Paulek v. Western Riverside County (June 17, 2015) __ Cal.App.4th __, Case No. E059133
In a decision reversing the trial court, Division Two of the Fourth District held that the removal of a conservation overlay constituted a project under CEQA and that the project did not fall within the identified exemptions. The decision involves a Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to maintain open spaces in western Riverside County. The HCP identified a “criteria area” broken down into cells, each about 160 acres in size, that were to be evaluated to determine what portions of the criteria area should be included in the conservation area. Part of the criteria area included the Warm Springs Ranch owned by Anheuser-Bush; a conservation overlay had been placed upon the ranch.
In 2005, Anheuser submitted applications to develop the Ranch. The County informed Anheuser that all but 71 acres of the Ranch would be acquired for conservation under the HCP, and in 2011 the parties reached a settlement agreement whereby the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority (the Agency) would purchase the Ranch from Anheuser. The property was to be purchased in 9 phases, and phase 9, which consisted of a 200-acre area, would cost $11 million. One of the purchasing conditions for the phase-9 property was that the conservation overlay would be removed.
Paulek asserted that the Agency should have considered whether removing the conservation overlay would have a significant environmental impact, and contended possible development on that area had the potential to affect wildlife by reducing habitat. The Agency contended that because, as part of the agreement with Anheuser, 1,064 acres would be acquired by the Agency and protected as open space, and because the phase-9 property was highly degraded habitat, the conservation transfer would result in more and better land being protected. Therefore, the Agency reasoned, the action was not a project under CEQA, and if even it was, it was exempt from CEQA.
The court rejected the Agency’s arguments, holding that the removal of the conservation overlay from the phase-9 property constituted a project under CEQA. Among other things, the court reasoned that removing the overlay was analogous to amending a general plan or changing a zoning ordinance, which are projects under CEQA. Removing the conservation overlay embodied a fundamental land use decision that had the potential to cause physical changes in the environment in that the land protected for conservation purposes would no longer be subject to such protections. Therefore, the Agency’s decision to remove the overlay was a project under CEQA.
The court was unpersuaded by the Agency’s arguments concerning the protection of 1,064 acres of more environmentally pristine land in exchange for the 200-acre phase-9 property. The court explained that the decision to remove the overlay was a separate decision from the decision to put 1,064 acres of other land in conservation. But even if the removal of the overlay and addition of overlay elsewhere was considered part of the same project, the fact remained that the 200 acres of the phase-9 property would no longer be protected by the conservation overlay. The court characterized the Agency’s argument as “essentially washing over any negative changes to the phase 9-property by highlighting the positive changes to the [other] properties.” For instance, noted the court, there are two species present on the phase-9 property that are not present on the 1,064 acres, so the land swap would not protect these two species.
The court also rejected the Agency’s argument that the project fell within certain exemptions from CEQA. The court held that a Class 7 exemption, which exempts projects that consist of actions taken by regulatory agencies to assure the maintenance, restoration, or enhancement of a natural resource, did not apply because a fair argument existed that removing the overlay could adversely affect certain species. Although the phase-9 property was not “prime” habitat for those species, there was no indication that it was so superfluous to those species that removing it from conservation would not adversely affect the species.
With respect to the Class 8 exemption, which is nearly identical to a Class 7 exemption except that it applies to the “environment” rather than natural resources, the court held that because there was uncertainty as to whether there would be a significant impact on the environment, the Class 8 exemption did not apply. Evidence in the administrative record demonstrated that the loss of the conservation overlay could affect the neighboring conservation area, and the effects could be significant such that there would need to be an attempt to lessen the effects.
The court also rejected the Agency’s claim that the project fell within the common sense exemption, which applies where it is certain that there is no possibility that an activity will have a significant effect on the environment. The change in designation of the phase-9 property from protected to unprotected had the potential for causing ultimate physical environmental changes, which was sufficient to take the project outside the purview of the exemption.
In addition to rejecting the Agency’s arguments on the merits, the court rejected various procedural arguments made by the Agency, holding that Paulek had standing, that Paulek’s action was timely, and that Paulek did not fail to join an indispensable party.