In 2013, the City of San Jose proposed a project to demolish the Willow Glen Railroad Trestle (Trestle) and replace it with a new steel truss pedestrian bridge that would present less of a fire hazard and have a lower maintenance cost. The pedestrian bridge would service the City’s trail system. The Trestle was built in 1922, but according to two experts, the design was based on standard plans, parts of the Trestle were likely replaced during the last 30 to 40 years, and it was not associated with any important events or persons. Based on these reports, the City found that the Trestle was not an “historical resources” and therefore the project would not have a significant effect on the environment. Accordingly, the City adopted a mitigated negative declaration under CEQA.
Friends of the Willow Glen Trestle challenged the City’s approval of the project and argued that there was a fair argument that the Trestle was an historical resource. The trial court agreed and ordered the City to prepare an environmental impact report (EIR). In a published decision, Friends of the Willow Glen Trestle v. City of San Jose, 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 676, the Sixth Appellate District determined that the correct standard of review is substantial evidence, not fair argument.
The crux of the opinion concerns the interpretation of Public Resources Code section 21084.1, which states that a project may have a significant effect on the environment if it “may cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of an historical resource.” A resource may be presumed to be historically or culturally significant if it is: (1) listed in, or determined to be eligible for listing in, the California Register of Historical Resources; (2) included in a local register of historical resources; or (3) deemed significant pursuant to criteria set forth in subdivision (g) of Section 5024.1. Even if a resource does not meet one of the above three standards, a lead agency is not precluded from “determining whether the resource may be an historical resource for purposes of this section.” This has been called the “discretionary” category of historical resources by the courts. In this case, the parties agreed that only the discretionary category could apply to the Trestle.
Pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21084.1, when a resource is presumed to be historically significant, a lead agency may still find that the resource is not historical if that decision is supported by “the preponderance of the evidence.” The Court held that this language necessarily establishes that the correct standard of review for a presumptively historical resource is substantial evidence. The Court then concluded that it would be inconceivable that the agency’s decision under the “discretionary” category would be subject to a less deferential standard of review than its decision regarding a resource that is presumed historical. This conclusion is supported by CEQA Guidelines section 15064.5, subdivision (a)(3) and two other appellate cases—Valley Advocates v. City of Fresno (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 1039 and Citizens for Restoration of L Street v. City of Fresno (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 340. Thus, the Court concluded the trial court applied the wrong standard of review; the City’s conclusion that the Trestle is not historic is subject to the substantial evidence, and not the fair argument, standard of review. The Court remanded for the trial court to apply the correct standard of review.
A remand to resolve additional substantive matters in CEQA litigation can take several years, particularly if a new appeal is filed after the remand. In enacting CEQA, the Legislature urged that CEQA review be completed “in the most efficient, expeditious manner in order to conserve the available financial, governmental, physical, and social resources with the objective that those resources may be better applied toward the mitigation of actual significant effects on the environment.” (Pub. Resources Code, § 21003, subd. (f).) In certain circumstances, the Legislature also directed that “any court” reviewing a CEQA challenge “specifically address each of the alleged grounds for noncompliance” raised by a petitioner. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21005, subd. (c).) Therefore, controlling statutes allow appellate courts to fully resolve the merits of a CEQA challenge. By exercising such discretion courts can achieve CEQA’s objective to provide for expedited judicial review.
Key Point: The lead agency’s determination under section 21084.1 that a resource is or is not historical is subject to the substantial evidence standard of review.