In Citizens for the Restoration of L Street v. City of Fresno, 2014 Cal. App. LEXIS 786,the Fifth Appellate District affirmed a judgment granting a writ of mandate challenging the City of Fresno’s (City) approval of an infill development project. The court upheld the trial court’s ruling that the City violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by improperly delegating its approval authority to the City’s Historical Preservation Commission (Commission).
Developers sought to build 28 two-story townhouses on a vacant lot in downtown Fresno. The project site included two homes built in the early 20th century, which petitioners contended were historical resources under CEQA.
After the City conducted an initial study and filed a “Notice of Intent to Adopt a Mitigated Negative Declaration,” the Commission held a public hearing and determined that the buildings were not historical resources. The Commission also approved demolition permits for the buildings and adopted a motion approving the mitigated negative declaration. The City then unanimously adopted the findings of the Commission.
The court first affirmed the trial court’s finding that the Commission was not authorized to act as the City’s decisionmaking body by approving the mitigated negative declaration. The court explained that CEQA Guidelines section 21151, subdivision (c) allows the lead agency to delegate the authority to approve the project and the relevant CEQA review document. However, the Commission’s authority was limited by the City’s Municipal Code, which only provided the Commission the authority to “participate in environmental review procedures” and “provide review and comments on permit actions.” The court held these clauses suggested a secondary role and were too vague to grant the authority to conduct an environmental review and approve a final CEQA document.
Second, the court found the City’s subsequent project approval and adoption of the Commission’s findings did not cure the defects in the proceedings before the Commission. The City did not provide the proper notice nor show that it used its own independent judgment and analysis to determine that the project would not have a significant effect on the environment.
Finally, the court denied petitioner’s appeal challenging the application of the substantial evidence test to the determination that no historical resources were impacted by the project. Citing Valley Advocates v. City of Fresno (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 1039, the court affirmed that the substantial evidence test, not the fair argument standard, applies to a lead agency’s discretionary determination of whether a building or district is a historical resource for purposes of CEQA.
CEQA allows lead agencies to delegate their authority to approve environmental review documents such as the Mitigated Negative Declaration, subject to an appeal to the elected decisionmaking body. However, this authority must be expressly authorized and will not be implied. Additionally, the court reiterated that a lead agency’s determination of whether a resource is historic under CEQA is governed by the substantial evidence standard of review.