In Save Our Access—San Gabriel Mountains v. Watershed Conservation Authority (August 19, 2021, B303494) __ Cal.App.5th __ [2021 WL 3673902], the Second District Court of Appeal held that the plaintiff failed to show that reduced parking within the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument would cause any adverse physical changes in the environment, that the lead agency did not abuse its discretion in setting the baseline for parking based on aerial photography that was not included in the record, and that, based on the project’s purpose, analyzing only a “no project” alternative was a reasonable range of alternatives.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
The San Gabriel Mountains National Monument was designated in 2014. The project site includes 198 acres along two and a half miles of the East fork of the San Gabriel River, including public roads, recreational facilities, and the riverbed itself. The site is significantly degraded due to heavy public use and a lack of adequate facilities. The project was proposed to improve and better manage recreation facilities along with ecological restoration and reducing environmental impacts associated with recreational use at the site.
The EIR discussed existing issues associated with parking, including the small number of designated parking spaces and the widespread practice of parking in undesignated areas, which created public safety and traffic issues throughout the site. In total, the EIR estimated that there was a total of 417 parking spaces throughout the site, of which only 48 were designated parking spaces. The estimates were based on aerial photography that was included in the EIR. The EIR also included survey data that found that average weekend use at the site from Memorial Day to Labor Day was 273 vehicles per weekend day. To address the parking and related issues, the project proposed to create a total of 270 designated car spaces and three bus spaces, and to reduce undesignated parking with a combination of signage and physical barriers.
The EIR analyzed the project’s potential impacts to recreation and concluded, based on survey data, that impacts would be less than significant because many users of the site would choose to recreate in other nearby areas if parking or other facilities were unavailable, and, given the number and variety of recreation opportunities in proximity to the site, the impacts of those users going elsewhere would be disbursed and would not be cumulatively considerable. The EIR concluded that all impacts associated with the project would be less than significant with mitigation. The alternatives analysis compared the proposed project to a “no project” alternative but did not analyze any other alternatives.
The plaintiff filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the Watershed Conservation Authority’s certification of the EIR and approval of the project. The trial court granted the petition, in part, based on the court’s conclusion that (1) the parking baseline lacked substantial evidence support because the aerial photography the baseline relied on was not in the record; (2) the agency failed to disclose the exact number of parking spaces available in each area of the site; (3) the parking survey was unsupported by substantial evidence because of the time of day when the surveys took place; and (4) without an accurate parking baseline, the EIR failed as an informational documents because the proposed parking reduction could be significant and require mitigation.
THE COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION
Reversing the trail court’s decision, the Court of Appeal determined that the EIR adequately discussed the project’s proposed reduction in total parking spaces and that the alleged discrepancy in total parking spaces (plaintiff alleged that there were 473 available spaces, rather than 417) was immaterial because plaintiff failed to identify any adverse physical impacts on the environment resulting from the reduced parking. The court noted that, in fact, the purpose of reducing and formalizing parking at the site was to protect and restore the environment.
The court went on to analyze two CEQA cases addressing parking issues. First, the court considered San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. City and County of San Francisco (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 656, which held that the inconvenience associated with “hunting” for scarce parking was not an environmental impact, but secondary effects, like traffic and air quality are. Accordingly, the court determined that an EIR need only address the adverse secondary effects of limited parking, not the social impact itself. The court also reviewed Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending v. San Diego Unified School Dist. (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 1013, which rejected the school district’s argument that a parking shortage is “never” a direct physical environmental impact. The court reasoned that each case must be decided on its facts, and that while, in some cases parking deficits may have direct physical impacts on the environment, plaintiff had not shown that the project’s parking reduction would result in direct or secondary physical impacts on the environment.
Turning to the EIR’s analysis of recreation impacts, the court found that the EIR’s analysis of nearby recreational facilities and likely impacts was adequate and that the EIR’s assumptions, based on survey data, were reasonable. The court rejected plaintiff’s speculation that, instead of leaving to recreate elsewhere, visitors to the project site would “circle and idle” until a parking space became available. Thus, the EIR’s conclusion that recreation impacts would be less than significant was supported by substantial evidence.
Regarding alternatives, the court focused on the EIR’s discussion of alternatives that were considered, but not analyzed in the EIR. The EIR explained that, through a series of workshops, three project design concepts were proposed and assessed for their ability to achieve the purposes of the project, but only one (the project), was selected for study in the EIR, along with the required “no project” alternative. The agency also considered an alternative proposed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife but decided not to analyze it in the EIR either. The plaintiff argued that, as a matter of law, analyzing only one alternative was inadequate. The court rejected plaintiff’s argument, finding that, although CEQA and the Guidelines use the term “alternatives” (i.e., the plural form), the law is clear that the range of alternatives is subject to a rule of reason, and that each case must be evaluated on its facts. The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that several feasible alternatives were proposed to the agency by a nearby business owner who was concerned that reduced parking at the site would impact his business. The court concluded that plaintiff had failed to show how the proposed alternatives would attain most of the basic project objectives or feasibly avoid or lessen one or more of the project’s significant impacts. The court found, on the facts of this case, that the inclusion of only a “no project” alternative was reasonable, given the purpose of the project and that the project, with mitigation, would not result in any significant impacts.
Lastly, plaintiff argued that the project was inconsistent with the Angeles National Forest Land Management Plan (LMP) and the designation creating the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. Plaintiff’s argument centered around the reduction in parking and claimed that the corresponding reduction in access to the National Monument created inconsistencies. The court rejected this argument, finding that it elevated public access above all the other objectives and policies in the declaration. The court reasoned that the agency was required, under the proclamation and LMP, to balance public access with other concerns, including protection of the environment, and that the project did so.
– Nathan O. George