Tag: Historical Resource


In Historic Architecture Alliance v. City of Laguna Beach (2023) 96 Cal.App.5th 186, the City of Laguna Beach approved a project to renovate and expand a historic single-family home. In doing so, the City determined that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA under the Class 31 historical resource exemption. Petitioners, the Historic Architecture Alliance and the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition (collectively, “Alliance”), alleged that the City improperly relied on the Class 31 exemption and that the historical resource exception to the categorical CEQA exemptions applied. Affirming the trial court’s denial of the petition, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that the application of both the Class 31 exemption and the historical resources exception presented the City with the same factual issue, and that the City’s finding on this issue was supported by substantial evidence.


In 2017, the owners of a historic single-family residence submitted their initial application and plans to the City to renovate and add on to the house. The City’s historical resources consultant reviewed the initial plans for compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties (“Standards”), which provide guidance for achieving long-term preservation of historical features and materials.

When the consultant concluded that the initial plans did not fully comply with the Standards, the homeowners and their architect revised the plans and worked with the City to incorporate recommendations made by both the consultant and the City’s Heritage Committee and to ensure the project’s conformance to the Standards.

In 2020, the City approved the project. The City determined that the project satisfied the Standards and thus qualified for the Class 31 categorical CEQA exemption, which applies to historical resource renovation projects that are consistent with the Standards.

In 2021, Alliance filed a writ petition. The trial court denied the petition, finding that the City’s decision was supported by substantial evidence and that Alliance had not met its burden of demonstrating that an exception precluded reliance on the Class 31 exemption. Alliance appealed.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

Class 31 exemption

The court upheld the City’s reliance on the Class 31 exemption. The court explained that the determination that a categorical CEQA exemption applies is a factual one that is subject to review under the deferential substantial evidence standard. Pointing to the numerous rounds of review and revisions to bring the plans into compliance with the Standards and the City’s recommendations, the court concluded that the administrative record contained substantial evidence supporting the City’s determination that the project complied with the Standards, and therefore fell within the Class 31 exemption.

The court rejected Alliance’s argument that, by requiring various revisions to the project, the City was imposing mitigation measures to “shoehorn” the project into the Class 31 exemption. While the court acknowledged the general legal principle that mitigation measures may not be used to support categorical exemption, the court concluded that the plan revisions to bring the project into compliance with the Standards were not mitigation measures.

Historical resources exception

The court also rejected Alliance’s argument that the historical resources exception—which precludes reliance on a categorical CEQA exemption for projects “which may cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of a historical resource”—applied to the project. The court held that when applying the historical resource exception to the Class 31 exemption, the fair argument standard does not apply. Citing CEQA Guidelines section 15064.5(b)(3), which provides that projects that comply with the Standards “shall be considered as mitigated to a level of less than significant impact on the historical resources,” the court explained that “the decisive factor for the historical resource exception is the same as that for the [Class 31] exemption—whether the project complies with the [Standards].” Because an agency’s determination that the Class 31 exemption applies is reviewed for substantial evidence, the court reasoned that the exemption would be rendered “meaningless” if its underlying factual determination was then subject to the fair argument standard when applying the historical resources exception.

Thus, because the City’s determination that the Project satisfied the Standards was supported by substantial evidence, so too were the City’s reliance on the Class 31 exemption and the City’s finding that the historical resources exception did not apply.

First District Holds that Deficiencies in Notice Did Not Excuse CEQA Litigants from Exhausting Available Administrative Remedies

The First District Court of Appeal in Schmid v. City and County of San Francisco (Feb. 1, 2021) 60 Cal.App.5th 470, held that Appellants’ CEQA claims were barred by their failure to exhaust available administrative remedies, even where deficiencies in the notice excused the litigants from satisfying the exhaustion requirements under Public Resources Code section 21177.


The “Early Days” statue, located in San Francisco’s Civic Center, is part of the “Pioneer Monument”—a series of five bronze sculptures memorializing the pioneer era when California was founded. The statue depicts three figures, including a reclining Native American over whom bends a Catholic priest. Public criticism has surrounded the statue since its installation in 1894.  

In 2018, after charges of the statue’s racial insensitivity resurfaced, the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) granted a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) to remove the statue and place it in storage. In granting that approval, the HPC determined the removal of the statue was categorically exempt from CEQA. There were no issues raised at the HPC hearing about a perceived need for environmental review. Nor were there any appeals of HPC’s CEQA determination to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. 

Appellants, two opponents of the statue’s removal, appealed the HPC’s adoption of the COA to the San Francisco Board of Appeals. The Board of Appeals initially voted to overturn the COA, but later had it reinstated. After the Board of Appeals approved the COA, the City immediately removed the statue the following morning. 

Appellants filed suit seeking to overturn the Board of Appeals’ order authorizing removal of the statue. They alleged violations of constitutional and statutory law, including CEQA. The trial court sustained a demurrer without leave to amend. On the CEQA claims, the trial court found Appellants failed to exhaust available administrative remedies. Appellants appealed.


Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies
The Court of Appeal explained that CEQA litigants must comply with two exhaustion requirements. First, Public Resources Code section 21177 requires that a would-be CEQA petitioner must object during the administrative process and that all allegations raised in the litigation must have been presented to the agency before the challenged decision is made. Second, a would-be CEQA petitioner must exhaust all remedies that are available at the administrative level, including any available administrative appeals. Under Public Resources Code section 21151, a CEQA determination made by a nonelected decision-making body of a local agency may be appealed to the agency’s elected decision-making body, if any. The CEQA Guidelines encourage local agencies to establish procedures for such appeals. As relevant here, the San Francisco Administrative Code requires that appeals of CEQA determinations must be made to the Board of Supervisors, as the body of elected officials responsible for making final CEQA determinations.

The Court of Appeal found Appellants failed to comply with both exhaustion requirements. They did not object to the HCP’s determination that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA during the administrative process and they did exhaust administrative appeals available under the San Francisco Administrative Code. Specifically, on the second point, although Appellants appealed the HPC’s decision to the Board of Appeals, they failed to exhaust available remedies because they did not separately appeal the HPC’s CEQA determination to the Board of Supervisors, as required under the City’s Code.

Appellants argued they were excused from both exhaustion requirements because the City failed to provide adequate notice. The court agreed with Appellants in part, finding that Appellants were not required to comply with the statutory exhaustion requirements in section 21177 because there was no notice in advance of the HPC meeting that a categorical exemption might be on the agenda. But, the court explained, the inadequate CEQA notice did not excuse Appellants from complying with the requirement in the City’s Code that CEQA determinations must be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. The court also noted that Appellants had notice of the HPC’s CEQA determination because they appealed it, improperly, to the Board of Appeals. Because Appellants failed to appeal the CEQA determination to the appropriate body, they forfeited their right to bring a CEQA action.

Futility Argument
Appellants also argued they should be excused from exhausting their administrative remedies because doing so would have been futile. Citing a Board of Supervisors resolution that was not in the record, Appellants argued that an appeal to the proper board would have been futile because the Board of Supervisors already adopted a definitive position that the statue should be taken down. The court rejected this argument, stating that even if the Board of Supervisors held this view as a policy matter, it still could have disagreed with the process of removal and opted for an EIR. In addition, the Court concluded that the Board of Supervisors was never presented with any arguments concerning the appropriateness of a categorical exemption, and thus any argument regarding how the Board of Supervisors would have responded was pure speculation.

– Veronika Morrison 

Sixth District Holds Fair Argument Standard No Longer Applies to Whether a Resource is “Historical”

In Friends of the Willow Glen Trestle v. City of San Jose (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 457, the Sixth District Court of Appeal held that the fair argument standard does not apply to a lead agency’s decision that a resource is not a historical resource—abandoning its previous holding to the contrary in Architectural Heritage Assn v. County of Monterey (2004) 122 Cal.App.4th 1095.

The resource at issue—a wooden railroad bridge, referred to as the Trestle—was built in 1922 as part of a spur line to provide rail freight access to canning districts near downtown San Jose. It was not listed or eligible for listing in the California Register of Historical Resources, nor was it included in a local register of historical resources. As part of its trail system, the City of San Jose proposed to demolish the Trestle and replace it with a new steel truss pedestrian bridge. The city adopted a mitigated negative declaration based on an initial study that concluded the Trestle was not a historical resource. Project opponents filed a writ petition asserting that there was substantial evidence to support a fair argument that the Trestle was a historical resource and therefore an EIR was required. Applying the fair argument standard, the trial court found in favor of petitioners.

The Sixth District disagreed. In rejecting the fair argument standard employed by the trial court, the court focused on the statutory language of Public Resources Code section 21084.1, which defines historical resources for purposes of CEQA. It provides, in part, that a resource may be presumed historical, if it meets certain criteria, unless a preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that it is not historical. Where a resource is not presumptively historical, an agency has the discretion to decide whether it is or is not historical. The court stated that by allowing an agency to overcome a presumption with a preponderance of the evidence, the standard of review logically must be whether substantial evidence supports the lead agency’s decision, not whether a fair argument can be made to the contrary. Based on this determination, the court found that the Legislature could not have intended that a lead agency’s discretionary decision to identify a resource as historical would be subject to a less-deferential review—i.e., fair argument—than a decision regarding a resource presumed to be historical.