Tag: Categorical Exemptions

Sixth District Upholds Categorical Exemption Determination for Microcell Transmitter Project

In Aptos Residents Association v. County of Santa Cruz (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 1039, the Sixth Appellate District upheld a county’s determination that the installation of microcell transmitters on existing utility poles for the purpose of providing wireless coverage was exempt from CEQA review.

The county zoning administrator considered 11 applications for the installation of 13 microcell transmitters in the Day Valley area of Aptos, finding that the project fell within the Class 3 categorical exemption that applies to small structures and that no exceptions to the exemption applied. The petitioner association appealed to the county planning commission, which denied the appeal—and the board of supervisors declined to take jurisdiction over the appeal. The petition for writ of mandate alleged that the county had improperly segmented the project and that several potential exceptions applied to the project, thereby defeating the county’s use of the Class 3 categorical exemption. The petitioner also alleged that the board had abused its discretion in declining to take jurisdiction of the administrative appeal.

With respect to “piecemealing,” the court held that the county had not improperly segmented the project. The applicant’s filing of separate permit applications and the county’s issuance of a separate permit and exemption for each project were not evidence of piecemealing. The court found that throughout the administrative proceedings, the county had considered the entire group of microcell units to be one project. It stated that “[t]he nature of the paperwork required for approval of the project is immaterial.”

Next, the court held that the board had not abused its discretion in finding that new evidence submitted by petitioner about a possible future AT&T project was not significant new evidence relevant to its decision. The petitioner had submitted a declaration from its attorney stating that county staff had been contacted by AT&T about a cell transmitter project in the same area. The court found that the evidence was too vague to support a finding that a possible AT&T project would be of “the same type in the same place.”

The court also held that the location exception to the exemption in CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2, subdivision (a) did not apply. The court rejected the argument that the neighborhood’s residential-agricultural zoning classification designated the area “an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern,” because nothing in the statement of the purpose for that zoning district indicated as much.

Finally, the court found that the unusual circumstances exception also did not apply because petitioner produced no evidence that it is unusual for small structures to be used to provide utility extensions in a rural area or in an area zoned residential-agricultural.

Fourth District Upholds City’s Reliance on Class 3 Categorical Exemption for Wireless Telecommunications Project in Dedicated Park

In Don’t Cell Our Parks v. City of San Diego (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 338, the Court of Appeal held that the approval of a wireless telecommunications facility (WCF) on the edge of a dedicated park did not violate the San Diego City Charter. The court also held that the city’s determination that the project qualified for the Class 3 categorical exemption was supported by substantial evidence, and the project challengers failed to meet their burden of showing that any of the potential exceptions to the use of categorical exemptions precluded the city’s reliance on the exemption here.

In 2014, Verizon Wireless filed an application with the city to build the WCF on the outskirts of Ridgewood Neighborhood Park in San Diego. The project consisted of a 35-foot-tall faux eucalyptus tree and a 220-square-foot equipment enclosure with a trellis roof and a chain link lid.

The city approved the project in 2015 after finding that it was consistent with the city’s charter and was exempt from CEQA under the Class 3 categorical exemption. A local group dubbed Don’t Cell Our Parks (DCOP) filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s decision. The trial court ruled in favor of the city and DCOP appealed.

The court first rejected DCOP’s argument that the project violated the city’s charter. Pursuant to section 55 of the charter, any changed use of a dedicated park must be approved or ratified by the voters. The court concluded this provision did not apply because there was ample evidence to support the conclusion that the project would not change the park’s use or purpose. Nor would the project would disrupt or interfere with park or recreation uses.

DCOP next argued that the project did not qualify for a Class 3 exemption because it was a new stand-alone utility that was not an intended type of urban infill development encompassed by the Class 3 exemption. The court disagreed.

Applying the plain language of CEQA Guidelines section 15303, the court held that the project consisted of the construction and location of a new small facility or structure, within the meaning of the Class 3 exemption. The project was a new small facility totaling 534 square feet, including the above-ground branch diameter of the faux tree. The court noted that while none of the project examples listed in the exemption were exactly like the proposed project, the facility was much smaller than the listed examples of a single-family residence, store, motel, office or restaurant.

DCOP argued that even if the project qualified for the Class 3 exemption, the “unusual circumstances” exception precluded the city’s reliance on the exemption. Under that exception, an agency cannot rely on a categorical exemption if there is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances. In order to prove the exception, project opponents generally must prove (1) that there are unusual circumstances that distinguish the project from other projects in the exempt class and (2) that there is a reasonable possibility of environmental impacts due to those unusual circumstances. DCOP could not satisfy either part of that test.

For the first part, DCOP argued that the project’s location within a dedicated park was an unusual circumstance in and of itself. The court disagreed, noting that there was substantial evidence in the record that at least at least 37 similar facilities already existed in dedicated parks elsewhere in the city. Therefore the city’s determination that the project did not present or arise under unusual circumstances was upheld by the court.

Even assuming, for argument’s sake, that the project was unusual, the court found that DCOP failed to show a reasonable possibility that the unusual circumstances (i.e., the project’s location in the park) would cause any significant environmental impacts. DCOP claimed that the project would have an adverse environmental impact on aesthetics and the park and recreational uses, but the court found that the evidence relied on by DCOP was insufficient even under the “fair argument” standard.

Finally, DCOP argued that the placement of the project in a sensitive and protected resource area— a dedicated park—precluded the use of a categorical exemption under subdivision (a) of Guidelines section 15300.2. The “location exception” is restricted to projects that “may impact on an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern where designated, precisely mapped, and officially adopted pursuant to law by federal, state, or local agencies.” According to the court, DCOP presented no evidence that the park was a location “designated” as an “environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern” by any federal, state or local agency. The court explained that the lack of such a formal designation defeated the application of the exception.

Use It or Lose It? CEQA’s Bicycle Transportation Exemptions and Legislative Efforts to Preserve Them

CEQA and the Guidelines’ statutory and categorical exemptions streamline the environmental review process, and can play a key role in project planning and development. The philosophical underpinning of many exemptions is that the environmental impacts for some types of projects are known to be less-than-significant and the public would benefit from having them expeditiously implemented.

Public Resources Code sections 21080.2 and 21080.20.5 typify this philosophy. Comprised of two bills, A.B. 417 and A.B. 2245 (chaptered together as Stats.2013 Chapter 613), they created exemptions for bicycle transportation plans and certain bicycle projects. However, Chapter 613 will sunset in 2018, unless the Legislature acts. Assembly Bill 1218 (2016–2017) seeks to preserve the exemptions. However, Chapter 613 has been underutilized, in favor of older, more time-tested categorical and statutory exemptions. This underutilization may influence the Legislature’s decision whether to extend the sunset provision, remove it, or allow Chapter 613 to simply expire.

Legislative History of Chapter 613: “One petitioner had the power to delay something good from happening for several years.”

The published legislative history of Chapter 613 reflects that it was passed in reaction to a lengthy and expensive CEQA suit against the City and County of San Francisco. In 2005, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a bicycle transportation plan (Plan). The Plan’s purpose was to promote bicycle transportation and create safe, interconnected routes throughout the city. It called for upgrades to bicycle infrastructure, including separated lanes, painted lanes, and bike parking. It sought to reduce risks to cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists in areas where the data reflected frequent bicycle-involved collisions. In June 2005 the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Commission adopted the Network Improvement Document (Document), a five-year plan to fund and implement the Plan. Believing that there was no possibility that the Plan could have a significant effect on the environment, the agencies proceeded under the “common sense” exemption of CEQA Guidelines, section 15061. (See generally Assem. Com. on Natural Resources, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 417, (2013–2014 Reg. Sess.).)

A CEQA petition followed, spearheaded by an individual, Rob Anderson. The petition alleged that the Plan and Document together formed a “project” under CEQA, that there was a legitimate question that the project could have an effect on the environment, and that environmental review should be conducted. It took nearly two years for the court to rule in Anderson’s favor, and ultimately enjoin the city proceeding, pending compliance with CEQA. Subsequently, the city prepared a draft EIR in 2008. The EIR was finalized, certified, and a Notice of Determination posted in August 2009. Anderson immediately appealed, alleging deficiencies in the EIR. A year later, in August 2010, the court ruled in favor of the city, upholding the EIR. (Ibid.). In short, it took five years to travel from Plan adoption to implementation. When one considers that the Plan and Document themselves likely took years to draft, the planning and implementation horizon for implementing upgrades to urban bikes lanes spanned close to a decade – half of which was spent in CEQA litigation.

Summarizing public frustration, a legislator noted that “one petitioner had the power to delay something good from happening for several years.” (Senate Rules Comm. Analysis of A.B. 416 (2013–2014 Reg. Sess.), p. 4).

To prevent the San Francisco scenario from repeating throughout the state, the Legislature passed Chapter 613. The legislation garnered overwhelming support from both houses – passing unanimously in the Senate and with only three no votes in the Assembly.

Chapter 613’s Provisions and Underutilization

Chapter 613 seemingly strikes a careful balance between the benefits of environmental review and the public interest in promoting bicycle transportation, by exempting qualified bicycle transportation plans from CEQA (§ 21080.20), but only exempting one limited class of bicycle project (§ 21080.20.5.)

Regarding bike plans, Public Resources Code section 21080.20 states that CEQA does not apply to bicycle transportation plans, as defined. To qualify for the exemption, the plan must be prepared pursuant to the Streets and Highways Code section 891.2; be situated in an urban area; and relate to bicycle transportation. The exemption expressly includes plans that have provisions for the restriping of roadways for bike lanes, bicycle parking and storage, signal timing, and related signage.

For bike projects, Public Resources Code section 21080.20.5 only explicitly exempts highway restriping for bike lanes, done pursuant to a bicycle transportation plan. Presumably, other projects implemented under bicycle transportation plans are not exempt.

Under both sections, the lead agency must hold public hearings, solicit input from local residents, and prepare an assessment of the plan or restriping project’s and traffic and safety impacts, including mitigation measures. If the project or plan is approved, the government must file notice with the state and county clerk. Because traffic and safety impacts were the focus in the San Francisco litigation, by mandating disclosure and mitigation measures the exemption directly and proactively addresses the key concerns that a CEQA environmental review process, or lawsuit, would raise. And by only exempting restriping, projects that are more likely to negatively impact the environment are still required to complete an environmental review process.

Despite the promise of Chapter 613, according to OPR data cited by the Natural Resources Committee in its analysis, the bike plan provision it has never been used, and the bike lane project provision has only been utilized three times. (Comm. Analysis, supra., pp. 3–4.) All three times were by the City of Los Angeles, the provision’s original proponent. (It is worth noting that bill’s author statement cites a different statistic, and states that 17 bike projects have utilized the exemptions, although it is not clear if the bill’s author is referring to Chapter 613, or all of CEQA’s exemptions that have been applied to bike projects. (Id. at p. 4.) The underutilization of the exemption is significant for two reasons: 1) five years after passage, it is uncertain as to how it would be applied by local government and interpreted by the courts; and 2) given its lack of use, begs the question of whether the community considers the exemptions to be necessary or if agency staff are aware of or feel encouraged to use them.

A New Hope? A.B. 1218

Chapter 613 will sunset on January 1, 2018. There is legislative momentum in continuing the exemptions, through A.B. 1218. At issue is whether to: renew the exemptions, but strike the sunset provision; to extend the sunset provision for another term; or allow Chapter 613 to sunset, citing its underutilization.

As originally drafted, A.B. 1218 would have removed the sunset provision entirely, and allowed the law to be codified permanently. However, the current version (as of May 2017, amended in Assembly) preserves the exemptions, but only until 2021. The Assembly Natural Resources Committee addressed this issue in its March 30, 2017 Committee Analysis, citing the exemption’s potential utility, but lack of actual use, and recommending that the bill be amended to sunset in 2021.

The Committee seemed to imply that underutilization does not evince a lack of interest in bicycle plans or projects. Rather, government entities have been relying on other, more “established and frequently used categorical exemptions” in CEQA and the Guidelines. CEQA section 21080.19, passed in 1984, exempts projects that restripe streets to relieve traffic congestion. The Committee notes that the CEQA Guidelines have two applicable categorical exemptions: Guidelines section 15301(c), the Class 1 exemption, for development of existing facilities, where there is negligible expansion of an existing use, which specifically includes existing bicycle trails; and Guidelines section 15304 (h), the Class 4 exemption, for minor alternations to land that do not involve removing mature and scenic trees, and specifically includes the creation of bicycle lanes on existing roadways.

A.B. 1281 passed the Assembly in May 2017, and given its overwhelming support in the Senate in 2013, is likely to pass muster there, too.

Conclusion

Within weeks of the court upholding San Francisco’s bike transportation EIR, bike lanes began sprouting up around the city. Areas that had never had bike lanes became connected to established routes. Established routes on prominent streets, many of which were identified as high collision risks in the Plan, were widened, separated, or re-routed to increase safety. Cal. Bike, an advocacy organization, and SFMTA state that bike usage in San Francisco has increased 10% since 2013. Whether one enjoys cycling or not, this infrastructure is heavily utilized, and cycling is becoming an increasingly important segment of our urban transportation mix. Yet, despite the increase in popularity of urban cycling, the future vitality of the bicycle lane exemptions remain in doubt. Supporters of the exemptions should take heed of the Committee Analysis, and be on notice that may face challenges in the Legislature in 2021 if Chapter 613’s muscle does not start getting flexed on the local level.

California Supreme Court Establishes Two-Part Test for Determining Whether the “Unusual Circumstances” Exception Applies to a Categorical Exemption

The California Supreme Court reversed the First District Court of Appeal’s decision that the “unusual circumstances” exception in CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2, subdivision (c), precluded the City of Berkeley’s finding that a single-family residence qualified for a categorical exemption. That section provides that a categorical exemption “shall not be used for an activity where there is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.” The Supreme Court established a two-part test for determining whether the “unusual circumstances” exception applies. Berkeley Hillside Preservation, et al. v. City of Berkeley, et al. (March 2, 2015) __ Cal.4th __, Case No. S201116.

Homeowners in the Berkeley hills applied to demolish their house, and to construct a new, two–floor, 6,478 square-foot house with an attached 3,394 square-foot ten-car garage on a steep lot in a heavily wooded area. The City concluded the proposed project fell within the Class 3 (new construction of small structures) and Class 32 (infill) categorical exemptions. Project opponents hired an engineer who submitted letters stating the grading required would result in unstable conditions and could cause landslides during an earthquake. The homeowners’ engineer submitted a report stating the opponents’ engineer had misread the plans. The City eventually approved the proposed project, relying on the categorical exemptions.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the “unusual circumstances” exception under CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2, subdivision (c), applied. According to the court, if there is a fair argument the project may result a significant impact, then by definition the circumstances are “unusual.” Finding substantial evidence of a fair argument that the proposed residential project may have a significant environmental effect, the court held the proposed project was not categorically exempt. The Court of Appeal ordered the trial court to issue a writ of mandate directing the City to set aside the project approval and its finding of a categorical exemption, and to order preparation of a full EIR. Thereafter, Respondents filed a petition for review in the Supreme Court, which the Court granted on May 23, 2012.

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal. In the majority opinion, authored by Justice Chin, the Court laid out a two-part test for determining whether the unusual circumstances exception applies. Under the first part of the test, the lead agency must determine whether there are “unusual circumstances,” which the court reviews under the “substantial evidence” standard of review.

Under the second part of the test, if the lead agency determines in the first instance that unusual circumstances exist, the lead agency then considers whether there is a fair argument that the proposed activity may have a significant environmental effect.

In coming to its decision, the Court relied, in part, on the rules governing statutory interpretation requiring that every phrase in a statute (and regulation) be given meaning. The Court turned to the plain text of section 15300.2, subdivision (c), and concluded that the phrase “due to unusual circumstances” has meaning and cannot be read out of the regulation. Thus, the Court of Appeal incorrectly held that a proposed project may have a significant effect on the environment is itself an unusual circumstance rendering the categorical exemption inapplicable.

Justice Liu authored the concurring opinion in which Justice Werdegar joined. The concurring opinion agreed with the Court’s reversal and remand of the appellate court’s decision. Parting ways with the majority, however, Justice Liu disagreed with the Court’s reading of CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2, subdivision (c). The concurring opinion advocated for a one-part test, observing that “‘unusual circumstances’ and ‘significant effects’ have invariably traveled together.” According to the concurring opinion, the phrase “unusual circumstances” in section 15300.2, subdivision (c), “simply describes the nature of a project that, while belonging to a class of projects that typically have no significant environmental effects, nonetheless may have such effects.” Justice Liu thus concluded that the standard of review is limited to whether substantial evidence supports a fair argument that the project will have significant environmental effects.

The majority acknowledged that evidence that the project will have a significant effect does tend to prove that some circumstance of the project is unusual. The majority also explained that in considering the first part of the test, the lead agency has “discretion to consider conditions in the vicinity of the proposed project.” The Court stated that the appellate court had erred in determining that the unusual circumstances inquiry excludes consideration of typical circumstances in a particular neighborhood. Beyond that, though, the Court provided little guidance on the legal test for what constitutes “unusual circumstances.”

The Court also addressed the proper remedy on remand. Relying on Public Resources Code section 21168.9, the Court stated that on remand the Court of Appeal could order preparation of an EIR only if it found that neither of the categorical exemptions applied and if the City lacked discretion to apply another exemption or to issue a negative declaration.

 

Note: The opinion was modified on May 27, 2015. These changes do not affect the result of the case.