In the published portions of Save the Hill Group v. City of Livermore (2022) 76 Cal.App.5th 1092, the First District Court of Appeal held that Petitioner Save the Hill’s failure to specifically reference the recirculated EIR or the no-project alternative in its comments to the City Council did not bar its CEQA claims regarding preservation of the Project site.
This case involves the City of Livermore’s approval of a development application for a housing development in the Garaventa Hills. The Project underwent multiple revisions, and the Project at issue is a scaled-down version of the original 76-unit residential development. The final Project is a 44-unit development with pedestrian across Altamont creek that also serves as a secondary emergency vehicle access road. The City published a Recirculated Final EIR (RFEIR) for this final revised Project.
Save the Hill filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the City’s approval of the Project and certification of the RFEIR for failure to consider significant environmental impacts, adequately investigate and evaluate the no-project alternative, and mitigate significant environmental impacts. The trial court denied the petition, determining that Save the Hill failed to exhaust its administrative remedies in challenging the RFEIR. Save the Hill appealed.
The Court of Appeal’s Decision
The Court of Appeal held that Save the Hill did not fail to exhaust its administrative remedies before challenging the City’s failure to evaluate the no-project alternative. While Save the Hill did not mention the environmental documents or the lack of a no-project alternative specifically, it did express its desire to preserve the Project site as open space. The Court emphasized that CEQA does not require public interest groups such as Save the Hill—which are often unrepresented by counsel at administrative hearings—to do more than “fairly apprise” the agency of their complaints to preserve them for appeal.
Several Save the Hill representatives voiced support for preserving the Project site as open space in perpetuity at the City Council hearing for the RFEIR’s certification. These comments sparked questions from city councilmembers regarding the possibility of preserving the Project site and a discussion of available funding to purchase Garaventa Hills for conservation. This option was shut down by the City Attorney, who advised the City Council that its evaluation should be limited to the Project as set before them, and that if it were to change the zoning to permanent open space on the property, the City would likely face a takings lawsuit.
The Court determined that these comments and the ensuing discussion reflected the City Council’s consideration of a no-project alternative as a result of Save the Hill’s objections. It concluded that Save the Hill’s failure to specifically refer to the RFEIR’s Project alternatives evaluation was immaterial to the fact that it fairly appraised the City of its position. The court further explained that even if Save the Hill framed its arguments in the context of the RFEIR’s no-project alternative, “the evidence is overwhelmingly that, had it done so, the result would have been the same: [t]he City would have rejected the group’s proposal and certified the RFEIR” because it was improperly instructed to limit its focus to the presented Project.
Accordingly, the Court held that an exception to the exhaustion requirement applied because the aggrieved party—Save the Hill—could “positively state” what the lead agency’s decision would be in its particular case.
No Project Alternative Analysis
On the merits of Save the Hill’s alternative analysis claim, the Court held that the RFEIR failed to disclose and analyze information regarding the availability of funding sources that could have been used to purchase and permanently conserve the Project site. The Court explained that zoning changes are within the City’s police power, and the RFEIR accordingly should have discussed the feasibility of rezoning the site as permanent open space.
Mitigation Measures Adequacy
Save the Hill asserted that the mitigation measures for impacts to vernal pool fairy shrimp were inadequate because they would only be implemented if the fairy shrimp were detected at the site. The Court explained that CEQA allows deferred mitigation where the agency commits to achieving specific performance standards, which it did here, and that the mitigation measures were adequate because the RFEIR assumed that the fairy shrimp were present.
The Court also held that the preservation of an 85-acre compensatory mitigation site was adequate, despite Save the Hill’s contention that the City’s General Plan required the location to be preserved as open space. The Court concluded that the General Plan is “merely aspirational,” while the RFEIR’s mitigation measure created a “perpetual legal restraint on development” at the site, including requiring funding for upkeep and enforcement. Moreover, distinguishing this case from King & Gardiner Farms, LLC v. County of Kern (2020) 45 Cal.App.5th 814 (“King”), the Court explained that this Project involved the loss of only 32 acres—as opposed to the loss of 6,450 acres in King—and CEQA does not require mitigation measures to “completely eliminate the environmental impacts of a project.”
Hydrological Impacts Adequacy
The Court held that the City’s finding of no significant hydrological impacts was supported by substantial evidence because Save the Hill failed to refute the City’s points in its reply brief. The Court refused to afford any weight to Save the Hill’s argument that the Project would degrade downstream water quality because a larger development project (which originally included this Project) would have a significant downstream water quality impact. The Court determined that impacts from a project almost 200 acres larger than this Project were not relevant.
Settlement Agreement Obligation Claims
Lastly, the Court held that that Save the Hill forfeited its claim that the City violated CEQA by failing to preserve the Project site to satisfy its obligations under two settlement agreements by failing to raise the issue prior to appeal. Moreover, Save the Hill was not a party to either settlement agreement and thus lacked standing to enforce those obligations.