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Initial Studies Posts


First Appellate District Denies Initial Study Noise Level Challenge to Transitional Housing Project Based on Non-Expert Analysis

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

Construction crews begin the building transformation from hospital to youth center. (Bruce Robinson, KRCB)

In Jensen v. City of Santa Rosa (2018) 23 Cal.App.5th 877, the First Appellate District held that noise impacts from a proposed youth center and transitional housing project were properly analyzed and approved with a negative declaration (ND) where the City of Santa Rosa’s (City) acoustic expert found no noise impacts above the baseline would occur as a result of the project. Appellant’s non-expert claims to the contrary did not rise to the level of substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that there would be a significant noise impact meriting preparation of an EIR.

The Dream Center Project (Project) proposed to redevelop a vacant hospital into a youth center and transitional housing for 18 to 24-year-old homeless youth and former foster care youth including youth who have been abused, are unable to afford housing, or are unable to find employment.

Project applicant filed an application for a CUP, rezoning, and design review to implement the Project plans. The City prepared a draft Initial Study/Negative Declaration. In doing so, the City contracted with a professional noise consultant to conduct a noise analysis of the site. The study concluded that the Project would not constitute a significant noise impact. The City reviewed the application and noise study and found that the Project would have no significant effect on the environment. The City approved the Project and, thereafter, Project site neighbors (Petitioners) filed suit.

Petitioners alleged that the noise impacts from recreational activities (e.g. gardening, pottery throwing) and parking lot traffic at the southern end of the Project site were significant and required preparation of an EIR. Petitioners supported these claims with reference to another noise study conducted at a neighboring convenience store whose methodology, if applied to the Project site, would demonstrate noise impacts sufficient to merit preparation of an EIR. The trial court found the claims speculative and denied the petition. Petitioners timely appealed.

The Appellate Court affirmed and refused to consider the alternative noise study proposed and interpreted by Petitioners. Petitioners’ non-expert qualitative analysis of the convenience store noise study and its methodology were not an acceptable means of analyzing noise impacts. Petitioner’s calculations were essentially opinions rendered by non-experts that rested on supposition and hypothesis, rather than fact, expert opinion, or reasonable inference. As such, Petitioners failed to present substantial evidence supporting a fair argument.

Further, the Court held, Petitioners concerns about noise from parking traffic and recreational activities were unfounded as the Project plans and conditions for approval specifically mitigated noise impacts. Noise from parking in the south lot was mitigated as only staff were allowed to park there; residents and deliveries were prohibited from using anything but the northern parking lot. Petitioners’ claims that recreation activity noise would rise to a level of significance were also meritless as activities on the half basketball court, community garden, and pottery throwing space were explicitly limited to daytime hours.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s holding.

Key Point:

When attempting to rebut the validity of an independent noise analysis for a project’s Initial Study, is it imperative to use expert analysis. Additionally, comparison of two unrelated Initial Study results (even if the sites are nearby) will likely fall short of Court-accepted scientific evidence.

Sixth District Court of Appeal Upholds Application of CEQA Exemption for Small Facility —Utility Extension In the Absence of Petitioner Carrying Its Burden to Demonstrate the Location, Cumulative Impact, or Unusual Circumstances Exceptions Applied

Monday, February 5th, 2018

A distributed antenna system for mobile data communications is secured to a tower. (CBS)

In Aptos Residents Association v. County of Santa Cruz (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 1039, the Sixth District Court of Appeal found a Class 3 categorical exemption for “small structures” applied to multiple small projects considered as a group. The Court held the County of Santa Cruz (County) acted properly in reviewing a series of CEQA-exempt utility pole installations individually and as an aggregate project.

Real Party in Interest Crown Castle Inc.’s (Crown) project application proposed installation of multiple microcell distributed antenna systems (DAS) in rural County areas (Project). These installations are two-foot by one-foot antennas attached to existing utility poles operated by a single wireless carrier. Crown submitted each microcell system proposal in a separate permit application. However, Crown presented, and the County considered, the installations together as a single project. The County approved the Project, finding the DAS systems exempt from CEQA as categorically exempt “small facilities.” Aptos Resident Association (ARA) filed suit against the County.

ARA contended that the Project was not exempt from CEQA because the County improperly segmented the Project and the Project fell within multiple exceptions to the exemption based on its location (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(a)), cumulative impact (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2 (b)), and unusual circumstances (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(c)). The trial court disagreed and upheld the County’s approval of the Project. ARA timely appealed the decision.

The Appellate Court held the County properly found the project to be categorically exempt from CEQA as a Class 3 exemption (CEQA Guidelines, § 15303) and thus, no environmental review was required. Class 3 exemptions include projects that propose the construction of limited small facilities or structures, as well as the installation of small equipment and facilities in small structures, incorporating electrical, gas, and utility extensions. Relying on Robinson v. City and County of San Francisco (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 950, the Court found that substantial evidence supported the County’s Class 3 exemption because the Project constituted “the installation of small new equipment on numerous existing small structures in scattered locations.”

The Court then found ARA’s segmenting claim lacked merit where the County “considered the entire group of microcell units to be the Project.” Although Crown filed separate permit applications for the individual microcell units and the County issued separate permits and exemptions for each unit, the Project was considered as a group. Rejecting the segmentation argument, the Court noted that “[t]he nature of the paperwork required for approval of the project is immaterial.”

The Court also denied ARA’s claim that the Project would fall within a cumulative impact exception (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(b)) because other cell carriers would mirror Crown’s microcell project’s approval within the County, thus increasing the visual impact. The court found ARA’s argument baseless and speculative where evidence in the record suggested to the contrary. The Northern California Joint Pole Association controlled access to the utility poles; access was only available if all of those using the pole agreed and the pole would not be overloaded by additional equipment. Thus, the possibility of additional installations on the same poles was remote.

The Court then found the location exception (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(a)) to the Class 3 exemption did not apply. The location exception is restricted to projects that “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.” The County Code designating the area as “rural” and “residential agricultural” did not have any language in the statement of purpose designating the area as an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern. ARA presented no evidence that Project site qualified.

Finally, the Court found that the County did not abuse its discretion by finding no exception based on unusual circumstances. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(c).) Relying on Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, the Court held ARA did not meet the burden of showing a reasonable possibility the activity would have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances. ARA produced no evidence that it is unusual for small structures to be used to provide utility extensions in a rural area, or in areas zoned residential agricultural.

Having dismissed each of ARA’s contentions on appeal, the Court affirmed the trial court and found the DAS installations were properly exempt from CEQA.

Key Point:

When challenging CEQA exemptions, the burden lies on petitioners to show clear and unrefuted evidence that the classification was improper; speculation and hearsay are insufficient.

Further, CEQA allows the exemption for small facilities to apply to multiple small facilities at once within a project. Agriculture zoning is inadequate to successfully claim the location exception, facts must show that the project site is actually “an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern.”

IN UNPUBLISHED OPINION, COURT OF APPEAL UPHOLDS CEQA REVIEW FOR FRESNO’S FULTON MALL PROJECT

Monday, August 15th, 2016

The City of Fresno’s Fulton Street lies in the heart of its downtown and was once a bustling commerce center lined with numerous retailers. Suburbanization drew those retailers to the periphery of town in the 1950s. In the early 1960s, in an attempt to revive its urban core, the City turned Fulton Street into Fulton Mall, a 6-block pedestrian mall. Fulton Mall featured planting beds with shade trees, shrubs, and flowers; water fountains, pools, and streams; shade pavilions, siting areas, and playgrounds; and sculptures and mosaic artwork. Unfortunately, interest in Fulton Mall declined by the 1970s and it soon became plagued by high crime rates, deteriorating physical conditions, and low lease rates.

In 2011, the City of Fresno released a draft Fulton Corridor Specific Plan that identified three ways of improving Fulton Mall: (1) reintroduce two-way car traffic throughout the Mall; (2) reintroduce two-way car traffic but keep selected original features of the Mall; or (3) keep the Mall as pedestrian only and invest funding in restoring and repairing the original features. Option 2 was established as the City’s preference. Thereafter, the City began applying for (and receiving) various state and federal funds to put toward the Fulton Mall project (Project). In 2013, the City began preparing the environmental impact report (EIR) for the Project in compliance with CEQA. An initial study released with the Notice of Preparation determined that the Project may have significant impacts on aesthetics and historical resources, but would not significantly impact air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, parks, traffic, and utilities.

The City certified the final EIR in early 2014 and selected Option 1 as the preferred alternative due to its “straight street” design and the increased number of on-street parking spaces. The Downtown Fresno Coalition (Coalition) filed a petition for writ of mandate, alleging that the City pre-committed to Option 1 through its federal funding agreements and that the EIR inadequately analyzed certain impacts.  In Downtown Fresno Coalition v. City of Fresno, 2106 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5212, the Fifth District Court of Appeal rejected these claims and found that the City had complied with CEQA.

The Court first held that the Coalition was not collaterally estopped from bringing the CEQA suit even though it had previously brought a suit under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in federal court against the City, the Federal Highway Administration, Caltrans, and the federal Department of Transportation regarding federal funding that was given to the project without a NEPA review. The Court found the issues in the two cases to be distinct, despite the City’s arguments about the similarities between CEQA and NEPA.

Next, the Court addressed the Coalition’s argument that the federal funding had effectively precluded consideration of an alternative that featured full or partial restoration of the Mall. The Court noted that the grant funding was conditional on full compliance with CEQA and found that the City had fully complied by with the Supreme Court’s requirements in Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116 by not precluding consideration of any project alternative or mitigation.

Finally, the Court considered the Coalition’s claim that the EIR did not present a legally adequate analysis of the Project’s effects on certain resources. The City had narrowed the scope of the EIR to focus on the Project’s potentially significant effects on short-term visual character and historical resources. The Court found the analysis sufficient because impacts to air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, parks, traffic and utilities were determined to be less than significant; moreover, the initial study had presented extensive rational for that determination.  The Court concluded that the City had no legal obligation to analyze less than significant impacts in the EIR in the manner urged by Coalition.

SECOND APPELLATE DISTRICT FINDS INITIAL STUDY INADEQUATE FOR AFFORDABLE HOUSING PROJECT IN LOS ANGELES

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

In an unpublished opinon, Friends of Highland Park v. City of L.A., 2015 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 8002, the Second Appellate District reversed the trial court, holding that the initial study prepared by the City of Los Angeles for an affordable housing project in Highland Park was inadequate because the study lacked quantified greenhouse gas emission data and failed to report or analyze known soil contamination from a hazardous material.  Based on the initial study, the City had determined that the project would not have a significant effect on the environment and had approved the projected after adopting a mitigated negative declaration (MND).

As a preliminary matter, the Court held that Friends of Highland Park’s CEQA claims were not time-barred by the Subdivision Map Act (SMA), Government Code Section 66499.37, which requires challenges to subdivision map approvals to be filed within 90-days. The Court held the CEQA challenges at issue here do not fall within the SMA filing requirements because the adequacy of an initial study could not have been challenged under the SMA.

Turning to greenhouse gas emissions, the Court found the City’s initial study inadequate because it contained no evidence to support its claim that the potentially significant greenhouse gas emission impacts could be mitigated below a level of significance by using “low and non-VOC containing paints, sealants, adhesives, and solvents” during construction of the project. The Court relied in part on section 15064.4 of the CEQA Guidelines, which requires the use of “a model or methodology to quantify greenhouse gas emissions.” The Court held that the City had not selected a threshold for determining the significance of greenhouse gas emissions and thus there was “no vehicle for judicial review.”

The Court also found the initial study inadequate because it failed to address known lead contamination on the project site. An earlier development agreement acknowledged the existence of lead, but the initial study made no specific mention of lead contamination. However, adoption of the MND was subject to future environmental analyses, which were to be done prior to grading. The Court held that because the lead contamination was known at the time of approval, it should have been analyzed in the initial study.

The Court directed the City to set aside the MND and prepare a new initial study that complies with CEQA.

Schenck v. County of Sonoma (2011) 198 Cal.App.4th 949

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

The County of Sonoma (County) approved a development project for a warehouse and beverage distribution center. Prior to approving the project, the County conducted an initial study and issued a mitigated negative declaration (MND). The trial court held that the County had failed to send necessary notice to the Bay Area AQMD (BAAQMD) prior to adopting the MND. Rather than issuing a writ directing the County to rescind the project approval, the trial court held the approval in place while the County remedied its error. Once the County complied, the trial court entered final judgment in favor of the County. Petitioner appealed to the First District Court of Appeal, which ruled in favor of the County for two reasons. The Court first explained that providing notice to the BAAQMD is necessary. While the County had failed to provide notice for its revised negative declaration, the Court ruled the County’s error was not prejudicial because the County provided adequate notice to the public. The Court also upheld the trial court’s action in holding the project’s approval in place while allowing the County to notify the BAAQMD.

Key Point:

Trial courts may fashion CEQA remedies narrowly to address only the violation found by the court.