In Friends of the Willow Glen Trestle v. City of San Jose (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 457, the Sixth District Court of Appeal held that the fair argument standard does not apply to a lead agency’s decision that a resource is not a historical resource—abandoning its previous holding to the contrary in Architectural Heritage Assn v. County of Monterey (2004) 122 Cal.App.4th 1095.
The resource at issue—a wooden railroad bridge, referred to as the Trestle—was built in 1922 as part of a spur line to provide rail freight access to canning districts near downtown San Jose. It was not listed or eligible for listing in the California Register of Historical Resources, nor was it included in a local register of historical resources. As part of its trail system, the City of San Jose proposed to demolish the Trestle and replace it with a new steel truss pedestrian bridge. The city adopted a mitigated negative declaration based on an initial study that concluded the Trestle was not a historical resource. Project opponents filed a writ petition asserting that there was substantial evidence to support a fair argument that the Trestle was a historical resource and therefore an EIR was required. Applying the fair argument standard, the trial court found in favor of petitioners.
The Sixth District disagreed. In rejecting the fair argument standard employed by the trial court, the court focused on the statutory language of Public Resources Code section 21084.1, which defines historical resources for purposes of CEQA. It provides, in part, that a resource may be presumed historical, if it meets certain criteria, unless a preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that it is not historical. Where a resource is not presumptively historical, an agency has the discretion to decide whether it is or is not historical. The court stated that by allowing an agency to overcome a presumption with a preponderance of the evidence, the standard of review logically must be whether substantial evidence supports the lead agency’s decision, not whether a fair argument can be made to the contrary. Based on this determination, the court found that the Legislature could not have intended that a lead agency’s discretionary decision to identify a resource as historical would be subject to a less-deferential review—i.e., fair argument—than a decision regarding a resource presumed to be historical.