Tag: Urban Decay

Fifth District Finds Report Prepared by Real Estate Broker Was Not Substantial Evidence of Urban Decay

In Visalia Retail, LP v. City of Visalia (2018) ­­20 Cal.App.5th­­ 1, the Fifth District upheld the City of Visalia’s certification of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for its general plan update. Though the EIR did not analyze the potential for urban decay, the court found that the record contained no substantial evidence that a land use policy restricting the size of commercial tenants in a neighborhood commercial area would result in urban decay. The court also found that the city’s general plan was not internally inconsistent and that the city had not violated relevant Planning and Zoning Law notice provisions.

The city prepared an EIR for an update to its general plan, which included updating the land use policy at issue. Under that policy, commercial tenants in neighborhood commercial areas may not be larger than 40,000 square feet. The petitioner argued that the size restriction would cause significant physical impacts in the form of urban decay, and therefore the EIR was inadequate for failing to address those impacts. In support of this argument, the petitioner submitted a report prepared by a real estate broker, who opined that the 40,000-square-foot cap would cause grocers to refuse to locate in the neighborhood commercial centers, which would cause vacancies and would then, in turn, result in urban decay.

The court rejected this argument finding that the report did not provide the requisite basis for the petitioner’s challenge because its analysis of causation was speculative and the potential economic consequences does not mean that urban decay would result. The court distinguished Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control v. City of Bakersfield (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 1184, where it had held that the EIR in that case was fatally defective for failing to analyze the individual and cumulative potential to indirectly cause urban decay resulting from the development of two shopping centers. But there, the court emphasized, the analysis of urban decay is required when there is evidence suggesting that the economic and social effects caused by development could result in urban decay. Here, the court found no such evidence in the record.

The court also found that the size restriction was not inconsistent with the general plan’s stated goal of encouraging infill development. Finally, the court held that the city did not violate the 10-day notice requirement set forth in the Planning and Zoning Law by failing to re-notice additional meetings on the general plan amendment.

First District Court of Appeal Upholds Judicial Council of California’s Determination That Closure of Downtown Placerville Courthouse Would Not Lead to Significant Urban Decay Impacts

On October 16, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal published its decision in Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 187, upholding the San Francisco County Superior Court’s denial of a petition for writ of mandate challenging the Judicial Council of California’s decision to certify a Final EIR and approve the New Placerville Courthouse Project.

Background

El Dorado County’s court facilities are currently divided between the Main Street Courthouse, a historic building in downtown Placerville, and the County administrative complex. The Judicial Council proposed to consolidate all court activities in a new three-story building to be built on undeveloped land adjacent to the County jail, less than two miles away from the existing Main Street Courthouse.

In October 2014, the Judicial Council published a draft EIR for the proposed new courthouse. The draft EIR acknowledged that retiring the downtown courthouse could have an impact on downtown Placerville. The EIR also recognized that the Judicial Council was required address neighborhood deterioration as a significant environmental effect under CEQA if urban decay was a reasonably foreseeable impact of the project. The draft EIR defined “urban decay” as “physical deterioration of properties or structures that is so prevalent, substantial, and lasting a significant period of time that it impairs the proper utilization of the properties and structures, and the health, safety, and welfare of the surrounding community.” The draft EIR concluded that urban decay, so defined, was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the new courthouse project.

Comments received both during and after the public review period on the draft EIR voiced the concern that closing the historic Main Street Courthouse could negatively affect businesses in downtown Placerville. In response to such concerns, the Judicial Council reiterated the draft EIR’s conclusion that the project was not likely to lead to urban decay. In support of this conclusion, the Judicial Council observed that it was working with both the city and county to develop a re-use strategy for the building that would support the downtown businesses and local residences. The Judicial Council also cited evidence of the City and County’s efforts to find a new use for the historic courthouse building.

Following the Judicial Council’s certification of the final EIR, the Placerville Historic Preservation League (League) filed a petition for writ of mandate, which the trial court denied. The Court of Appeal affirmed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, the League argued that the Judicial Council erred in concluding that urban decay is not a reasonably foreseeable indirect effect of relocating the courthouse activities from downtown Placerville to their new location. The court held that substantial evidence in the record supported the Judicial Council’s conclusion that the type of physical deterioration contemplated in the term “urban decay” is not reasonably foreseeable. The court explained that there is no presumption that urban decay would result from the project. To the contrary, as defined by CEQA—which focuses on the physical environment—urban decay “is a relatively extreme economic condition.” Evidence in the record, including comments submitted by the public, suggested that downtown Placerville was an economically stable area, and could withstand business closures without falling into urban decay.

The League also characterized the likelihood of the re-use of the historic courthouse building as an “‘unenforceable and illusory”’ commitment. The court explained, however, that the lack of a binding requirement for the re-use of the building does not undermine the EIR’s reasoning. Specifically, the issue before the Judicial Council was whether urban decay was a reasonably foreseeable effect of the project, not whether its occurrence was a certainty. It would be the best interest of the City of Placerville and the County of El Dorado to re-use the historic courthouse building, suggesting that the building was likely to be put to a new use. While the re-use was by no means guaranteed, it was reasonably likely. Therefore, the Judicial Council did not err in relying on the possibility of re-using the building as one basis for concluding that urban decay was not reasonably foreseeable.

The League also argued that the administrative record contained evidence, in the form of comments submitted by local residents and businesses, of the impact of moving the courtroom activities outside of downtown Placerville. The court held that although these letters and comments provided credible grounds to conclude that relocating the courthouse activities would constitute a hardship for some local businesses, it was not substantial evidence to support the conclusion that such economic effects would lead to substantial physical deterioration of the downtown.

The League further argued that the Judicial Council should have prepared an economic study evaluating the effects of removing the courthouse functions from downtown. The court disagreed, noting that in “any endeavor of this type, financial resources are limited, and the lead agency has the discretion to direct resources toward the most pressing concerns.” Just because a financial impact study might have been helpful does not make it necessary.

The Judicial Council was represented by RMM attorneys Andrea Leisy and Laura Harris in the trial court and on appeal.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Upholds Mitigated Negative Declaration Against Urban Decay Challenge—Lay Witness Opinion Not Substantial Evidence of Economic Impacts

In Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 677, certified for partial publication, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld a mitigated negative declaration providing insight on the subjects of urban decay and general plan consistency.

San Bernardino County adopted a mitigated negative declaration approving a 9,100 square foot general retail store. The intended occupant was Dollar General. The Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance, a group of local business owners, challenged the project on several grounds: (1) failure to adequately consider the project’s potential to cause urban decay; (2) failure to complete an EIR based on substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project would cause urban decay; (3) inconsistency with various economic goals and policies incorporated in the general plan; and (4) failure to disclose the intended occupant’s identity.

The Fourth District agreed with the lower court’s ruling that the county had considered urban decay but had simply concluded that because there was no evidence of a negative economic impact—there was likewise no evidence of urban decay. The court stated that economic impacts, alone, are not enough to require an EIR. By adopting a mitigated negative declaration, the county expressly found that there were no significant impacts through which economic impacts and urban decay could ultimately be traced.

The court further held that lay opinion regarding economic impacts did not qualify as substantial evidence. A business owner and former attorney with the Oregon Department of Justice provided extensive comments on the project’s potential to cause urban decay. The court stated that she was not an expert and was therefore not qualified to opine on whether the project would cause urban decay. Moreover, she had not provided any factual basis for her assertions. The county exercised appropriate discretion in deeming her testimony not substantial evidence.

The Fourth District also rejected petitioner’s claims that the project was inconsistent with the economic goals and policies in the general plan. Applying the abuse of discretion standard—rather than the fair argument standard as argued by petitioners—the court found that the county could reasonably conclude that the project was consistent with the general plan. The court stated that words in the policies such as “encourage” and “support” were “amorphous policy terms” that give the local agency some discretion.

Finally, in the unpublished portion of the opinion, the court rejected petitioner’s claim that the county had improperly withheld the identity of Dollar General as the intended occupant. CEQA did not require the county, in this instance, to identify the end user. In dicta, however, the court left open the possibility that disclosure of the end user may be required where it is “environmentally relevant.”

Written by Christina Berglund

Third District Finds Trial Court Committed Non-Prejudicial Error When It Excluded Documents from Record Under the Deliberative Process Privilege, Upholds Revised EIR Against Other CEQA Challenges

Citizens for Open Government v. City of Lodi, (3rd Dist. March 28, 2012 [modified April 25th, 2012]) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. C065463, C065719)

Factual and Procedural Background

In 2002, Browman Company applied to the City of Lodi for a use permit to develop a 35-acre shopping center. In 2003, the city issued a NOP for a draft EIR for the proposed project. The city approved the project in 2004. Lodi First and Citizens for Open Government (COG) filed separate lawsuits (Lodi First I and Citizens I) challenging the project.

In December 2005, the trial court granted the petition for writ of mandate in Lodi First I.  The city council rescinded approval of the project and decertified the 2004 EIR. In 2006, the city issued a NOP for the revised EIR. In 2007, COG and the city stipulated to dismiss Citizens I.

In October 2007, the city circulated revisions to the EIR for public review and comment.  The city concluded some of the comments it had received on the revised draft EIR were beyond the scope of the revisions and barred by res judicata. The city declined to provide substantive responses to these comments. In May 2009, the city council conditionally approved the project entitlements and adopted findings of fact and a statement of overriding considerations for the project.

In order to proceed with the project, the city filed a petition to discharge the writ in Lodi First I. As part of this process, the city lodged a supplemental administrative record. Both COG and Lodi First filed separate lawsuits challenging the final revised EIR. After filing their lawsuits, both groups contended the supplemental administrative record excluded documents, including internal agency communications and communications with city consultants.

COG filed a motion to augment the supplemental administrative record. The court granted the motion in part and denied the motion in part based on the attorney-client, attorney-work-product and deliberative process privileges. In 2010, following a hearing on the merits, the trial court granted the City’s request to discharge the 2005 writ in Lodi First I and deny the petitions in Citizens II and Lodi First II. Both Lodi First and COG appealed.

The Appellate Court’s Decision

On appeal, Lodi First and COG argued the trial court erred in applying the deliberative process privilege to exclude some emails from the administrative record. Appellants also challenged the sufficiency of the revised EIR on numerous grounds and disputed the trial court’s ruling precluding them from challenging certain issues based on res judicata.

The Deliberative Process Privilege

Under the deliberative process privilege, senior officials in government enjoy a qualified, limited privilege not to disclose certain materials or communications. These include the mental processes by which a given decision was reached and other discussions, deliberations, etc., by which government policy is processed and formulated. The deliberative process showing must be made by the one claiming the privilege. Not every deliberative process communication is protected by the privilege.  Instead, the privilege is implicated only if the public interest in nondisclosure clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

In the trial court, the city argued the deliberative process privilege applied because the city manager, city attorney, community development director, and other consultants engaged in various deliberative discussions and document exchanges concerning revisions to the EIR. The privilege was required, the city argued, “to foster candid dialogue and a testing and challenging of the approaches to be taken…” On appeal, Lodi First claimed this assertion was insufficient to support nondisclosure through the deliberative process privilege. The appellate court agreed, finding the city offered a correct statement of policy, but that invoking policy was not sufficient to explain the public’s specific interest in nondisclosure of the documents at issue. As a result, the city failed to carry its burden, and the trial court erred in excluding 22 e-mails from the administrative record based on the deliberative process privilege.

While the trial court erred in excluding these documents, this error was not necessarily prejudicial. Under the standard for prejudicial error established by the California Constitution, the appellant bears the burden to show it is reasonably probable he or she would have received a more favorable result at trial had the error not occurred.

Lodi First acknowledged it could not satisfy its burden to prove prejudice on appeal because it had not seen the documents that were erroneously withheld. Lodi First claimed the improper withholding of the documents itself was prejudicial because it was impossible for Lodi First to acquire them. The appellate court disagreed and noted Lodi First should have sought writ review of the trial court’s ruling on the motion to augment the administrative record. In addition, the appellate court, citing Madera Oversight Coalition Inc. v. County of Madera (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 48, disagreed with Lodi First’s contention that the incomplete record itself was a prejudicial error requiring reversal regardless of the actual contents of the withheld documents.

The Range of Alternatives Considered

Lodi First argued the revised EIR did not comply with CEQA because the range of alternatives to the project did not both satisfy most of the project objectives and reduce significant effects of the project. Relying on both the CEQA Guidelines and long-standing precedent, the court rejected Lodi First’s argument.

First, the court of appeal cited CEQA Guidelines section 15126.6 for the assertion that “there is no ironclad rule governing the nature or scope of the alternatives to be discussed other than the rule of reason.” In addition the court noted that the California Supreme Court has explained how a “rule of reason” must be applied to the assessment of alternatives to proposed projects.

In this case, the revised project considered five alternatives: (1) no project; (2) alternative land uses; (3) reduced density; (4) reduced project size; and (5) alternative project location.  The alternative land use and reduced project density alternatives were not considered for further evaluation because they were infeasible or would not meet the goals of the project. The appellate court found the rejection of these alternatives for further review was reasonable.  The three remaining alternatives were discussed in detail in the revised EIR and provided substantial evidence of a reasonable range of alternatives.

Urban Decay Analysis

The trial court granted the petition for writ of mandate in Lodi First I, in part, because the analysis of cumulative urban decay impacts was inadequate for omitting two related projects in the geographic area. An updated economic impact/urban decay analysis was prepared in response to the trial court’s order to decertify the original EIR.

Lodi First argued the revised EIR inaccurately described the project’s environmental setting by failing to discuss existing blight and decay conditions in east Lodi. The appellate court, by de novo review, determined the blight at issue was not necessarily related to the retail environment at all. Further, the revised EIR analyzed the potential for urban decay with consideration of conditions in east Lodi. The revised EIR’s discussion of cumulative urban decay impacts was adequate under CEQA.

The Economic Baseline

COG argued the city erred in the revised EIR by failing to assess urban decay impacts “under radically changed economic conditions.” COG asserted the city should have reassessed urban decay impacts in light of the economic recession that occurred after the 2006/2007 economic analysis performed for the project. The appellate court determined the city’s decision not to update the baseline was supported by substantial evidence. First, the city offered evidence that updating the baseline presented a “moving target” problem, where updates to the analysis would not be able to keep pace with changing events.  In addition, the city presented evidence that the changing economic conditions did not affect the urban decay findings based on the 2006/2007 economic analysis. Therefore, the city did not abuse its discretion when it declined to update the baseline.

Agricultural Impacts

COG argued the original EIR and revised EIR failed to disclose cumulative impacts to agriculture and that there was no substantial evidence to support the rejection of a heightened mitigation ratio.

The appellate court first determined that the revised EIR satisfied the standards established by the CEQA Guidelines for discussing cumulative impacts. The EIR explained the amount of prime farmland lost due to the project, the amount of land lost due to the project and other proposed projects, and that the cumulative impacts to agricultural resources would be significant and unavoidable. The discussion met the standard for “adequacy, completeness, and a good faith effort at full disclosure.”

After finding the revised EIR’s discussion of cumulative impacts to agricultural resources adequate, the appellate court determined the city did not have to accept a heightened mitigation ratio as asserted by COG. The city required a 1:1 conservation easement ratio for the loss of farmland, but also determined that agricultural easements do not completely mitigate for the loss of farmland. The city adopted a statement of overriding considerations and asserted the 1:1 ratio is appropriate for the project. COG argued the rejection of a 2:1 mitigation ratio was not supported by substantial evidence. The appellate court disagreed and noted that the appropriate standard was whether the finding that there were no feasible mitigation measures to reduce the impacts to prime farmland was supported by substantial evidence.

The Doctrine of Res Judicata

Lodi First attempted to argue the revised EIR failed to disclose cumulative water supply impacts. The trial court held that res judicata barred Lodi Frist from raising this claim. The appellate court agreed.

Res Judicata (claim preclusion) bars relitigation of a cause of action that was previously adjudicated in another proceeding between the same parties or parties in privity with them and that adjudication resulted in a final decision on the merits. In this case, a writ was issued in Lodi First I and was final on the merits.  The trial court granted Lodi First’s petition and held the 2005 EIR was inadequate under CEQA. The city chose not to appeal, and the ruling was final because the time to appeal passed.

Lodi first attempted to argue res judicata did not preclude its water supply challenge because it was based on new information and the city’s 2009 findings regarding the project’s water supply impacts differed from its 2005 findings. For the purposes of res judicata, causes of action are considered the same if based on the same primary right. A claim is based on the same primary right if based on the same conditions and facts in existence when the original action was filed.

The appellate court determined the problem of overdraft cited by Lodi First was not new evidence. The city’s own 1990 general plan identified overdraft in the aquifer. While Lodi First claimed new evidence established more information than the 1990 EIR, the critical fact was that the city’s water supply was inadequate to serve new development.  This was known at the time of the 2004 EIR. In addition, the court determined the findings were consistent in that both findings were that the project would have no significant impact on water supply and therefore, no mitigation was necessary

Finally, the appellate court disagreed with Lodi First that res judicata should not be applied to the water supply issue due to public policy. When the issue is a question of law rather than of fact, res judicata may not apply if injustice would result or if the public interest requires that relitigation be allowed. Lodi First’s water supply issue did not present a question of law, so the public interest exception did not apply.

Conclusion

This case demonstrates the limitations of the deliberative process privilege for public agencies. Agencies attempting to rely on this privilege must be prepared to support their assertion of the privilege with a specific showing that the nondisclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure; broad policy statements are not enough to support application of the privilege.  In addition, the case offers an important reminder of the consequences of failing to raise all potential arguments in original CEQA proceedings, and indeed, most regular civil proceedings.

RMM partners Andrea Leisy and Howard Wilkins and associate Laura Harris represented real party in in interest Browman Development in this litigation.