First District Court of Appeal Rejects Urban Decay Claim Against Courthouse Relocation Project for Failure to Show a Substantial Environmental Impact
In Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California (2017) 16 Cal. App. 5th 187, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court and upheld the Judicial Council of California’s (“Judicial Council”) certification of an EIR analyzing the relocation of a courthouse (“Project”) in the City of Placerville (“City”). The Project involves the consolidation of trial court operations from the historic downtown Main Street courthouse and a County administrative complex into a new three-story building on undeveloped land adjacent to the County jail, located less than two miles from downtown Placerville. Plaintiffs challenged Project approval and filed a writ of mandate alleging that the Project would create substantial urban decay. The trial and appellate court reasoned that although the courthouse would impact some businesses in the area, that plaintiffs had not met the evidentiary burden to establish a substantial impact satisfying CEQA.
After the Judicial Council certified the final EIR in June 2015, the plaintiff, a group of County citizens with “a particular interest in the protection of El Dorado County’s environment,” sued the Judicial Council. Although the plaintiff’s petition alleged four deficiencies in the EIR, only one of them, the failure to treat the potential for urban decay resulting from relocation of courthouse operations as a significant environmental impact, was ultimately argued at the trial court. The trial court found in favor of the Judicial Council.
On appeal, the court concluded that under CEQA urban decay is defined as “physical deterioration of properties or structures that is so prevalent, substantial, and lasting a significant period of time that it impairs the proper utilization of the properties and structures, and the health, safety, and welfare of the surrounding community.” Citing Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 677, 685, the court further provided that physical deterioration includes “abnormally high business vacancies, abandoned buildings, boarded doors and windows, parked trucks and long-term unauthorized use of the properties and parking lots, extensive or offensive graffiti painted on buildings, dumping of reuse or overturned dumpsters on properties, dead trees and shrubbery, and uncontrolled weed growth or homeless encampments.”
In applying the definition of urban decay to the facts of this case, the court held that physical deterioration was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of terminating judicial functions at the Main Street courthouse.
Finally, the court found that an informal survey submitted by a local resident that suggested that some businesses would lose revenue as a result of the Project, is little more than anecdotal evidence where the nature of the survey is not explained, including the manner in which participants were selected, the proportion of businesses participating, and the number responding that there would be no effect on their businesses. Distinguishing this case from Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control v. City of Bakersfield (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 1184, the court found that the administrative record in this case did not contain sufficient evidence supporting the validity of concerns about the Project impacts, such as an economic study and articles related to the risk of urban decay.
The First District elaborated on and applied the definitions of environmentally significant “urban decay”, and reinforced the level of evidence required to conclude that project-related physical deterioration is a significant and reasonably foreseeable consequence of a project.