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Land Use/Planning Posts


COURT OF APPEAL PARTIALLY PUBLISHES RECENT URBAN DECAY MND CASE

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

On July 13, 2016, the Fourth Appellate District ordered the partial publication of its recent decision in Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino. Thomas Law Group requested publication on behalf of the California Infill Builders Federation.

The opinion addresses challenges to a proposed retail store on the basis of alleged urban decay impacts and community plan inconsistencies. While these issues frequently arise in California Environmental Quality Act challenges to a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND), existing published case law is sparse. Significantly, the opinion is the first published decision in nearly a decade to address an urban decay challenge in the context of an MND. In addition, the opinion articulates that the abuse of discretion standard of review, as opposed to the fair argument standard, is appropriate for land use plan consistency determinations relating to policies that “were not adopted to mitigate environmental impacts.”

The only portion of the opinion that was not published by the Court was Section IV, which addresses whether the County was required to disclose that the future occupant of the project was Dollar General.

For a complete summary of the case, please see our previous blog post at: http://www.thomaslaw.com/blog/fifth-appellate-district-rejects-general-plan-consistency-and-ceqa-challenges-to-large-shopping-center-project-in-an-unpublished-opinion/

COURT OF APPEAL PARTIALLY PUBLISHES RECENT GENERAL PLAN CONSISTENCY CASE

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

On July 1, 2016, the Fifth Appellate District granted Thomas Law Group’s request to publish the general plan consistency argument in Naraghi Lakes Neighborhood Preservation Association v. City of Modesto. This newly published discussion is a useful aid to practitioners and local governments, providing clarification on when general plan policies should be treated as “mandatory development standards.” The sections on the rezoning findings and CEQA arguments remain unpublished. For a complete summary of the case, please see our previous blog post at: http://www.thomaslaw.com/blog/fifth-appellate-district-rejects-general-plan-consistency-and-ceqa-challenges-to-large-shopping-center-project-in-an-unpublished-opinion/

FOURTH DISTRICT UPHOLDS COUNTY’S MITIGATED NEGATIVE DECLARATION FOR DOLLAR GENERAL STORE IN JOSHUA TREE

Friday, July 1st, 2016

In an unpublished opinion, Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino, 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4405, the Fourth Appellate District rejected a challenge to the County’s approval of a 9,100-square-foot Dollar General store (“Project”) proposed by Dynamic Development (“Dynamic”) in Joshua Tree.

The County circulated an initial study and proposed negative declaration in August 2012. Many of the nearby property owners raised concerns that the Project would be out of character with the family-owned business community in Joshua Tree. In response to such concerns, the County changed its environmental determination from a negative declaration to a mitigated negative declaration and recirculated it in November 2012. After the County Board of Supervisors approved the Project in January 2013, the Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance (“Alliance”) filed a petition for writ of mandate, alleging that the County violated the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) by failing to analyze the Project’s potential for causing urban decay and blight. The Alliance also alleged that the County violated CEQA by attempting to hide the identity of the intended occupant and by approving a project that was inconsistent with the Joshua Tree Community Plan (“Community Plan”).

The trial court held that an EIR was required because there was substantial evidence to support a fair argument that the Project could cause urban decay. The trial court relied on the comments made by Ms. Doyle, a member of the Alliance and a lawyer who had previously counseled on land use issues as an Assistant Attorney General in the Oregon Department of Justice. The trial court reasoned that her experience demonstrated sufficient relevant personal observations that constituted substantial evidence under CEQA. Dynamic appealed and the Alliance cross-appealed on the remaining claims.

On appeal, the court reversed the trial court on the urban decay claim, holding that the mere fact that the Project may have potential economic impacts did not require an EIR where the economic impacts would not cause reasonably foreseeable indirect environmental impacts. The court found that the County properly considered that this was a “small box” retail project rather than the typical “big box” retail project analyzed in urban decay cases. The court also rejected the Alliance’s contention that Ms. Doyle’s opinions should have been considered substantial evidence. The court explained that Ms. Doyle was not qualified to opine on the Project’s economic impacts because she was not an economist and, moreover, her conclusions that urban decay would occur were speculative because they had no factual basis.

Next, the court rejected the Alliance’s allegation that the County violated CEQA by failing to identify the end user of the Project. The court recognized that CEQA does not require a lead agency to disclose an end user generally, but there may be times where the identity of the end user would be considered “environmentally relevant.” That was not the case here because Alliance did not produce any evidence that a Dollar General would have adverse environmental impacts beyond that of a “general retail store.”

Finally, the court rejected the Alliance’s argument that Project required an EIR because it was inconsistent with the Community Plan. The court declined Alliance’s request to view this as a CEQA issue that should be reviewed under the fair argument standard. Instead, the court applied the usual standard for a claim of inconsistency with a land use plan: abuse of discretion. The court held that the mere fact that the Project might compete with established local businesses did not make it inconsistent with the Community Plan’s provisions encouraging small businesses, and found that the terms “encourage” and “support” to be amorphous policy terms that gave the County discretion when making its consistency determination. Accordingly, the court found that the County had not abused its discretion.

NEWLY PUBLISHED FOURTH DISTRICT OPINION FINDS WAL-MART PROJECT INCONSISTENT WITH GENERAL PLAN AND CREATES NEW FINDINGS REQUIREMENT FOR PARCEL MAP APPROVALS

Monday, June 20th, 2016

On June 15, 2016, the Fourth District Court of Appeal published its opinion in Spring Valley Lake Association v. City of Victorville (D069442). The case involved a CEQA and Planning and Zoning Law challenge to a Wal-Mart project (“Project”) that was approved by the City of Victorville. After the trial court found in favor of Petitioner Spring Valley Lake Association (“Petitioner”) on some of its claims, Real Party in Interest Wal-Mart appealed and Petitioner cross-appealed.

Wal-Mart’s Appeal

Wal-Mart appealed the trial court’s determinations that: (1) there was no substantial evidence in support of the City’s general plan consistency finding; and (2) the EIR had inadequately analyzed the Project’s greenhouse gas emissions impacts. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s judgment on both issues.

The general plan consistency issue turned on one policy, IM 7.1.1.4, which requires all new commercial or industrial development to generate electricity on-site “to the maximum extent feasible.” The Project was developed to be solar ready, but Wal-Mart did not commit to the installation of panels because, as explained in a response to comment, it was uncertain whether the $750,000 cost would be offset by any federal tax credits or California incentives. Without the offsets, the response stated that the installation was economically infeasible. The court interpreted this response as effectively finding that “there was no extent to which it would be feasible to require the project to generate electricity on-site, whether by solar or other means.” The court held that this finding was not supported by substantial evidence in the record because there was no mention of why non-solar methods of generating electricity on-site were infeasible. The court showed little deference to the City’s own interpretation of what was considered “feasible” in this situation.

Surprisingly, despite the policy’s ambiguous language “to the maximum extent feasible,” the court held that this was a “fundamental, mandatory, and clear” policy. As such, the Project’s failure to be in conformance with this one policy was sufficient for the court to reject the City’s general plan consistency determination. (See Endangered Habitats League, Inc. v. County of Orange (2005) 131 Cal.App.4th 777, 782.)

Turning to the EIR’s greenhouse gas analysis, the court held there was conflicting evidence about whether the Project would achieve a 15-percent reduction above Title 24 standards. References in the EIR stated in some places that the figure would be 14-percent, and in others, 10-percent. Because the record did not show the Project would actually achieve the 15 percent reduction, the court held that there was no support for the City’s determination that the Project would not have significant greenhouse gas emissions impacts.

Petitioner’s Cross-Appeal

Petitioner cross-appealed the trial court’s determination that the City did not violate CEQA by failing to recirculate the EIR after it revised the traffic, air quality, hydrology, and biological resources impacts analyses. The court of appeal held that recirculation was required only for the air quality and hydrology analyses because the revisions to those sections constituted “significant new information” and the public did not have a meaningful opportunity to comment on those changes.

Petitioner also argued on appeal that the City violated the Planning and Zoning Law by failing to make all the findings required by Government Code section 66474 before approving the Project’s parcel map. In what appears to be an issue of first impression, the court agreed, relying on an Attorney General’s Opinion from 1975.

Key Point: Going forward, local governments should affirmatively address that the approval of the parcel map does not create any of the issues listed in Government Code section 66474. Local governments should also continue to make findings under Government Code section 66473.5 when approving a parcel map.

Thomas Law Group is requesting depublication of the Court’s general plan consistency discussion as it departs from the existing case law’s emphasis on deference to the agency’s determination of consistency.

FIFTH APPELLATE DISTRICT REJECTS GENERAL PLAN CONSISTENCY AND CEQA CHALLENGES TO LARGE SHOPPING CENTER PROJECT IN AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION

Thursday, June 16th, 2016

A neighborhood group, Naraghi Lakes Neighborhood Preservation Association (“Petitioner”), challenged the City of Modesto’s approval of a 170,000 square foot shopping center project (“Project”) on an 18-acre site adjacent to an established residential neighborhood. Petitioner alleged that the City’s approval was inconsistent with Modesto’s General Plan and did not comply with CEQA. On June 7, 2016, the Fifth District ruled in favor of the City in an unpublished opinion, Naraghi Lakes Neighborhood Preservation Association v. City of Modesto, 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4149.

The Project area was within the General Plan’s “Neighborhood Plan Prototypes,” which were designed to create a blueprint for residential neighborhood development. One of the Neighborhood Plan Prototype’s policies requires: “A 7-9 acre neighborhood shopping center, containing 60,000 to 100,000 square feet gross leasable space.” Petitioner argued that the large size of the Project was inconsistent with this policy. The court disagreed, finding that the prototypes were meant to provide guidance, not inflexible mandates, and that the Project was in conformance with other General Plan policies. The court emphasized that perfect conformity will all policies is not required and that a finding of consistency should be upheld unless “no reasonable person could have reached the same conclusion.”

Next, the court found that the City had made the appropriate findings required by the General Plan to rezone the property and rejected Petitioner’s argument that the proposed environmental mitigation was not “adequate” because some traffic impacts were not mitigated to less than significant levels. Because other policies in the General Plan allowed the City to avoid making infeasible or prohibitively expensive traffic improvements, the court did not agree with Petitioner’s interpretation of “adequate” mitigation. The court did not consider other general plan consistency arguments proffered by Petitioner because these contentions were not raised in the administrative proceedings.

Finally, the court addressed Petitioner’s argument that the City failed to comply with CEQA because: (1) the findings of infeasibility as to certain mitigation measures were not supported by substantial evidence; (2) the EIR did not adequately analyze a reduced project alternative; (3) the urban decay findings were not supported by substantial evidence; and (4) the findings made in connection with the statement of overriding considerations were not supported by substantial evidence. The court held that there was sufficient evidence in the record to support the various findings singled-out by Petitioner and found that the City’s alternatives analysis complied with CEQA.

Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of the City.

FEDERAL COURT GRANTS SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON MOST CLAIMS TO LOCAL AND FEDERAL AGENCIES FOR CEQA AND NEPA CHALLENGES TO LOS ANGELES LIGHT RAIL PROJECT

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

In Crenshaw Subway Coalition v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143642, the United States District Court for the Central District of California granted summary judgment on all but one claim in favor of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (“Metro”) and the Federal Traffic Administration (“FTA”) against Crenshaw Subway Coalition’s (“Plaintiff”) challenges to the approval of the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor Project.

The Draft EIS/EIR for the Project analyzed four alternatives—no-build, Transportation System Management (TSM), Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), and Light Rail Transit (LRT). The agencies chose LRT as the locally preferred alternative and prepared an EIS/EIR to analyze potentially significant environmental impacts of the Project.

Specifically at issue in the case was the grade separation analysis for a section of track along Crenshaw Boulevard—where the LRT would shift from running below-grade to running at-grade for approximately six blocks until transitioning to an aerial structure. Plaintiff argued that the EIS/EIR violated CEQA and NEPA by failing to evaluate a reasonable alternative to the at-grade segment of the Project, namely a tunnel.

Initially, the Court suggested that CEQA did not require an analysis of any segment specific options (such a below-grade tunnel for the Crenshaw Boulevard section) because these options are just a component of the Project and did not rise to the level of an “alternative.” Therefore, under the Court’s view, Metro had no duty to analyze “alternatives” to the at-grade design feature. Nonetheless, the Court analyzed the issue as if the below-grade option were a CEQA alternative—in part because the issue was briefed as such by both parties.

The Court first held that the EIS/EIR’s alternatives analysis did not violate CEQA because Metro had determined in the scoping process that running the entire length of Crenshaw Boulevard below-grade was economically infeasible as it would increase the cost of the Project by 27 to 35 percent. Infeasible alternatives do not need to be analyzed in an EIR, and courts can look at the administrative record for evidence of infeasibility; specific “infeasibility findings” are not required.

The Court then held that the alternatives analysis did not violate NEPA because the below-grade alternative was not reasonable or necessary. Specifically, an economically infeasible alternative would not meet the Project’s stated goal of cost effective and affordable transit improvements and a study by Metro had determined that at-grade crossings were compatible with the level of traffic on the Boulevard. Accordingly, the Court held that it was not improper for the FTA to only briefly address the below-grade segment in a response to comment. The Court also rejected an argument that FTA had “predetermined” that the segment would be at-grade, holding that a preferred alternative does not equate to an improperly predetermined outcome under NEPA.

The Court next addressed Plaintiffs’ substantive challenges to the EIS/EIR’s land use, urban decay, parking, safety impacts, and environmental justice analyses. Because these were substantive and not procedural challenges, the Court gave more deference to the agencies’ conclusions and determined that they were supported by substantial evidence. The Court also rejected Plaintiff’s claims that the mitigation measures were not described with sufficient detail and that a supplemental EIS should have been prepared under NEPA.

Notably, the Court did not grant summary judgement to either party for Petitioner’s claim that Metro engaged in unlawful racial discriminated in its site selection for the Project in violation of Government Code section 11135, though the Court seemed to imply that Metro seemed “quite likely to succeed” in the litigation. The Court held that there was simply not enough evidence on the administrative record to properly analyze the issue, and thus summary judgment was inappropriate.

Key Point:

Alternatives analysis is a key component of any environmental impact report. However, whether an alternative can be rejected during the scoping process (and thus does not need to be analyzed in an EIR or EIS) depends on whether it is feasible (CEQA) or reasonable (NEPA). This case may provide support for an argument that alternative “design features” within the project do not even rise to the level of a project alternative.

THIRD DISTRICT AFFIRMS FOLSOM’S USE OF A MITIGATED NEGATIVE DECLARATION

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

On October 29, 2015, in Save the American River Association v. City of Folsom, 2015 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 7827, the Third District Court of Appeals affirmed the City of Folsom’s use of a mitigated negative declaration for a project to develop dedicated ADA paths to the waterfront of Lake Natoma; create scenic overlooks; provide landing access for kayaks; remove invasive species; and re-establish native plants.  In an unpublished opinion, the court held that petitioner Save the American River Association (“SARA”) was unable to point to substantial evidence that gave rise to a fair argument that the project was inconsistent with the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area & Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park General Plan/Resource Management Plan (“General Plan”) and the American River Parkway Plan (“Parkway Plan”).  The decision upholds the trial court’s order dismissing SARA’s petition for a writ of mandate.

The parties and the court agreed that the two plans were adopted, at least in part, for the purpose of avoiding or mitigating an environmental effect—the development and use of the Lake Natoma Area of the American River Parkway. The General Plan classified the project area with a land use designation of low intensity recreation/conservation.   SARA argued that the project’s construction of paved trails, a paved stairway, and non-motorized boating facilities conflicted with this land use designation by changing the area from mostly natural to more developed.

While the court did not disagree that paved trails are “more developed” than unpaved trails, it rejected SARA’s argument due to the lack of citations to substantial evidence in the administrative record. The court disregarded petitioner’s evidence that the City intended to increase use of the area in order to realize an economic benefit in the nearby Folsom Historic District because the City’s supposed intent was not substantial evidence but mere speculation.  Petitioner’s argument that the project conflicted with the Parkway Plan was rejected for the same reason.

Key Point:

Although the fair argument standard is a “low threshold” test for requiring the preparation of an EIR, petitioner groups challenging a negative declaration on the basis of plan consistency must still cite to substantial evidence in the record that supports a fair argument that the proposed project conflicts with an applicable plan, policy, or regulation adopted for the purpose of avoiding or mitigating an environmental effect.

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.

Second District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Development Along Santa Clara River

Monday, January 26th, 2015

In an unpublished opinion in Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment v. City of Santa Clarita, 2014 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 8998, the California Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court and denied a petition for a writ of mandate challenging a 185-acre development (the Project) along the Santa Clara River near the City of Santa Clarita (the City). The court also rejected SCOPE’s cross appeals, allowing the mixed use development project to move forward.

The City owns a portion of the dry Santa Clara River corridor running through the Project site and the Project provides that the City will sell four of the acres to the developer for installation of buried bank stabilization. The Project also preserves a corridor of the dry riverbed, and results in dedication of all developer-owned river corridor property to the City.

The court reversed the trial court in two respects. First, the court held the City did not improperly incorporate by reference other documents into the environmental impact report (EIR). The court rejected SCOPE’s argument that the description or summary of the incorporated document must appear at the precise point in the EIR where the document was incorporated, and rejected all of SCOPE’s examples of alleged inadequate discussion of the documents incorporated by reference. Additionally, while the EIR may not have included an adequate description or summary for a few documents incorporated by reference, the court held SCOPE failed to show any prejudicial error.

Second, the court held the EIR adequately analyzed the cumulative biological effects of the Project. SCOPE contended the analysis was too broad because the EIR relied upon an analysis of the entire 1,036,571-acre Santa Clara River Watershed, while the Project was only 185 acres. However, the court noted a preference by the EPA for watershed-wide analyses and held the City did not abuse its discretion in considering the watershed-wide analysis of the Project’s cumulative impacts.

As to the cross appeals, the court held the Project was consistent with the City’s general plan. The court found the general plan amendment’s description of the preserved river corridor was not vague and the City did not abuse its discretion in finding the Project was consistent with the General Plan’s goal of promoting preservation of the river as open space.

The court also declined to question the correctness of the EIR’s environmental conclusions and found substantial evidence supported the City’s finding that the Project would not have a significant water quality impact related to chloride in the river.

Finally, the court held the trial court properly sustained the City’s demurrer to SCOPE’s claims regarding the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Act (the Act), focusing primarily on the lack of a private right of enforcement of the Act..

Court Publishes General Plan Consistency Discussion in Case Upholding San Francisco Redevelopment Project

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

On September 4, 2014, the Court of Appeal for the Fifth District granted a request to publish an additional portion of the recent case San Francisco Tomorrow v. City & County of San Francisco, 2014 Cal. App. LEXIS 800. The previously published opinion affirmed the City and County of San Francisco’s approval of a redevelopment project near Lake Merced in southwest San Francisco. The court held the San Francisco General Plan contained adequate information regarding population density and building intensity for the project and the project was approved with adequate notice. The court also held that the trial court did not err by including transcripts of hearings in the administrative record that were not considered by the Board of Supervisors prior to certification of the EIR.  

In the newly published portion of the opinion, the court addressed Petitioners’ argument that the project was not consistent with the priority policies in the General Plan. Petitioners contended that the City was required to make detailed findings of consistency with the General Plan, rather than the general compatibility findings relied on by the City. The court rejected Petitioners’ argument and held that such specificity was not required.  According to the court, the City’s municipal code allowed the City to weigh and balance priority policies and the City did not abuse its discretion in determining the project was consistent with the General Plan. 

A complete summary of the case is available here: http://www.thomaslaw.com/blog/appellate-court-rejects-challenges-redevelopment-project-san-francisco-neighborhood/.