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Court Rejects CEQA and Subdivision Map Act Challenges to Shopping Center in Redlands

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

In an unpublished opinion in Redlands Good Neighbor Coalition v. City of Redlands, 2015 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 2210, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision and denied petitioner’s challenges under the Subdivision Map Act and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to the City of Redlands’ (City) approval of a tentative parcel map (TPM 19060) and environmental impact report (EIR) for a Walmart Supercenter and 275,500-square-foot shopping center.

The project site, located on approximately 33 acres of fallowed agriculture land, is designated as commercial in the City’s General Plan, but is also within the East Valley Corridor Specific Plan (EVCSP) area. The EVCSP modifies the General Plan policies to facilitate a “high-quality business park environment” that would be a catalyst for development and jobs in the area. Following a unanimous recommendation by the planning commission, the City adopted resolutions certifying the EIR and approving TPM 19060.

After rejecting the City’s procedural argument that petitioner failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, the court moved to the merits of the Subdivision Map Act claim and held TPM 19060 was sufficiently consistent with the City’s General Plan. The court emphasized that judicial review is highly deferential to the local agency and the project did not have to be in perfect conformity with the general plan. Although the City could have incorporated more “Redlands-themed or historical design elements into the project,” the project was not incompatible with the design and historical preservation policies of the general plan.

Similarly, the court rejected petitioner’s contention that the City’s finding of unavoidable impacts on air quality in the EIR required the City to deny the application for TPM 19060. Under section 66474(e) of the Subdivision Map Act, a finding that a subdivision is likely to cause substantial environmental damage requires a lead agency to deny the tentative map application; however, an exception exists when the lead agency adopts a statement of overriding considerations. The court reasoned that even though the resolution approving TPM 19060 improperly stated TPM 19060 was not likely to cause substantial environmental damage, the City adopted a statement of overriding consideration so the error was not prejudicial.

As to the CEQA claims, petitioner first argued the EIR was deficient because it inadequately analyzed the project’s impacts on aesthetics––specifically, the impact of the contemporary design on the “community character” of Redlands and views of the San Bernardino Mountains. However, the court rejected the arguments because petitioner improperly applied a fair argument standard to the City’s findings. Although the court acknowledged there was evidence to support petitioner’s arguments, this did not mean the EIR inadequately addressed the potential impacts. Because the City’s determination of a significant impact is a factual determination, the substantial evidence standard applies and the court held substantial evidence supported the City’s findings on aesthetic impacts.  Petitioner also claimed the EIR inadequately addressed the inconsistencies between the project and the City’s General Plan.  The court disagreed with this argument as well, finding the EIR adequately discussed the applicable regulatory framework, and that the City’s consistency conclusions were supported by substantial evidence.

Fourth Appellate District Publishes Opinion Reversing Injunction for La Jolla Hillside Revegetation Project

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

On February 18, 2015, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth District granted the City of San Diego’s (City) request to publish the recent case CREED-21 v. City of San Diego, 2015 Cal. App. LEXIS 17. In the decision, the appellate court reversed the trial court in large part and denied an injunction stopping the restoration of native plants on a hillside near a storm drain in La Jolla.

The key point in the decision involved the baseline environmental conditions to be used in determining whether the project qualified for an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The storm drain and hillside at issue in the case were previously damaged in a storm requiring immediate repair and an emergency exemption from CEQA. The court held the relevant baseline conditions for the subsequent revegetation project to stabilize and improve the hillside were the conditions existing after the emergency repair, not at the time prior to the emergency repair. This was true even though the City was considering a comprehensive storm drain repair project before the emergency repair became necessary. As the court stated, the key baseline for lead agencies to consider are the physical conditions that “will be affected by the proposed project.” In this case, the barren hillside was the existing condition, and that baseline allowed the project to qualify for the common sense CEQA exemption because there was no chance improving the condition of the hillside would have a significant adverse effect on the environment.

A complete summary of the case is available here:http://www.thomaslaw.com/blog/appellate-court-reverses-injunction-la-jolla-hillside-revegetation-project /.

Appellate Court Reverses Injunction for La Jolla Hillside Revegetation Project

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

In an unpublished opinion in CREED-21 v. City of San Diego, the California Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed in large part the trial court decision granting an injunction and other relief for violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) relating to emergency repair and subsequent revegetation of a hillside and storm drain in La Jolla.

The City of San Diego (City) initially proposed a project that included replacing a damaged storm drain pipe and revegetating of the surrounding hillside. Before the environmental review was complete, the storm drain failed, causing significant erosion of the hillside. Due to public health and safety concerns and the need for immediate repairs, the City issued an emergency determination of environmental exemption.

The emergency repair of the storm drain did not include revegetation of the steep hillside. The City concluded the revegetation project would result in no significant environmental impacts and therefore qualified for the common sense exemption from CEQA. CREED filed a writ petition alleging the project was not exempt from CEQA, and the trial court granted an injunction stopping the revegetation project pending further environmental review.

The appellate court held that baseline conditions existed at the point in time after the emergency repair, not at the time the City initially proposed the storm drain repair project. The court reasoned the emergency repair was an “intervening and superseding event” and the existing environment under CEQA is comprised of the physical conditions that “will be affected by the proposed project.” Because the emergency repair project was exempt from CEQA, any future work on the site was required to consider the environment the project would actually affect, which in this case was the post-repair hillside.

After holding CREED only had standing to challenge the CEQA exemption for the revegetation project and not the storm drain repair project, the court held substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that the common sense CEQA exemption applied to the revegetation project. The revegetation project consisted of planting native plants on an otherwise bare hillside. As a result, there was no possibility the revegetation project would have a significant adverse effect on the environment. The court also held CREED did not meet its burden of showing the unusual circumstances exception applied to the CEQA exemption in this case.

In the final portions of the court’s opinion, the court held the City did not violate CREED’s due process right when responding to its California Public Records Act request. The court upheld the trial court’s denial of the City’s untimely and incomplete request for judicial notice of a City ordinance authorizing an appeal fee and required the City refund CREED’s $100 appeal fee.  The court also declined to impose sanctions on the City.