 [General Plan Update] EIR” by addressing “each of the environmental issues studied in the 2014 EIR [and] comparing the effects of the proposed project to the effects of the adopted General Plan Update.”
As a result, the City determined that the project qualified for the CEQA streamlining and exemption allowable under CEQA Guidelines section 15183.
At an October 2019 Planning Commission hearing considering the project, Lucas requested that the City reconsider including his property in the overlay district. Other parties opposed the project for different reasons—the nearby cities of La Verne and Walnut requested increased buffers from their City boundaries, as they both prohibited commercial cannabis activity and, in the case of Walnut, questioned CEQA Guidelines section 15183 applicability to the project. The Planning Commission did not recommend project approval to City Council and requested changes to the project.
After the hearing, petitioner and adjacent cities (amongst other commenters) sent correspondence to the City again expressing opposition to the project and making specific requests for changes. The project was thusly amended to create a 600-foot buffer from City boundaries and further remove more than a hundred parcels, leaving 292 parcels eligible for commercial cannabis activities.
In November 2019, the Pomona City Council approved the modified project and adopted the Determination of Significance and Findings of Consistency, and concluded that the project met the requirements in CEQA Guidelines section 15183. The City then filed a Notice of Exemption with the county recorder. The Determination of Significance states that the public has ten days to appeal. No one appealed.
Lucas filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging a CEQA violation for the City’s use of the Guidelines section 15183 exemption for the project. Three weeks before the hearing on the merits, at which the trial court found against petitioner, City voters passed Measure PO, “which adopted a cannabis permit overlay identical to the Project.” A few weeks later, the City Council adopted and ratified Measure PO. Lucas appealed the trial court’s decision, but did not file an appeal or request a court-ordered stay of Measure PO.
Court of Appeal’s Decision
The court bypassed the City’s standing and exhaustion of administrative remedies claims by assuming for sake of argument Lucas prevailed on these procedural issues, and therefore only reviewed the merits of the challenge to the City’s reliance on the CEQA Guidelines section 15183 exemption. The court reviewed this claim under the substantial evidence standard, which, per prevailing caselaw, is proper where an agency determines a project’s consistency with a prior program EIR.
To use the Guideline section 15183 exemption, as noted by the court, a project must be “consistent with the development density established by existing zoning, community plan, or general plan policies for which an EIR was certified,” whereas “consistent” means “the density of the proposed project is the same or less than the standard expressed for the involved parcel in the general plan, community plan or zoning action for which an EIR has been certified, and that the project complies with the density-related standards contained in that plan or zoning.”
As to density, Lucas argued that, because the existing zoning contains no density-related standards, there was no way for the project to be deemed consistent. The court disagreed with this “literal approach” and instead concluded that the omission of the “the exact word ‘density’ or exact phrase “density-related standards’” in a zoning ordinance “does not necessarily mean that those topics were not discussed with different verbiage.” Although the court did not illuminate what verbiage in the applicable zoning ordinance might demonstrate density, it did note that the 2014 General Plan Update EIR, the project’s Determination of Similarity, and the project’s Findings of Consistency all addressed land use and/or density. And, importantly, Lucas did not file an appeal of the Determination of Similarity conclusions. Therefore, he was “foreclosed from challenging any of [its] commercial cannabis activities/land findings.”
On the need for additional environmental review, the court again rebuked Lucas’ “literal approach.” The City’s Determination of Similarity deemed the six types of proposed cannabis land uses “similar to already existing land uses, and as such…covered by the uses contemplated by the 2014 EIR and 2013 General Plan Update.” Thus, just because the 2014 General Plan Update EIR did not contain the explicit words “marijuana” or “cannabis” did not mean it did not address that land use. The court likewise denounced Lucas’ argument that the project presents “unique and peculiar impacts associated with cannabis-related business” because, as it noted, the project itself “does not guarantee anyone the automatic right to establish a cannabis-related business,” it merely “imposes an overlay use on existing zoning” that only provides an opportunity to apply for a business permit. The court again relied on the findings in the Determination of Similarity “that cannabis uses were sufficiently similar to existing uses allowed by the underlying zonig” as substantial evidence supporting the City’s determination.
Lastly, Lucas argued that the project’s impacts on “traffic, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, land use/planning, noise, and public services” did not fall within the scope of the less-than-significant conclusions made in the 2014 General Plan Update EIR. The court addressed each impact area, ultimately concluding that substantial evidence demonstrated that the project would not generate impacts beyond those identified in the 2014 EIR, and that existing mitigation measures and uniform standards applied to the project would reduce or manage any impacts.
Notably, the court found that Lucas’ concern with cannabis cultivation odor was addressed by the City’s municipal code regulating odor control devices. It also found that cultivation-related energy use, which petitioner claimed would result in “‘extraordinary [greenhouse gas emissions] impacts,’” could be dealt with through development standards, similarly to “other uses that could be developed in the Overlay District subareas.” On noise emitted by backup generators used in cannabis operations, the court opined that “[s]urely back-up generators are also utilized by other retail stores or manufacturers in times of a power outage.” And, in response to Lucas’ claim that the project would result in a greater impact on police services than analyzed in the 2014 General Plan Update EIR, the court noted in particular that “[t]he project would not result in the need for additional police protection facilities.”
– Casey Shorrock