Tag: wildfire

THIRD DISTRICT COURT OF APPEAL DISMISSES PETITIONERS’ CHALLENGE TO A MITIGATED NEGATIVE DECLARATION BECAUSE THE CLAIMS DID NOT ESTABLISH A FAIR ARGUMENT OF SIGNIFICANT ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS.

In Newtown Preservation Society v. County. of El Dorado (June 16, 2021, C092069) __ Cal.App.5th __ [2021 WL 2451269], the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision to uphold El Dorado County’s adoption of a mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a bridge replacement project. In the published portions of the opinion, the court held that Petitioners failed to establish a “fair argument” that the project would have significant environmental impacts. Instead, Petitioners raised concerns regarding existing wildfire hazards that could impact residents near the project, but did not establish that the project may significantly impact the environment by creating or exacerbating wildfire hazards.

Factual and Procedural Background

The County, in preparing the MND, determined that the bridge replacement project could interfere with emergency response or evacuation plans and—as a result—expose people or structures to risk of loss or injury. However, the County also determined that these impacts would not be significant since a temporary evacuation route would be constructed to mitigate the risk. Such a route would only be used for emergency evacuation and, regardless of whether it was in place, any evacuation or emergency orders would be executed as the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services saw fit. Additionally, the County consulted with this office as well as the El Dorado County Fire Protection District in preparing the MND and both entities were comfortable with the document’s conclusions and assessments.

The County initially refrained from discussing the temporary evacuation route in detail in its mitigated negative declaration since it was concerned this would “lead people to believe that they should follow a certain evacuation route.” But, as a result of comments raised by one of the petitioners’ counsel and others regarding the possibility of a temporary evacuation route, the County’s responses to comments elucidated its plans and evacuation procedures in greater detail. It outlined several evacuation options given numerous emergency conditions depending on whether the temporary evacuation route was constructed.

After the County adopted the MND, Petitioners filed a writ a mandate, claiming the County failed to 1) properly consider the no-project alternative and 2) “adequately address the impact of closing the bridge without committing to construction of an evacuation route.” Petitioners claimed there was sufficient evidence in the record—including letters, correspondences, and hearing comments—supporting a fair argument that the bridge replacement project would significantly impact public safety. For example, a resident who lived on Newtown Road discussed past fire damage near her home; another resident complained that the County had not determined with finality whether a temporary route would be constructed; and another expressed concern about the effects of wind in the area on fire management; an aerial firefighter argued that recent history of wildfires demonstrated the danger in the County’s temporary evacuation route plans; Ms. Nagel, one of the petitioners, discussed her extensive firefighting experience; and Ms. Nagel’s attorney argued that the County’s MND violated CEQA by deferring important emergency management analysis.

The trial court, however, found that none of the petitioners’ arguments constituted substantial evidence, especially in light of explanatory testimony and responses to comments by the County and its experts, as well as the detailed evacuation options outlined in the MND. Instead, Petitioners’ letters and comments amounted to mere complaints and fears, backed up by speculation and unsubstantiated, non-expert opinion.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, Petitioners argued that the trial court erred in upholding the MND since “substantial evidence supports a fair argument of potentially significant impacts on resident safety and emergency evacuation.” The court noted that evidence supporting a fair argument can be substantial even though other equally compelling evidence may exist to the contrary. Still, the court concluded that Petitioners’ “framing of the fair argument test [was] erroneous. The question is not whether substantial evidence supports a fair argument that the proposed project will have significant impacts on resident safety and emergency evacuation. . . . [T]he question is whether the project may have a significant effect on the environment.” Yet Petitioners failed to identify any potentially significant effects the project might have on the environment and instead merely raised possible increased effects the environment might have on the community as a result of poorer evacuation procedures.

Furthermore, the Court of Appeal, like the trial court, pointed out that substantial evidence must be based on relevant information and facts; or at least reasonable inferences, assumptions, or expert opinion supported by facts. Unsubstantiated opinions, arguments, or speculations generally will not do. The court noted, however, that lay opinion may be considered substantial evidence where expertise is not necessary, which was not the case with the emergency evacuation issues raised by the Petitioners. The Court of Appeal explained again that Petitioners’ cited comments and letters were “mere speculation” and simply “dire predictions by nonexperts” and that they “fail[ed] to identify any factual foundation” for their assertions. Some comments were even directly contradicted by factual evidence in the record. Nowhere did Petitioners establish that any of the individuals whose testimony was cited were experts in evacuation planning. Thus, the court concluded that Petitioners’ claims did not constitute substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project may have a significant impact on the environment.

– Blake C. Hyde

Fourth District Court of Appeal Upholds Reliance on Mitigated Negative Declaration and Approval of Construction of School

The Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision denying a challenge to the City of San Diego’s approval of construction of a secondary school and associated adoption of a mitigated negative declaration. (Clews Land and Livestock, LLC v. City of San Diego (2017) 19 Cal.App.5th 161.)

The City of San Diego adopted an MND and approved a project to build the 5,340-square-foot Cal Coast Academy, a for-profit secondary school, on property adjacent to the plaintiffs’ (Clews Land and Livestock, LLC, et al. [“CLL”]) commercial horse ranch and equestrian facility. CLL filed a petition for writ of mandate and complaint alleging the project would cause significant environmental impacts relating to fire hazards, traffic and transportation, noise, recreation, and historical resources. CLL also argued that CEQA required recirculation of the MND, that the project was inconsistent with the applicable community land use plan, and that the City did not follow historical resource provisions of the San Diego Municipal Code. The trial court determined that CLL had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, and ruled in favor of the City on the merits. CLL appealed and the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s determinations.

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

The court first held that CLL failed to exhaust its administrative remedies. The San Diego Municipal Code appeal process provides for two separate procedures—one for appeal of a hearing officer’s decision to the Planning Commission, and one for appeal of an environmental determination to the City Council. Because CLL filed only an appeal of the hearing officer’s decision, the court determined that CLL failed to exhaust its administrative remedies with respect to adoption of the MND. CLL argued that the City’s bifurcated appeal process violated CEQA, but the court found the process was valid. CLL also argued that the City had not provided proper notice of the appeal procedures under Public Resources Code section 21177, subdivision (a), thereby excusing CLL’s failure to appeal the environmental determination. The court explained, however, that section 21177 did not apply because CLL’s failure to appeal was not a failure to raise a noncompliance issue under that section. Where, like here, a public agency has accurately provided notice of a public hearing, but it misstates the applicable procedures to appeal the decision made at that hearing, the only available remedy is to prevent the public agency from invoking an administrative exhaustion defense through equitable estoppel. CLL had pursued a claim for equitable estoppel in the trial court and was unsuccessful, and CLL did not challenge that determination with the Court of Appeal. Therefore, the court found, CLL’s failure to exhaust could not be excused on an equitable estoppel basis.

Adoption of the MND

Notwithstanding its determination that CLL failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, the court also considered the merits of CLL’s claims. The court determined that CLL did not make a showing that substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the project may have a significant effect on the environment. In making its determination, the court emphasized that the project is “relatively modest” and located on already-developed land.

CLL argued that the City was required to prepare an EIR due to potentially significant impacts on fire hazards, traffic and transportation, noise, recreation, and historical resources. The court rejected each of CLL’s arguments. In part, the court was unpersuaded by CLL’s expert’s comments because they were “general” and did not have a specific nexus with the project, they focused on the effects of the environment on the students and faculty at the school rather than on the effects of the school on the environment, and they were conclusory and speculative. In addition, quoting Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 684, the court noted that “dire predictions by nonexperts regarding the consequences of a project do not constitute substantial evidence.” The court also found that a possibility that noise from the project would impact the adjacent business’s operations was insufficient to require an EIR under CEQA. The court explained that the question is not whether the project would affect particular persons, but whether the project would affect the environment in general. In addition, the court explained that the fact that a project may affect another business’s economic viability is not an effect that must be analyzed under CEQA unless the project may result in a change in the physical environment, such as by causing urban decay.

Recirculation of MND

CLL argued that by adding a shuttle bus plan and describing the school’s intent to close on red flag fire warning days after circulation of the MND, the City substantially revised the MND and was required to recirculate the draft prior to certification. The court rejected these contentions, explaining that the added plans were purely voluntary, and thus could not constitute mitigation measures. In addition, the court explained, CLL did not show that the plans were added to the project to reduce significant effects on the environment. According to the court, all revisions to the MND were clarifying and amplifying in nature and did not make substantial revisions to the project, and therefore, did not warrant recirculation.

Historical Resource Regulations

CLL argued that City did not follow its historical resource regulations and guidelines. The court explained that the City relied on an exemption contained within the regulations, but CLL did not address the substance of that exemption, nor did CLL show that the City was actually required to apply the specific procedures contained in the regulations. Instead, CLL simply critiqued the City’s reliance on the exemption as a post hoc rationalization; the court found this was not enough to meet CLL’s burden to show failure on the part of the City.

Consistency with Neighborhood Plan

CLL argued that the project conflicted with the Carmel Valley Neighborhood 8 Precise Plan because the plan designates the site as open space. CLL’s argument was two-fold. First, CLL argued the site could not be developed because of the plan’s open space designation. Second, CLL argued the plan’s designation was in conflict with the multifamily residential zoning at the project site.

With respect to the plan’s open space designation, the court held that CLL failed to meet its burden to show that the City’s consistency finding was an abuse of discretion. The court explained that the standard is whether no reasonable person could have reached the conclusion made by the City. In making its determination, the City relied on the fact that the property was already developed—the school would be sited at the location of a previously-capped swimming pool, and the project would not impact or be developed on undisturbed open space. The court found that the City’s determination was reasonable, and that CLL did not address the City’s reasoning or explain how the City abused its discretion. With respect to the site’s zoning, the court explained that consistency of the zoning ordinance with the plan was not at issue—instead, the issue was whether the project is consistent with the Precise Plan’s open space designation.

The court affirmed the judgment of the lower court and upheld the City’s determinations regarding the project and the associated MND.

Elizabeth Pollock