In Arcadians for Environmental Preservation v. City of Arcadia (2023) 88 Cal.App.5th 418, the Second District Court of Appeal upheld a finding by the City of Arcadia that a project to expand and add a second story to a single-family home was categorically exempt from CEQA. In doing so, the court concluded that petitioner failed to exhaust its administrative remedies regarding the scope of the exemption and failed to demonstrate that the city improperly relied on the exemption.
Over a nearly two-year period beginning in June 2018, project applicant submitted, revised, and re-submitted an application to her homeowners’ association (HOA), seeking to expand the first floor of her single-family home and add a second floor. In April 2020, after the HOA’s architectural review board twice rejected her project, the applicant appealed the rejection to the city’s planning commission.
In May 2020, after a noticed hearing, the planning commission voted to conditionally approve the project, so long as various proposed changes were incorporated. The planning commission found that the project qualified for a Class 1 categorical exemption for modifications to existing structures.
The applicant’s neighbor appealed the planning commission’s approval to the city council. The city council upheld the planning commission’s decision.
The neighbor then formed the petitioner organization and filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the city’s compliance with CEQA. Shortly thereafter, the city filed a Notice of Exemption for the project. The trial court denied the petition. Petitioner appealed.
Court of Appeal’s Decision
The court held that (1) petitioner failed to exhaust its administrative remedies on the issue of whether the project was within the scope of the Class 1 exemption, (2) the city did not abuse its discretion by impliedly determining that no exceptions to the categorical exemption applied, and (3) petitioner failed to demonstrate that the cumulative impacts exception precluded the city’s reliance on the Class 1 exemption.
Failure to Adequately Exhaust
Petitioner argued that the city erred in determining the Class 1 exemption applied and cited the neighbor’s comments during his administrative appeal as support that petitioner had adequately exhausted on this issue. The court disagreed, reasoning that the neighbor (or anyone else) failed to articulate why the Class 1 exemption was inapplicable. Instead, the court noted that the neighbor made only “general references to potential environmental impacts” that did not fairly apprise the city of petitioner’s specific objection that the exemption did not apply.
The court rejected petitioner’s argument that its member had impliedly objected to the city’s exemption finding by requesting an EIR. The court conceded that a request for an EIR suggests a belief that no exemption applies but explained that such a request nevertheless does not adequately notify the agency about the substance of the challenge.
The court acknowledged that CEQA’s exhaustion requirement may be excused if the agency provides no opportunity for public comment or fails to give notice; however, it concluded that petitioner’s failure to exhaust was not excused in this case. Although the city did not consistently identify the specific subdivision of the Class 1 exemption that it relied on, the court concluded that this discrepancy was immaterial.
Exceptions to the Exemption
The court next rejected petitioner’s argument that the city failed to proceed in a manner required by law by failing to expressly consider whether an exception precluded the application of the Class 1 exemption. The court explained that the city’s determination that the Class 1 exemption applied necessarily included an implied finding that no exception precluded its application. The court reasoned that, while the city could not ignore contrary record evidence when making its finding, the finding did not need to be express.
After noting that there was “some question” whether petitioner’s comments during the administrative appeal preserved an argument that the cumulative impacts exception precluded the application of the Class 1 exemption, the court concluded that, regardless, that the argument failed on its merits.
The court concluded that petitioner’s general reference to “cumulative environmental effects caused by multiple large-scale projects,” along with identification of various nearby projects, did not amount to evidence of actual impacts that would result from the project and other nearby projects. The court rejected petitioner’s evidence that the cumulative impacts exception applied as “pure speculation” that could not, without more, preclude application of the Class 1 exemption.