Aptos Council v. County of Santa Cruz (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 266

February 8th, 2018

By: Chris Butcher

The Sixth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision and upheld three ordinances amending the County’s zoning regulations in an effort to modernize its zoning regulations.

These ordinances were intended to: (1) extend minor exceptions to zoning site standards (the “minor exceptions ordinance”); (2) alter certain height, density, and parking requirements for hotels in commercial districts (the “hotel ordinance”), and (3) establish an administrative process for approving minor exceptions to the County’s sign ordinance (the “sign ordinance”). The County adopted an addendum to a previously adopted negative declaration for the minor exceptions ordinance, a negative declaration for the hotel ordinance, and statutory, categorical, and common sense exemptions for the sign ordinance.

Plaintiff Aptos Council filed a lawsuit alleging that Santa Cruz County’s approval of the ordinances violated CEQA because the zoning code approvals collectively constituted a single project requiring preparation of an environmental impact report.

On appeal, the court held that the County did not engage in improper piecemeal environmental review. The court found that the adoption of the three ordinances did not constitute a single project that must be evaluated in an EIR applying the two-prong test provided by the California Supreme Court in Laurel Heights Improvement Association v. Regents of University of California (1988) 47 Cal.3d 376. The test provides that an EIR must include an analysis of the environmental effects of future expansion or other action if: (1) it is a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the initial project; and (2) it will be significant in that it will likely change the scope or nature of the initial project or its environmental effects. The court explained that the County’s proposed changes in its zoning regulations, such as altering the density requirements for hotels and reducing the required number of parking spaces per hotel room, did not rely on the implementation of the other regulatory changes proposed by the County, such as eliminating the need to obtain a variance for certain signs. Thus, the court concluded that the first set of changes was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the other regulatory changes.

Finally, the court rejected Aptos Council’s argument that the negative declaration prepared for the hotel ordinance was inadequate because it failed to consider the impacts from future developments that would be encouraged by the hotel ordinance. Aptos Council argued that the County’s own stated reason for adopting this ordinance – to facilitate growth – meant that increased hotel developments were a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the ordinance. Rejecting this argument, the court found that future hotel developments were not required to be analyzed because Aptos Council was merely speculating about future development and thus failed to adequately identify substantial evidence in the record to support its fair argument claim.