In Coalition for Historical Integrity v. City of San Buenaventura (2023) 92.Cal.App.5th 430, the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s determination that the City of San Buenaventura, colloquially known as Ventura, acted appropriately and did not violate CEQA when it relocated a statue of Father Junípero Serra.
In the summer of 2020, a bronze statue of Father Junípero Serra, located in downtown Ventura, was the subject of protests and vandalism. In response, the City Council voted to relocate the statue to the San Buenaventura Mission. The bronze statue, which was dedicated in 1989, had replaced a 1936-era concrete statue of Father Junípero Serra that had cracked and was in danger of falling apart.
A citizen’s group, the Coalition for Historical Integrity, challenged the City’s decision to relocate the statue and sought an injunction and restraining order to prevent the removal of the statue. The Coalition argued that the bronze statue was a historic landmark and therefore environmental review under CEQA was necessary. The trial court denied the Coalition’s request for relief and the City subsequently relocated the bronze statue to the mission. The Coalition appealed.
The Court of Appeal’s Decision
On appeal, the court held that removal of the bronze statue did not require CEQA review under Public Resources Code section 21084.1 because the “preponderance of the evidence” demonstrated that the statue was not “historically…significant” and likely did not match any definition of historical resources set forth in section 5020.1.
The Coalition first argued that the statue qualified as a historic resource because it was designated as such by the City in 1974. However, as the City countered and the court agreed, it was the original circa 1936 concrete statue that received a historic designation, and not the circa 1989 bronze statue. The Coalition then argued that the City’s historical resources report prepared by a third-party consultant, which found the statue to not be historically significant, did not constitute substantial evidence because it does not provide “participant testimony” and contained no evidence that its author was a qualified expert. The court again disagreed, because “municipal agencies can properly consider and base decisions on evidence that would not be admissible in a court of law” and because the report appeared sufficient. The court further rejected the Coalition’s argument “that section 21084.1 requires the City to find that the statue is ‘no longer’ culturally or historically significant,” noting that “there is no reason why the presumption cannot be rebutted by a finding that the statue was never culturally or historically significant.” Accordingly, the City appropriately determined that the bronze statue was not a historic landmark and thus not subject to CEQA review.
In affirming the City’s decision, the court noted that there is a “40-year-old threshold required for local designation as a historic landmark,” which the bronze statue did not meet. The court also disagreed with the Coalition’s argument that removal of the statue was quasi-judicial and that City Council unlawfully acted with bias and prejudice when deciding to relocate the statue. The court found that City Council was instead acting in a quasi-legislative manner, making a policy decision based on the statue being offensive to some members of the community, rather than a decision based on the criteria of a statute or ordinance. Because the statue was not considered a historic landmark, the court held that code provisions for removing a historic landmark status did not apply.
– Alina Werth