Tag: Fair Argument

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

First District Finds a “Fair Argument” in Comments that a Project’s Height and Density Were Incompatible with a Historic Overlay District and that Traffic Safety and Congestion Issues Could Be Worsened

In Protect Niles v. City of Fremont (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 1129, the First District Court of Appeal held that the record contained a “fair argument” that a mixed-use project in an historic district might have significant aesthetic impacts on the historic character of the community due to the project’s size and scale. The court also cited residents’ concerns regarding traffic hazards and congestion, and concluded that the city was required to prepare an EIR.

The City of Fremont adopted a zoning overlay district to protect the historic character of the community of Niles, a small commercial strip dating to the 19th century. A developer proposed a mixed-use project with 98 residential units on a vacant six-acre property at the gateway to this district. Neighbors complained that the buildings were too tall, and the project was too dense, so that it was incompatible with the area and would increase traffic congestion. The city’s architectural review board recommended denying the project. The planning commission recommended approval, and the city council adopted a mitigated negative declaration and approved the project. Neighbors sued. The trial court found that the record contained a “fair argument” of potentially significant impacts relating to aesthetics and traffic, and granted the writ. The developer appealed.

In May 2018, the city published a draft EIR for the project. The neighbors moved to dismiss the appeal as moot because the city had decided to comply with the trial court’s writ. The appellate court declined to dismiss the appeal. The city was not a party to the appeal. The developer’s submittal of a revised application did not mean the original project was abandoned. Moreover, the appeal was not moot because, were the developer to prevail, the city’s original approvals would be reinstated regardless of the new application.

Turning to the merits, the court concluded that the project’s visual impact on its setting – in this case, an historic commercial “main street” recognized as sensitive by the city – was a proper subject of review, over and above the analysis of the project’s impact on historic resources. According to the court, the record “clearly” contained a fair argument that the project would have a significant aesthetic impact on the historic district. The city’s initial study found that the project was aesthetically compatible with the district because it reflected the architectural style of the industrial buildings that previously occupied the site, and the city’s design guidelines recognized that architecture within the district was varied. Members of the architecture review board and of the public, however, stated that the project was too tall and dense, and inconsistent with Niles’ village-like character. These complaints continued even after the developer modified the project. The court recognized the “inherently subjective” nature of aesthetic judgments, but found that the comments “were not solely based on vague notions of beauty or personal preference, but were grounded in inconsistencies with the prevailing building heights and architectural styles of the Niles [district] neighborhood and commercial core.” Commenters included members of the city’s historic architectural review board, who recommended denial.

The court rejected the developer’s various arguments that the project’s aesthetic impact was not significant. First, although the site was largely vacant and unkempt, that did not automatically mean that development of the site would be an upgrade. Second, the site, though on the edge of the historic district, was nevertheless located at a recognized gateway to Niles, and was within the district’s boundaries. Third, the architectural review board’s recommendation to deny the project was not a bare conclusion, but was supported by record evidence of the board members’ (whom the court presumed to have historic aesthetic expertise) underlying aesthetic judgments about the effect of the project. Thus, the board’s “collective opinions” on project compatibility with the historic overlay district were substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project may have significant aesthetic impacts. Though the court noted that, were the city to prepare an EIR, the city could conclude that the project would not have a significant impact on aesthetics “because aesthetics is an inherently subjective assessment.”

The court also found that the record contained a fair argument concerning traffic safety. The project’s traffic study concluded a left-turn pocket lane was warranted at the project entrance. Staff did not recommend the pocket, however, because left-turn pocket lanes generally were not located elsewhere along the street, and because omitting a pocket would make vehicles slow down. Testimony from residents, however, stated that drivers did not adhere to the posted speed limit, and sight lines might not be adequate if multiple drivers queued up to turn left into the project site. These “fact-based comments” were substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that a new intersection at the project entrance could have significant traffic impacts.

The record also contained a fair argument that the project could contribute to existing traffic congestion. Residents testified that traffic at a nearby intersection was already terrible, and that during the morning commute traffic already backed up from this intersection to the project site. The city’s own traffic study found that traffic at this intersection was Level of Service (“LOS”) E – an unacceptable level of congestion under the city’s standards – and that project-related traffic would cause congestion there to worsen to LOS F. The developer argued that, under the city’s thresholds of significance, a shift from LOS E to LOS F was not a significant impact. The court held, however, that the city’s significance threshold could not be applied to foreclose consideration of substantial evidence that the impact might be significant. The court again found that the “fact-based comments of residents and city staff and officials supported a fair argument that unusual circumstances in Niles might render the thresholds inadequate to capture the impacts of congestion on Niles Boulevard.”

First District Finds Noise Analysis by Non-Expert Attorneys Not Substantial Evidence

In Jensen v. City of Santa Rosa (2018) 23 Cal.App.5th 877, the First District upheld a negative declaration for a youth treatment center, finding that noise analysis offered by non-expert attorneys was not substantial evidence in support of a fair argument of a potentially significant noise impact from outdoor recreation activities and the parking lot at the center.

In 2014, Santa Rosa approved plans to convert the shuttered Warrack Hospital to the SAY Organization’s new Dream Center. SAY is a non-profit organization that provides housing, counseling, and job services to youth and families in Sonoma County. The facility would offer temporary housing, job skills training, health services, and enrichment activities. The property is in a developed area, surrounded by residential housing, offices, and a hospital.

SAY filed applications for a conditional use permit, rezoning, and design review to implement the project. The initial study/negative declaration concluded there would be no significant impacts, and the planning commission approved the project. Two neighbors appealed the decision to the city council on the basis that the city’s noise impact analysis was flawed. The neighbors filed suit after the city rejected their appeal. The lower court found for the city, and petitioners appealed.

The First District evaluated whether substantial evidence supported a fair argument that noise impacts from the project’s parking lot and outdoor recreation area could be significant, thus requiring an EIR.

Petitioners urged the court to reject the city’s noise study, and rely instead on their independently calculated findings purporting to show the project’s noise levels would be significant. Petitioners’ attorneys extrapolated their own analysis from a previous study conducted by noise experts for the city, for another project, at a different site. Petitioners also argued that the city’s noise ordinance set the maximum allowable noise levels, and any noise that would exceed those thresholds was a significant impact.

The court rejected all of petitioners’ arguments. First, the court rejected petitioners’ interpretation of the city’s noise ordinance, finding that its “base” noise values set the standard or normally acceptable levels, not maximum allowable levels, and thus, were not significance thresholds for CEQA’s purposes. Furthermore, the ordinance was not as inflexible and quantitative as petitioners alleged, but rather, allowed for experts to consider factors such as the noises’ level, intensity, nature, and duration when determining if impacts would be significant. Under this analysis, petitioners failed to identify any evidence in the record that noise impacts would exceed the allowable threshold.

The court rejected the petitioners’ contention that their noise calculations based on another study for a different project were substantial evidence that this project could result in noise impacts. Substantial evidence must be reasonable, credible, and of solid value. In testing for potential significant impacts, a party cannot just import the values of one study onto those of another, particularly in the absence of qualified expert opinion. Petitioners’ convoluted methodology and ultimate conclusions were based on speculation, rested on supposition and hypothesis, and were not confirmed by experts. The analysis also ignored key facts, such as limitations on parking lot use and hours of operation.

The court also noted that petitioners’ conclusions, which they drew from the different project’s noise study, were not presented to the city during the approval process, and did not appear in any part of the administrative record; rather the other study was simply attached to their comments during their city council appeal. Only during appellate briefing did petitioners present the calculations they extrapolated from the other study. For that reason alone, the court stated it was justified in rejecting the petitioners’ calculations.

Given the court’s conclusion that the offered evidence lacked the requisite foundation and credibility, petitioners failed to demonstrate, even under the comparatively low fair argument standard, that further environmental review was required.

(Bridget K. McDonald)

Fourth District Court of Appeal Upholds Reliance on Mitigated Negative Declaration and Approval of Construction of School

The Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision denying a challenge to the City of San Diego’s approval of construction of a secondary school and associated adoption of a mitigated negative declaration. (Clews Land and Livestock, LLC v. City of San Diego (2017) 19 Cal.App.5th 161.)

The City of San Diego adopted an MND and approved a project to build the 5,340-square-foot Cal Coast Academy, a for-profit secondary school, on property adjacent to the plaintiffs’ (Clews Land and Livestock, LLC, et al. [“CLL”]) commercial horse ranch and equestrian facility. CLL filed a petition for writ of mandate and complaint alleging the project would cause significant environmental impacts relating to fire hazards, traffic and transportation, noise, recreation, and historical resources. CLL also argued that CEQA required recirculation of the MND, that the project was inconsistent with the applicable community land use plan, and that the City did not follow historical resource provisions of the San Diego Municipal Code. The trial court determined that CLL had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, and ruled in favor of the City on the merits. CLL appealed and the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s determinations.

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

The court first held that CLL failed to exhaust its administrative remedies. The San Diego Municipal Code appeal process provides for two separate procedures—one for appeal of a hearing officer’s decision to the Planning Commission, and one for appeal of an environmental determination to the City Council. Because CLL filed only an appeal of the hearing officer’s decision, the court determined that CLL failed to exhaust its administrative remedies with respect to adoption of the MND. CLL argued that the City’s bifurcated appeal process violated CEQA, but the court found the process was valid. CLL also argued that the City had not provided proper notice of the appeal procedures under Public Resources Code section 21177, subdivision (a), thereby excusing CLL’s failure to appeal the environmental determination. The court explained, however, that section 21177 did not apply because CLL’s failure to appeal was not a failure to raise a noncompliance issue under that section. Where, like here, a public agency has accurately provided notice of a public hearing, but it misstates the applicable procedures to appeal the decision made at that hearing, the only available remedy is to prevent the public agency from invoking an administrative exhaustion defense through equitable estoppel. CLL had pursued a claim for equitable estoppel in the trial court and was unsuccessful, and CLL did not challenge that determination with the Court of Appeal. Therefore, the court found, CLL’s failure to exhaust could not be excused on an equitable estoppel basis.

Adoption of the MND

Notwithstanding its determination that CLL failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, the court also considered the merits of CLL’s claims. The court determined that CLL did not make a showing that substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the project may have a significant effect on the environment. In making its determination, the court emphasized that the project is “relatively modest” and located on already-developed land.

CLL argued that the City was required to prepare an EIR due to potentially significant impacts on fire hazards, traffic and transportation, noise, recreation, and historical resources. The court rejected each of CLL’s arguments. In part, the court was unpersuaded by CLL’s expert’s comments because they were “general” and did not have a specific nexus with the project, they focused on the effects of the environment on the students and faculty at the school rather than on the effects of the school on the environment, and they were conclusory and speculative. In addition, quoting Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 684, the court noted that “dire predictions by nonexperts regarding the consequences of a project do not constitute substantial evidence.” The court also found that a possibility that noise from the project would impact the adjacent business’s operations was insufficient to require an EIR under CEQA. The court explained that the question is not whether the project would affect particular persons, but whether the project would affect the environment in general. In addition, the court explained that the fact that a project may affect another business’s economic viability is not an effect that must be analyzed under CEQA unless the project may result in a change in the physical environment, such as by causing urban decay.

Recirculation of MND

CLL argued that by adding a shuttle bus plan and describing the school’s intent to close on red flag fire warning days after circulation of the MND, the City substantially revised the MND and was required to recirculate the draft prior to certification. The court rejected these contentions, explaining that the added plans were purely voluntary, and thus could not constitute mitigation measures. In addition, the court explained, CLL did not show that the plans were added to the project to reduce significant effects on the environment. According to the court, all revisions to the MND were clarifying and amplifying in nature and did not make substantial revisions to the project, and therefore, did not warrant recirculation.

Historical Resource Regulations

CLL argued that City did not follow its historical resource regulations and guidelines. The court explained that the City relied on an exemption contained within the regulations, but CLL did not address the substance of that exemption, nor did CLL show that the City was actually required to apply the specific procedures contained in the regulations. Instead, CLL simply critiqued the City’s reliance on the exemption as a post hoc rationalization; the court found this was not enough to meet CLL’s burden to show failure on the part of the City.

Consistency with Neighborhood Plan

CLL argued that the project conflicted with the Carmel Valley Neighborhood 8 Precise Plan because the plan designates the site as open space. CLL’s argument was two-fold. First, CLL argued the site could not be developed because of the plan’s open space designation. Second, CLL argued the plan’s designation was in conflict with the multifamily residential zoning at the project site.

With respect to the plan’s open space designation, the court held that CLL failed to meet its burden to show that the City’s consistency finding was an abuse of discretion. The court explained that the standard is whether no reasonable person could have reached the conclusion made by the City. In making its determination, the City relied on the fact that the property was already developed—the school would be sited at the location of a previously-capped swimming pool, and the project would not impact or be developed on undisturbed open space. The court found that the City’s determination was reasonable, and that CLL did not address the City’s reasoning or explain how the City abused its discretion. With respect to the site’s zoning, the court explained that consistency of the zoning ordinance with the plan was not at issue—instead, the issue was whether the project is consistent with the Precise Plan’s open space designation.

The court affirmed the judgment of the lower court and upheld the City’s determinations regarding the project and the associated MND.

Elizabeth Pollock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third District Court of Appeal Strikes Down Negative Declaration Prepared for a County’s Oak Woodland Fee Program

Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation v. County of El Dorado (2012) 202 Cal.App.4th 1156

The Third District Court of Appeal struck down negative declaration prepared for El Dorado County’s oak woodland fee program, rejecting the county’s attempt to tier off the program EIR prepared for its General Plan. 

In 2004, El Dorado County certified a program EIR and adopted a general plan.  The program EIR acknowledged that development under the new general plan would have significant impacts on oak woodland habitat.  The plan included a policy to develop an integrated natural resources management plan.  The plan had two options to protect woodlands:  “Option A” required adherence to canopy retention standards and replacing woodland habitat at a 1:1 ratio; and “Option B” required payment of an in lieu fee into the county’s integrated plan’s conservation fund.  Pending completing of the integrated plan, the county required project developers to mitigate the loss of oak woodland habitat through only Option A.  In 2008, the county adopted an oak woodland management plan. The purpose of the management plan included developing the Option B fee program and creating a foundation for the oak woodland conservation portion of the integrated plan. Development of the management plan required mapping existing oak woodlands and identifying conservation priorities. Certain criteria were used to prioritize areas with the highest biological value. Valley oak woodland was designated as sensitive habitat.  The plan also included oak woodland corridors for wildlife.  To analyze the environmental effects of the management plan, the county prepared an initial study and negative declaration that tiered from the 2004 program EIR.  The petitioners challenged this approach, arguing an EIR was required.  The trial court denied the petition.  The petitioners appealed.

The county argued the oak woodland management plan and Option B fee program were encompassed in the 2004 program EIR.  The Court disagreed, holding that the 2004 program EIR did not encompass the oak woodland management plan and Option B fee program.  The county had to make a number of judgment calls regarding the details of the fee program, and the general plan and program EIR had not considered or analyzed these details.  First, the 2004 program EIR and general plan did not differentiate between oak species. The management plan, however, focused on valley oaks to the exclusion of other oak species.  Second, the 2004 program EIR did not determine the measurement metric for conservation of oak woodlands to be used under Option B; yet, the choice of one metric versus another would alter the fees required under the Option B fee program.  Third, the 2004 program EIR did not set the fee rate to be paid if a project applicant elected to mitigate under Option B.  Although preservation programs funded by impact fees can be appropriate mitigation, the program must still, at some point, undergo CEQA review.  Fourth, the county’s 2004 program EIR had not specified how fees collected under Option B should be used to preserve oak woodlands. The program EIR emphasized the importance of maintaining connectivity among preserved oak woodlands, yet the county deferred the issue of connectivity until after other elements of the integrated plan could be established.  As a result, the Option B mitigation approach differed from the 2004 program report’s emphasis on the protection of connectivity between woodland habitats.

The Court concluded the record supported a fair argument that the oak woodland management plan and Option B fee program could have a potentially significant effect on the environment. While the 2004 program EIR determined impacts would remain significant even with mitigation, the negative declaration for the management plan concluded cumulative impacts would be less than significant.  The county argued there would be no greater adverse environmental effect than already anticipated in the 2004 general plan and program EIR. The Court rejected this argument, noting that, prior to adoption of the management plan, oak woodlands were required to be preserved at a 1:1 ratio on-site under Option A; that was no longer true under Option B.  For this reason, the county had to prepare an EIR.

Fifth District Finds Irrigation District has Standing Under CEQA to Challenge Environmental Review Document

Consolidated Irrigation District v. City of Selma (5th Dist. Feb. 28, 2012 [modified March 9th, 2012]) __ Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. 08CECG01591)

On February 8, 2012, the Fifth Appellate District ruled that a lower court properly found an irrigation district had standing to sue under CEQA and challenge a residential development approved by the City of Selma. The court also found the administrative record provided substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the proposed project would result in potentially adverse significant impacts, and therefore, a mitigated negative declaration was inappropriate and a full environmental impact report was required.

Factual and Procedural Background

Raven Development, Inc., proposed developing a 160-unit, single-family residential subdivision that would be annexed by the city. Water for the proposed subdivision would be provided by a private water company. The initial environmental study concluded that the project’s groundwater use would not be significant and would not interfere substantially with the recharge of the aquifer; therefore, no mitigation would be required for the project’s impacts on hydrology and water quality.

Petitioner Consolidated Irrigation District (CID) is an independent special district formed under the California Water Code. The district is located in southern Fresno County, and its boundaries enclose approximately 163,000 acres of land, the majority of which is irrigated agricultural land.  The District delivers over 200,000 acre-feet of surface water for irrigation per year. The District also operates a groundwater recharge system that includes over fifty recharge basins.

An integrated regional water management plan was completed for the Upper Kings groundwater basin. The water management plan included findings that the Kings groundwater basin was in a state of overdraft that would continue to worsen through year 2030 based on projected conditions. The findings noted that between 2005 and 2030, the groundwater levels in the District’s urban areas will decline between an estimated five and ten feet.

The city prepared a mitigated negative declaration for Raven Development’s proposed subdivision. During the public review period, the District submitted letters stating the conversion of agricultural land to urban land was having an adverse and cumulatively significant impact on the groundwater basin, and the project potentially could have cumulative hydrology impacts as well. The District asserted that a full EIR was required. Despite these concerns, the city council adopted resolutions approving the project and adopting the MND.

CID filed a petition alleging that substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the project could result in significant impacts to the environment. CID requested that the city prepare the administrative record.

The city lodged a certified administrative record. Subsequently, CID filed a statement of issues.  This included an allegation that mandatory portions of the administrative record had not been included. CID filed a motion to augment the record, claiming it did not contain four documents that CID had submitted to the city. The trial court ordered that the administrative record be augmented and ultimately found the city violated CEQA when it approved the project. The court determined that the city needed to prepare a full EIR to address the significant cumulative impacts attributable to the project, among other potential impacts. The city appealed.

The Appellate Court’s Decision

On appeal, the city argued the trial court erred when it allowed the challenged documents to be added to the administrative record.  The city asserted the documents were not presented to a city decision-making body, and therefore, were not considered during the project approval process. The city further argued that the trial court erred in determining the district had standing. Finally, the court addressed the fair argument standard as applied to MNDs and issues of credibility of evidence submitted before an agency.

Order Augmenting the Administrative Record

The parties disagreed on the appropriate standard of review to be applied to the trial court’s decision to grant the motion to augment the administrative record. The city asserted de novo review of the trial court’s decision was the appropriate standard. The city argued this review should be limited to an examination of the administrative record. CID disagreed and claimed the only issue was whether the documents had been submitted to a decision-making body prior to the final approval of the project. Therefore, the trial court’s decision to augment the record with the contested documents should be upheld under the substantial evidence standard of review.

The court of appeal noted that the parties briefed the appeal before the court published its decision in Madera Oversight Coalition, Inc. v. County of Madera (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 48, which addressed numerous questions related to the scope of the administrative record. Relying on Madera Oversight, the court determined Public Resources Code section 21167.6, subdivision (e), governing the contents of administrative records, is mandatory, and the requirements thereof are not committed to the discretion of a trial court. Instead, the findings of fact made by the trial court in determining whether documents are part of the record are appropriately reviewed under the substantial evidence standard.

The trial court based its decision to augment the administrative record on conflicting evidence presented by the city and district. Testimony from a district representative indicated that the documents in question had been presented to the city planning commission at a public hearing. The planning commission had failed to maintain two files in its record that it later agreed should have been included. Further, while transcripts were not available for the hearing, minutes indicated that the district submitted three documents. Testimony from the district’s representative indicated that two documents had actually been submitted to the city as a single document. The appellate court determined these facts presented substantial evidence supporting the trial court’s order to grant the motion to augment the record.

Standing of a Public Agency

The city also argued the trial court erred when it determined CID had standing to bring an action under CEQA. The city asserted the water district could not claim public interest standing to bring a citizen suit under CEQA. The city reasoned that a public agency could not qualify for public interest standing because it is a governmental body. The court declined to address this argument after finding the district adequately met the usual “beneficially interested” standing requirement under Code of Civil Procedure section 1086.

The court determined the district was “beneficially interested” after citing Water Code section 22650, which states, “A district may commence and maintain any actions and proceedings to carry out its purposes or protect its interests…”  The court determined “interests” in this section included all beneficial interests sufficient to satisfying standing requirements of Code of Civil Procedure section 1086. As a result, CID had authority under the Water Code to pursue CEQA litigation to protect its beneficial interests.

The court declined to adopt the city’s argument that a public agency only has a special interest or right, and therefore a beneficial interest, if the project affects a natural resource over which the agency has jurisdiction. The city attempted to support its argument by citing to CEQA Guidelines which limit the matters a public agency may comment on during environmental review. The court noted, however, that public agencies are authorized to submit comments to the lead agency on projects with impacts falling outside their legal jurisdiction if an affected resource is within an area of expertise of the agency. Therefore, the court concluded a public agency’s beneficial interests are not limited only to resources over which it has direct jurisdiction.

In this case, the district argued its operations, including that of numerous groundwater recharge basins, would be adversely affected by the project. The court found the operation of these recharge basins gave CID a special interest in the local groundwater. As a result, the district had a beneficial interest that could be adversely affected by the project. Therefore, the district satisfied the standing requirements necessary to file suit to enforce CEQA.

Application of the Fair Argument Standard

An agency’s decision to certify a negative or mitigated negative declaration is reviewed by courts under the fair argument test. If this test is met, then the declaration is overturned and the agency must prepare and certify an environmental impact report. A fair argument that a particular project may have a significant adverse effect on the environment must be supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record. The city argued the lead agency has discretion to determine whether evidence presented is actually substantial. The court disagreed and noted that whether an administrative record contains sufficient evidence to support a fair argument is a question of law.  Instead, the court found deference to the agency appropriate only for limited issues of credibility.

To support rejecting evidence for lack of credibility, an agency must identify that evidence with sufficient particularity to allow a reviewing court to determine if there were actually disputed issues of credibility. The court determined this was an appropriate requirement to prevent post hoc rationalization by the agency. In this case, the city could provide no citations to the administrative record showing any decision-maker questioned the credibility of any evidence presented. Therefore, court declined to defer to the city when reviewing the record to determine if it supported a fair argument that the project would cause significant adverse impacts.

Conclusion

This case further illustrates the difficulty lead agencies can face in defending MNDs. It also indicates that it is important for agencies to identify and discuss the reasons they believe presented evidence may not be credible. If an agency fails to do this, a court is likely to dismiss subsequently presented credibility challenges as simply post hoc rationalization.

In addition, an agency’s beneficial interest in CEQA proceedings extends not only to just the natural resources over which the agency has direct jurisdiction, but also those which have some relation or connection to the jurisdictional resource areas.