Third District Court of Appeal Holds that the County Relied on the Incorrect Prior EIR in Subsequent Review for a Partial Road Abandonment

On August 17, 2020, the Third Appellate District in Martis Camp Community Association v. County of Placer et al. (2020) ___Cal.App.3rd___(Case No. C087759) reversed the trial court’s decision in part and found that Placer County abused its discretion when it approved a partial road abandonment because it relied on the incorrect prior EIR for its addendum and therefore could not accurately determine whether a supplemental or subsequent EIR was required. The court, however, affirmed the lower court’s rejection of the petitioners’ claim that baseline conditions should include the existing but disallowed use of the road along with other non-CEQA claims.

Background

In early 2005, the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved two residential developments and certified their final EIRs—the Martis Camp and the Retreat projects. Martis Camp consists of 650 homes on 2,200 acres just south of State Route (SR) 267 and west of Northstar ski resort. The Retreat consists of 18 homes on 31 acres just east of Martis Camp and within the larger Northstar development. The main roadway connecting Martis Camp to SR 267 is Schaffer Mill Road, a private street that dead-ends at Martis Camp’s southeastern shared boundary with the Retreat. On the other side of that boundary is Mill Site Road, a public road that ultimately connects to Northstar Drive and Northstar ski resort. As initially planned in the 2003 Martis Valley Community Plan, an emergency access roadway with gated access was constructed between Schafer Mill Road and Mill Site Road. The Martis Camp conditions of approval required the developer to construct  this emergency access roadway, provide the County with access for emergency and transit vehicle use, and place signage notifying traffic coming from Schafer Mill Road that the roadway and gate were for “Emergency Access Only.” The Retreat conditions of approval included construction of Mill Site Road and required Retreat property owners to fund road maintenance and snow removal services because such services represented a “‘special benefit’” to them as the sole approved users of the road. At some point around 2010, Martis Camp residents began regularly using Mill Site Road as a more direct route to Northstar in an effort to bypass SR 267. This use coincided with the Martis Camp developer replacing the manual gate with an automatic one that operated by transponder, issuing transponders to Martis Camp property owners, and removing emergency access signage. Retreat residents quickly complained to the County about this use, and in response the Director of the Community Development Resources Agency issued letters in 2011 and 2012 stating that Martis Camp residents have the right to use this road as “owners of property abutting a pubic roadway.” In 2013, Retreat property owners filed a lawsuit to enforce the prohibition on the use of Mill Site Road by Martis Camp residents. That litigation, separate from this case, resulted in the trial court sustaining the County’s demurrers, but on appeal, the court reversed and remanded for the trial court to consider the CEQA claims.

In 2014, Retreat residents petitioned the County to abandon its public road easement rights in Mill Site Road (and a nearby cul-de-sac) and dissolve the associated maintenance benefits. In 2015, the Board approved the petition requests by partially abandoning the road but reserving an easement for public transit and utility services as well as for emergency access and a multipurpose public trail. In approving the road abandonment, the County prepared, and the Board relied on, an addendum to the Martis Camp EIR. The County initially considered relying on the Retreat EIR, but concluded that the Martis Camp EIR was the appropriate environmental document for its subsequent CEQA review because road abandonment would, in effect, “restore traffic patterns to those that were envisioned by the Martis Camp project and analyzed in its EIR.” .

Martis Camp property owners and the Martis Camp Community Association (MCCA) filed petitions for writ of mandate challenging the County’s actions and alleged that the County violated CEQA when it improperly: (1) relied on an addendum to the Martis Camp EIR instead of the Retreat EIR; (2) prepared an addendum instead of a supplemental EIR; and (3) used a baseline that omitted existing use of the road by Martis Camp residents. Other non-CEQA claims alleged that the County violated statutory standards for abandoning Mill Site Road and violated the Brown Act by improperly modifying project conditions of approval without proper notice. Amended petitions asserted “causes of action for inverse condemnation.” After consolidating the two petitions, the trial court sustained without leave to amend a demurrer on the inverse condemnation claim for Martis Camp property owners, but overruled the demurer with respect to MCCA and bifurcated it from other claims. The trial court then denied all other claims. Petitioners appealed.

CEQA Claims

Discussed below, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court as to the first and second CEQA claims and affirmed the third and remanded to the County for additional consideration.

Addendum Prepared for Wrong EIR: The court held that the County’s decision to prepare an addendum for the Martis Camp EIR was “not supported by substantial evidence” and that its failure to consider whether the abandonment of Mill Site Road would require major revisions to the Retreat EIR was a prejudicial abuse of discretion, largely because the road “was not part of the Martis Camp project; it was part of the Retreat project.” The County had argued that road abandonment was a change in circumstances surrounding the Martis Camp project such that further environmental review for that project was appropriately triggered. But, the court pointed out that only “a further discretionary decision” on a project triggers subsequent CEQA review and because Mill Site Road is not a part of the Martis Camp project, there was no related discretionary action. As further support, the court cited to the finding that conditions of approval “prohibited” Martis Camp residents from regularly using the road. The court did concede, however, that the County’s approach was “reasonable from the perspective of informed decisionmaking.” Nevertheless, the County “should have looked to the Retreat EIR” when assessing the need for further environmental review.

Supplement or Subsequent EIR May Be Required: The petitioners argued that the County should have prepared a supplemental or subsequent EIR for the Mill Site Road abandonment instead of just an addendum because of “more and severe environmental impacts by forcing Martis Camp residents to use SR 267 to reach Northstar.” The court agreed with the petitioners, but did not address the substance of this claim because of the County’s improper reliance on the Martis Camp EIR. Instead, it generally found that the County had “prejudicially abused its discretion” when it relied on the wrong EIR to conclude that no subsequent or supplemental EIR was required.

In Supplemental Review, “Baseline” is the Approved Project: The court rejected the petitioners’ claim that the baseline should have included the existing use of Mill Site Road by Martis Camp residents. Agreeing with respondents, the court found that the petitioners “are conflating” CEQA rules for initial project review under Public Resources Code section 21151 with rules for supplemental review under section 21166. To that end, the court ordered the matter remanded so that the County may first decide whether the applicable EIR “retains relevance despite changes to the project or its surrounding circumstances,” and then consider whether project changes “require major revisions” to the EIR due to “new significant environmental effects or a substantial increase in the severity of previously identified significant effects,” per Public Resource Code section 21166. If it is found that the road abandonment has “rendered the Retreat EIR irrelevant to the decisionmaking process,” then the County must “start from the beginning” under section 21151 and determine whether a new EIR is required.

Other Claims

As a threshold issue, the court concluded that MCCA’s pending, bifurcated inverse condemnation claim did not preclude it from appealing the denial of other claims because the “‘one final judgement’ rule” does not definitively apply when there are multiple parties in a lawsuit. The court then upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the Martis Camp property owners’ inverse condemnation claim and its denial of the remaining non-CEQA claims, discussed below.

No Inverse Condemnation: The crux of the petitioners’ argument was that they have “abutter’s rights to access Mill Site Road” and “by approving the abandonment…the market value of their properties” is reduced, thereby impairing their property rights and effectuating inverse condemnation. However, as noted by the court, Martis Camp property owners do not own property that physically abuts Mill Site Road from whence an inverse condemnation claim can be made. Moreover, any theoretical “nonexclusive easement” granted to Martis Camp residents in 2011/2012 by the Director of the Community Development Resources Agency “does not alter this result.” Therefore, the court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of this claim.

Abandonment of Road Was Proper: The court started its analysis by noting that two standards of mandate review—ordinary (legislative) mandate and administrative mandate—have been used by courts to decide issue arising from road abandonment. Ordinary mandate is governed by Code of Civil Procedure section 1085 and applies to ministerial acts and quasi-judicial acts and decisions. Administrative mandate is governed by section 1094.5 and applies only to quasi-judicial decisions resulting from a proceeding where there was a hearing, evidence, and agency discretion “in the determination of facts.” Because “the outcome of this appeal would be the same under either standard, the court declined to “enter [the] debate” as to which standard applied. Thus, “for simplicity” it applied the “less deferential” administrative mandate standard that results in an abuse of discretion determination if an agency’s findings are not supported by “substantial evidence in light of the whole record.”

The petitioners argued that the County violated the California Streets and Highways Code when it abandoned Mill Site Road because it did not possess substantial evidence showing that the road was both unnecessary for public use and that abandonment is in the public interest, as is statutorily required. The petitioners then attempted to evidence the road’s public necessity with the fact that it was used regularly by Martis Camp residents and by the County’s choice to reserve emergency and public transit easements as a condition of abandonment. However, the court pointed out the mere “‘convenient’” use of a road does not make it necessary, and that Mill Site Road was “not planned, designed, or approved to accommodate that use.” Further, the court found no authority to support the notion that emergency and public transit easements denote the public necessity of a roadway. To the contrary, the court noted that the statute expressly authorizes “a legislative body to place conditions on abandonment” or to only partially abandon a roadway. The court also found that abandonment was in the public interest because, per the Board of Supervisors’ findings, it conformed with existing planning and environmental documents, protected “the integrity of the traffic management system,” and alleviated the County of the burden of road maintenance—all of which benefited the public.

No Brown Act Violation: The petitioners argued that the County violated the Brown Act when it approved the abandonment of the Mill Site Road because such abandonment altered conditions of approval established by the 2011/2012 letters from the Director of the Community Development Resources Agency and, therefore, should have been included on the agenda for the Board of Supervisor’s meeting per the Act’s noticing requirements. The trial court rejected this argument, and the Court of Appeal agreed, on grounds that the 2011/2012 letters do not override language in the conditions of approval for Martis Camp or the Retreat, which “did not contemplate Martis Camp residents using the emergency access road as a means of ingress and egress from the community.” Also, the court found that the Board was not bound by the Director’s prior enforcement decisions; therefore, the Board’s overruling of those enforcement decisions was not a “‘distinct item of business’” that required separate notice under the Brown Act.

Casey Shorrock