THIRD DISTRICT HOLDS CAPITOL BUILDING ANNEX EIR FAILED TO ADEQUATELY DESCRIBE ANNEX DESIGN, ANALYZE IMPACTS TO HISTORIC CAPITOL BUILDING, AND CONSIDER REASONABLE PROJECT ALTERNATIVES

In Save Our Capitol! v. Department of General Services (2022) 85 Cal.App.5th 1101, the Third District Court of Appeal held that an EIR prepared by the Department of General Services and the Joint Committee on Rules of the California State Senate and Assembly (collectively, DGS) for the demolition and replacement of the State Capitol Building Annex in Sacramento (project) did not comply with CEQA. In particular, the court found that the EIR’s project description, analyses of aesthetics and historical resources, and analysis of alternatives were deficient.

Background

The Legislature enacted the State Capitol Building Annex Act of 2016 authorizing renovation or reconstruction of the Annex and streamlining CEQA review for the project. Pursuant to the Act, the project sought to demolish the existing Annex and construct a new Annex, underground visitor center, and underground parking structure.

In the draft EIR, DGS explained that the project would follow an accelerated design and construction process in which the initial project concept would evolve and become more refined as the process moved forward. After circulating the draft EIR for public comment, DGS redesigned the visitor center and recirculated the draft EIR.

After recirculating the draft EIR, DGS continued to develop and modify the project design. The final EIR included more modifications from the draft EIR. It changed the location and capacity of the underground parking garage and clarified the project’s impacts on trees and landscaping. Additionally, for the first time, the final EIR disclosed the exterior design of the new Annex. DGS concluded that none of the modifications in the final EIR constituted significant new information that would require recirculation, certified the EIR, and approved the modified project.

Save Our Capitol! and Save the Capitol, Save the Trees filed petitions for writ of mandate challenging the EIR’s compliance with CEQA. The trial court denied the petitions, and the cases were consolidated on appeal.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

Project Description

While the court rejected most of petitioner’s arguments, it agreed that DGS’s failure to disclose the exterior design of the Annex before preparing the final EIR rendered the project description inadequate.

The key inquiry in the court’s analysis was whether the changes in the project description “thwarted the public’s ability to participate in the process and comment meaningfully on the EIR.” The court emphasized that the EIR was required to consider the project’s aesthetic impacts on an important historical resource, the Capitol Building, and reasoned that without the description of the Annex design, neither the draft EIR nor the public could consider those impacts before the final EIR was prepared.

The court explained that while the draft EIR stated that the new Annex would be aesthetically “consistent” with the Capitol Building and would create a “one-building” feel, the final EIR described the Annex as aesthetically “compatible” with the Capitol Building and clarified that the “one-building” feel referred to the interior consistencies between the Annex and the Capitol Building. The court also found that the glass exterior, proposed in the final EIR design, was highly relevant to the analysis of impacts, including impacts to the historical Annex building.  The court concluded that the discrepancies between the draft and final EIR, and the important information disclosed in the final EIR, could have misled the public about the design and hindered the opportunity for meaningful public comment about the project’s impacts. Thus, the court determined, the EIR’s description of the Annex’s exterior design deprived the public of an opportunity to comment on environmental impacts and did not satisfy CEQA’s project description requirements.

Analysis of Impacts

The court found that substantial evidence supported much of the EIR’s analysis of impacts; however, it agreed with petitioners that the EIR did not adequately analyze the project’s impacts on historical resources and aesthetics.

First, the court found that the EIR’s analysis of impacts to historical resources was deficient. Because the exterior design of the Annex was never circulated for public comment, DGS did not receive public comments concerning the project’s aesthetic impacts on the historic Capitol Building. Thus, the final EIR did not include written responses to concerns about these impacts. Recognizing that public comments and responses are an essential part of an EIR’s analysis, the court concluded that the analysis of impacts to historical resources did not comply with CEQA.

Second, the court found that the EIR did not adequately analyze the project’s impacts on the scenic vista of the Capitol Building from the west. While the court acknowledged that “CEQA does not expressly require visual simulations,” it nevertheless concluded that the EIR was required to include a visual representation or rendering of the east-facing vista. The court reasoned that the importance of the view of the west façade of the Capitol “[could] not be overstated,” given the significance of the Capitol’s historic role as “the seat of state government” and the Legislature’s development of various programs for the beautification of the area. The court concluded that, without a visual depiction, the EIR did not allow either DGS or the public to meaningfully consider the project’s intrusion on the scenic vista. Thus, the court held, the EIR’s analysis of this aesthetic impact did not comply with CEQA.

Analysis of Alternatives

The court explained that CEQA requires an EIR to describe a range of reasonable alternatives that would both attain most of the project’s objectives and avoid or lessen the project’s environmental impacts. It concluded that DGS failed to meet this standard by selecting clearly inferior alternatives that would be easily eliminated—either by failing to obtain the project objectives or causing a greater environmental impact than the project.

Additionally, the court disagreed with the EIR’s conclusion that a proposed alternative would not lessen any significant impacts and found the alternative would also meet the project’s objectives. Thus, because it deprived the public of the opportunity to participate in the evaluation of reasonable alternatives, the court concluded that the omission of this alternative violated CEQA.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinion

Justice Mauro filed a separate opinion concurring with the majority, but dissenting with respect to the conclusion that the EIR did not adequately analyze the project’s aesthetic impacts. The dissent concluded that CEQA did not require the EIR to include additional visual renderings of the project’s impacts on the view of the Capitol Building from the west.

The dissent noted that the EIR discussed the extent to which the new structures west of the Capitol Building would obstruct the view. Additionally, the dissent pointed to cross-sections of the proposed structures from above and from the south of the project site contained in the EIR. The dissent emphasized that the manner of discussion of the project’s aesthetic impacts was left to DGS’s discretion. While DGS could have provided more or different details about the impact, the dissent concluded that the impact discussion and cross-sections, considered together, sufficiently notified the public and decisionmakers about the extent of the aesthetic impact to the east-facing view.

By Louisa I. Rogers