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.
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.
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.
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.
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.