In Historic Architecture Alliance v. City of Laguna Beach (2023) 96 Cal.App.5th 186, the City of Laguna Beach approved a project to renovate and expand a historic single-family home. In doing so, the City determined that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA under the Class 31 historical resource exemption. Petitioners, the Historic Architecture Alliance and the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition (collectively, “Alliance”), alleged that the City improperly relied on the Class 31 exemption and that the historical resource exception to the categorical CEQA exemptions applied. Affirming the trial court’s denial of the petition, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that the application of both the Class 31 exemption and the historical resources exception presented the City with the same factual issue, and that the City’s finding on this issue was supported by substantial evidence.
In 2017, the owners of a historic single-family residence submitted their initial application and plans to the City to renovate and add on to the house. The City’s historical resources consultant reviewed the initial plans for compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties (“Standards”), which provide guidance for achieving long-term preservation of historical features and materials.
When the consultant concluded that the initial plans did not fully comply with the Standards, the homeowners and their architect revised the plans and worked with the City to incorporate recommendations made by both the consultant and the City’s Heritage Committee and to ensure the project’s conformance to the Standards.
In 2020, the City approved the project. The City determined that the project satisfied the Standards and thus qualified for the Class 31 categorical CEQA exemption, which applies to historical resource renovation projects that are consistent with the Standards.
In 2021, Alliance filed a writ petition. The trial court denied the petition, finding that the City’s decision was supported by substantial evidence and that Alliance had not met its burden of demonstrating that an exception precluded reliance on the Class 31 exemption. Alliance appealed.
Court of Appeal’s Decision
Class 31 exemption
The court upheld the City’s reliance on the Class 31 exemption. The court explained that the determination that a categorical CEQA exemption applies is a factual one that is subject to review under the deferential substantial evidence standard. Pointing to the numerous rounds of review and revisions to bring the plans into compliance with the Standards and the City’s recommendations, the court concluded that the administrative record contained substantial evidence supporting the City’s determination that the project complied with the Standards, and therefore fell within the Class 31 exemption.
The court rejected Alliance’s argument that, by requiring various revisions to the project, the City was imposing mitigation measures to “shoehorn” the project into the Class 31 exemption. While the court acknowledged the general legal principle that mitigation measures may not be used to support categorical exemption, the court concluded that the plan revisions to bring the project into compliance with the Standards were not mitigation measures.
Historical resources exception
The court also rejected Alliance’s argument that the historical resources exception—which precludes reliance on a categorical CEQA exemption for projects “which may cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of a historical resource”—applied to the project. The court held that when applying the historical resource exception to the Class 31 exemption, the fair argument standard does not apply. Citing CEQA Guidelines section 15064.5(b)(3), which provides that projects that comply with the Standards “shall be considered as mitigated to a level of less than significant impact on the historical resources,” the court explained that “the decisive factor for the historical resource exception is the same as that for the [Class 31] exemption—whether the project complies with the [Standards].” Because an agency’s determination that the Class 31 exemption applies is reviewed for substantial evidence, the court reasoned that the exemption would be rendered “meaningless” if its underlying factual determination was then subject to the fair argument standard when applying the historical resources exception.
Thus, because the City’s determination that the Project satisfied the Standards was supported by substantial evidence, so too were the City’s reliance on the Class 31 exemption and the City’s finding that the historical resources exception did not apply.