Tag: negative declaration

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

Fourth District Upholds Negative Declaration, Finding No “Fair Argument” of Land Use Impacts

In Friends of Riverside’s Hills v. City of Riverside (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 1137, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s conclusion that the City of Riverside properly adopted a negative declaration and was not required to prepare an EIR for a six-unit Planned Residential Development in the city’s Residential Conservation Zone. The court also found that the city did not abuse its discretion by approving the project with six homes on six lots.

In 2015, Real Parties in Interest, Carlton and Raye Lofgren, applied to develop approximately twelve acres of property they owned in the city’s Residential Conservation Zone (RCZ). The RCZ places special requirements on proposed residential development in order to protect the natural landscape in the zone. These requirements include submitting information on the natural slope of lots in the parcel to determine the minimum lot size (the greater the average slope, the larger the minimum lot size), and, ordinarily, a maximum density of 0.5 dwelling units per acre. Projects that qualify as Planned Residential Developments (PRDs) allow smaller minimum lot sizes and higher density. PRDs must be designed to protect and retain the natural topographic features of the site and may cluster homes in less steep areas of the site to protect such features and preserve open space. The Lofgrens also sought a density bonus to allow 0.63 dwelling units per acre by preserving 4.85 acres of the site as managed open space and selecting from a list of “superior design” elements.

As the project moved through the city’s administrative process, the acreage information fluctuated on the maps submitted by the Lofgrens (between just over 12 acres and just over 11 and a half acres) and the design of the site changed. After preparing an initial study, the city issued a negative declaration for the project. Petitioner Friends of Riverside’s Hills (Friends) commented several times during the administrative process concerning the acreage (and thus the number of allowable lots) and density. Twice, the city and/or the Lofgrens amended the project to address Friends’ concerns. Friends also argued that: the city had failed to require the Lofgrens to have a recognized conservation group oversee the open space preservation because an early version of the conditions of approval designated a homeowners’ association, the project would require excessive grading, the natural slope information submitted by the Lofgrens was inconsistent, and the project violated CEQA because it was inconsistent with the city’s zoning and grading ordinances. Ultimately, the city approved the project with the density bonus to allow six single-family homes on six lots ranging from just over a half-acre to just over an acre in size and with average natural slopes ranging from 21% to 29.5 percent.

Friends sought a writ of mandate to set aside the city’s approval and require an EIR. Friends argued that the project did not comply with the RCZ because it failed to cluster the proposed lots on the less steep portions of the site and preserve the natural features. Friends argued that the project would require excessive grading, and that the Lofgrens were required to seek a variance for lots smaller than two acres. Friends also argued that the city abused its discretion by failing to support its determination regarding the natural slope of the proposed lots and by deferring selection of the “superior design” elements to the grading permit stage of development. The trial court found that there was no evidence that the project violated any of the land use provisions identified by Friends and denied the petition. Friends appealed.

On appeal, the court found that the RCZ was adopted by the city for environmental protection purposes, so violating those provisions could create a significant impact on the environment. But, the court found that there was no evidence in the record of any of the land use impacts alleged by Friends. First, Friends claimed that the project might violate the RCZ in the future, if it did not buildout as proposed in the PRD. The court found this to be speculation because the Lofgrens had not yet submitted final plans for the location of the homes. The court also found that while the RCZ required site design to be sensitive towards the natural topographic and habitat features of the site, clustering homes in less sensitive and steep portions of the site was one way that the applicant could choose to demonstrate the required sensitivity. There was no requirement to build in the least steep area of the site.

The court also pointed out that Friends were not challenging the actual conditions of approval, but arguing that the Lofgrens might not comply with them in the future, and that could have environmental impacts. The court stated that such an argument was true in nearly all cases, and that, if the project did not comply with the permit conditions, Friends could seek supplemental environmental review at that time. Further, the conditions required the project to be built in substantial conformance with the proposed PRD. Next, the court dismissed the variance argument, finding that the minimum two-acre lot size only applied where a proposed development was not a PRD. Lastly, the court rejected the abuse of discretion claims, finding that there was substantial evidence in the record of the average natural slope of the lots to support the city’s determination that the site could support six lots. The court also found that RCZ did not require an applicant to select the “superior design” elements prior to permit approval, but, in any case, the Lofgrens had selected their preferred “superior design” elements.

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)

Sixth District Rules County of Santa Cruz Did Not Engage in Piecemeal Review of Zoning Ordinances and Upholds Negative Declaration

In Aptos Council v. County of Santa Cruz (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 266, the Sixth District held that the County of Santa Cruz did not engage in piecemeal review when it separately adopted three different zoning ordinances. The court also upheld the negative declaration for an ordinance increasing the height and density of hotels.

The County planning department undertook an effort to overhaul various County code sections, including those dealing with zoning. As part of this effort, the following occurred: (1) in March 2013, the County considered an addendum to a negative declaration prior to adopting an ordinance that authorized administrative approval of minor exceptions to zoning site standards; (2) in September 2013, the planning department circulated a negative declaration finding that an ordinance increasing the height and density for hotels (the “Hotel Ordinance”) would not have a significant effect on the environment; and (3) in October 2013, the planning department prepared a notice of exemption for an amendment modifying the County’s sign ordinance (the “Sign Ordinance”). The Board adopted the Hotel Ordinance and the Sign Ordinance in 2014.

Petitioner argued that the three ordinances in question constituted a single project and the County’s actions amounted to piecemealing in violation of CEQA. The court disagreed. The court found that reforming certain zoning regulations—such as altering density requirements for hotels—was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the other regulatory reforms challenged. Because each ordinance operated independently and could be implemented separately, they were not considered a single project. While the ordinances all served the same stated objective of “modernizing the County code,” the court held that this was not the type of tangible objective that forms the basis of a single CEQA project.

The court also upheld the negative declaration for the Hotel Ordinance, finding that the County did not need to consider potential future development because it was too speculative to be reasonably foreseeable. Evidence in the record supported the argument that the County intended to stimulate development when it passed the ordinance, but the court found that still did not demonstrate that such development was reasonably foreseeable. Additionally, the initial study disclosed that the Hotel Ordinance would allow higher density and taller hotels but that the effects of future development were speculative until a specific development was proposed. And, the initial study explained that such development projects would be subject to their own CEQA review. Moreover, the court found that petitioner failed to meet its burden to show a fair argument that significant environmental effects may result from the ordinance.

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.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Holds That Irrigation District Can Rely on a Previous Negative Declaration and Does Not Need to Perform Subsequent Environmental Review When Making Certain Updates to Water Distribution Regulations

James A. Abatti et al., v. Imperial Irrigation District (4th Dist. April 26, 2012)      Cal.App.4th              (Case No. D058329)

Factual and Procedural Background

In 2006, the Imperial Irrigation District adopted a resolution related to a plan for the distribution of water in the event of a water shortage.  Concurrently with its adoption of a resolution, the District adopted a negative declaration in which it concluded that the distribution plan would not have a significant effect on the environment.  In 2007, the District adopted regulations implementing the distribution plan.  There were no challenges to either the resolution adopting the plan or to the initial regulations implementing the plan.

In 2008, the District adopted additional regulations that revised the 2007 regulations. Concurrently with the 2008 regulations, the District adopted an environmental compliance report that concluded the 2008 regulations did not warrant further environmental assessment under CEQA.  The District relied on Public Resources Code section 211166 and CEQA Guidelines section 15162, which provide limitations on the necessity for subsequent environmental review under certain circumstances.  Section 21166 provides that once an agency prepares an EIR, no EIR shall thereafter be required for the project unless certain circumstances occur, such as substantial changes to the project or to the circumstances under which the project is being undertaken.  Guidelines section 15162 provides a similar limitation on subsequent environmental review following the agency’s adoption of a negative declaration. 

Appellants, owners of agricultural land in Imperial County, filed a petition alleging that the District failed to comply with CEQA in adopting the 2008 regulations.  The trial court denied the petition, holding there was substantial evidence to support the District’s determination that the adoption of the 2008 regulations did not require additional CEQA review.  According to the trial court, the project being evaluated here (the 2008 regulations) included the 2007 regulations and there was substantial evidence to support the District’s determination that there had been no changes in the project or in the surrounding circumstances since the adoption of the 2007 regulations that warranted additional review under section 21166.  The court found the 2008 regulations simply served to clarify an omission made in the 2007 regulations – that the District could limit new industrial contracts to less than the contract amount if appropriate, and notably, this was a limitation on water deliveries.  The change to the regulation was not an expansion of water distribution rights as appellants had asserted.  The decision was appealed and the appellate court affirmed.      

Appellate Jurisdiction

The first issue addressed by the appellate court was whether it had jurisdiction over the appeal in light of the fact that appellants dismissed several causes of action without prejudice prior to the entry of judgment on the CEQA causes of action.  Under the final judgment rule, an appeal cannot generally be taken from a judgment that fails to complete the disposition of all the causes of action between the parties.  The court held that claims that have been dismissed, with or without prejudice, do not remain pending within the meaning of the final judgment rule unless there is a stipulation between the parties facilitating the future litigation of the dismissed claims, such as an agreement tolling the statute of limitations. Here, there was no such stipulation so the court was able to exercise jurisdiction. 

CEQA Claim

The court first addressed the appellants’ argument that Guidelines section 15162 was invalid because it improperly purports to extend section 21166 to negative declarations.  Section 21166 mentions only EIRs and not negative declarations.  Guidelines section 15162 has been held to be a valid regulation that implements the principles of section 21166.  (Benton v. Board of Supervisors (1991) Cal.App.3d 1467, 1479-1481).  Appellants argued, however, that Benton was wrongly decided.  The court disagreed and held that section 15162 validly implements the principles contained in section 21166.  The court agreed with Benton that section 15162 is valid because it furthers the purpose of section 21166, notwithstanding that the text of section 21166 refers only to EIRs. Therefore it held that section 15162 is valid when applied to cases, such as this, in which an initial negative declaration was prepared. 

Appellants also argued that, even if section 21166 applied, the District was required to prepare an EIR due to the significant changes in the 2008 regulations.  The court rejected this argument as well, finding that there was substantial evidence to support the District’s determination that the adoption of the 2008 regulations did not constitute a substantial change to the Project requiring additional environmental review. After reviewing the respective regulations, the court found the 2008 regulations did not substantially increase the priority preference that industrial users of water would receive over agricultural users in times of shortage, as appellants had alleged.  Its view of the 2008 regulations was that they made only a minor change to the 2007 regulations. The 2008 regulations, which allowed the apportionment of water to existing users based on “past use” and the apportionment of water to new users based on “anticipated use” is one that actually limited water delivery to future industrial users from the amounts they would have received under the 2007 regulations and was not a substantial change requiring subsequent environmental review.  Therefore, the court held that no further environmental review was required and affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny the petition.


This case confirms the holding in Benton that section 21166 allows a public agency to forego subsequent environmental review under certain circumstances regardless of whether the preceding environmental review document was an EIR or a negative declaration.  Unless the specific events described in Public Resources Code section 21166 or Guidelines section 15162 have occurred, an agency does not need to conduct further review when making minor changes to a project if an EIR or negative declaration has already been completed. Although the court does not expressly state what satisfies the “substantial changes” standard requiring subsequent review under CEQA and CEQA Guidelines, the case nonetheless provides useful guidance regarding the limits of the provisions and helps clarify when the need for subsequent review has been triggered.

Third District Rejects Negative Declaration for Oak Woodland Fee Program Despite County’s Attempt to Tier from Prior Program EIR

Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, et al., v. County of El Dorado (Jan. 20, 2012) __Cal.App.4th___ (Case No. C064875)

 On January 20, 2012, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled that the County of El Dorado violated CEQA by adopting a negative declaration for an oak woodland management plan and impact fee program.  The court decided the county could not “tier” its review of the fee program from an earlier program EIR prepared for the county’s 2004 general plan. Continue reading