Tag: Categorical Exemption

Fifth District Court of Appeal Excuses Petitioner’s Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies, Holds that Unlined Landfills are Not “Facilities” for Purposes of the Class 1 Categorical Exemption

In the published portions of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power v. County of Inyo (August 17, 2021, F081389) __ Cal.App.5th __, the Fifth District Court of Appeal held that the issue exhaustion requirement in Public Resources Code section 21177, subdivision (a) did not apply where the County of Inyo did not provide adequate public notice prior to adopting a Notice of Exemption (NOE) and that the County abused its discretion in finding that condemning three landfill sites was categorically exempt from CEQA under the “existing facilities” exemption in CEQA Guidelines section 15301 (the “Class 1” categorical exemption).

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Beginning in the 1950s, the County began leasing land within the County owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) for waste management purposes. At issue in this case were three sites leased by the County for use as unlined landfills. The County’s operation of the landfills is subject to permitting by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle). Beginning in 2012, the County sought to amend the permits for two of the three landfill sites to increase the permissible daily usage, overall capacity, and to accelerate the closure dates, effectively shortening the useful life of the landfills.

After negotiating with LADWP to extend the lease agreement for one of the sites, the County determined that acquiring all three landfill sites through condemnation was necessary. In a letter to the Board of Supervisors, LADWP objected to the County’s decision, in part, arguing that that the County was required to comply with CEQA before taking any action on the proposed condemnation. At the Board hearing on the condemnation proposal, County staff suggested that the Board’s actions would be exempt from CEQA review for several reasons, including the “existing facilities” categorical exemption under CEQA Guidelines section 15301. The Board approved the condemnation proceedings, but its written decision made no mention of CEQA.

LADWP filed suit. The Kern County Superior Court ruled that the County violated CEQA and issued a writ of mandate directing the County to rescind its resolutions relating to the condemnation proceedings, pending compliance with CEQA. The County appealed.

THE COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION

Before turning to the merits of LADWP’s CEQA claims, the Court of Appeal addressed the “threshold procedural issue” of whether LADWP’s CEQA claims were barred because it failed to exhaust its administrative remedies with respect to the issues that it raised in court. After discussing the statute and relevant case law, the court acknowledged that because CEQA did not require a comment period prior to determining that a project is exempt from CEQA, the relevant question was whether the agency provided adequate notice to the public prior to considering an exemption. Specifically, the court explained, an agency’s notice must inform the public that the agency will consider a CEQA exemption; otherwise, the issue exhaustion requirement in Public Resources Code section 21177, subdivision (a), does not apply. Here, the court found that the first mention of CEQA and the Board’s consideration of an exemption was made by staff during the hearing, and the hearing notice was silent on CEQA. The court concluded that the public was not provided with adequate notice regarding the exemption, and therefore, LADWP was not required to exhaust on its CEQA challenges to the County’s exemption determination.

Turning to the exemptions relied on by the County, the court found that because the issues before it involved the scope of the “existing facilities” categorical exemption and statutory construction, review of the County’s actions was de novo. After reviewing the language of CEQA Guidelines section 15301, the court concluded that the term “facilities” is ambiguous, agreeing with the Second District Court of Appeal in Azusa Land Reclamation Co. v. Main San Gabriel Basin Watermaster (1997) 52 Cal.App.4th 1165 (Azusa). Further agreeing with Azusa, the court reasoned that, because an unlined landfill was “excavated” rather than “built,” an unlined landfill was more akin to an alteration in the condition of land rather than a facility. The court reasoned that because section 15301 was revised following the Azusa decision but did not expressly mention landfills, the court concluded that the Secretary of Resources who issued the revised Guideline must have agreed with Azusa that unlined landfills are not a class of projects that do not have a significant effect on the environment. Thus, the court concluded that the County abused its discretion in finding the condemnation proceedings categorically exempt under the Class 1 categorical exemptions.

– Nathan O. George

First District Court of Appeal Holds That a Necessary and Indispensable Party is Not Bound to a Tolling Agreement That It Did Not Sign

In Save Lafayette Trees v. East Bay Regional Park District (June 30, 2021, A156150) __ Cal.App.5th __ [2021 WL 2677595], the First District Court of Appeal held that PG&E, a necessary and indispensable party in the case, was not bound to an agreement to toll the CEQA statute of limitations executed by only the petitioners and the respondent public agency.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On March 21, 2017, the East Bay Regional Park District’s (District) Board of Directors issued a resolution accepting funding from PG&E as compensation for the removal of 245 trees on District property near PG&E’s natural gas transmission pipelines. PG&E issued this funding as a part of its “Community Pipeline Safety Initiative.” The District and PG&E later signed an MOU for the implementation PG&E’s initiative and ongoing maintenance and monitoring of the area near the natural gas pipeline. On June 27, 2017, the District filed a Notice of Exemption after finding the MOU and related activity categorically from CEQA.

On July 31, 2017, Save Lafayette Trees, Michael Dawson and David Kosters (Appellants), and the District entered into a tolling agreement to toll all applicable statutes of limitations for 60 days. PG&E did not consent to this agreement. On September 29, within the 60-day tolling period, Appellants filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the District’s approval of the MOU under CEQA, as well as for violations of local ordinances and state constitutional due process rights. The action named PG&E as a real party in interest. PG&E demurred to the CEQA cause of action as time-bared by both the 35-day and 180-day statute of limitations periods under Public Resources Code section 21167. The trial court sustained the demurrer.

THE COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION

Upholding the trial court’s decision, the Court of Appeal determined that PG&E was not bound to the tolling agreement between Appellants and the District. The court concluded that PG&E was both a necessary and indispensable party in the litigation, and therefore, was entitled to assert or waive the statute of limitations defense. The court noted that CEQA does not statutorily authorize tolling agreements, which means that they are not a statutory right. Rather, tolling agreements are private agreements between parties that have no effect on parties not in privity. Citing Salmon Protection & Watershed Network v. County of Marin (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 195 (“Salmon Protection”), the court explained that CEQA does not prohibit tolling agreements to extend the limitations period, but to be effective they must include the recipient of an approval (the project proponent), the public agency, and the would-be petitioner. Because PG&E was a necessary and indispensable party, it was not bound to the tolling agreement to which it was not a signatory.

The court further reasoned that binding an indispensable party like PG&E to a tolling agreement to which it did not consent would defeat the purpose of the limitations period in Public Resources Code section 21167 to “protect project proponents from extended delay, uncertainty and potential disruption of a project caused by a belated challenge to the validity of the project’s authorization.”

The court also rejected Appellants’ argument that the 180-day limitations period had not run because they did not have constructive notice of the project. Appellants claimed there was no constructive notice because the removal of the trees was not included in the Board’s agenda for the project nor the accompanying description of the Board’s resolution. Public Resources Code section 21167 provides that the 180-day period begins after the agency’s decision or commencement of a project. The court noted that the Supreme Court has held that a public agency’s formal decision to carry out or approve a project is deemed constructive notice for potential CEQA claims. In this case, the court determined that the MOU for funding the tree replacement was consistent with the Board’s resolution and the project as outlined in the staff report, and did not, as Appellants asserted, constitute a “substantial difference” that would not provide constructive notice. The court explained that any flaws in the project approval process do not delay the applicable limitations period where, as here, the public agency gave notice of the very approval Appellants challenged.

The court concluded that the 180-day limitations period thus began to run on March 21, 2017, when the Board made its final decision and expired on September 18, 2017, eleven days before Appellants commenced their action. Therefore, the court held that the CEQA cause of action was properly dismissed as untimely.

– Veronika S. Morrison

First District Holds that Deficiencies in Notice Did Not Excuse CEQA Litigants from Exhausting Available Administrative Remedies

The First District Court of Appeal in Schmid v. City and County of San Francisco (Feb. 1, 2021) 60 Cal.App.5th 470, held that Appellants’ CEQA claims were barred by their failure to exhaust available administrative remedies, even where deficiencies in the notice excused the litigants from satisfying the exhaustion requirements under Public Resources Code section 21177.

BACKGROUND

The “Early Days” statue, located in San Francisco’s Civic Center, is part of the “Pioneer Monument”—a series of five bronze sculptures memorializing the pioneer era when California was founded. The statue depicts three figures, including a reclining Native American over whom bends a Catholic priest. Public criticism has surrounded the statue since its installation in 1894.  

In 2018, after charges of the statue’s racial insensitivity resurfaced, the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) granted a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) to remove the statue and place it in storage. In granting that approval, the HPC determined the removal of the statue was categorically exempt from CEQA. There were no issues raised at the HPC hearing about a perceived need for environmental review. Nor were there any appeals of HPC’s CEQA determination to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. 

Appellants, two opponents of the statue’s removal, appealed the HPC’s adoption of the COA to the San Francisco Board of Appeals. The Board of Appeals initially voted to overturn the COA, but later had it reinstated. After the Board of Appeals approved the COA, the City immediately removed the statue the following morning. 

Appellants filed suit seeking to overturn the Board of Appeals’ order authorizing removal of the statue. They alleged violations of constitutional and statutory law, including CEQA. The trial court sustained a demurrer without leave to amend. On the CEQA claims, the trial court found Appellants failed to exhaust available administrative remedies. Appellants appealed.

COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies
The Court of Appeal explained that CEQA litigants must comply with two exhaustion requirements. First, Public Resources Code section 21177 requires that a would-be CEQA petitioner must object during the administrative process and that all allegations raised in the litigation must have been presented to the agency before the challenged decision is made. Second, a would-be CEQA petitioner must exhaust all remedies that are available at the administrative level, including any available administrative appeals. Under Public Resources Code section 21151, a CEQA determination made by a nonelected decision-making body of a local agency may be appealed to the agency’s elected decision-making body, if any. The CEQA Guidelines encourage local agencies to establish procedures for such appeals. As relevant here, the San Francisco Administrative Code requires that appeals of CEQA determinations must be made to the Board of Supervisors, as the body of elected officials responsible for making final CEQA determinations.

The Court of Appeal found Appellants failed to comply with both exhaustion requirements. They did not object to the HCP’s determination that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA during the administrative process and they did exhaust administrative appeals available under the San Francisco Administrative Code. Specifically, on the second point, although Appellants appealed the HPC’s decision to the Board of Appeals, they failed to exhaust available remedies because they did not separately appeal the HPC’s CEQA determination to the Board of Supervisors, as required under the City’s Code.

Appellants argued they were excused from both exhaustion requirements because the City failed to provide adequate notice. The court agreed with Appellants in part, finding that Appellants were not required to comply with the statutory exhaustion requirements in section 21177 because there was no notice in advance of the HPC meeting that a categorical exemption might be on the agenda. But, the court explained, the inadequate CEQA notice did not excuse Appellants from complying with the requirement in the City’s Code that CEQA determinations must be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. The court also noted that Appellants had notice of the HPC’s CEQA determination because they appealed it, improperly, to the Board of Appeals. Because Appellants failed to appeal the CEQA determination to the appropriate body, they forfeited their right to bring a CEQA action.

Futility Argument
Appellants also argued they should be excused from exhausting their administrative remedies because doing so would have been futile. Citing a Board of Supervisors resolution that was not in the record, Appellants argued that an appeal to the proper board would have been futile because the Board of Supervisors already adopted a definitive position that the statue should be taken down. The court rejected this argument, stating that even if the Board of Supervisors held this view as a policy matter, it still could have disagreed with the process of removal and opted for an EIR. In addition, the Court concluded that the Board of Supervisors was never presented with any arguments concerning the appropriateness of a categorical exemption, and thus any argument regarding how the Board of Supervisors would have responded was pure speculation.

– Veronika Morrison 

City of San Diego Appropriately Relied on CEQA’s In-Fill Exemption in Approving Residential Development, Although Project Less Dense than Typically Required by the general plan, Fourth District Holds

In Holden v. City of San Diego (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 404, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the City of San Diego’s reliance on CEQA’s in-fill exemption for a seven unit residential project on environmentally sensitive land in the city’s North Park community. The court rejected plaintiff’s claim that the city erred in relying on the in-fill exemption because the project was less dense than the standards established in the city’s general plan. The court held that substantial evidence supported the city’s reliance on the exemption because the general plan, together with an applicable community plan, allowed the city to deviate from the density standards for projects in environmentally sensitive areas.

Background

In 2014, the developer applied to the city to demolish two houses and to construct seven new residential condos on a 0.517-acre site located on a canyon hillside. City staff initially informed the developer that the project did not comply with the minimum density standards for the site under the general plan and an applicable community plan. Specifically, staff determined Policy LU-C.4 of the general plan and the housing element of the community plan required a minimum of 16 dwelling units on the site. Later, however, city staff concluded that a reduced density of seven units was appropriate because the site is considered environmentally sensitive.

The city determined that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA under the infill exemption set forth in CEQA Guidelines section 15332. To qualify for this exemption, a project must be consistent with the general plan’s designations and policies. On April 18, 2017, at the planning commission’s recommendation, the city council unanimously voted to approve the project.

The petitioner filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the city’s determination that the project is exempt from CEQA and the city’s approval of the project. The trial court denied the petition. The petitioner appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Opinion

On appeal, petitioner contended that the city erred in finding the project is exempt from CEQA under the infill exemption because the project provides less residential density than is required by the general plan. In so arguing, petitioner relied primarily on a policy of the general plan to “‘[e]nsure efficient use of remaining land available for residential development … by requiring that new development meet the density minimums of appliable plan designations.’” The general plan recommended that residential areas designated “Medium High”—including the project site—provide multi-family housing with a density range of 30- to 44-dwelling units per acre. Because the project did not meet this standard, petitioner argued the project was inconsistent with the general plan, and, therefore, the city abused its discretion in relying on CEQA’s in-fill exemption.

The court rejected the petitioner’s argument as too rigid of an interpretation of the general plan. The court explained that the city’s determination that the project is consistent with the general plan is entitled to great weight because the city is in the best position to interpret it. The general plan consistency requirement does not require rigid conformity to the general plan. A project is consistent with the general plan if it will further the plan’s objectives and policies, and not obstruct their attainment.

Although the general plan’s density standards would ordinarily require 16 or more units on the site, the city council adopted extensive findings explaining why the project was consistent with the general plan, despite its lower density. In support of its findings, the city council cited a note in the community plan, which states that the residential density recommendations “‘may be subject to modification.’” Further, the community plan provided that modifications could be made to the recommended densities. The general plan provides that the community plans are integral components of the general plan; thus, the court held, the city appropriately considered these statements in the community plan as part of the general plan. The city council found that the project, at seven units, struck a reasonable balance of meeting the city’s housing goals, while also respecting the environmentally sensitive canyons. The city’s code limits development on steep hillsides, and the project proposed design was consistent with the city’s hillside development standards. Further, the project would provide infill residential housing, consistent with the city’s housing policies. As stated by the city council, the project’s “‘creation of seven new dwellings, where there existed two units, would assist the housing needs of the North Park area community.’”

The Court of Appeal concluded that the city’s extensive general plan consistency findings demonstrated that the city considered the general plan, the community plan, and the city’s steep hillside development regulations in approving the project and balanced the competing interest of those plans and regulations. Based on its review of the record, the court concluded that the city acted reasonably and did not abuse its discretion by balancing those competing policies and regulations to determine the project is consistent with the general plan. Accordingly, the court held that substantial evidence supported the city’s reliance on the in-fill exemption.

 

Laura Harris

The First District Court of Appeal Finds That Possible Earthquake or Landslide Zone Is Not an “Environmental Resource” Under Location Exception to Categorical Exemptions

In Berkeley Hills Watershed Coalition v. City of Berkeley (2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 880, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision upholding the city’s determination that the construction of three new single-family homes in the Berkeley hills fell within the scope of the Class 3 categorical exemption.

The project is located in the Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zone (APEFZ). Petitioners contended that the project was subject to the location exception to the Class 3 categorical exemption. That exception provides that the exemption does not apply in instances “where a project may impact on an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern,” which must be “designated, precisely mapped, and officially adopted pursuant to law” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2, subd. (a).) Petitioners argued that the exception applied because the APEFZ is an environmental resource of hazardous concern. The First District disagreed.

The court held that the plain language in the location exception reflects concern with the effect of the project on the environment—not the impact of existing environmental conditions (seismic and landslide risks) on the project. The court found support for its interpretation in the plain meaning of the term “environmental resource,” as well as existing statutes. Citing the dictionary definition of “resource,” the court concluded that earthquakes and landslides are geologic events, not environmental resources, as contemplated by the location exception. Furthermore, while the APEFZ is “officially mapped” in accordance with the Seismic Hazards Mapping Act, that statute was enacted for the purpose of preventing economic loss and protecting health and safety, not to identify the locations of environmental resources. Similarly, as the California Supreme Court affirmed in California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (2015) 62 Cal.4th 369, CEQA is concerned with a project’s significant effects on the environment, not the significant effects of the environment on the project. Finally, the court rejected petitioners’ argument that the trial court’s interpretation of the location exception is inconsistent with Public Resources Code sections 21169.21, subdivisions (h)(4) and (5)—which set forth exceptions to a specific statutory exemption for housing projects located in seismic and landslide hazard areas—reasoning that it cannot extrapolate from that specific exception an intent to apply to a general exception like the location exception.

– Christina Berglund

Fourth District Court of Appeal Holds City’s Use of Historical Baseline Legally Erroneous

In Bottini v. City of San Diego (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 281* the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s ruling ordering the City of San Diego to set aside its determination that the construction of a single-family home required full environmental review.
In February 2011, the Bottini family purchased Windemere Cottage (“Windemere”). At that time, Windemere’s designation as a historical resource was pending before the city’s historical resources board. Shortly thereafter, the board declined to grant historical status to Windemere. In November 2011, the city’s neighborhood code compliance division determined that Windemere constituted a public nuisance and ordered the Bottinis to demolish the structure. They complied. Then in August 2012, the Bottinis applied for a coastal development permit for the construction of a single-family home on the vacant lot. City staff determined that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA, but on an appeal of the determination, the city council ordered a fuller evaluation of the project using a January 2010 baseline, concluding that the demolition of Windemere was part of the project. The council further concluded that the project was not exempt because the unusual circumstances and historic resources exceptions to the exemption applied. In response to the city council’s decision, the Bottinis filed a petition for writ of administrative mandamus seeking to compel the city council to set aside its decision, as well as a complaint alleging constitutional causes of action. The trial court granted the CEQA petition finding that the demolition of Windemere was not a component of the project and therefore the city’s determination that the project is not categorically exempt lacked substantial evidentiary support. It granted summary judgment in favor of the city as to the constitutional claims. The Bottinis and the city cross-appealed.

CEQA
The court of appeal held that an environmental baseline that presumed the existence of the Windemere cottage, which in reality no longer existed at the time the project was proposed, did not accurately reflect the environmental conditions that would be affected by the project. The court dismissed the city’s allegations that the Bottinis “strong-armed” the city into making a public nuisance determination because there was no evidence to support such an allegation. Moreover, the court found that the public nuisance determination confirmed that the demolition permit served a purpose distinct from and not part of the single-family home under review. Thus, the court concluded that the demolition of the cottage could not properly be considered part of the project.

Using the appropriate baseline, the court held that city erred in concluding that the Class 3 exemption did not apply to the project. The construction of a single-family home on a vacant lot is typically categorically exempt. The court further determined that no exceptions to the exemption applied.

Constitutional Violations
The Bottinis alleged three causes of action for violation of the California Constitution’s takings, equal protection, and due process clauses. Regarding the takings claim, the court applied the test set forth in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City (1978) 438 U.S. 104, 124, concluding that the Bottinis did not have a “reasonable investment-backed expectation” because there was no evidence they intended to demolish the cottage when they purchased the property. Even if they had articulated a distinct expectation to do so, there was no basis to conclude that they had a reasonable expectation that they could demolish the cottage to construct a new residence without undertaking any form of environmental review. The court further found that the Bottinis could not sustain a claim for due process because they did not identify any property interest or statutorily conferred benefit of which the city had deprived them. Finally, with respect to equal protection, the court held that the Bottinis did not meet their burden to show that the city’s decision was not rationally related to a legitimate government interest.

  • Review granted, December 19, 2018.

Court Upholds “Existing Facilities” Categorical Exemption for Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant Lease Replacement

World Business Academy v. California State Lands Commission (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 476.

The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is partially situated on state-owned submerged tidal lands managed by the State Land Commission. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued two 49-year leases before the plant began operating in 1985. In 2015, PG&E submitted an application to the State Lands Commission to replace the leases before they expired. In approving the application, the Commission found that the lease replacement was categorically exempt from CEQA under the Class 1 “existing facilities” categorical exemption.

Two non-profit organizations filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the Commission’s decision. They argued that the lease replacement did not qualify for the “existing facilities” exemption, and even if it did, the “unusual circumstances” exception applied. The trial court rejected these contentions and the petitioners appealed.

Upholding the trial court’s decision, the Court of Appeal first rejected the petitioners’ assertion that the nuclear power plant was not an “existing facility” within the meaning of CEQA Guidelines section 15301. The “existing facilities” exemption covers “the operation, repair, maintenance, permitting, leasing, licensing, or minor alteration of existing public or private structures, facilities, mechanical equipment, or topographical features, involving negligible or no expansion of use beyond that existing at the time of the lead agency’s determination.” (Guidelines, § 15301.) The court held that the lease replacement plainly fit within these terms because the nuclear power plant was an existing facility and the lease replacement would not expand its use. According to the court, the petitioner did not point to any evidence that suggested the lease replacement would expand the plant’s current operative condition.

The court also rejected the petitioners’ contention that the “unusual circumstances” exception precluded the Commission for relying on the exemption. That exception applies “where there is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.” (Guidelines, § 15300.2, subd. (c).) The court explained that the party seeking to invoke the unusual circumstances exception is typically required to make a two-part showing: (1) that the project has some feature that distinguishes it from others in the exempt class, such as its size or location, and (2) that there is a reasonable possibility of a significant effect on the environment due to that unusual circumstance. The court found it unnecessary to determine whether the lease replacement presented unusual circumstances (the first part of the test) because, even assuming their existence, the petitioners failed to establish that there was a fair argument that any environmental impacts may occur. In making this determination, the court emphasized that the project was simply a lease replacement, and the environmental impacts alleged by the petitioners were not a change from conditions as they had previously existed under the current leases.

First District Upholds Categorical Exemption with Conditions of Approval and Conditional Use Authorization for Residential Project on Infill Site in Transit Priority Area

In Protect Telegraph Hill v. City and County of San Francisco (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 261, the First District Court of Appeal, Division Three, upheld the City and County of San Francisco’s (city) finding that a conditional use authorization for the restoration of a small cottage and construction of a three-unit condominium on Telegraph Hill was categorically exempt from CEQA, and found that the city’s conditions of approval relating to construction were not mitigation for pedestrian and traffic impacts.

The proposed project is a new three-unit condominium fronting on Telegraph Hill Boulevard, the restoration of an existing small cottage at the back of the property, and three off-street parking spaces. The city planning department determined that the renovation of the cottage was categorically exempt from CEQA under the Class 1 exemption (Guidelines, § 15301, subd. (d)), and construction of the new building was exempt under the Class 3 exemption as a residential structure totaling no more than four dwelling units (Guidelines, § 15303, subd. (b)). The planning commission approved a conditional use authorization with some conditions on construction activity. A neighborhood group appealed both decisions to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The board approved the exemption and the conditional use authorization, with additional conditions on the construction activity. Protect Telegraph Hill filed a petition for writ of mandate, arguing that the city’s findings relating to the exemptions and approval of the conditional use authorization were unsupported by the evidence, the city failed to consider the entire project, and unusual circumstances and the inclusion of mitigation measures made the reliance on categorical exemptions improper. The trial court denied the petition, and Protect Telegraph Hill appealed.

On appeal, the petitioner argued that granting the exemptions was unlawful because the conditions of approval imposed by the city were intended to mitigate environmental impacts from the project’s construction, indicating that the project would have significant impacts and thus could not be exempt from CEQA. The petitioner also argued that the project description was inadequate to determine whether the project was truly exempt and that the unusual circumstances exception applied.

The court concluded that while some of the conditions of approval addressed traffic and pedestrian safety, they were attached to the approval of the conditional use authorization, and not the exemptions. The exemptions were initially approved by the planning department without qualification, while the conditional use authorization was originally approved by the planning commission with certain conditions. The petitioner had to appeal both decisions separately to the Board of Supervisors, which voted separately on each decision, attaching further conditions to the conditional use authorization only. The court also found that there was no substantial evidence in the record suggesting that the project would have significant effects on traffic and pedestrian safety. The court stated that the appellant’s “expressions of concern” in the record were not substantial evidence. The court also rejected attacks on the project description, finding that the included description complied with the requirements in the San Francisco Administrative Code and there was no evidence in the record suggesting the description was deficient.

Turning to the unusual circumstances exception, the court applied the two-part test announced by the California Supreme Court in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086. The city’s conclusion that the unusual circumstances exception was not met is reviewed for substantial evidence. But, if there are unusual circumstances, the court considers whether there is a fair argument that there is a reasonable possibility that the project will have a significant effect.

Protect Telegraph Hill argued that the location of the project on Telegraph Hill was itself an unusual circumstance. But the court found that the city’s determination that there were no unusual circumstances was supported by substantial evidence. While Telegraph Hill is described in the design element of the general plan, the project conformed to the zoning requirements for that area and was similar in proportion to the immediately adjacent buildings. The petitioner also argued that the area was heavily traveled because of its proximity to Coit Tower landmark, but the court agreed with the city that large traffic and pedestrian volumes was “more commonplace than unusual” in San Francisco.

Next, the petitioner argued that the project would impair views of the downtown skyline from the public stairway. The court rejected this argument in part by applying new Public Resources Code section 21099, subdivision (d), which applies to residential urban infill projects in transit priority areas, and requires that aesthetic impacts “shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment.” Additionally, the city considered the project’s impact on views from Coit Tower and Pioneer Park and concluded it would not have an adverse effect. The petitioner also argued that the 30% slope of the lot was an unusual circumstance. The court again agreed with the city that the slope was not unusual for San Francisco and found that the city’s engineering report provided substantial evidence supporting its decision. The petitioner also submitted an engineering report that provided conflicting evidence, but that report did not negate the substantial evidence supporting the city’s conclusion.

Lastly, the petitioner argued that the conditional use authorization finding was unsupported because of the project’s potential to obscure views of the downtown skyline from the stairway. The court held that even if there were some conflict with one policy in the general plan, the policies were not strictly construed and the project was consistent with other policies and the Urban Design Element for Telegraph Hill. Ultimately, the court found that the record supported the city’s conclusion that the project would not change the character of Telegraph Hill, and denied the petition.

First District Upholds Categorical Exemption for Planned Parenthood Clinic and Implied Finding of No Unusual Circumstances Under the “Fair Argument” Test

In Respect Life South San Francisco v. City of South San Francisco (2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 449, the First District Court of Appeal, Division One, upheld the City of South San Francisco’s (City) finding that a conditional use permit for the conversion of an office building into a medical clinic was categorically exempt from CEQA, as well as the City’s implied finding that the unusual circumstances exception did not apply.

The challenged project proposed converting an existing office building into a medical clinic providing a range of services and operated by Planned Parenthood. The City Planning Commission approved the application after a public hearing and found that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA review. Respect Life South San Francisco (Respect Life) appealed that decision to the City Council, arguing that, because of the nature of Planned Parenthood’s services, the project might draw protests that could have environmental impacts. The City Council rejected the appeal and found that the project qualified for three categorical exemptions. Respect Life and three individuals filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the City’s decision. The trial court denied the petition and Respect Life appealed. On appeal, Respect Life admitted that at least one of the exemptions applied, but alleged that the unusual circumstances exception applied, requiring full environmental review.

The court first rejected Planned Parenthood’s argument that Respect Life lacked standing. Planned Parenthood argued that Respect Life had failed to allege that it had a beneficial interest in the litigation, but the court found that the group’s petition included sufficient allegations to establish standing.

The court then articulated the standard of review for categorical exemptions and the unusual circumstances exception under the California Supreme Court’s recent decision in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2016) 60 Cal.4th 1086 (Berkeley Hillside). At the administrative level, a challenger must prove to the agency that 1) there are unusual circumstances, and 2) there is a reasonable possibility of a significant impact because of those circumstances. Upon judicial review, a court applies the deferential “substantial evidence” test to the agency’s decision regarding the first prong, and the non-deferential “fair argument” test to the agency’s decision on the second.

Here, the City denied the administrative appeal and found the project categorically exempt, but made no express finding on the unusual circumstances exception. Thus, the record did not reveal whether the City concluded that the project presented no unusual circumstances (a decision entitled to deference) or had found that, while there were unusual circumstances, there was no reasonable possibility of significant impacts due to those circumstances (a decision reviewed under the non-deferential “fair argument” test). The court determined that when an agency makes an implied finding regarding the unusual circumstances exception, the court must assume that the agency determined that there were unusual circumstances. To uphold the agency’s implied finding that the exception is inapplicable, a court must conclude that the record contains no substantial evidence supporting either 1) the existence of unusual circumstances, or 2) a fair argument that such circumstances will have a significant effect on the environment. Thus, the court applies a non-deferential test to both implied determinations.

In this instance, the court found that even assuming that the first condition had been met by Respect Life, it had not identified any substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the protests may result in significant effects. The court stated that Respect Life contradicted itself by conceding that CEQA review does not consider the identity of the applicant or operator, but also arguing that because the proposed operator is Planned Parenthood, the project might draw protests that will create indirect environmental impacts. The court held that “the possibility of ‘foreseeable First Amendment activity’” does not establish the unusual circumstances exception, where Respect Life “simply assert[ed] that protests will lead to environmental impacts.” The court also found that comments by opponents of abortion, even those that indicated they would protest, were not substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that there is a reasonable possibility that protests will have indirect significant effects on the environment. Ultimately, Respect Life was required, but unable, to point to evidence of the alleged indirect impacts, not just evidence of the protest activity that might lead to such impacts.