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Third District Echoes Pocket Protectors, Holds “Large Number” of Public Comments on Nontechnical Aesthetic Impacts Support Fair Argument

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

In Georgetown Preservation Society v. County of El Dorado (2018) 2018 Cal.App.LEXIS 1167, the Third District Court of Appeal held that conformity with the general plan does not insulate a project from CEQA review. Where a“large number” of public comments objected to the project for “nontechnical” aesthetic issues, there was a fair argument that the project could have a significant effect on the environment and the County improperly relied on a mitigated negative declaration (MND).

The project plans proposed to build a chain discount store in the historically registered Gold Rush-era town of Georgetown in El Dorado County (County) described by the court as a “quaint. . . hamlet.” The project consisted of a 9,100 square-foot Dollar General store and 12,400 square foot parking lot across three parcels on the unincorporated town’s main street (Project).

Comments from various community members, including a licensed architect, a city planner, a registered architect, and a landscape architect and restoration ecologist objected to the Project’s lack of conformity with the town’s aesthetic. Nonetheless, the County found that the Project would not impact the surrounding aesthetics “in ways not anticipated for lands designated by the General Plan” and was “substantially”consistent with the Historic Design Guide. The County further found that “[a]s designed and conditioned, project impacts would be less than significant” and approved the Project based on an MND. The Georgetown Preservation Society (Society) filed suit challenging this action.

The Society alleged that the County’s reliance on a MND was improper where public comments in the record supported a fair argument that the Project may have a significant aesthetic effect on the environment. The trial court, relying on Pocket Protectors v. City of Sacramento (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 903(Pocket Protectors), found that the Society’s evidence supported this claim but rejected the Society’s claims about traffic impacts, pedestrian safety, and “planning and zoning norms.”Accordingly, the trial court issued a writ of mandate compelling the County to require an EIR be prepared for the Project. The County timely appealed the decision.

Specifically, the County alleged that (1) the County’s finding that the Project complied with the planning and zoning rules via historic design review is entitled to deference and should be reviewed under a substantial evidence standard; (2) layperson public commentary does not establish a fair argument that the Project may cause substantial environmental impacts; and (3) the County’s failure to explicitly find the public comments unreliable should not preclude challenging the comments.

The Appellate Court first addressed the effect of historic design review and held that a planning or zoning finding conducted outside the requirements of CEQA does not provide a substitute for CEQA review. Instead, “the two different kinds of findings—a negative declaration under CEQA [and] a zoning or planning finding—answer[ed]different questions.” Following the rationale in Pocket Protectors, the Court held that design review does not always mitigate aesthetics, but instead is an independent decision that may aid the CEQA determination or “be entitled to greater deference…, but such [a] determination is no more than it purports to be and is not a CEQA determination.” Thus, “design review does not supplant or supersede CEQA.”

The Court dismissed the County’s argument analogizing this case to Bowman v. City of Berkeley (2004) 122 Cal.App.4th 572. Opponents of the Bowman project, a four-story, low-income housing project with retail on the ground floor and located on a busy street, requested that the project be reduced to three stories to better match the surrounding building heights. The court held that, because the construction of the project was subject to design review and approval prior to the issuance of building permits, the project would not result in aesthetic impacts.

Here, the Court dismissed the County’s claim that Bowman supported their position. Instead, the Court clarified, echoing Pocket Protectors, that the Bowman courtdid not hold a zoning determination about aesthetics obviates CEQA review nor that design review necessarily or always adequately addresses aesthetic impacts . . . it depends on the facts.” Further contrary to the County’s position, the facts of Bowman–changing a four-story building to three-stories in a busy area –were not analogous to the case here –placing a large chain store in a small, historic,and unincorporated town with a distinct character.

The Court then addressed the public comments submitted in opposition to the Project. While layperson comments lacking factual foundation or corroboration are generally dismissed,here the Court differentiated the facts from other cases. First, the evidence was not “a few stray comments” but “a large number of negative opinions”therefore “undermine[d] the argument that only a few individualized complainants [were] 
trying to thwart the [P]roject for personal reasons.” Specifically, the comments were from “interested people” and consistently said that the Project is “too big,” “too boxy,” or “monolithic” to blend in and its presence will damage the look and feel of the historic center.

Next, the objections to the Project’s aesthetic impacts concerned “nontechnical issues that [did] not require special expertise.” The Court reasoned that a “rational layperson familiar with the area could conclude a 9,100 square foot chain store spanning three lots may negatively impact the central district’s aesthetics” and it would be an “unduly narrow prism” if only comments that incorporated specific design standards into their text were considered. Thus, there was “sufficient evidence[] adduced to show this project in this location might significantly impair the central district’s unique and treasured Gold Rush character.”

Indeed, even where expert opinion is presented to the contrary of the lay person opinions, “public comments contradicted by undisputed experts does not eliminate the need for an EIR.”“Whether it likely will or will not have such an impact is a question that an EIR is designed to answer.” Thus, as was the case in Pocket Protectors, the Court’s consideration of layperson opinions only pertains to the question of if the“low-threshold fair argument test” is met.

The Court then turned to the County’s contention that it implicitly rejected the commenters’ credibility therefore the comments should be removed from the Court’s consideration. Again relying on Pocket Protectors and echoing the trial court, the Court held that public comments may not be categorically disregarded where the County made no determination as to their credibility. The Court held that “if there were grounds for rejecting commenter’s credibility,the County should have made explicit findings thereon.”

Notably, in a footnote the Court distinguished as inapplicable the recent holding of Jensenv. City of Santa Rosa (2018) 23 Cal.App.5th 877 for being factually distinguishable. That case involved non-expert opinion on technical noise studies. See our blog post on the holding here.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s holding.

Key Point:

Layperson comments on an aesthetic impact may support a fair argument where the impact involves nontechnical issues.

Conformity with the general plan and application of design guidelines does not insulate a project from CEQA review.

Layperson comments on a nontechnical impact may not be categorically disregarded without a specific finding as to their credibility.

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.