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.
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