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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.

Argument and Speculation that a Project will Violate Local Code Requirements is Insufficient to Support a Fair Argument that a Project may have a Potentially Significant Impact on the Environment

Friday, August 10th, 2018

A topigrahical map of riverside, California. (Ryan Niemi /Sunset Dynamics)

In Friends of Riverside’s Hills v. City of Riverside (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 1137, the Fourth District Court of Appeal denied a neighborhood group’s petition to set aside approval of a small housing development where there was no substantial evidence supporting a fair argument of a violation of the land use ordinances and no evidence of an abuse of discretion. The City of Riverside (City) acted within the law in approving a six single-family home development, despite the Friends of Riverside’s Hills’ (FRH) claims to the contrary.

Before this controversy arose, the City established a residential conservation zone to protect the hills, canyons, and unique natural views of the area. Within the residential zone, planned residential developments (PRD) projects meeting certain criteria were permitted to deviate from conventional subdivisions requirements. A PRD applicant could also achieve a “density bonus” if the map and conditions clustered residences in the less steep portions of the site, appointed a conservation group to maintain open space areas, and achieved at least six of eleven “superior design elements” that promote environmentally-conscious design.

In November 2013, Real Parties in Interest Carlton and Raye Lofgren (Lofgrens) submitted plans for a PRD with a density bonus to subdivide a 12-acre site into seven lots and a designated open space. The Planning Commission recommended the City approve the plans with a negative declaration. The City issued a negative declaration (ND) and approved the plans with a revised tract map showing the site as 11.6 acres with six lots clustered on the less steep areas of the property and a designated open space.

FRH brought suit challenging the City’s approval. FRH alleged land use violations because the plan failed to properly cluster the residences and failed to seek a variance for each lot. The trial court denied the petition in its entirety. FRH timely appealed.

The Appellate Court held in favor of the City, finding there were no land use violations and no substantial evidence supporting a fair argument of significant environmental impacts. Such evidence, the Court elaborated, must be founded in facts in the administrative record, not speculation or theory. Here, FRH’s claim that the homes would be unlawfully placed in high grade portions of each lot was merely speculative.  The tract map approved by the City showed division of the site into lots but not where the residence would be on each lot. FRH’s claim that the Lofgrens would not build each residence in accordance with the municipal code was therefore speculative, absent any additional evidence.

FRH claimed the Lofgrens would not comply with the additional conditions required to achieve the “density bonus.” The Court found this claim also to be speculative where there was no evidence the Lofgrens would not comply with the conditions. Indeed, the Court pointed out that to hold differently would absurdly necessitate any project with future conditions be required to complete an EIR. In short, the potential to violate the municipal code is not grounds to mandate the preparation of an EIR.

The Court went on to rule that FRH was incorrect to draw similarities between this case and Pocket Protectors v. City of Sacramento (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 903 as the administrative record in that case had “ample” evidence the project violated the city’s land use provisions. Here, the administrative record lacked any similar evidence. As a result, FRH’s claims were speculative and thus rejected.

The Court then turned to FRH’s claim that the City abused its discretion and violated its own municipal code. The Lofgren’s engineer submitted numerous reports throughout the approval process to support the City’s decision to approve the Project. Applying a deferential standard of review, the City was entitled to rely on evidence submitted by the Lofgrens and the Court found substantial evidence supported the City’s determination.

The Court found that there was also no abuse of discretion where the City allowed the Lofgrens to choose which of the eleven design elements to incorporate into the plans. Per the municipal code, this is to be determined by the applicant upon issuance of building permits and the Lofgrens need not have chosen the elements yet because “it is difficult, if not impossible, to know which building or landscaping elements are feasible until later phases of the project like grading or construction.” Despite this, the Lofgrens had already demonstrated in the plans which designs they were to utilize, a fact FRH failed to notice.

The Court affirmed the trial court holding; the negative declaration was sufficient.

Key Point:

Where a challenger alleges violations of local code as a basis for asserting a fair argument that a project may have a significant environmental impact, the challenger has the burden to both demonstrate a violation or conflict with the local code exists and that the local code provisions at issue were adopted for the purpose of avoiding or mitigating an environmental effect.

Fact-Based Residents’ Comments Substantial Evidence Meriting CEQA Review, Special Commission’s Findings Substantial Evidence Meriting CEQA Review

Monday, July 16th, 2018

The Niles Historic District’s distinctive style is clear on the building facades of the District’s downtown area. (Craig Miyamoto)

In Protect Niles v. City of Fremont (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 1129, the First District Court of Appeal held that the Niles Historical Architectural Review Board’s (HARB) factual findings and members’ collective opinions about the compatibility of a project with the Niles Historic Overlay District rose to the level of substantial evidence. Further, fact-based comments in the record by residents, city officials and staff, and professional consultants, notwithstanding a traffic impact study to the contrary, amounted to substantial evidence supporting a fair argument of a significant traffic impact.

Niles Historic Overlay District (HOD) is an officially-designated historic district within the City of Fremont (City) subject to guidelines and regulations to maintain the distinctive look and character of the area. Projects in the HOD area are initially proposed to HARB for review in light of HOD guidelines. HARB then recommends approval or denial of the project to the City Council.

In 2014, Real Parties in Interest Doug Rich and Valley Oak Partners (Valley Oak) submitted an application to build 80-90 residential townhouses on a vacant six-acre lot (Project). HARB recommended that the Project be denied because it “would be incompatible in terms of siting, massing, materials, textures, and colors with existing development in the Niles [HOD].” Amidst critical comments, the City approved the Project with a mitigated negative declaration (MND). Protect Niles, a community action group, filed suit alleging the City improperly relied on the MND.

The trial court found substantial evidence in the record supported a fair argument of significant impacts on community aesthetics and traffic and set aside the Project approval until an EIR was completed. Valley Oak timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first established that, despite Protect Niles’ claims to the contrary, the appeal was not moot. Valley Oak had already submitted a revised Project application and the City had published a draft EIR therefore “voluntarily complied” with CEQA. However, this was not tantamount to Valley Oak withdrawing the original Project or abandoning its claims.

The Court reiterated extensive precedent that CEQA must be interpreted to afford the fullest possible protection to the environment. Further, the Court held that an EIR is required where there is substantial evidence in the record, contradicted or not, supporting a fair argument that a project may have a significant effect.

There were numerous comments within the record that the Project did not fit the aesthetic of the neighborhood. Per the CEQA Guidelines, an aesthetic impact exists where a project has the potential to substantially degrade the existing visual character or quality of the site and its surroundings. Aesthetic impacts are context-specific. Here the record contained opinions of the HARB commissioners and Niles residents that the Project’s height, density, and architectural style were inconsistent with the Niles HOD. These comments “differed sharply as to the Project’s aesthetic compatibility with the historic district.” The comments were not conjecture or speculative but grounded in observations of inconsistencies with the prevailing building heights and architectural styles of the HOD. Thus, the Court found there was substantial evidence of a potential adverse aesthetic impact on the Niles HOD. The City’s reliance on a MND was improper.

The Court also criticized the traffic impact analysis and determined that substantial evidence of a fair argument required preparation of an EIR. The City had conducted a professional traffic study concluding the impacts would fall below the City’s threshold of significance. Despite this, the Court found the study was shortsighted for presuming that drivers follow the speed limit and criticized the City for failing to implement the study’s mitigation measure recommending a left-turn pocket lane. The record contained critical comments by residents, City officials and staff, and professional consultants based on their personal experiences driving in the area. The Court found, notwithstanding the traffic study, these fact-based comments constituted substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the Project will have significant adverse traffic impacts.

The Court affirmed, directing the City to prepare an EIR if it were to go through with the original Project design.

Key Point:

Personal observations on nontechnical issues can constitute substantial evidence of a fair argument of a significant environmental impact. Specifically, residents’ observations of environmental conditions where they live and commute may constitute substantial evidence even if they contradict the conclusions of a professional study.

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 CONFIRMS THAT SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE STANDARD OF REVIEW APPLIES TO AGENCY’S DETERMINATION OF WHETHER A RESOURCE IS HISTORICAL

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

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.

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/

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.

FOURTH APPELLATE DISTRICT UPHOLDS MND, FINDS ALLEGED IMPACTS TO COMMUNITY CHARACTER BASED SOLELY ON SOCIAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL CONCERNS

Friday, March 18th, 2016

In a published opinion, Preserve Poway v. City of Poway, 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 177, the Fourth Appellate District upheld a mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a project that proposed to close the Stock Farm, a privately-owned horse boarding and training facility, and subdivide the site into twelve one-acre residential lots, a legally permissible use for the property.

The potential loss of the Stock Farm drew the ire of the community, especially members of the Poway Valley Riders Association (PVRA), which operated rodeo and polo grounds across the street from Stock Farm. If the project was approved, members would no longer be able to conveniently keep their horses near the PVRA facility. Because of this, PVRA contended that Poway’s “City in the Country” character would be harmed by the closing of this “long-standing community resource,” which it called “one of the Poway’s finest assets.” Interestingly, PVRA has the acreage to board horses on its property but had declined to do so in the past due to perceived liability issues associated with boarding horses.

After the City Council unanimously approved the MND, project opponents formed Preserve Poway and filed suit alleging that an environmental impact report (EIR) was required under CEQA for numerous reasons. After dismissing most of the arguments due to Preserve Poway’s failure to exhaust, the trial court agreed that an EIR was necessary because there was substantial evidence that the closing of the Stock Farm may have a significant impact on community character.

On appeal, the Fourth District disagreed, finding that there was no evidence that the project violated any land use regulations or would have any significant aesthetic impacts given that there was other similar residential areas nearby. Rather, the community character issue raised here concerned the local youth’s access to horse riding and the additional transportation time it would take to bring horses to the PVRA site. According to the court, these impacts were social and psychological, not environmental. Therefore, whether to approve the project was “a political and policy decision entrusted to Poway’s elected officials” and not “an environmental issue for courts under CEQA.”

Importantly, this case also represents the first published appellate decision to address the Supreme Court’s recent holding in California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (2015) 62 Cal.4th 369. In a brief discussion, the court rejected an argument that the existing horses, trucks, and horse trailers on the road could have a negative impact on the future residents of the project. The court held that this issue was outside the scope of CEQA after the Supreme Court’s decision because it concerned the impact of the existing environmental conditions on a proposed project’s future users or residents.

Finally, the court rejected Preserve Poway’s remaining arguments about the inadequacy of the MND because Preserve Poway had not appealed from the trial court’s judgment, thus forfeiting its right to bring these arguments before the appellate court.

Key Point:

A project’s social and psychological impact on community character need not be analyzed during an environmental review under CEQA. Any issues associated with these impacts are policy issues that should be decided during the political process. While the court here seemed to imply that community character should be discussed only in relation to aesthetic impacts, we note that a land use plan could contain policies on preserving community character and that the environmental review would need to consider whether the project was consistent with those policies.

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.

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.