Tag: CEQA

Fourth District Court of Appeal Finds San Diego County Climate Action Plan and Supplemental EIR Inadequate Under CEQA

On June 12, 2020, the Fourth District Court Appeal issued a decision in Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego (2020) ___ Cal.App.5th___ invalidating San Diego County’s approval of a Climate Action Plan and related Guidelines for Determining Significance of Climate Change, and holding that the County’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Report failed to comply with CEQA. In what is now the third published decision dealing with San Diego County’s 2011 general plan update process, the Fourth District panel largely affirmed the trial court’s judgment in the three consolidated cases challenging the County’s adoption of the CAP and SEIR, including with respect to the primary issue in the case—whether the County’s GHG mitigation measure allowing for the purchase of out-of-County carbon offset credits complied with CEQA. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment on some issues, however, finding the CAP to be sufficiently consistent with the County’s general plan update and the County’s responses to comments on the SEIR adequate under CEQA.

Background

In 2011, San Diego County prepared a Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) and adopted a general plan update (GPU) for the unincorporated areas of the County. In order to mitigate GHG emissions that would result from buildout of the general plan update to a level consistent with State-mandated GHG emissions reductions targets, the PEIR included a mitigation measure requiring that the County prepare a climate action plan (CAP). The County began preparing the CAP following the adoption of the GPU, which generally entailed establishing a baseline inventory of known and foreseeable GHG emissions in the County and developing 26 GHG emissions reduction measures for future development projects to implement. The County also prepared a checklist and Guidelines for Determining the Significance of GHG Emissions so that future projects’ consistency with the CAP could be assessed as part of the CEQA process.

In 2018, in order to evaluate the environmental impacts of implementing the CAP, the County prepared a Supplemental EIR (SEIR). The SEIR acknowledged that more than 20 projects proposing general plan amendments were in-process but not approved at the time the SEIR was prepared, and that such projects could result in significant GHG emissions not accounted for in the CAP. To mitigate these potentially significant GHG emissions, the County devised a mitigation measure, M-GHG-1, requiring that any projects that would increase the density or intensity of land use above what is permitted under the GPU to mitigate emissions to a level consistent with the CAP assumptions (i.e., net zero or no new emissions). Under M-GHG-1, mitigation of GHG-emissions was to be accomplished first by incorporating all feasible onsite design features, such as measures to prioritize transit, biking, and walking. Then, in the event project design features were unavailable or insufficient to fully mitigate the additional GHG emissions, M-GHG-1 allowed for the use of offsite mitigation, including the purchase of carbon offset credits, which could be obtained from certain qualifying registries relying on offsets located virtually anywhere in the world.

Following the County’s adoption of the SEIR, CAP, and related Guidelines for Determining the Significance of GHG Emissions, Sierra Club and Golden Door Properties filed separate petitions for a writ of mandate challenging the County’s approvals, alleging multiple violations arising under CEQA and Planning and Zoning Law. After consolidating the two actions (along with a third, previously-stayed case), the trial court granted a peremptory writ of mandate, ordering the County to set aside its approvals. The trial court determined that the CAP was inconsistent with the General Plan, and that mitigation measure M-GHG-1’s reliance on out-of-County carbon offsets violated CEQA. The trial court also determined that the SEIR violated CEQA by inadequately analyzing cumulative impacts, impacts to energy and environmental justice, and project alternatives, and that the County failed to adequately respond to comments on the draft SEIR.

Following the entry of judgment and issuance of the writ, the County appealed.

Court of Appeal

While the appellate court’s 123-page decision addresses a host of legal issues, the primary issue on appeal was whether the SEIR mitigation measure M-GHG-1 violated CEQA’s requirements for mitigation due to the standards imposed, or lack thereof, for the use of out-of-County offsets to mitigate GHG emissions in projects requiring a general plan amendment. Citing CEQA Guidelines section 15126.4, subdivision (c)(3), the court explained that while it is well-established that the use of offsets can be part of a GHG mitigation strategy, the use of such offsets must be “properly restricted” with “verified offsets” that ensure GHG reductions in fact occur. Here, the appellate court held, M-GHG-1 failed to satisfy CEQA’s requirements for adequate GHG mitigation.

Relying heavily on the standards governing the State Cap-and-Trade Program and related California Air Resources Board regulations, the court of appeal agreed with the trial court that the County’s GHG mitigation measure M-GHG-1 lacked sufficient performance standards to ensure the offsets relied on are “real, permanent, verifiable, and enforceable.” Specifically, the court noted that while M-GHG-1 contained some standards governing the entities through which offsets may be purchased, namely, a CARB-approved registry or “any other reputable registry or entity that issues carbon offsets consistent with … [Health and Safety Code] section 38562 [subdivision] (d)(1),” M-GHG-1 did not include any standards or protocols that such qualifying registries must implement to ensure the validity of the offset credits claimed. In the absence of such standards or safeguards, the court found that M-GHG-1 failed to adequately ensure offsets are real, additional, and enforceable and for that reason was inadequate under CEQA.

In addition to the lack of sufficient standards for out-of-County carbon offsets, the court of appeal also held that M-GHG-1 violated CEQA as the measure improperly deferred mitigation. Under M-GHG-1, the County planning director was afforded discretion to approve the use of particular offsets, including determinations such as whether the issuing entity is “reputable” and whether there are no other “financially feasible” offsets “available” in a closer location. On this issue, the court explained that while CEQA allows the specific details of a mitigation measure to be developed after project approval where it is impractical or otherwise infeasible to do so during the environmental review process, in such instances that agency must (1) commit itself to the mitigation, (2) adopt specific performance standards the mitigation will achieve, and (3) identifies the type(s) of potential action(s) that can feasibly achieve that performance standard and that will be considered, analyzed, and potentially incorporated in the mitigation measure.n this case, the court held that M-GHG-1 failed to meet these requirements.

In holding M-GHG-1 violated CEQA as an improper deferral of mitigation, the court of appeal emphasized that M-GHG-1 contained no objective standards for the director to apply in determining whether offsets originating in foreign countries are real, permanent, verifiable, enforceable, and additional. As the court explained, M-GHG-1 entrusted the planning director with making several determinations such as whether the proposed offset registry is “reputable” or whether other offsets are “financially feasible,” however, the measure lacked objective criteria to govern such determinations. Further, the court held that because M-GHG-1 failed to comply with CEQA, the County’s CAP was also inadequate, because, to the extent the CAP assumed that in-process and future projects requiring a general plan amendment would not result in significant GHG impacts based on compliance with M-GHG-1, the County’s finding was not supported by substantial evidence.

In addition to the court’s lengthy analysis of M-GHG-1, the court of appeal’s decision also considered the plaintiff’s arguments that the County’s SEIR failed to comply with CEQA on several other grounds. The appellate court largely agreed with the plaintiffs and affirmed the trial court’s decision, including finding that the SEIR’s cumulative impact analysis was inadequate by failing to analyze impacts other than GHG emissions; that the County’s finding of consistency with the SANDAG Regional Transportation Plan was not supported by substantial evidence; and that the County’s alternatives analysis was inadequate for failing to consider a project alternative aimed at reducing vehicle miles traveled or “VMT”. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment on two issues, however, finding the County’s determination the CAP was consistent with the general plan update was adequately supported under the highly deferential standard of review and that the County’s responses to comments on the draft SEIR were sufficient under CEQA.

Fourth District Reverses Dismissal, Holds Streets and Highway Code Does Not Exempt Caltrans Project from CEQA Review, and Petition Adequately Pled Equitable Estoppel

In Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans Decision v. Department of Transportation (March 24, 2020, D074374) __Cal.App.5th__, the Fourth District Court of Appeal overturned the San Diego County Superior Court’s judgment sustaining the California Department of Transportation’s (Caltrans) demurrer and dismissal of Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans Decision’s (CRCD) petition for writ of mandate. The petition claimed Caltrans improperly exempted a highway interchange project from CEQA review and engaged in misconduct that precluded Petitioner from timely filing the action. The Court of Appeal found that Streets and Highway Code section 103 did not exempt the project from CEQA review, and the petition sufficiently plead facts about Caltrans’ misrepresentation of the review process to establish a factual dispute about whether Caltrans was equitably estopped from asserting the 35-day statute of limitations defense.

Background

In 2005, Caltrans filed a notice of preparation (NOP) for an EIR analyzing construction of two freeway interchange ramps that would connect the I-5 and SR 56 highways in San Diego (the I-5/SR56 Project). The I-5/SR56 Project was part of the larger North Coastal Corridor (NCC) project — a multi-project effort proposed by Caltrans and the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to improve transportation in the La Jolla and Oceanside area.

Streets and Highway Code section 103 went into effect in January 2012. The section provides the California Coastal Commission with integrated regulatory review of a “public works plan” (PWP) for NCC projects, rather than traditional project-by-project review and approval. Four months later, Caltrans circulated a Draft EIR for the I-5/SR56 Project. The Draft EIR explained that “following circulation of the FEIR, if the decision is made to approve the Project, a Notice of Determination (NOD) will be published for compliance with CEQA and a Record of Decision will be published for compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).”

In October 2013, Caltrans issued an FEIR for a separate NCC highway-widening project. The report explained that section 103 did not eliminate project-specific CEQA or NEPA review—rather, it provided the Coastal Commission with streamlined review. In 2014, Caltrans and SANDAG issued, and the Coastal Commission approved, the PWP for the 40-year NCC project. The PWP explained that it did not supplant CEQA, NEPA, or other regulatory review schemes for individual projects proposed under the NCC.

In June 2017, Caltrans released a Final EIR for the I-5/SR56 Project. The report reiterated that, if it approves the Project, the agency will publish a NOD to comply with CEQA and a Record of Decision to comply with NEPA. However, in contradiction to the language above, the Final EIR also added that the passage of section 103, together with Public Resources Code section 21080.5, “mandate that instead of being analyzed under CEQA, the [NCC Project] and all of the projects included therein, shall be addressed under the CCC’s review per its certified regulatory program.” The FEIR reasoned that because the I-5/SR56 Project was identified in the PWP, and the Coastal Commission approved it in 2013, CEQA review was no longer required.

Though Caltrans concluded CEQA no longer applied to the I-5/SR56 Project, it maintained that public disclosure of the Project’s impacts was “still desirable.” Therefore, it released the Final EIR to satisfy CEQA’s analytical and disclosure requirements, and provided the public with a 30-day review and comment period from July 14, 2017 to August 14, 2017. However, before this period commenced, Caltrans approved a “project report” for the I-5/SR56 Project on June 30, 2017, and filed a Notice of Exemption (NOE) on July 12, 2017. The NOE concluded that the Project was exempt from CEQA and its impacts were analyzed pursuant to the Coastal Commission’s certified regulatory program.

CRCD’s counsel first became aware of the NOE on September 28, 2017. After Caltrans refused CRCD’s request to rescind the NOE or agree to a 180-day statute of limitations, CRCD filed a petition for writ of mandate and declaratory relief 35 days later on November 1, 2017. Caltrans filed a demurrer to the petition and the trial court sustained it without leave to amend. The trial court entered a judgment dismissing the petition with prejudice. CRCD appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Fourth District reviewed the trial court’s decision denying CRCD leave to amend and sustaining Caltrans’ demurrer de novo, and considered: (1) whether Streets and Highway Code section 103 exempts the I-5/SR56 Project from CEQA review; and (2) whether CRCD’s petition sufficiently alleged facts showing Caltrans was equitably estopped from raising the 35-day statute of limitations. The Court treated Caltrans’ demurrer as having admitted all of the properly pled material facts in the petition. The Court stated that a demurrer brought on statute of limitations grounds will be overruled if the relevant facts do not clearly establish that the action is time-barred.

Section 103 Does Not Exempt Caltrans from Conducting CEQA Review of the I-5/SR56 Project

First, the Court applied traditional rules of statutory construction to interpret section 103 as a matter of first impression. The Court held that the section did not statutorily exempt Caltrans from conducting CEQA review of the I-5/SR56 Project because it only exempted the Coastal Commission’s approval of the PWP. The Court reasoned that the Legislature intended the PWP to function as a “long range development plan” that could be approved under a certified regulatory program, pursuant to Public Resources Code sections 21080.09 and 21080.5. This certified regulatory program only provided the Coastal Commission with approval authority. Further, section 103 only authorizes the Coastal Commission to prepare substitute documents when certifying or approving the PWP; it did not exempt Caltrans from conducting project-level CEQA review and preparing an EIR for the I-5/SR56 Project.

Finally, the Court rejected Caltrans’ argument that the Coastal Commission’s approval of the PWP implicitly approved the I-5/SR56 Project. The Court explained that the PWP included numerous alternative projects for the NCC, but did not include the I-5/SR56 Project, as defined in the Final EIR. Had the Legislature intended to exempt Caltrans from preparing an EIR for the Project, or provide Caltrans with a certified regulatory program, it would have expressly done so. Because the plain language of section 103 does not provide for such exemptions, Caltrans was required to conduct individual, project-level CEQA review of the Project.

Petitioner Alleged Sufficient Facts Showing Caltrans Was Equitably Estopped from Relying on the Statute of Limitations Defense to Overcome Caltrans’ Demurrer

The Court’s independent review of the petition indicated that CRCD pled facts that sufficiently showed Caltrans was equitably estopped from relying on the 35-day statute of limitations for actions challenging notices of exemptions. A government agency may be estopped from asserting a statute of limitations defense if the petition indicates that the agency’s fraudulent or misrepresentative conduct prevented a reasonably prudent person from timely seeking legal advice or commencing litigation. Here, Caltrans informed the public in its Draft and Final EIRs that Caltrans would file a NOD if it decided to approve the I-5/SR56 Project. However, Caltrans did not inform the public, commenters, or interested parties about its decision to file a NOE instead of a NOD. Caltrans’ statements and conduct further suggested that it would not approve the Project until mid-August 2017, after the public comment and review period closed. The Court held that there was, at minimum, a disputed question of fact whether, by approving the Project in early July after repeatedly stating that project approval would follow the announced Final EIR circulation and review period, Caltrans misled CRCD about facts Caltrans intended to be acted on. CRCD’s petition adequately pled that CRCD was ignorant of the true state of facts, which precluded CRCD from commencing the instant action before the 35-day statute of limitations period expired.

For these reasons, the Court held that Caltrans’ demurrer must be overruled and the trial court’s judgment dismissing CRCD’s petition must be reversed and vacated.

Bridget K. McDonald

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

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

Third District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Chico Walmart Expansion Against Challenge to Urban Decay Analysis

In a partially published decision issued on October 3, 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment upholding an EIR for a Walmart expansion project in Chico against challenges to the EIR’s urban decay analysis. (Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy v. City of Chico (2019) 40 Cal.App.5th 839.)

In 2015, Walmart applied to the city to expand its existing Chico store in a regional retail center that includes the Chico Mall and several national chain retail stores. A FoodMaxx grocery store is also nearby. Walmart planned to expand its existing store by approximately 64,000 square feet, add an eight-pump gas station, and create two new outparcels for future commercial development. Approximately 49,000 square feet of the new space would be used for grocery-related sales.

The city prepared an EIR for the project that included, among other things, a “robust 43-page urban decay analysis.” The urban decay analysis was supported by a 123-page expert study prepared by ALH Urban & Regional Economics. The purpose of the ALH study was to assess the economic impact of the project on retailers in the surrounding area and to evaluate the extent to which the project could contribute to store closures and urban decay. For purposes of the study, “urban decay” was defined as “visible symptoms of physical deterioration . . . that is caused by a downward spiral of business closures and long term vacancies . . . [and]. . . so prevalent, substantial, and lasting for a significant period of time that it impairs the proper utilization of the properties and structures, and the health, safety, and welfare of the surrounding community.”

The ALH study concluded that, on its own, the project would have a negligible impact on sales for competing retailers and that store closures were not expected to follow. Based on these findings, the EIR concluded that the project would not cause the type of severe economic effects that would lead to urban decay. With regard to cumulative impacts, the ALH study concluded that the project, when combined with other planned retail projects in the area, could induce the closure of one full-service grocery store. The city’s retail vacancy rate, however, would only increase by approximately one percent and would remain “well within the range of a robust, healthy commercial retail sector.” The EIR further explained that Chico has a strong history of “backfilling” store vacancies, that existing vacant properties are well-maintained, and that the city has regulations to prevent decay and blight. For these reasons, the EIR concluded that although some economic impacts were expected, cumulative impacts likely would not result in urban decay.

Following the city’s certification of the EIR, Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy (CARE) challenged the urban decay analysis in an administrative appeal to the city council. CARE supported its challenge with its own “retail expert” report refuting the city’s analysis. The city council denied the appeal.  CARE then filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking to rescind the EIR and project approvals. The trial court denied the petition in full and CARE appealed.

On appeal, CARE challenged the EIR’s urban decay analysis on two grounds. First, CARE argued that the EIR relied on an “unnaturally constrained” definition of “urban decay” and, as a result, failed to treat the loss of “close and convenient shopping” as a significant environmental impact. Second, CARE argued that, due to flaws in the ALH study’s methodology, the EIR’s urban decay findings were not supported by substantial evidence.

Addressing the first issue, the court began its discussion by explaining the applicable standard of review for allegations that an EIR failed to include necessary information. Citing the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (2018) 6 Cal.5th 502, the court explained that CARE’s argument presented the predominantly legal question of whether the EIR included enough detail “to enable those who did not participate in its preparation to understand and consider meaningfully the issues raised by the proposed project,” which is subject to independent review. On this issue, the court found “CARE’s argument lacks merit – the City did not violate CEQA because the potential loss of close and convenient shopping is not an environmental issue that must be reviewed under CEQA.” “CEQA is concerned with physical changes in the environment,” the court explained, and “[a]lthough the loss of close and convenient shopping could impact some Chico residents psychologically and socially, such impacts are not, by themselves, environmental impacts.”

Next, the court turned to CARE’s attack on the methodology for the urban decay analysis. CARE alleged three flaws with the urban decay study’s methodology. First, CARE argued that the study relied on incorrect assumptions for calculating the anticipated grocery sales. Second, CARE argued that the study underestimated impacts on Chico stores by incorrectly assuming shoppers from the neighboring Town of Paradise would patronize the Walmart. Lastly, CARE argued that the study incorrectly assumed economic impacts would be spread amongst existing stores, rather than concentrated on the closest competitor – the FoodMaxx grocery.

In rejecting each of CARE’s arguments, the court explained that challenges to the EIR’s methodology are reviewed under the substantial evidence standard. Under this standard, challenges to the EIR’s methodology “must be rejected unless the agency’s reasons for proceeding as it did are clearly inadequate or unsupported.” Moreover, the court explained, when an agency is faced with conflicting evidence on an issue, it is permissible to give more weight to some evidence than others – mere “disagreement among experts” does not render an EIR inadequate.

In this case, the court concluded that CARE’s challenge amounted to “nothing more than differences of opinion about how the Project’s expected grocery sales should be estimated, how the Project’s market area should be defined, and which competitors are most susceptible to impacts from the Project.” These differences in opinion, the court explained, did not render the EIR’s analysis clearly inadequate or unsupported. Therefore, CARE’s challenge failed under the substantial evidence test.

The court further noted that although CARE’s own expert report showed additional store closures would occur, CARE failed to demonstrate how such closures would lead to urban decay. As the court explained, “Store closures, by themselves, do not amount to urban decay.”

Second District Invalidates EIR’s Project Description For Failing to Provide Sufficient Detail and Certainty.

In Stopthemillenniumhollywood.com et al. v. City of Los Angeles et al. (2019) 39 Cal.App.5th 1, the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s conclusion that an EIR for a mixed-use development project proposed by Millennium Hollywood, LLC (Millennium) in the City of Los Angeles (City) violated CEQA as a matter of law, because it failed to provide an accurate, stable, and finite project description.

In 2008, Millennium filed an application—which the Court of Appeal described as detailed—with the City proposing a mixed-use development project (2008 Proposal) on 4.47 acres in multiple parcels straddling two sides of Vine Street, between Yucca Street and Hollywood Boulevard, in the Hollywood Community Plan area of the City. The 2008 Proposal described a mixed-use development with 492 residential units, a 200-unit hotel, 100,000 square feet of office space, a 35,000-square-foot sports club and spa, 11,000 square feet of commercial uses, and 34,000 square feet of food and beverage uses. In total, proposed square footage was 1,163,079. Two historic buildings on site, the Capital Records Tower and Gogerty Building, would be preserved. The development would consist of two low-rise buildings, one on each side of Vine Street, with three towers intended to “frame” the Capital Records Tower. The 2008 Proposal would have required a zone change to allow the sports club, as well as a variance to allow the proposed density. After the City informed Millennium that a variance from the General Plan Floor Area Ratio (FAR) requirement would also be necessary, the project was put on hold.

In 2011, Millennium filed a new application with a new project description for the same site (2011 Project). Millennium still proposed a mixed-use development with residential, hotel, and retail uses totaling 1,166,970 square feet and a FAR of 6:1. Though the same mix of uses were proposed, the 2011 Project was “designed to create an impact ‘envelope’ within which a range of development scenarios can occur.” Thus, the specific shape, size, location, use, and number of buildings to be constructed on the site were not described, other than that the existing historic buildings would be preserved. Instead, Millennium sought to enter into a development agreement with the City that would establish the permitted developable floor area, land uses, design guidelines, and development standards for the site. Additionally, the 2011 Project included a land use equivalency program (LUEP) allowing the transfer of floor area between parcels on the site. The EIR analyzed the maximum level of impacts that could occur under the development agreement, regardless of which of the several development scenarios was actually constructed in the future.

Commenters on the Draft EIR complained that the imprecise project description hindered meaningful public participation. Nevertheless, the City approved the development agreement, certified the EIR, adopted mitigation for the analyzed maximum level of impacts and adopted a statement of overriding considerations. Petitioners, Stopthemillenniumhollywood.com, Communities United for Reasonable Development, and George Abrahams (collectively, Petitioners) petitioned the Los Angeles Superior Court for a writ of mandate setting aside project approval and certification of the EIR. Petitioners alleged three causes of action relating to violations of CEQA. First, they alleged that the EIR failed to include an accurate, stable, and finite project description. The second cause of action asserted that the City abused its discretion by failing to study traffic impacts to the 101 freeway despite Caltran’s direction that the City do so. The third cause of action alleged that the City failed to consult with the California Geological Survey regarding potential seismic hazards on the site. The trial court granted the petition as to the first and second causes of action, but not the third.

On the first cause of action, the trial court found that the project description was not stable or finite, and that the use of the word “or” in a condition of approval allowed Millennium, or future developers, to choose any permitted use listed for the C2 zone in the LAMC for future development, not just the list of proposed uses in the development agreement. The trial court reasoned that, though there may be circumstances where a project description may disclose only the physical parameters and maximum potential environmental impacts, no such circumstances were present here. The trial court distinguished Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island v. City and County of San Francisco (2014) 227 Cal.App.4th 1036 (Treasure Island), on the grounds that that case dealt with a site contaminated by hazardous materials, and it was unknown when cleanup of the site would be completed. The trial court noted that the development in Treasure Island included both fixed elements (including the street grid) and conceptual elements that would “likely” be subject to supplemental CEQA review. The trial court concluded that neither element was present here.

The trial court also found that, by including an ambiguous project description, the EIR impermissibly deferred part of the analysis of environmental impacts. Specifically, the trial court found that, because no specific “concept” was analyzed, the EIR did not explain how exceedance of the maximum impacts would be avoided when the project was actually designed and built; nor was additional CEQA review contemplated by either the EIR or the development agreement. The trial court determined that, without knowing the “bona fide subject” of the EIR, it would be impossible for the public and decisionmakers to accurately weigh the “environmental price tag” of the proposal and decide if the benefits outweigh that price.

The City and Millennium appealed the trial court’s decision as to the first and second cause of action, while Petitioners appealed the decision on the third cause of action. The Court of appeal, after ruling on the first cause of action, determined that it need not reach the other issues raised by the parties.

In affirming the trial court, the Court of Appeal looked to County of Inyo v. City of Los Angeles (1977) 71 Cal.App.3d 185 (County of Inyo), and Washoe Meadows Community v. Department of Parks and Recreation (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 277 (Washoe Meadows). The Court cited County of Inyo for the proposition that, even where an inaccurate project description does not render invalid the analysis of environmental effects, it may nevertheless violate CEQA by interfering with “intelligent public participation.” The Court found further support for this position in Washoe Meadows, where the First District held that a failure to select or identify a specific project in the Draft EIR interfered with the public’s right to participate in CEQA review.

In the case before it, the Court found that the project description “fail[ed] to describe the siting, size, mass, or appearance of any building proposed to be built at the project site” and that the proposed development regulations imposed only vague and ambiguous limits on future construction choices. The Court held that, even if the analysis of maximum impacts were adequate—despite the project description, “CEQA’s purposes go beyond an evaluation of theoretical environmental impacts.” The Court determined that the project description violated CEQA as a matter of law.

In reaching its decision, the Court distinguished South of Market Community Action Network v. City and County of San Francisco (2019) 33 Cal.App.5th 321 (South of Market), on two grounds. First, the Court found that the only “uncertainty” at issue in South of Market was that the project description presented a choice of either a predominately office use or a predominately residential use, but the EIR did not select one or the other. Second, the Court found that the EIR in South of Market “included ‘site plans, illustrative massing, building elevations, cross-sections and representative floor plans for both options.”’ Because the EIR before it did not include these “technical characteristics” of the project, the Court concluded that it failed to comply with CEQA’s mandates. The Court also largely agreed with basis for the trial court’s distinguishing of Treasure Island, supra, 227 Cal.App.4th 1036, finding that no unusual circumstances were present in this case, and that future planning and development of the project would not be subject to additional environmental review. Lastly, the Court found the violation to be prejudicial because it interfered with public participation.

As stated above, the Court determined that it need not address the other issues raised by the parties. The Court dismissed an argument that Public Resources Code section 21168.9 required them to rule on each issue raised in a CEQA appeal. The Court found that section applied only to the trial court’s order on remand, which is to address only those mandates from the Court of Appeal that are necessary to comply with CEQA. The Court found that the trial court’s judgment was correct on at least one ground, so it was affirmed.

Nathan George

California Supreme Court Holds Adoption of Zoning Ordinance for Medical Marijuana Dispensaries is a “Project” Subject to CEQA

On August 19, 2019, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego (2019) 7 Cal.5th 1171, in which the Court unanimously held that the City of San Diego’s adoption of a zoning ordinance for medical marijuana dispensaries is a “project” subject to CEQA. Although the Court agreed with the Fourth District Court of Appeal and the city in rejecting the petitioner’s argument that the adoption of a zoning ordinance is always a project, as a matter of law, under Public Resources Code section 21080, the Court reasoned that the adoption of the ordinance at issue was nonetheless the type of activity which, by its general nature, “is capable of causing a direct or reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment.” As such, the Court held, it is a “project” subject to CEQA.

Background

In 2014, the city adopted a zoning ordinance authorizing the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries in the city and imposing various restrictions on their location and operation. The ordinance specified zones where dispensaries are permitted, included a cap on the number of dispensaries in any one district, restricted their proximity to sensitive uses, and imposed basic conditions on lighting, security, and hours of operation. At the time the ordinance was proposed, the city determined that the adoption of the ordinance did not constitute a “project” for purposes of CEQA. The city, therefore, did not conduct any environmental review prior to adopting the ordinance.

Following the city’s adoption of the ordinance, petitioner filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the city’s decision not to conduct CEQA review. In the trial court, petitioner argued that the adoption of the ordinance should have been found to be a project under Public Resources Code section 21065, which defines a “project” as any activity undertaken or funded by, or requiring the approval of, a public agency that “may cause either a direct physical change in the environment, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment.” According to the petitioner, the ordinance had the potential, among other effects, to cause increased vehicle traffic across the city, increase user cultivation, and concentrate dispensary development-related impacts in certain areas. The trial court rejected petitioner’s arguments and upheld the city’s decision, finding the petitioner’s claims were unsupported by evidence in the record.

On appeal, petitioner reiterated its argument regarding the potential to cause physical changes in the environment, and further argued that the adoption of the zoning ordinance was a project as a matter of law under Public Resources Code section 21080. Section 21080 states that CEQA “shall apply to discretionary projects proposed to be carried out or approved by public agencies, including, but not limited to, the enactment and amendment of zoning ordinances …” Pointing to this language, petitioner argued that the enactment of a zoning ordinance is automatically a project under CEQA, regardless of the potential for environmental change. Petitioner’s argument was based in part on the Third District’s decision in Rominger v. County of Colusa (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 690, where the court held that the county’s approval of a tentative map—another activity expressly listed in section 21080—was a project as a matter of law.

Notwithstanding Rominger, the Fourth District Court of Appeal rejected both of petitioner’s arguments, holding that the enactment of a zoning ordinance is subject to the same “project” test as any other activity under Public Resources Code section 21065. Further, the court found no error in the city’s conclusion that the zoning ordinance was not a project because it lacked the potential to cause a physical change in the environment. According to the Fourth District, the potential environmental effects raised by the petitioner were unsupported by the record and too speculative to establish a potential to physically change the environment.

The Supreme Court’s Review

Seeking to resolve the split between the Fourth District’s decision and Rominger, the Supreme Court granted review to address two issues: (1) whether, under Public Resources Code section 21080, a public agency’s enactment of a zoning ordinance is always project under CEQA, as a matter of law; and (2) whether the enactment of the city’s zoning ordinance was a “project” under section 21065.

The Court began its analysis by placing the dispute into context. As the Court explained, CEQA proceeds by way of a three-step process or “decision tree.” First, the lead agency must determine whether the proposed activity is a “project” subject to CEQA at all. Second, assuming CEQA applies, the agency must determine whether the project qualifies for one or more of the many CEQA exemptions. Third, assuming no exemptions apply, the agency must undertake environmental review, namely, preparation of an initial study and a negative declaration, mitigated negative declaration, or an environmental impact report. At issue here was the very first step of the process—the city’s determination that the adoption of the zoning ordinance was not a “project” subject to CEQA at all.

Turning to the first issue, the Court agreed with the Fourth District that Public Resources Code section 21080 does not dictate the result as a matter of law. Engaging in a statutory interpretation analysis, the Court reasoned that while section 21080 is ambiguous when read in isolation, the Legislature’s use of the statutorily defined term “project” in that section must be read to incorporate the definition of “project” in section 21065. Accordingly, the language in PRC section 21080 that CEQA “shall apply to discretionary projects” must be read to provide that CEQA applies to activities that are both (1) discretionary; and (2) meet the definition of a “project” in section 20165. According to the Court, the specific activities listed in section 21080 are merely generic examples of the type of activities approved or carried out by public agencies to which CEQA could apply, however, the mere listing of an activity in that section does not supplant the potential “physical change” analysis required under section 21065.

The Court found further support for its reading of section 21080 in the definition of the term “project” in CEQA Guidelines section 15378, which makes clear the enactment of a zoning ordinance is merely an example of an activity undertaken by public agencies; policy considerations against subjecting activities to CEQA where there is no potential to effect the environment; and the legislative history of section 21065 revealing the Legislature’s intent to narrow CEQA’s application to activities posing a possibility of an environmental effect.

The Court also refuted the notion that its reading of the statute renders section 21080 mere surplusage, noting that the significance of section 21080 is that it states, in the affirmative, the additional requirement that projects must be “discretionary” for CEQA to apply.

After concluding that the adoption of a zoning ordinance is not a project as a matter of law, the Court turned to whether the adoption of the dispensary ordinance in this case was nonetheless a project subject to CEQA under Public Resources Code section 21065. The Court disagreed with the appellate court and answered the question in the affirmative.

As the Court explained, the governing decision for the “project” inquiry is Muzzy Ranch Co. v. Solano County Airport Land Use Commission (2007) 41 Cal.4th 372. In that case, the Court observed, “Whether an activity constitutes a project subject to CEQA is a categorical question respecting whether the activity is of a general kind with which CEQA is concerned, without regard to whether the activity will actually have environmental impact.” In other words, an agency’s task in determining whether a proposed activity is a project is to determine if, by its general nature, the activity is capable of a causing physical change in the environment, without regard to whether actual effects will occur under the circumstances.

Applying Muzzy Ranch, the Court held that the city erred in determining that the adoption of the zoning ordinance was not a project subject to CEQA. The Court noted that the ordinance would permit the establishment of a sizable number of new businesses, which could foreseeably result in new construction. Furthermore, the ordinance could cause changes in vehicle traffic patterns as a result of customers, employees, and suppliers. Finally, the Court explained, the necessary casual connection between the ordinance and these effects was satisfied because the adoption of the ordinance was “an essential step culminating in action . . . which may affect the environment.” For these reasons, the Court held, the adoption of the zoning ordinance was a “project” subject to CEQA.

Collin McCarthy

In First Opinion Addressing a Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment, the Third District Upholds the City of Sacramento’s Approval of an Infill Project

In Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento (2019) 37 Cal.App.5th 698, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the City of Sacramento’s reliance on a Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment (SCEA), a relatively new method for conducting streamlined CEQA review for certain projects that help the state meet its greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. (See Pub. Resources Code, § 21155.2, subd. (b).) The decision is the first published opinion addressing the propriety of an SCEA. The court held that the transit priority project at issue was consistent with the region’s sustainable communities strategy and therefore the City’s reliance on the SCEA complied with CEQA.

The court also upheld the City’s reliance on a unique provision in its general plan that allows the City to approve projects that are inconsistent with the City height and density limits if the projects offer significant community benefits.

Background

The Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (SB 375) was created to integrate transportation and land use planning to reduce GHG emissions. SB 375 directed the California Air Resources Board to develop regional targets for automobiles and light trucks to reduce emissions. In turn, federally designated metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) must now include a “sustainable communities strategy” (SCS) in their regional transportation plans/ metropolitan transportation plan (MTP). (Gov. Code, § 65080, subd. (b)(2)(B).) MTP/SCSs direct the location and intensity of future land use developments on a regional scale to reduce vehicle emissions. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) is the MPO for the Sacramento area. SACOG adopted an MTP/SCS for the region in 2012 and certified an EIR for the MTP/SCS at that time.

Under SB 375, the mandated reductions may be achieved through a variety of methods, including “smart growth planning.” The Legislature determined that one type of development that can help reduce vehicular GHG emissions is a “transit priority project.” This type of project contains at least 50% residential use, has a minimum density of 20 units per acre, and is located within one-half mile of a major transit stop.

To boost development of transit priority projects, SB 375 allows for streamlined CEQA review through an SCEA if the project: (1) is consistent with the general use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies specified for the project area’ in the strategy; and (2) incorporates all feasible mitigation measures, performance standards, and criteria set forth in the prior applicable environmental impact reports’ and which were adopted as findings. (Pub. Resources Code, §§ 21155, subd. (a), 21155.2, subds. (a), (b).)

The “Yamanee” project at issue in Sacramentans is a proposed 15-story multi-use building made up of one floor of commercial space, three levels of parking, residential condominiums on 10 floors, and one floor of residential amenities. The building is proposed to be located near public transit in Sacramento’s growing “Midtown” area, adjacent to the City’s downtown. The project is located in the MTP/SCS’s central city subarea of a “Center and Corridor Community.” Under the MTP/SCS, Center and Corridor Communities are typically higher density and more mixed than surrounding land uses. SAGOG organized the MTP/SCS in such a way that policies for reducing GHG emissions were embedded in the MTP/SCS’s growth forecast assumptions. Thus, projects that are consistent with the MTP/SCS’s growth forecasts are automatically consistent with the MTP/SCS’s emission-reduction policies.

The City determined that the Yamanee project qualified as a transit priority project and that the project was consistent with the general land use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies in the MTP/SCS. Therefore, the City used an SCEA to review the project under CEQA. The SCEA explained that, as a transit priority project, the Yamanee project would increase housing options near high quality transit and reduce vehicle miles traveled. It also explained that the project is consistent with the MTP/SCS’s forecast of low to high-density residential and mixed uses in the center subarea of the Center and Corridor Community.

The City Council upheld the City planning and design commission’s approval of the project and rejected the petitioner’s appeal of that decision. The petitioner sought a writ of mandate in the superior court, claiming that the City’s approval of the project violated CEQA and the planning and zoning law. The superior court denied the petition and the Court of Appeal affirmed.

CEQA

The Court of Appeal rejected the petitioner’s claim that the City erred by relying on SACOG’s MTP/SCS to justify using an SCEA. The petitioner argued that because the MTP/SCS lacked specific density and building intensity standards, the City could not rely on it as a basis for an SCEA. Further, claimed the petitioner, the MTP/SCS undermines the City’s general plan because it treats the City’s center as “higher density,” whereas the general plan sets forth a more nuanced approach under which building intensities and densities increase the closer a development gets to the downtown. These arguments, concluded the court, were premised on a misunderstanding of the MTP/SCS’s role. An MTP/SCS does not regulate land use. The purpose of an MTP/SCS is to establish a regional development pattern, not site-specific zoning. SB 375 authorized the City to review the project in an SCEA if the project was consistent with the regional strategy. Because it was, the city was allowed to rely on an SCEA. Although, as the petitioner contended, reliance on an SCEA could mean that certain projects receive less environmental review than traditionally required under CEQA, the court advised that the petitioner should take this concern to the Legislature, not the courts.

The court also rejected the petitioner’s claim that the City erred by relying on previous EIRs for the general plan and MTP/SCS to avoid analyzing the project’s cumulative impacts. In particular, the petitioner claimed that streamlined review was inappropriate in this case because no prior environmental analysis had considered the cumulative impacts of high-rise development in Sacramento’s midtown. The court explained that CEQA required the City to prepare an initial study (IS) before drafting the SCEA. The City’s IS for the project concluded that cumulative effects had, in fact, been adequately addressed and mitigated, and therefore did not need to be analyzed further in the SCEA. Additionally, the project included all applicable mitigation measures recommended in the prior EIRs. The petitioner failed to show that the City’s analysis was not factually supported. Accordingly, the City did not err by relying on prior cumulative impact analyses.

Planning and Zoning Law

The development proposed by the project is denser and more intense than what would ordinarily be allowed under the City’s general plan and zoning code. The City approved the project, however, under a provision in its general plan that allows the City to approve more intensive development when a project’s “significant community benefits” outweigh strict adherence to the density and intensity requirements. The City determined that the project would have several significant community benefits, including helping the City to achieve its goal of building 10,000 new residential units in the central city by 2025, and reducing dependency on personal vehicles. These, and other benefits, outweighed strict adherence to the City’s density and intensity limits.

The petitioner argued that the City’s decision to allow the Project to exceed the general plan and zoning code’s intensity and density standards constituted unlawful “spot zoning.” The court explained that spot zoning occurs where a small parcel is restricted and given fewer rights than the surrounding property (e.g., when a lot is restricted to residential uses even though it is surrounded by exclusively commercial uses). This case, explained the court, is not a spot-zoning case in that the property was not given lesser development rights than its neighboring parcels. The petitioner argued that the neighboring parcels had, in fact, been given lesser development rights through the City’s approval of the project, but there was no evidence in the record that any neighboring owner sought and was denied permission to develop at a greater intensity or that the City would arbitrarily refuse to consider an application for such development.

The petitioner also argued that the phrase “significant community benefit” as used in the City’s general plan was unconstitutionally vague. The court disagreed, explaining that zoning standards in California are required to be made “‘in accord with the general health, safety, and welfare standard,’” and that the phrase “significant community benefit” was no less vague than the phrase “general welfare.” Additionally, held the court, the phrase “significant community benefit” provides sufficient direction to implement the policy in accordance with the general plan.

The court also held that the City had articulated a rational basis for the policy allowing the City to waive the density and intensity standards for projects that provide significant community benefits, which is all that the Constitution required.

Conclusion

In this case, the City of Sacramento successfully employed CEQA’s streamlined provisions for transit priority projects to expedite and simplify its environmental review of an infill project that will help the City meet its aggressive new housing goal and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The City’s general plan allowed the City to approve the project because the project would provide significant public benefits, even though the project is inconsistent with the general plan and zoning code’s density and intensity standards. As California continues to combat the dual threats of a housing shortage and climate change, cities and counties are likely to increasingly rely on streamlined approaches to the approval process for mixed-use projects near public transit.