Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento (2019) 37 Cal.App.5th 698, 704.

November 21st, 2019

By: Thomas Law Group

Sacramentans for Fair Planning
v. City of Sacramento
37 Cal.App.5th 698, 704.

The Yamanee project, a 10-story mixed-use
condominium development in Midtown Sacramento, (Project) exceeded both the density
and height limits of its parcel’s zone. A Sacramento General Plan provision allows
the City Council to authorize projects at densities higher than the applicable
zoning if they are found to provide a significant community benefit. The City found
that the Project would create a number of such benefits, including a reduction of
residents’ dependence on personal vehicles and the furtherance of the City’s
goal to construct 10,000 new residential units in the downtown area. Sacramentans
for Fair Planning filed a writ of mandate in the superior court, alleging the City
violated zoning law and CEQA by approving the Project. The court denied the petition
and Sacramentans appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal.

On appeal, the Court found that under
SB 375, if a project is statutorily defined as a transit priority project, a
lead agency may utilize a streamlined sustainable communities environmental
assessment instead of typical CEQA review methods (an EIR or negative
declaration). For a project to qualify as a transit priority project, it must, in
part, be consistent with the use designation, density, building intensity, and
applicable policies specified for the project area in the regional sustainable
communities strategy (SCS).

Sacramentans challenged the City’s
use of a Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment (SCEA) to approve the
Project on the basis that SCS development policies in the area were too vague.
For instance, the SCS did not identify specific residential densities or
building densities for the area. Sacramentans argued that the lack of
specificity rendered the SCS unusable as a basis for justifying streamlined CEQA
review with an SCEA.

The SCS forecasts a preferred
growth scenario for the region which, if followed, would lead to reduced
greenhouse gas emissions. To that end, the SCS divides the region into areas
and subareas, each forecasted to receive specified amounts and types of
development. The SCS designated the Project site as within the central city
subarea of the Center and Corridor Community area. This designation allows for
relatively dense mixed-use development. As the Court noted, the SCS forecast
for the Project area includes a unique capacity for new office, residential, and
mixed-use buildings exceeding 3-4 stories, with the potential to more than double
the number of housing units in the subarea.

The Court found that Sacramentans misunderstood
the role of SCS in their argument when alleging that it was too vague. “The
strategy’s purpose is to establish a regional pattern of development, not a site-specific
zoning ordinance.” The Court clarified that nothing in SB 375 requires building
intensity standards in the SCS more specific than what it contained.

With respect to Sacramentans’ allegation
that the lack of specificity rendered streamlining improper, the Court
clarified such concerns should be directed to the Legislature, not the Court.
The Court stated there was no dispute that the City’s determination of project
consistency with the SCS was supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the Court
held that the City was entitled to rely on its consistency determination when
using the SCEA.

Sacramentans also asserted that the
City erred by relying on EIRs prepared for the General Plan and SCS to avoid
analyzing the Project’s cumulative impacts. Sacramentans claimed streamlined
review was inappropriate because no prior environmental analysis “has ever
considered the cumulative impacts of high-rise development in Midtown approved
pursuant to the General Plan.” The Court rejected this argument, and found that
CEQA authorized the City to rely on the prior reports as part of its
streamlined review of the Project. CEQA required the City, before drafting its
SCEA, to prepare an initial study identifying significant or potentially significant
impacts, including cumulative impacts. The initial study had to identify any
cumulative effects that had been adequately addressed and mitigated in prior
applicable environmental impact reports. The Court held that the City’s initial
study on the Project, included as part of the SCEA, properly complied with
these requirements.

The Court denied the petition, and
affirmed the decision of the superior court.

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