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Aesthetics Posts


Fact-Based Residents’ Comments Substantial Evidence Meriting CEQA Review, Special Commission’s Findings Substantial Evidence Meriting CEQA Review

Monday, July 16th, 2018

The Niles Historic District’s distinctive style is clear on the building facades of the District’s downtown area. (Craig Miyamoto)

In Protect Niles v. City of Fremont (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 1129, the First District Court of Appeal held that the Niles Historical Architectural Review Board’s (HARB) factual findings and members’ collective opinions about the compatibility of a project with the Niles Historic Overlay District rose to the level of substantial evidence. Further, fact-based comments in the record by residents, city officials and staff, and professional consultants, notwithstanding a traffic impact study to the contrary, amounted to substantial evidence supporting a fair argument of a significant traffic impact.

Niles Historic Overlay District (HOD) is an officially-designated historic district within the City of Fremont (City) subject to guidelines and regulations to maintain the distinctive look and character of the area. Projects in the HOD area are initially proposed to HARB for review in light of HOD guidelines. HARB then recommends approval or denial of the project to the City Council.

In 2014, Real Parties in Interest Doug Rich and Valley Oak Partners (Valley Oak) submitted an application to build 80-90 residential townhouses on a vacant six-acre lot (Project). HARB recommended that the Project be denied because it “would be incompatible in terms of siting, massing, materials, textures, and colors with existing development in the Niles [HOD].” Amidst critical comments, the City approved the Project with a mitigated negative declaration (MND). Protect Niles, a community action group, filed suit alleging the City improperly relied on the MND.

The trial court found substantial evidence in the record supported a fair argument of significant impacts on community aesthetics and traffic and set aside the Project approval until an EIR was completed. Valley Oak timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first established that, despite Protect Niles’ claims to the contrary, the appeal was not moot. Valley Oak had already submitted a revised Project application and the City had published a draft EIR therefore “voluntarily complied” with CEQA. However, this was not tantamount to Valley Oak withdrawing the original Project or abandoning its claims.

The Court reiterated extensive precedent that CEQA must be interpreted to afford the fullest possible protection to the environment. Further, the Court held that an EIR is required where there is substantial evidence in the record, contradicted or not, supporting a fair argument that a project may have a significant effect.

There were numerous comments within the record that the Project did not fit the aesthetic of the neighborhood. Per the CEQA Guidelines, an aesthetic impact exists where a project has the potential to substantially degrade the existing visual character or quality of the site and its surroundings. Aesthetic impacts are context-specific. Here the record contained opinions of the HARB commissioners and Niles residents that the Project’s height, density, and architectural style were inconsistent with the Niles HOD. These comments “differed sharply as to the Project’s aesthetic compatibility with the historic district.” The comments were not conjecture or speculative but grounded in observations of inconsistencies with the prevailing building heights and architectural styles of the HOD. Thus, the Court found there was substantial evidence of a potential adverse aesthetic impact on the Niles HOD. The City’s reliance on a MND was improper.

The Court also criticized the traffic impact analysis and determined that substantial evidence of a fair argument required preparation of an EIR. The City had conducted a professional traffic study concluding the impacts would fall below the City’s threshold of significance. Despite this, the Court found the study was shortsighted for presuming that drivers follow the speed limit and criticized the City for failing to implement the study’s mitigation measure recommending a left-turn pocket lane. The record contained critical comments by residents, City officials and staff, and professional consultants based on their personal experiences driving in the area. The Court found, notwithstanding the traffic study, these fact-based comments constituted substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the Project will have significant adverse traffic impacts.

The Court affirmed, directing the City to prepare an EIR if it were to go through with the original Project design.

Key Point:

Personal observations on nontechnical issues can constitute substantial evidence of a fair argument of a significant environmental impact. Specifically, residents’ observations of environmental conditions where they live and commute may constitute substantial evidence even if they contradict the conclusions of a professional study.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Finds Minor Telecommunications Facility on Dedicated Park Land Is Not An “Unusual Circumstance” Exception to CEQA Small Facility Exemption

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

A faux eucalyptus tree cell tower stands next to a live evergreen  (Annette LeMay Burke)

In Don’t Cell Our Parks v. City of San Diego (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 338, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found that the San Diego City Charter (Charter 55) did not prohibit the City of San Diego (City) from approving a telecommunications project within real property held in perpetuity by the City for “park purposes.” The project did not create a “change in use or purpose” of the property, which would require a vote of two-thirds of City voters. Further, a dedicated park is not a “sensitive and protected resource area” for the purposes of CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2(a) unless explicitly designated as such.

Rancho Peñasquitos is an 8.5-acre park dedicated to the City in perpetuity for recreational purposes in accordance with Charter 55. Verizon filed a project application to build a wireless telecommunications facility in a corner of the park (Project), including a 35-foot tall cell tower disguised as a faux eucalyptus tree and a 250-square-foot landscaped equipment enclosure with a trellis roof. The San Diego Planning Board determined the Project was exempt from CEQA as being a small structure (CEQA Guidelines, § 15303) and approved the Project. Don’t Cell Our Parks (DCOP) filed suit against the City.

DCOP alleged that placing the facility within the park was not a permissible “park or recreational purpose” under the plain language of Charter 55. The trial court disagreed and held the Project was properly approved, exempt from CEQA as a small facility, and no unusual circumstances established an exception to the CEQA exemption. DCOP timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first turned to the language and context of Charter 55 wherein real property dedicated to the City without an ordinance or statute explicitly guiding its management may be used for any public purpose deemed necessary by the City. Voter approval is only required where a project would “change the use or purpose” of a dedicated park. After reviewing the record, the Court held the Project did not change the use or nature of the park –the facility’s faux-tree would be installed in an existing stand of trees and the structure would be shrouded by native plants. The Court also found that the construction of the wireless facility would “clearly benefit park visitors” by providing greater access to 911 services. In sum, the Court deferred to the City’s interpretation of its Charter.

The Court rejected all of DCOP’s arguments that the project was erroneously approved as a Class 3 categorical exemption from CEQA.

The Court found that the Project qualified for the Class 3 exemption (CEQA Guidelines, § 15303), rejecting Petitioners’ claims that telecommunications are not explicitly listed in the statute. The Court noted that exemption categories are not exclusive and that the exemption is meant to apply to multiple types of small facilities. Here, the Project is roughly 523 square feet, most of which are faux tree branches. Substantial evidence supported the City’s conclusion that the Project was smaller than the examples listed in Section 15303 such as a store, motel, or family residence. Thus, the Project was properly a Class 3 exemption.

Second, the Court addressed DCOP’s claim that an unusual circumstances exception applied per CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2(c). The two-pronged test in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley, (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, provided that determining an unusual circumstance exists is a factual inquiry and the Court reviews this claim under the deferential substantial evidence standard of review. If there is evidence of an unusual circumstance, and no substantial evidence to the contrary, then the Court examines the record for evidence whether the unusual circumstance results in a potentially significant impact to the environment. In this second part of the Court’s review, the Court applies the fair argument standard of review. Here, DCOP failed to satisfy either of these standards.

The Court held that the Project’s location in a dedicated park was not an unusual circumstance as 37 other similar facilities existed in other dedicated parks in the City. In the State, many similar cell towers and reception boxes have been unsuccessfully challenged for being placed in parks and subsequently permitted. The record included sufficient evidence to show that the Project location was not an unusual circumstance.

Next, the Court rejected DCOP’s claim that the park was environmentally sensitive land. An exception exists where a project “may impact [] an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern where designated, precisely mapped, and officially adopted pursuant to law by federal, state, or local agencies.” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(a).) DCOP presented no evidence that the park was “designated” as an “environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern” by any federal, state, or local agency. The City’s general plan designation and zoning of the Project site as a park was insufficient to support such a finding. In fact, the record included a biological resource report created by the City for the project approval, which showed that the area where the Project was proposed for construction was mostly disturbed habitat.

The Court affirmed the trial court judgement.

Key Point:

The list of project types set forth in the Class 3 exemption is not exhaustive.  In evaluating whether a project is covered by the exemption, a court may consider whether the project is similar in size or scope to other project types listed in the exemption.

General Plan Update Size Limit Not Likely to Cause Urban Decay, Local Commercial Real Estate Agent Letter “Speculative,” Not Substantial Evidence of a Fair Argument

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

Packwood Shopping Center in the Visalia’s neighborhood commercial zone and subject to the 40,000 sq.ft. cap on tenants. (The Registry SF)

In Visalia Retail, LP v. City of Visalia (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 1, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed a trial court judgment maintaining a general plan amendment and accompanying EIR limiting commercial tenants to 40,000 square feet of space. A letter from a local commercial real estate agent predicting that the size cap would cause grocers to refuse to locate in the neighborhood commercial centers leading to a “downward spiral of physical deterioration” was insufficient to support a fair argument of an environmental impact.

On October 14, 2014, Visalia City Council approved a final EIR for the City’s general plan update establishing a 40,000 square foot cap on tenants in neighborhood commercial zones. Visalia Retail, LP brought suit claiming that the potential for urban decay was not adequately addressed in the EIR. The trial court denied the petition. Visalia Retail timely appealed.

Appellant claimed that the EIR was insufficient for failing to consider the potential for urban decay as large stores would be discouraged from establishing themselves in the neighborhood under the new restriction on square footage. The Court, unconvinced, found that CEQA is focused on significant environmental effects, not purely economic impacts. Relying on Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 677, the Court found CEQA environmental review of potential for urban decay is only appropriate where there is a potential for physical deterioration. Absent such a showing, CEQA is satisfied.

The primary evidence of urban decay submitted by Appellant was a letter prepared by a local commercial real estate agent who claimed the 40,000 square foot cap would discourage grocers from locating in neighborhood commercial centers, “which will cause vacancies, which in turn will result in urban decay.” The real estate agency offered the following support for these claims: (1) the real estate agent was personally unaware of any grocers willing to build new stores under 40,000 square feet; (2) a “typical” large grocer requires at least 50,000 square feet to profit at any one site; (3) a recent line of 10,000 – 20,000 square foot stores was unsuccessful; and (4) three Visalia stores under 40,000 square feet went out of business.

The Court found the letter to be speculative and not rising to the level of substantial evidence on which a fair argument of urban decay could be predicated. First, the limit of the real estate agent’s personal knowledge did not preclude the existence of stores that may be willing to come into the area or have an atypical store size. Further, the fact that other stores were unsuccessful, some a quarter the size of the cap, was not evidence that stores will fail in the City in the future, especially absent discussion or explanation of why they failed. The letter demonstrated speculative causation and failed to show that urban decay would likely result from the cap.

Appellants also claimed the cap made the City’s general plan internally inconsistent by discouraging development in neighborhood commercial sites where the general plan encourages such infill. The Court, presuming the general plan amendment was correct under established precedent, clarified that “just because the general plan prioritizes infill development, avoiding urban sprawl, does not mean all of its policies must encourage all types of infill development. General plans must balance various interests and the fact that one stated goal must yield to another does not mean the general plan is fatally inconsistent.” Essentially, the general plan may give preference to infill that has a 40,000 square foot cap and still be internally consistent.

The Court affirmed the trial court judgement.

Key Point:

Evidence of economic impacts alone is insufficient to support a claim that a project will result in urban decay; urban decay need only be addressed by an EIR where there is potential for physical deterioration.

A single comment letter, unsupported by facts, explanation, or critical analysis, does not raise to the level of “substantial evidence of a fair argument” required by CEQA.

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.

Court Turns Tide in Favor of Desalination Plant – Holds Ample Substantial Evidence Supports the Project’s EIR

Monday, May 27th, 2013

Almost four years after the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) certified an environmental impact report (EIR) and approved a five million gallon a day desalination plant project, the Court of Appeal, First District, in a published opinion (N. Coast Rivers Alliance v. Marin Mun. Water Dist. Bd. of Dirs. (2013) 2013 Cal.App.LEXIS 401), reversed the trial court’s judgment and upheld the adequacy of EIR. At trial, the court determined the EIR violated CEQA in approximately a dozen ways.  Specifically, the trial court concluded the EIR included an inadequate analysis of (1) aesthetic impacts, (2) land use and planning impacts, (3) seismology impacts, (4) water quality impacts caused by shock chlorination, (5) biological impacts caused by entrainment, (6) energy impacts, and (7) greenhouse gas (GHG) emission impacts.  The trial court also concluded that the EIR proposed inadequate mitigation measures for (1) aesthetics, (2) aquatic noise and vibration, and (3) GHG emissions.  Finally, the trial court held that (1) with respect to biological resources the discussion of the existing environmental setting was insufficient, and (2) CEQA required the EIR to be recirculated because a new alternative was included in the Final EIR.  The First District reversed each of the trial court’s holdings.

With respect to aesthetic impacts, the First District stated that “[w]here an EIR contains factual evidence supporting the conclusion that aesthetic impacts will be insignificant, that conclusion must be upheld.”  Because the EIR included such facts and the Petitioners merely disagreed with them, the First District reversed the trial court. The First District also rejected the trial court’s ruling that adopting a landscaping plan as mitigation to soften visual impacts of a structure was inadequate absent a commitment to shield a specific percentage (i.e. 25%, 50%, etc.) of the structure from view.   The First District stated “‘where a public agency has evaluated the potential significant impacts of a project and has identified measures that will mitigate those impacts,’ and has committed to mitigating those impacts, the agency may defer precisely how mitigation will be achieved under the identified measures pending further study.” (Original emphasis.)

Next, the First District reversed the trial court’s holding regarding the adequacy of the land use and planning analysis.  The EIR concluded that, with the exception of one issue that was identified and analyzed in the EIR, the project was consistent with applicable local plans.  The trial court concluded a more detailed discussion of how the project would impact various county general plan policies was required.  The First District first noted that “[d]etermining whether a project is consistent with general plan policies is left to the lead agency; ‘[i]t is emphatically, not the role of the courts to micromanage’ such decisions.” (Original emphasis.)  Next, the First District explained CEQA only requires an EIR to discuss inconsistencies between a project and applicable plans, not all the ways in which a project is consistent with such plans.  “The trial court’s ruling is tantamount to requiring the EIR to provide a detailed discussion of the Project’s consistency with the plan.  CEQA includes no such requirement.”

Turning to the adequacy of the seismology analysis, the First District noted that only generic concerns regarding earthquakes were expressed during the administrative process.  The EIR’s analysis of potential seismology related impacts more than adequately responded to those comments.

The Fist District next rejected the trial court’s conclusion that the EIR’s discussion of potential water quality impacts caused by process used to clean the pipeline (known as shock-chlorination) was inadequate.  The First District began its analysis by stating that “[u]nder the substantial evidence standard, the ‘question is whether [MMWD] reasonably and in good faith discussed [shock-chlorination] in detail sufficient for the public to discern from the []EIR the ‘analytical route … agency traveled from evidence to action.’’” The First District concluded the EIR did.  The First District also rejected the Petitioners argument that it was improper for MMWD to rely on evidence outside of the EIR to support the less than significant impact conclusion reached by the EIR; “when an EIR contains a brief statement of reasons for concluding an impact is less than significant, then the petitioner has the burden of demonstrating ‘the conclusion was not supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record.’” (Original emphasis.)

At trial, the court was particularly critical of the EIR’s conclusions that biological resources impacts caused by entrainment were less than significant. The First District once again disagreed.  The EIR discussed a variety of field sampling techniques employed to evaluate potential entrainment impacts.  The First District stated that “[f]ield sampling is often the sole evidence relied on by lead agencies in evaluating a project’s biological impacts.”  Therefore, “[u]nder the substantial evidence standard of review, the District’s initial sampling effort was more than adequate.”  Nevertheless, MMWD even went further and conducted a year-long pilot-scale desalination program.  NOAA Fisheries and CDFG expressed concerns with one aspect of data collected during the year-long pilot program.  Petitioners argued that MMWD’s decision not to follow the recommendations made by NOAA Fisheries and CDFG rendered the analysis inadequate.  The trial court agreed; however, the First District explained that “[t]his ruling ignores the substantial evidence standard of review.”  Based on the substantial evidence standard, “[t]he issue is not whether other methods might have been used, but whether the agency relied on evidence that a ‘reasonable mind might accept as sufficient to support the conclusion reached’ in the EIR.” MMWD did.  Therefore, notwithstanding the disagreement with NOAA Fisheries and CDFG, the analysis was adequate for the purposes of CEQA.  Additionally, in part because the environmental setting relied on the same biological resource data that the First District found sufficient, it held  “the EIR’s description of the environmental setting was more than adequate.”

The First District also concluded the mitigation measure proposed to address the project’s potentially significant aquatic noise and vibration impact was adequate.  The trial court found that the measure was not sufficiently specific.  The First District disagreed.  The Court explained that “the commitment to undertake consultation with NOAA Fisheries does not impermissibly defer to the future the identification measures.  Consultation with NOAA Fisheries must occur, both as part of the federal permitting process under the CWA and ESA, and under the express terms of the mitigation measure.  Such mitigation is adequate under CEQA.” (Original emphasis.)

Next, the First District rejected the trial court’s conclusion that the EIR should have included a green energy alternative.  The Court explained that “alternatives shall be limited to ones that would avoid or substantially lessen any of the significant effects of the project.” (Original emphasis.)  The EIR concluded the project’s energy impacts were less than significant and the trial court held that conclusion was supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, “the EIR did not need to discuss further green energy credits as an alternative mitigation measure for the energy impacts of the Project.”

With respect to the GHG analysis, the First District reversed the trial court. Based on Assembly Bill No. 32 and MMWD’s own more aggressive goal to reduce GHG emissions, the threshold used in the EIR was whether the project would interfere with Marin County’s goal of reducing GHG emissions to 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.  The EIR concluded the project would not interfere with achieving that goal and, as a result, the project’s cumulative contribution was less than significant.  Additionally, in approving the project, the MMWD Board adopted a policy requiring all project-related GHG emissions be offset and the evidence demonstrated this policy commitment was feasible.  The Court also concluded the analysis and policy commitment were supported by substantial evidence.  Therefore, Petitioners’ challenge constituted nothing more than a disagreement with the conclusion reached in the EIR.  Such disagreement does not render an EIR inadequate.

Finally, Petitioners argued and the trial court agreed that the inclusion of a new alternative in the Final EIR required the EIR to be recirculated before certification.  The First District again disagreed.  The Court noted that “recirculation is ‘an exception rather than the general rule.’”  Therefore, “[a]n agency’s decision not to recirculate the draft EIR is entitled to substantial deference.”  The Court found that substantial evidence demonstrated that the new alternative was neither considerably different from other alternatives included in the Draft EIR nor feasible.  The alternative also failed to meet one of the project’s basic objectives.  As substantial evidence supported the finding that the alternative was not feasible, the First District concluded its inclusion in the Final EIR did not trigger recirculation.

The First District, therefore, reversed the trial court’s judgment against MMWD in its entirety.

Key Point:

Due to the substantial number of issues raised in this appeal, this decision is extremely helpful for lead agencies and project proponents. The decision helps to clarify the meaning and application of the substantial evidence standard of review in CEQA litigation. The decision also demonstrates that disagreements between a lead agency and other responsible and/or trustee agencies do not render an EIR inadequate. The decision further emphasizes that an EIR’s analysis of less than significant impacts need only be brief and a conclusion of less than significant may properly be supported by evidence outside the EIR and contained elsewhere in the administrative record. Finally, the decision supports the conclusion that 15% below 1990 GHG emissions by 2020 is an adequate significance threshold for analyzing GHG impacts.

Written By: Tina Thomas and Christopher Butcher

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For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

A Dark Day for Hoover High School – Court Finds Mitigated Negative Declaration for Stadium Improvements Inadequate

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

In a decision that was ordered published on April 25, 2013, Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending v. San Diego Unified School District (March 26, 2013) 2013 Cal.App.LEXIS 324, the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, held that a high school could not use general obligation bond revenue to pay for new stadium lighting because the bond measure approved by voters did not specifically include new stadium lighting. The court further held that, under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the School District (District) improperly relied on a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) and instead was required to prepare an Environmental Impact Report. The court found evidence in the record sufficient to constitute a fair argument that the project may have significant environmental impacts due to increased traffic and parking demand. In reaching its conclusion regarding parking, the court disagreed with the Second Appellate District’s holding in San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. County of San Francisco (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 656 that parking need only be considered a secondary impact under CEQA. In addition, the court upheld the MND’s project description and its analysis of aesthetics and historic resources. Lastly, the court upheld the District’s action exempting its 12 high schools from local zoning and land use laws, and held that such an action was not a “project” under CEQA.

On July 23, 2008, the District Board of Education (Board) approved Proposition S, authorizing the District to sell up to $2.1 billion in general obligation bonds for the construction, reconstruction, or replacement of school facilities, including a project to upgrade Hoover High School athletics facilities (project). The project would include football stadium bleacher replacement and new lighting for the football field. The District completed an initial study and the Board adopted a mitigated negative declaration (MND) finding there was no substantial evidence the project, as mitigated, would have a significant effect on the environment. Additionally, the Board adopted a resolution exempting projects at Hoover and 11 other high schools from city zoning and land use laws.

The court first looked at whether the District could use Proposition S funds to provide new stadium lighting at Hoover High School. The voters’ pamphlet description of Proposition S enumerated specific projects that would be funded by the bonds. The pamphlet included the words “field lighting,” however, the court held that the measure only provided lighting costs that were necessary for the completion of the enumerated projects, which did not include new stadium lights.

Regarding the CEQA claims, Taxpayers alleged the project description was misleading and caused the District to underestimate the project’s potential environmental impacts. Specifically, Taxpayers argued the description of the anticipated number of evening events to be held at the football stadium after project completion was misleading. The court disagreed, explaining that CEQA only required the District to make a “fair assessment or “estimate” of the number of evening events and that the District’s estimate was adequate. Additionally, the court held CEQA does not require the District to limit evening events to a finite number in the project description.

Taxpayers also argued the MND was flawed because it improperly calculated evening event attendance. The District used zero as a baseline for attendance at evening events because no evening events currently existed. The District then calculated the expected attendance after completion of the project based on the average attendance at football games at five of the District’s 16 high schools. The court found this methodology flawed because the baseline should have taken into consideration attendance of afternoon games at Hoover High School and the record lacked evidence to support the estimated attendance. The court held the District was therefore unable to adequately compare the baseline attendance to expected attendance in determining whether there was a fair argument that the project may have significant impact on traffic and/or parking.

The court also agreed with Taxpayers that an EIR was required for the project because a fair argument could be made that the project may result in significant parking and traffic impacts. The court disagreed with the District’s assertion that parking impacts do not constitute a significant impact on the environment under CEQA. In doing so, the court expressly disagreed with a Second Circuit opinion, San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. County of San Francisco (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 656, which held that parking was merely a social inconvenience that could only be addressed under CEQA as a secondary impact, if at all. The court pointed to CEQA Guidelines explaining that while the guidelines do not set forth an exclusive list of all potential impacts that must be addressed if “substantial evidence of potential impacts that are not listed . . . must also be considered.” (Guidelines, append. G.) The Court held that parked cars are physical objects and can therefore have a direct impact on the physical environment. The court explained personal observations and opinions of local residents constituted substantial evidence that the project may have a significant impact on parking and therefore parking impacts should have been treated as a direct physical impact.

The court also found there was substantial evidence to support a fair argument that the project may have significant traffic impacts. The court explained that, despite the District’s faulty attendance analysis (discussed above), consensus was the project would cause evening attendance to increase, and therefore a fair argument existed that the project may have significant impacts on traffic and circulation.

Lastly, the court held the Board’s adoption of a resolution exempting projects at Hoover and 11 other high schools from city zoning and land use laws was proper and was not a “project” within the meaning of CEQA. The court held the adoption of the resolution was neither an “approval” nor a “project.” It was not an “approval” because it did not commit the District to “a definite course of action in regard to a project.” (Guidelines, § 15352, subd. (a).) It was not a “project” because it was not itself “an activity which may cause either a direct physical change in the environment, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment.” (Pub. Resources Code, § 21065.) The term project does not mean each separate governmental approval. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15378, subd (c).) However, the actual approval of each of the 12 projects, which the resolution makes exempt from city zoning and land use laws, are considered projects under CEQA. Each will require CEQA review before approval.

Key Point:

The decision creates a split in authority concerning the requirement to analyze parking shortages pursuant to CEQA. Until the Supreme Court addresses this disagreement between First and Fourth District Courts of Appeal, the cautious approach would be to analyze potential impacts to parking as part of the environmental analysis for projects.