In Citizens Coalition Los Angeles v. City of Los Angeles (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 561, the Second District Court of Appeal overturned the trial court’s decision that revisions to a commercial development project to include a specific plan amendment constituted a “new project” under CEQA, and found that supplemental review under Public Resources Code section 21166 applied instead. Additionally, the Court determined that, while the specific plan amendment created a “spot zone,” substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that the amendment was in the public interest, and thus not impermissible under the test announced in Foothill Communities Coalition v. County of Orange (2014) 222 Cal.App.4th 1302.
Target Corporation (Target) applied to build a Super Target retail store at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue in Hollywood. The project contemplated a nearly 75-foot tall, three-story building with the Target store occupying the third floor, parking on the second, and the first floor containing several smaller retail stores, a transit kiosk, and a pedestrian plaza. The City of Los Angeles certified the environmental impact report (EIR) prepared for the project, and granted eight variances from the Vermont/Western Transit Oriented District Specific Plan (SNAP) allowing the project to be built as proposed. Target began construction of the project. Several community associations (plaintiffs) filed separate petitions for writ of mandate challenging the City’s approval of the project, alleging violations of CEQA, and that the grant of the variances were not supported by substantial evidence in violation of the Los Angeles Municipal Code. The trial court upheld the EIR, but found that six of the eight variances were not supported by substantial evidence and ordered construction to cease.
While that case was pending on appeal, the City amended the SNAP to create a new subarea (Subarea F) that would allow projects similar to Target’s to be built in certain parts of the specific plan area without the need for variances, and designated the project site as Subarea F. There were two other locations in the specific plan area that could qualify for the Subarea F designation, but no projects meeting the requirements of Subarea F were proposed to the City at those locations. The appellate court dismissed the appeal as moot, leaving the trial court’s decision intact. The City prepared and approved an addendum to the Target project EIR, defining the revised project as the SNAP amendment and the completion of construction for the Target project. The same plaintiffs challenged the revised project approval, alleging that the City violated CEQA by relying on an addendum rather than a new, subsequent, or supplemental EIR, and that the City impermissibly “spot-zoned” by amending the SNAP for the project. The trial court found that the SNAP amendment was a new project, making the addendum improper but did not reach the “spot zoning” issue. The City and Target appealed.
The court of appeal, in analyzing whether the addendum violated CEQA asked three questions: what did the SNAP amendment do? Do CEQA’s supplemental or initial project review provisions apply? And, did the City comply with the applicable CEQA provisions? The court answered each question in turn. First, the court found that SNAP amendment, though it created a new subarea, only placed the project location into that subarea. While two other locations in the SNAP area could meet the proximity to transit and acreage requirements, they did not meet the commercial square footage requirement and no projects meeting that requirement had been proposed to the City. The court also rejected plaintiffs’ “haphazard” development argument, finding that the amendment was consistent with the SNAP’s policies and that the City could rationally take planning and development “one step at a time.”
In determining whether CEQA’s supplemental review provisions applied, the court found that there had been prior CEQA review of the Target project. Thus, the question was “whether the previous environmental document retains any relevance in light of the proposed changes.” (Citing Friends of College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College Dist. (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937, 944.) The court found that substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that the previous EIR retained relevance for the revised project. The court rejected the argument that, because the previous EIR was limited to a specific development “project” and the SNAP amendment involved more general policy considerations, the “project” EIR was insufficient. The court found that the label placed on the EIR said little about its sufficiency as an informational document. The proper question is whether the EIR retains any value in addressing the impacts associated with the revised project.
Next, the court asked whether the City complied with CEQA’s supplemental review requirements, and found that substantial evidence supported the City’s decision to rely on an addendum for the revised project. Plaintiffs made four arguments, all of which the court rejected. First, petitioners argued that the addendum did not discuss the SNAP amendment, which the court stated was factually inaccurate. Second, they argued that the City intended further development in the SNAP area through the new subarea because of some of the language the City used in describing the requirements of the new subarea. The court found that the cited language did not negate the substantial evidence supporting the City’s finding that no additional development was foreseeable. Third, plaintiffs argued that additional development projects at the two locations that could qualify for the new subarea, and any other locations that could be “cobbled together” were reasonably foreseeable consequences of the SNAP amendment that required a subsequent or supplemental EIR. The court found that whatever incentive for development the amendment created, evidence of that incentive did not overcome the substantial evidence supporting the City’s determination. Lastly, plaintiffs argued that de novo review should apply because the challenge to the amendment required the court to construe its meaning. The court found that the issue before it involved the amendment’s environmental impact, not its meaning, and thus review was for substantial evidence.
Though the trial court did not address the “spot zoning” issue, the court of appeal did, finding that it was important enough to resolve the fully briefed, longstanding issue. Under the analysis in Foothill Communities, the court found that the SNAP amendment did create a zoning “island,” though it was unclear whether the zoning was less or more stringent than the surrounding parcels because of the specific requirements for the new subarea. Regardless, the question was whether the zoning decision creating the “island” was arbitrary, irrational or unreasonable. The court found that, under that standard, the spot zone was valid. Further, the City’s determination that the amendment was in the public interest was supported by substantial evidence, and the SNAP, as amended, remained compatible with the City’s general plan. The court rejected plaintiffs’ challenge to the City’s alleged motive in amending the SNAP, and plaintiffs’ questioning of whether the SNAP amendment represented good policy, as neither issue was appropriate for the court’s inquiry. The court also found that even if future projects proposed to use the new subarea, the City retained its power to determine whether each project is in the public interest. Lastly, the court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the amendment to the SNAP was “incompatible” with it because the amendment would “alter” the SNAP. The court found that the law unambiguously allows specific plan amendments.
Nathan O. George