In Save Our Access v. Watershed Conservation Authority (2021) 68 Cal.App.5th 8, the Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s grant of a petition for writ of mandate related to a national forest redevelopment project’s parking impacts but upheld the trial court’s determination regarding alternatives.
The project at issue proposed a series of ecological restoration measures and recreational improvements, including new picnic areas, pedestrian trails, river access points, facilities upgrades, improvements to roads and parking areas, and restroom and trash amenities located along a heavily used section of the San Gabriel River in the Angeles National Forest (Project). After conducting public scoping meetings in November 2016, the Watershed Conservation Authority (Authority) prepared and circulated a DEIR in November 2017.
Existing designated parking capacity in the Project area severely underserves the typical number of daily visitors. The majority of parking is informal, unregulated, and allegedly fluctuates between a maximum of 417 to 473 spaces. Most visitors park on wide shoulders or the side of the road. The DEIR proposed to formalize additional parking spaces by adding pavement, stripes, and signage. Undesignated spaces would be blocked by boulders and restricted, and accommodations would be made to allow for shuttle service to the riverside. In sum, the formalization of additional parking and restriction of informal parking would nearly halve the total number of parking spaces on the site. The DEIR recognized that the reduction in parking would likely result in visitor displacement, but ultimately concluded that the Project’s impact on nearby recreational sites would be less than significant following the implementation of project design measures, including construction avoidance during weekends and major holidays and a public notification plan informing visitors of possible area closures and other available recreation opportunities. In comparing the proposed project with the “no project” alternative, the DEIR stated that the Project would result in a reduction in parking, potentially impacting the number of visitors able to drive single-occupancy vehicles to the site and slightly increasing the use of other recreational facilities or areas with similar amenities in the region. However, the Authority found these potential impacts were outweighed by the environmental benefits, including the reduction of human impacts by concentrating recreational use at specific river access points (rather than throughout the river and on the riverbanks).
The FEIR responded to commenters’ concerns regarding traffic and parking impacts compared to baseline conditions. The Authority recognized that reductions in parking would impact the number of guests the site could accommodate, but concluded that the Project balanced the need for more parking while recognizing the recreational area’s carrying capacity and emphasizing public safety. Moreover, the Authority reasoned that formalized designated parking spaces would improve overall circulation, which would increase public safety and circulation efficiency. In October 2018, the Authority certified the FEIR.
Save Our Access – San Gabriel Mountains (Plaintiff) filed suit challenging the Project’s certification, alleging that the EIR violated CEQA by impermissibly reducing available parking, failing to analyze multiple alternatives to the Project, and by conflicting with land management plans. The trial court granted the petition in part, reasoning that the Project created and exacerbated an unanalyzed parking shortage. The trial court also found that the EIR’s “parking baseline determinations” were unsupported by substantial evidence, based on allegedly conflicting numbers in the EIR regarding the true number of available parking spaces on the site. The trial court relied on Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending v. San Diego Unified School Dist. (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 1013, 1051 (Taxpayers) for the proposition that a parked car has a potentially significant physical impact on the environment around it, so the Project’s parking reduction could constitute a significant effect on the environment. The court rejected Plaintiff’s other contentions, denying the petition as to all other causes of action.
This appeal followed.
The Court considered the trial court’s reliance on Taxpayers to support the conclusion that parking reductions have a significant impact on the environment. The Court looked to San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. City & County of San Francisco (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 656 (San Franciscans), which held that scarce parking was a “social inconvenience” that did not warrant CEQA review. San Franciscans also held that the environmental impacts of reduced parking result from the secondary effects that reduced parking has on traffic and air quality. However, the Court also agreed with Taxpayers’ rejection of the notion that a parking shortage “can never constitute a primary physical impact on the environment.” The Court harmonized San Franciscans and Taxpayers by holding that in in some circumstances, parking deficits can have a significant adverse impact on the environment. The Court reasoned that the circumstances are determinative – San Franciscans concerned a project which would attract crowds to a downtown area without providing parking (which would have the environmentally desirable effect of increasing reliance on mass transit), while Taxpayers concerned a project which would attract out-of-area evening crowds to a suburban neighborhood with narrow streets (which served to exacerbate traffic). The Court concluded that whether parking presents an environmental consideration is based “on the project and its setting.” In other words, context matters when considering the significance of an impact. Further, the Court observed that the CEQA Guidelines removed mention of parking availability from its Appendix G environmental factors in 2009 to effectuate the holding in San Franciscans and ensure that the focus of parking impacts, if any, center on physical changes to the environment. Looking to the facts in this case, the Court held that the Project’s reduction in parking would provide environmental benefits because it would better manage heavy recreational use and protect the wilderness from further erosion and other damage caused by vehicles parking throughout the site. The Project’s parking reductions could have an adverse social impact for those who must recreate elsewhere, but it would prevent further adverse physical impacts on the environment.
The Court found that the remainder of Plaintiff’s arguments were tainted by the repeated characterization of the issue as the Project’s impacts on parking rather than the impacts of the Project’s reducing parking on the environment.
Plaintiff argued that the Authority did not properly disclose baseline parking conditions due to an alleged discrepancy in the true maximum number of available parking spaces on the site. The Court found that it was immaterial whether the baseline maximum number of parking spaces was 417, or 473, or some number in between. The Court held that the number of reduced spaces itself presents no impact on the environment unless the alleged difference would result in significant deterioration of other recreational facilities in the area. Given the large regional area, the number of nearby facilities with similar activities for displaced visitors, and the small difference in the estimates, the Court concluded that it would be irrational to conclude that the reduction in parking here would present a significant impact to recreational resources.
The Court also rejected the argument that environmental impacts would occur due to displaced visitors circling and idling in the parking areas while waiting for an available space as unsubstantiated speculation. While some visitors may engage in that behavior, the DEIR complied with CEQA by properly analyzing the potential secondary effects of parking reductions on similar recreational facilities nearby.
The DEIR fully analyzed two alternatives: the Project and “no project.” The DEIR cursorily described other alternatives that were considered, but not fully analyzed, including a “forest closure” alternative that would have seasonally restricted public access to the site entirely.
Plaintiff contended that the EIR was required to analyze more than the “no project” alternative in detail. The Court rejected this argument, reasoning that an EIR must set forth only those alternatives necessary to permit a reasoned choice and that could feasibly attain most of the basic objectives of the project. Plaintiff argued that, even if analysis of only a “no project” alternative was permissible, the Authority erred in doing so here because “several feasible alternatives” were presented by a community member to the Authority during public hearing on the Project. While Plaintiffs correctly argued that public agencies should not approve projects as proposed if there are feasible alternatives or mitigation measures available which would substantially lessen significant environmental effects, the Court held that CEQA does not require an agency to consider specific alternatives proposed by members of the public or outside agencies.
The Court noted that an agency is afforded deference in its selection of alternatives unless petitioners (1) demonstrate that the chosen alternatives are manifestly unreasonable and do not contribute to a reasonable range of alternatives, and (2) submit evidence showing that rejected alternatives were both feasible and adequate by attaining most of the basic objectives of the project. Here, the Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that it was “manifestly unreasonable” to analyze only the Project and the “no project” alternative, and failed to establish that the public commentor’s proposed alternatives were capable of attaining most of the basic objectives of the Project and were feasible. Under these circumstances, the Court found it unnecessary to consider of other project alternatives.
Land Use Plan Consistency
Plaintiff contended that the Project presented land use conflicts with the Angeles National Forest Land Management Plan (LMP) and President Obama’s designation of the Project site as a national monument (the Proclamation) because the reduction in public parking reduced the number of people who could recreate in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. The Court found the Project entirely consistent with the policies of these plans.
The Proclamation states it is in the public interest “to preserve and protect the objects of scientific and historic interest at the San Gabriel Mountains” and called for the proper care and management of the site, including a management plan protecting and interpreting the scientific and historic features of the site for their continued public access and protection. The Court held that the Project was consistent with this intent because it proposed to protect and restore existing multi-use areas for public enjoyment by implementing ecological restoration measures and recreational improvements. These improvements comport with the objective of continued public access and further the objective of preserving and protecting San Gabriel Mountains’ objects of scientific and historic interest.
The LMP calls for the implementation of other management actions before taking direct action limiting visitor use. Plaintiff argued that the Project was inconsistent with the LMP because it would serve to limit recreational use. The Court noted that the Authority had already responded to this claim in the FEIR, pointing out that one of the purposes of the Project is to provide recreation facilities and infrastructure that are high quality, well-maintained, safe, and accessible to visitors. The FEIR concluded that the Project would not restrict public access to the Monument; rather, it would provide for both new and improved recreation facilities and amenities to visitors. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgement of the trial court, which found no inconsistency between the Project and the LMP, and which held that the Project aimed to protect and restore the existing multi-use areas for public enjoyment by implementing sustainability actions.
While parking impacts in and of themselves do not present an environmental impact under CEQA, depending on the project and its setting, a project creating a parking deficit may result in physical impacts to the environment necessitating analysis of parking deficit-induced traffic and air quality impacts.
An EIR may analyze only the proposed project and the “no project” alternative if its analysis presents a range of alternatives necessary to permit a reasoned choice and that could feasibly attain most of the basic objectives of a project.