Tag: attorneys fees

Second District Court of Appeal Upholds Ruling that Mitigation Measures are Inadequate and EIR is Required for Mixed-Use Development Project in Agoura Hills

On February 24, 2020, the Second Appellate District in Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll et al. v. City of Agoura Hills et al. (2020) 46 Cal.App.5th 665 affirmed the trial court’s decision to require an EIR instead of an MND for a mixed-use development on 8.2 acres because the adopted mitigation measures deferred action, lacked performance criteria, and/or were otherwise inadequate.

Background

The “Cornerstone Mixed-Use Project,” proposed by Agoura and Cornell Roads, LP, and Doron Gelfand (“Appellants”), consists of 8.2 acres of development, including 35 residential apartment units, retail, a restaurant, and office space on an undeveloped hillside in the City of Agoura Hills. The project site is covered mostly by the Agoura Village Specific Plan (adopted in 2008 after its final EIR was certified) with a small portion located within a Significant Ecological Area. After Appellants submitted applications for a development permit, conditional use permit, oak tree permit, and tentative parcel map, the City prepared and finalized an MND for the project in November 2016. The Planning Commission voted to approve the project and adopt the MND. The local chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) appealed the Planning Commission’s decision, but the City Council approved the project and adopted the MND. The City Council found “no substantial evidence that the project would have a significant effect on the environment” because the project included feasible mitigation measures, reducing all effects to less than significant.

Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll filed a petition for writ of mandate followed by a first amended petition on August 10, 2017, adding CNPS as a petitioner (“Petitioners”), alleging multiple CEQA violations, a violation of planning and zoning law, and a violation of the City’s oak tree ordinance. The trial court granted the petition as to the CEQA and oak tree ordinance claims, denied the planning and zoning law claim, and issued a peremptory writ of mandate directing the City to set aside its project and permit approvals, and to set aside the MND to make way for preparation of an EIR. The project applicants appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s CEQA Decision

The Court reviewed Appellants’ claims under the “fair argument” standard, which requires finding that a lead agency abused their discretion if substantial evidence in the record supports a fair argument that that the project may have a significant effect on the environment. This standard creates a relatively low threshold for requiring an EIR pursuant to “‘legislative preference for resolving doubts in favor of environmental review.’” Three CEQA resource areas were litigated—cultural, biological, and aesthetic. Appellants asserted, repeatedly, that mitigation was adequate and an EIR was not required, and the Court repeatedly disagreed. Overall, the Court found that certain mitigation measures set forth in the MND were “not feasible,” “improperly defer[] mitigation,” or were “inadequate to mitigate the project’s potentially significant impacts.” Affected resource areas are briefly discussed below.

Cultural Resources

The project site contains an identified prehistoric archaeological site that was previously determined to be eligible for inclusion in the California Register of Historical Resources. Three mitigation measures were included in the MND to address potential impacts to the site: (1) construction monitoring, notification of finds, and preservation in place of any resources (i.e., avoidance); (2) notification if human remains are encountered; and (3) a data-recovery excavation program if the site cannot be avoided. The Court found this mitigation constituted improper deferral because, pursuant to an expert opinion on the record, the site could not be avoided as prescribed in the first measure without a project redesign and therefore the third measure would be necessary. The Court also found that the third measure delayed “formulation of several components of the data recovery plan until some future time.” For example, the third measure called for the preparation of a Mitigation Monitoring and Reporting Plan (MMRP), yet did not explain how this MMRP would actually mitigate impacts, and there was no evidence in the record that inclusion of such information was impractical or infeasible prior to project approval. Appellants challenged the “evidentiary value” of the expert opinion, but the Court noted that any “conflict in the evidence” should be resolved in an EIR and that there was no debate as to whether the project would have a significant effect on a cultural resource, just on how it might be mitigated.

Biological Resources

The project site contains three special-status plant species that could be significantly impacted by project grading, landscaping, and fuel modification activities: Agoura Hills Dudley, Lyon’s pentachaeta, and Ojai navarretia. Again, three mitigation measures were included in the MND to reduce impact significance: (1) avoidance if feasible for two of the species, but if not, preparation of a restoration plan that includes plant surveys, onsite restoration, and offsite preservation; (2) the same measure for the third species; and (3) locating and flagging of all three species within the fuel modification zone and the use of buffers, other protocols, and monitoring for protection. The Court found the first two measures inadequately mitigated impacts and were infeasible, largely because of statements on the record asserting that restoration of “‘rare plants is next to impossible’” and “‘experimental’” and because the City relied on outdated surveys conducted during the drought in adopting the measure. The measures called for updated surveys but the record provided no evidence as to why such surveys could not be conducted prior to project approval. The measures also failed to provide performance criteria for determining the feasibility of avoidance or in the alternative, maintenance plans. The third measure was found to be inadequate because it did not properly consider the full expanse of fuel modification zones nor did it account for ongoing fuel modification activities, as it applied only to construction.

The project site also contains native oak trees, 35 of which would be removed by the project. Two mitigation measures were included in the MND to reduce significant impacts: (1) replacement of oak trees either onsite or via in-lieu fees paid to the City to acquire land for new tress; and (2) submittal of an oak tree survey, report, and preservation program to the City for approval. The Court found the first measure to be inadequate because mass grading required for the project would cause a loss of subsurface water to any onsite replacement trees, which could result in failure; yet this water deficit was not addressed in the measure. Also, substantial evidence existed showing that oak woodlands are “‘impossible to recreate’” or at least “‘often unsuccessful.’” Lastly this measure was inadequate because the in-lieu fees to be paid to the City would not be not part of a program that has undergone its own CEQA review, which is required “‘to provide a lawful substitute for the “traditional” method of mitigating CEQA impacts.’” The second mitigation measure was found to potentially lack effectiveness because that same subsurface water deficit was not considered, thereby calling into question any claims of long-term survival of preserved oak trees.

Aesthetic Resources

The project site contains a “distinct” knoll of oak trees that likely would be removed for project development. The MND acknowledged the potential loss of this scenic resource but claimed mitigation reduced the impact to less than significant. This mitigation included some avoidance measures and also pointed to the oak tree measures (discussed above) for restoration and preservation. The trial court found this mitigation to be inadequate. Although Appellants claimed the Petitioners failed to properly exhaust this issue (discussed below), the Court found that evidence in the record demonstrated that the knoll may not be preserved under project design and that, even if it were, the subsurface water deficit would jeopardize its continued existence, and no in-lieu fee could “reduce the impacts on aesthetic resources” of this loss.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision on Appellants’ Other Claims

Administrative Remedies Were Exhausted

Appellants repeatedly contended that Petitioners did not exhaust their administrative remedies and therefore forfeited their claims. They also contended that Petitioners did not address the issue of exhaustion in their first opening brief, and therefore could not submit supporting evidence. Addressing the second claim first, the Court found that Petitioners did preserve the general issue of exhaustion because there is no requirement that the issue must be argued in an opening brief and, nevertheless, their opening brief cited evidence that was later used in Petitioners’ reply brief to show exhaustion. This evidence demonstrated that exhaustion was “not a new legal theory raised for the first time” on reply. The Court also found that Petitioners expressly alleged exhaustion in their petition and “lodged the complete administrative record” as part of the writ proceedings. Further, the trial court’s rejection of Appellants’ supplemental brief on this issue was warranted because in filing it they had directly violated a court order stating that “the issue of exhaustion was thoroughly argued.”
As to the first contention, appellants raised exhaustion as a defense to each of Petitioners’ CEQA claims. The Court considered “the totality of [the] record” by looking to various portions demonstrating that most of Petitioners’ claims were preserved. It looked specifically to public comments, City Council hearing transcripts, other correspondence from environmental groups and experts, and documentation from the City’s own consultants to find again and again that the City was “‘fairly apprised’” of the “underlying concerns behind Petitioners’’ claims and thereby had the “‘opportunity to decide matters [], respond to objections, and correct any errors before the courts intervene.’”

Court Rejected Standing and Statute of Limitations Defenses

Appellants asserted both that Petitioner Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll lacked standing because Petitioners failed to show that they timely objected to project approval and that Petitioner CNPS was barred from the action because they joined the suit after the statute of limitations had run. The Court declined to consider the merits of either claim. It found that Appellants had forfeited their statute of limitations argument by not properly asserting it “‘in a general demurrer or pleaded in answer’” and, therefore, without a statute of limitation violation, CNPS remained a petitioner with uncontested standing. The Court was quick to point out that Appellants claims on these points were made for the first time in their appellate reply brief “[n]otwithstanding their [own] arguments on forfeiture.”

Attorney’s Fees Are Recoverable and Appellants Are Jointly and Severally Liable

The trial court awarded attorneys’ fees to Petitioners and assigned joint and several liability to both the developer Agoura and Cornell Road and its representative Doron Gelfand. Appellants first argued against the award by asserting that Petitioners did not provide notice of the CEQA action to the Attorney General “in accordance with section 21167.7 [of the Public Resources Code] and Code of Civil Procedure section 388” that requires notice be served within 10 days of filing a pleading. On this point, the Court found that, although Petitioners did not serve the Attorney General notice of the first amended petition, they did properly notice their original petition, which was not materially different than the first amended, thereby giving the Attorney General “ample time to intervene.” The Court further pointed to case law emphasizing that a lack of strict compliance with the 10-day notice rule “was not an absolute bar to attorney’s fees.” It further concluded that a declaration from Petitioners’ attorney attesting to notice could stand as evidence in lieu of formal proofs of service of that notice. Appellants then argued that Gelfand could not be held personally liable because he was neither the applicant nor the property owner. But, in utilizing the test articulated in Connerly v. State Personnel Bd. (2006) 37 Cal.4th 1169, 1181, the Court found that Gelfand was a “real party who pursued a direct interest in the project that gave rise to the CEQA action and actively participated in the litigation” and, therefore, was liable. The record contained ample evidence showing that Gelfand was, at one time, “‘the owner of the property’” and had personally made several requests to the City regarding the project, and was listed “as the sole project applicant” on City resolutions approving project entitlements.

Oak Tree Ordinance Was Violated

The City’s oak tree ordinance allows the cutting of oak trees with a permit but disallows removal of more than 10 percent of a subject property’s total estimated canopy or root structure. The project would result in removal of up to 36 percent of oak trees on site in violation of this ordinance. Appellants did not argue against that fact but did assert Petitioners failed to exhaust their administrative remedies on this claim. The Court addressed both the merits of the claim and exhaustion (see above) and agreed with the trial court in finding that, in approving the oak tree permit for the project, the City violated its own “‘duly adopted law’” and therefore the permit must be vacated.

Casey Shorrock

Second District Court of Appeal upholds trial court’s denial of attorney fees after the County granted applicant’s request to vacate permit approvals for a single-family home.

In Canyon Crest Conservancy v. County of Los Angeles (2020) 46 Cal.App.5th 398, Division 4 of the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial of attorney fees following dismissal of an action challenging a negative declaration for a single-family home project on a vacant lot in Los Angeles County. After the petitioner successfully obtained an administrative stay, the applicant/Real Party in Interest, appearing in propria persona, requested that the County vacate his approvals because he could not afford to pay for the litigation. The Court of Appeal found that petitioner’s action did not enforce an important right affecting the public interest or confer a significant benefit on the general public.

Project Background

Real Party in Interest Stephen Kuhn, owned a roughly one-acre parcel on a steep hillside in Altadena, an unincorporated community in Los Angeles County. In 2014, Kuhn applied to the County for a minor use permit to build a single-family home on the hillside and an oak tree permit to remove one tree on site. In 2015, he presented the project to the Altadena Town Council, which recommended approval. The County planning department initially determined that the project was categorically exempt under Guidelines section 15303, but prepared an initial study to assess potential impacts, though not because the planning department believed there were “unusual circumstances.” The initial study found that the project was “at the edge of a disturbed woodland community” but, by complying with the County’s oak tree ordinance, the project would not have a significant impact. The County prepared a negative declaration in 2016.

After learning about the project, Kuhn’s neighbors sent a letter to the County objecting to the project, primarily because it would affect their views and because one neighbor would no longer be able to park cars on Kuhn’s property. The neighbors sent additional letters to the County objecting to the project’s potential impacts to the oak canopy, and hired an attorney who began objecting to the project for them, and then on behalf of the nonprofit they created. The neighbors also hired an arborist who opined that the single tree slated for removal on the project site actually belonged to the neighbors, and that the project would impact three additional trees. The County planning department held a hearing on the project at which the neighbors appeared and objected that it would lower the market value of their homes. Kuhn offered to redesign the home to reduce the impacts to trees, and his arborist defended the initial assessment of tree impacts. A County biologist opined that the permit conditions were adequate to address impacts to trees given the “highly disturbed” condition of the woodland. The County approved the project, and the neighbors appealed.

The County Planning Commission heard the neighbors’ appeal and, in upholding project approval, required Kuhn to replace any removed or deceased trees at a 2-1 ratio and to monitor the remaining trees for 7 years. The neighbors appealed to the Board of Supervisors (board), who held three hearings on the project and ultimately approved it. The neighbors filed a petition before the board’s final approval, but agreed to stay the action until the board approved the project.

Trial Court Proceedings

In May 2017, the trial court granted an administrative stay under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5, finding that the neighbors had shown a reasonable possibility of success on the merits of their claim that their expert’s opinion was substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project may have significant impact on the oak woodland, but cautioned that her finding was not determinative as to the merits of the writ petition itself.
In December 2017, Kuhn, who appeared in propria persona throughout the litigation and appeal, asked the County to vacate the approvals “to end the litigation.” County planning recommended vacating the approvals but stated they would keep Kuhn’s application on file, and noted that an EIR was not normally required for a single-family home on a vacant lot, and that none of the exceptions to the exemption were present. The board vacated the approvals after Kuhn stated he could not afford to continue to pay for the litigation. One supervisor stated her belief that the neighbors had abused the CEQA process.
In March 2018, after dismissing the action, the neighbors moved for attorney’s fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 seeking $289,544.00. The County and Kuhn opposed the motion, and the trial court denied it, finding that the neighbors had failed to establish any of the required prongs under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. The neighbors appealed.

The Court of Appeal Opinion

An appellate court considering a trial court’s order on attorney’s fees reviews it for abuse of discretion. Whether the statutory requirements have been met is left to the trial court’s sound discretion unless the issue turns on statutory construction, which is reviewed de novo. The burden of proof is on the party challenging the trial court’s order. Here, that party was Kuhn’s neighbors.
The neighbors argued for de novo review of whether their action enforced an important right or conveyed a significant benefit. The Court rejected their arguments, finding that the trial court was in a better position than the Court of Appeal to assess whether the neighbors had met the requirements.

Enforcement of an Important Right Affecting the Public Interest

The County and Kuhn argued that even though CEQA actions can involve important public rights, this one did not. The trial court agreed, noting that the neighbors did not obtain any additional environmental review, and that the grant of the stay was not a favorable ruling on the merits of their CEQA claim. On appeal, the neighbors challenged both of those determinations, but the Court of Appeal found both to be within the discretion of the trial court. The Court noted that the record indicated that the County believed it and Kuhn had acted properly, and there was no evidence it would require additional CEQA review should Kuhn renew his application. The neighbors argued that all they needed to do was bring a “viable CEQA claim” to show an important public right, but the Court stated they must vindicate the right through their litigation, which the trial court found the neighbors had not done.

Significant Benefit on the General Public

The neighbors argued that they had conferred a significant benefit by causing the County to reconsider the project under CEQA. The trial court rejected this argument because the administrative stay was not an adjudication of the merits and there was no evidence that the County would reconsider the CEQA review of the project. The neighbors submitted statements from area residents that they believed the County would treat their concerns about the project more seriously because of the lawsuit, but the trial court rejected these statements as speculative and unsubstantiated. The trial court also found that because of the small size of the project (a 1500-square-foot single-family home on one lot) the neighbors had not shown that their action conferred a benefit on the general public or a large class of persons. The Court of Appeal agreed, noting that the County kept Kuhn’s application on file and would allow him to revive the project if he wanted to, but made no indication that it would require additional CEQA review. The Court also noted that the neighbors had admitted that their concern was the effect of the project on their personal property and the use of Kuhn’s property as parking. Lastly, the Court rejected the neighbors’ argument that they had provided additional opportunities for public input, as Kuhn stopped pursuing the project.

Nathan O. George