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Categorical Exemption Applies to Single Family Residence Project on Demolished Historical Resource Site

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

Windemere Cottage as it existed in La Jolla, CA. (La Jolla Historical Society)

In Bottini v. City of San Diego (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 281, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that the City of San Diego (City) violated CEQA where it refused to rely on a categorical exemption and instead required that an EIR be prepared for a single family residence project (Project) on a vacant lot. Invoking the unusual circumstances exception, the City rejected the categorical exemption based on adverse impacts to a historical resource.  Earlier, the project applicant/property owner had lawfully demolished the Victorian-era cottage on the Project site. The Court concluded it was improper for the City to conduct retroactive environmental review premised on the cottage’s existence, and established that the baseline was the Project site without the cottage.

In 2011, the Bottini family bought the Project lot, the cottage on the site, and acquired the rights to a pending historical resource nomination in front of the City’s Historical Resources Board (Board). The Bottinis withdrew the nomination and asked the Board to issue a determination on the cottage’s eligibility for a historic designation. The Board initially found that the cottage ineligible for listing because the cottage had undergone too many alterations to meet applicable criteria. Following a public hearing and receipt of public comments, the Board declined to grant the cottage historical status. Local groups appealed this decision but those appeals were dismissed as untimely.

Later that year, the Bottinis requested that the City’s Neighborhood Code Compliance Division determine that the cottage was a nuisance under the City municipal code. The Division determined the cottage was uninhabitable to the point that no one should be allowed to occupy it and found it was a public nuisance in accordance with criteria set out in the City’s municipal code. As such, it was required to be demolished. The Bottinis bulldozed the cottage leaving an empty lot in its place.

In 2012, the Bottinis applied for a coastal development permit (CDP) to build a single-family home. City environmental staff determined the Project was categorically exempt from CEQA review as a new residential construction on a vacant lot. The La Jolla Community Planning Association and La Jolla Historical Society appealed the decision. The City Council, despite being informed by staff and the City Attorney that the Bottinis had followed the municipal code, remanded the project to the Planning Department to evaluate the Project with a January 2010 baseline—before the Bottinis owned the property and the cottage was demolished. The City Council further concluded that the Project was not categorically exempt from environmental analysis because, with the new baseline, the Project would have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances and adverse changes to a historical resource. The Bottinis filed suit alleging, among other things, that the City violated CEQA in this determination.

The trial court held that the Project was the construction of a single family home, not the demolition of the cottage. The trial court further determined that the baseline should have been set at the point when the application was submitted and the lot was vacant. On that basis, the trial court found the City abused its discretion in concluding the Project was not categorically exempt from CEQA review. The City appealed this decision.

The Appellate Court first addressed baseline standards as they apply to CEQA; “the baseline ‘normally’ consists of the physical environmental conditions in the vicinity of the project, as they exist at the time … environmental analysis is commenced.” Here, the already-demolished and non-existent cottage was not part of the existing conditions that would be affected by the Project. The Court also concluded that the Bottinis’ demolition of the cottage was permitted by the City’s municipal code.

The Court then held that a “project” for the purposes of CEQA is the “whole of an action” and may not be segmented to avoid review. With this in mind, the demolition permit was still a separate project because it served a separate purpose than the Project—to preserve the health and safety of the City by removing a nuisance. Neither the demolition permit nor the Project application referred to or relied on one another.

The Court highlighted that all parties conceded that the City’s issuance of the demolition permit is a ministerial action not subject to CEQA. CEQA specifically provides that it only applies to discretionary projects—projects over which the lead agency may influence the plans and environmental impacts. The demolition permit was therefore outside the scope of the City Council’s CEQA review.

Finally, the Court established that no exception to the categorical exemption applied here. With properly defined Project parameters and a properly considered Project baseline, it was clear that substantial evidence did not support the City Council’s conclusion. There was no historical resource to be affected and no unusual circumstances making the categorical exemption improper.

Considering the above, the Court affirmed the trial court’s holding.

Key Point:

A categorical exception is properly applied to a single family home construction project where a historical resource on the site has been demolished prior to project application.