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Posts Tagged ‘CEQA’


EIR Addendum to Previously Certified EIR Proper Where No New Significant Environmental Impacts Identified

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

An artist’s rendering of the Plaza de Panama, Balboa Park, San Diego, as it would appear at the conclusion of the project. (KCM Group)

In Save Our Heritage Organization v. City of San Diego (2018) 28 Cal.App.5th 656, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held CEQA Guidelines section 15164 (Section 15164) validly establishes an addendum process that is consistent with the CEQA statute. Specifically, Section 15164 filled in gaps in Public Resources Code section 21166 and accurately implemented CEQA.

In 2012, the City of San Diego (City) approved the Plaza de Panama Project in Balboa Park (Project) and its accompanying EIR in order to restore pedestrian and park uses to the area. Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) appealed the City’s actions related to this Project multiple times on many grounds, winning some and losing on others.

In 2016, the City adopted an addendum to the project EIR addressing several project modifications. These included: (1) bridge modifications to meet CalTrans requirements; (2) adding and redesigning storm water basins; (3) adding parking lot ventilation; (4) making energy efficiency upgrades; (5) increasing the elevation of the excavated soils landfill; and (6) refining construction design. The most significant aspect was that the modified project would add 93 more parking spaces than in the original Project and EIR.

The City reviewed the modified Project’s potential environmental impacts to land use, historical resources, aesthetics, transportation, air quality, biological resources, energy, geologic conditions, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, health and safety, and hazardous materials. The City concluded that there were: (1) no substantial changes to the project requiring major revisions to the EIR because of new or substantially increased significant environmental effects; (2) no substantial changes in circumstances requiring major revisions to the EIR because of new or substantially increased significant environmental effects; and (3) no new, previously unknown or unknowable, information of substantial importance showing: (a) new or substantially more severe significant efforts than were discussed or shown in the EIR; (b) that previously infeasible mitigation measures/alternatives are now feasible and would substantially reduce significant efforts; or (c) that considerably different mitigation measures than analyzed in the EIR would substantially reduce significant effects. As such, the City approved the modifications with no additional EIR and on the basis of an addendum. SOHO filed suit. The trial court denied the petition. SOHO timely appealed.

Reviewing the agency’s action for abuse of discretion, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s holding. SOHO’s chief claim was that the addendum process, codified in Section 15164, was an invalid extension of the CEQA statute. Section 15164 provides, in pertinent part, “(a) The lead agency or a responsible agency shall prepare an addendum to a previously certified EIR if some changes or additions are necessary but none of the conditions described in [Guideline] 15162 calling for preparation of a subsequent EIR have occurred. …(c) An addendum need not be circulated for public review but can be included in or attached to the final EIR…. (d) The decision-making body shall consider the addendum with the final EIR… prior to making a decision on the project. (e) A brief explanation of the decision not to prepare a subsequent EIR pursuant to [Guideline] 15162 should be included in an addendum to an EIR, the lead agency’s required findings on the project, or elsewhere in the record.  The explanation must be supported by substantial evidence.”  The Resources Agency’s discussion of Section 15164 states it was “designed to provide clear authority for an addendum as a way of making minor corrections in EIRs… without recirculating the EIR” and that “[Section 15164] provides an interpretation with a label and an explanation of the kind of document that does not need additional public review.”

The Court held that, under established case law, Section 15164, like any agency action, carries a presumption of validity and the challenging party has the burden of demonstrating its invalidity. Presented with the challenge, the Court is to consider “whether…[the regulation] is (1) consistent with and not in conflict with CEQA, and (2) reasonably necessary to effectuate the purpose of CEQA.” This analysis depends on whether the regulation is a quasi-legislative regulation or an interpretive regulation. The Court pointed out that no Supreme Court case has definitively said that the CEQA Guidelines are quasi-legislative or interpretive and declined to say so itself. Instead, the Court held it need not decide the issue in order to resolve the case because SOHO had not met their burden to establish Section 15164 was invalid.

While the Court agreed that CEQA does not expressly authorize the addendum process described in Section 15164, the Court stated that the process “fills a gap” in the CEQA process for projects with a previously certified EIR. Further, “CEQA authorizes the Resources Agency to fill such gaps in the statutory scheme, so long as it does so in a manner consistent with the statute.” The Court held Section 15164 is consistent with and furthers the objectives of CEQA section 21166 by requiring an agency to substantiate its reasons for determining why project revisions do not necessitate further environmental review. “The addendum process reasonably implements section 21166’s objective of balancing the consideration of environmental consequences in public decision making with interests of finality and efficiency.” After EIR certification, “the interests of finality are favored over the policy of encouraging public comment.” As such, the EIR addendum regulation was in line with the spirit of CEQA and a natural extension of the statutory scheme.

To this point, the Court noted that the Section 15164 was first promulgated in 1983 and the Legislature has never modified CEQA to eliminate it, strongly indicating consistency with legislative intent.

Lastly, the Court easily dismissed SOHO’s argument that additional findings were required for the City to approve the addendum. Such findings were already made in adopting the original EIR and “an addendum is only proper where no new significant environmental impacts are discovered.” Here, where no new significant environmental impacts were discovered, an addendum was proper and findings were not necessary.

The Court affirmed the trial court judgement finding the EIR addendum valid.

Key Point:

An addendum to a previously certified EIR is proper where there no new significant environmental impacts are discovered.

Reasonable Administrative Record Preparation Costs Awarded to Agency Where Plaintiff Elected to Prepare and Failed to do so within 60-Day Limit

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo County as seen at sunset. (805 Aerial)

In LandWatch San Luis Obispo County v. Cambria Community Services District (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 638, the Second District Court of Appeals affirmed an agency may properly take over the preparation of the administrative record per Public Resources Code section 21167.6(b)(1) when petitioner elects to prepare and fails to do so within 60 days.

LandWatch San Luis Obispo County (LandWatch) filed suit against Cambria Community Services District (District) for alleged CEQA violations in approving an emergency water supply project on January 30, 2014. In its initial pleading of October 2014, LandWatch elected to prepare the administrative record. District provided the documents to Petitioners in November 2014. The next month, the District notified LandWatch of additional documents. LandWatch requested the documents in March 2015 and received them in April 2015.

LandWatch presented a draft administrative record index in August 2015. The District notified LandWatch the draft was over and under inclusive and, to avoid further delays in distribution of $4.3 million in grant fund awards, prepared and certified the record itself.

The trial court granted leave for LandWatch to include additional documents. However, LandWatch then failed to timely request the documents, stalling from December to February. This was problematic as the trial was set for March and the complete, certified administrative record was required to be filed before then.

The trial court denied LandWatch’s petition for a writ of mandate and the District sought costs from LandWatch for the cost of preparation of the administrative record, $4,299.01, and preparation of the appendix, $26,922.46. The trial court awarded the entirety of the first amount and half of the second amount, totaling $14,328.59. LandWatch timely appealed.

Relying on Coalition for Adequate Review v. City and County of San Francisco (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 1043, the Appellate Court held that an agency is not prohibited from recovering costs for preparation of the administrative record where the petitioner initially elected to do so. Such a determination is made on a case-by-case basis and at the court’s discretion.

While the award of such costs is limited to those that are “reasonable” and “reasonably necessary,” so long as the trial court finds that it is not specifically prohibited, it is at the trial court’s discretion to award costs. Here, the Court found that the trial court’s award was “on the low side of reasonable” totaling only $1.77 per page. The trial court would have been “well within its bounds” to award more, especially where the 7,683-page appendix was erroneously requested by LandWatch. Finally, the Court allowed costs for court calls, copies, and transcription costs that were reasonable and not prohibited.

The Court affirmed the trial court award.

Key Point:

Any amount of delay in administrative record preparation past the 60-day limitation in Public Resources Code section 21167.6(b)(1) is “unreasonable delay” in which an agency may prepare the record and recover “reasonable” costs, at the discretion of the court, for doing so.

Second Appellate District Calls Settlement Agreement Part of “Project” for CEQA Consideration In Line with Historically Broad “Project” Definition

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

Land erosion is visible under steps to Malibu’s Broad Beach. (Melanie Wynne)

In County of Ventura v. City of Moorpark (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 377, the Second Appellate District upheld a CEQA statutory exemption applied to a project undertaken by the State-created Broad Beach Geologic Hazard Abatement District (BBGHAD) and clarified that a “project” for CEQA consideration may be two separate activities if they serve a single purpose, have the same proponent, and are “inextricably linked.” Further, settlement agreement restrictions were not preempted by state law and do not constitute extraterritorial regulation. However, the abdication of BBGHAD’s police power in portions of the agreement was improper and therefore void.

The State created BBGHAD to address beach and sand dune erosion at Malibu’s Broad Beach. Here, BBGHAD was obliged to restore and restock sand at the beach. The project would involve shipments of 300,000 cubic yards of sand, four subsequent deposits of equal size at five year intervals, and additional shipments of 75,000 cubic yards on an as-needed basis (Project). The sand was to be collected from quarries 30-40 miles away from Broad Beach and transported by trucks to the beach. The initial deposit alone was estimated to require 44,000 one-way truck trips. Possible truck routes from the quarries to the beach required either traveling through the City of Moorpark (City) or on roads adjacent to the community.

In the Project’s planning stages, City officials expressed concern that hauling sand on these routes would negatively impact residents, and therefore entered into a settlement agreement with BBGHAD to manage traffic. BBGHAD agreed to specific haul routes, truck staging requirements, and changes in routes in response to settlement-defined road emergencies. Additionally, the settlement agreement could only be modified with the consent of all parties. Thereafter, the Coastal Commission approved a coastal development permit for the Project, incorporating the settlement agreement.

The County of Ventura (County) filed suit alleging that the settlement’s incorporation is preempted by state law, constitutes an illegal attempt by the City to regulate traffic outside of the City limits, and represents an abdication of BBGHAD’s state-granted police power.

The trial court found that the Project was statutorily exempt from CEQA, held that the settlement agreement was not preempted by the state’s Vehicle Code, and was not an improper attempt by the City to regulate traffic outside City limits. However, BBGHAD improperly contracted away its ability to amend the settlement agreement, therefore the trial court struck down the agreement’s mutual assent provision and held that BBGHAD must be able to modify the agreement in response to changed circumstances. The County timely appealed.

The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. In addition to its original claims, the County contended that the settlement agreement is an action distinct from the Broad Beach restoration project, thus beyond the scope of the exemption and subject to CEQA review. The Court disagreed, and found that the settlement agreement between the City and BBGHAD was part of the whole beach restoration effort and one project. The Court stated that when two activities are a coordinated endeavor to obtain an objective or are otherwise related to each other, they constitute a single project for purposes of CEQA. Here, the actions served the single purpose of abating a geologic hazard and were inextricably linked in achieving that goal. Only when the second activity is independent of and not a contemplated future part of the first activity may the two activities be reviewed separately.

Turning to the preemption argument, the Court found Vehicle Code section 21 was not implicated in the City’s settlement agreement. Vehicle Code section 21 prohibits local authorities from enacting resolutions or ordinances which affect state traffic restrictions. The Court found that because the agreement did not involve an ordinance or resolution (rather, it was the City acting under its contracting power), it was not preempted by Vehicle Code section 21. The Court further found that the agreement merely dictated the routes BBGHAD’s contractors and subcontractors must use when delivering on behalf of the Project. The agreement did not amount to a physical barrier which would redirect traffic, did not close roads, and did not restrict non-project related hauling.

The Court then addressed the extraterritorial regulation claim and held the City was within its contracting rights to further its implied necessary function of preventing public nuisances on their roads—like thousands of sand shipments. Additionally, the Court found the traffic restrictions on BBGHAD shipments were valid, as they only affected activity within the City limits.

Turning to the issue of infringements on BBGHAD’s police power, the Court found that as an entity of the State, BBGHAD was entitled to exercise a portion of the state’s police power. However, BBGHAD erred in part by contracting away its right to exercise its police power in the future. The agreement bound BBGHAD to surrender its discretion to haul routes in the future unless mutual assent was achieved between BBGHAD and the City. The Court found that this grant of veto power infringed upon the State’s police power therefore was invalid. In examining if this error was sufficient to render the entire agreement void, the Court weighed the agreement’s impact on the public and the expressed intentions of the parties, and determined that the aspects of the agreement which infringed on BBGHAD’s State-granted police power were severable from the rest of the agreement. Accordingly, the Court upheld the agreement in part and struck the agreement in part.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgement.

Key Point:

While incorporated settlement agreements with local authorities in project planning is allowable as part of one CEQA-defined “project”, when contracting with state entities, it is important to not infringe upon state police powers through the creation of modification clauses requiring assent from all parties.

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.

First District Court of Appeal Reverses Upper Truckee River Restoration and Golf Course Reconfiguration Project, Citing Lack of Identified Preferred Alternative

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

The Lake Tahoe Golf Course looking toward the Sierra Nevada

In Washoe Meadows Community v. Department of Parks and Recreation (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 277, the First District Court of Appeal reversed the California Department of Parks and Recreation’s (“Department”) approval of the Upper Truckee River Restoration and Golf Course Reconfiguration Project (“Project”), finding that the failure to identify a preferred alternative in the Draft EIR compromised the integrity of the EIR process.

In 1984, the State of California acquired a 777-acre parcel encompassing a 2.2-mile stretch of the Upper Truckee River. The parcel was later divided into two units: the Washoe Meadows State Park (“State Park”) created to protect a wetland meadow and the Lake Valley State Recreation Area (“Recreation Area”) created to allow the continuing operation of an existing golf course.

Since the 1990s, erosion of the river bed of the Upper Truckee River has raised environmental concerns. The layout of the golf course, which altered the course of the river, apparently contributed to a deterioration of the habitat and water quality. The Project was proposed to reduce the discharge of sediment that diminishes Lake Tahoe’s clarity and at the same time to provide public recreation opportunities in the State Park and Recreation Area.

The Department issued a scoping notice including four alternative projects and identified one of the alternatives – river restoration with reconfiguration of the golf course – as the preferred alternative. In August 2010, the Department circulated a draft EIR (“DEIR”) for the project. Although the DEIR analyzed five very different alternative projects, including the four alternative projects identified in the scoping notice, it did not identify a preferred alternative. The DEIR stated that the lead agency would determine which alternative or combinations of features from multiple alternatives was the preferred alternative in the final EIR (“FEIR”).

In September 2011, the Department issued the FEIR, identifying a version of the project as the preferred alternative. After the Department approved the preferred alternative project in January 2012, the plaintiff sued. The trial court held in favor of the plaintiff.

On appeal, the court held that the DEIR’s failure to provide the public with an “accurate, stable and finite” project description prejudicially impaired the public’s right to participate in the CEQA process, citing County of Inyo v. City of Los Angeles (1977) 71 Cal.App.3d 185. Noting that a broad range of possible projects presents the public with a moving target and requires a commenter to offer input on a wide range of alternatives, the court found that the presentation of five very different alternative projects in the DEIR without a stable project was an obstacle to informed public participation.

Key Point:

When preparing multiple project alternatives in the course of drafting a DEIR, it is imperative to identify a preferred alternative to prevent prejudicially impairing the public’s ability to participate in the CEQA process.

Second District Court of Appeal Upholds Conservation Alternatives, Even in Absence of Additional Conceptual Designs; Defers to Lead Agency in Presence of Substantial Evidence

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

The building at the center of the litigation, 9080 Santa Monica Boulevard (Hunter Kerhart Photography/LA Weekly)

Rendering of the proposed Melrose Triangle Gateway building, which was proposed to replace the historic building (Architect Studio One Eleven/WEHOville)


In L.A. Conservancy v. City of W. Hollywood (2017) 18 Cal. App. 5th 1031, the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision upholding the adequacy of the environmental impact report (EIR) and supporting CEQA findings made by the City of West Hollywood (City) concerning approval of a mixed-use project on a three-acre “gateway” site in the City.

The Project, as proposed, required demolition of a building built in 1928 and remodeled in 1938, which was considered eligible for listing on the California Register of Historical Resources. The EIR acknowledged that demolition of the building constituted a significant and unavoidable impact.  As a result, the EIR included a project alternative that proposed redesigning the Project in order to preserve the historic building.  In approving the Project, the City rejected the preservation alternative, but required that portions of the historic building façade be incorporated into the Project design.

Plaintiff Los Angeles Conservancy (plaintiff) alleged that the City violated CEQA because the analysis of the preservation alternative was inadequate, the Final EIR failed to sufficiently respond to comments concerning preservation of the historic building, and evidence did not support the City’s findings that the preservation alternative was infeasible. The trial court denied the plaintiff’s petition. On appeal, the court affirmed.

First, the court held that the EIR’s analysis of the conservation alternative was detailed enough to permit informed decision making and public participation. The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that the City was required to prepare a “conceptual design” for the alternative.  The court noted that no legal authority required a conceptual design to be prepared for an alternative included in an EIR.

Second, the court found that comments on the draft EIR cited by the plaintiff did not raise new issues or disclose any analytical gap in the EIR’s analysis. The court noted that to respond to comments that merely expressed general Project objections and support for the preservation alternative, the City could properly refer the commenters back to discussion included in the draft EIR concerning the historic building on the project site.

Finally, the court stated that a court must uphold the lead agency’s findings concluding an alternative is infeasible if supported by substantial evidence. In undertaking this inquiry, “[a]n agency’s finding of infeasibility… is ‘entitled to great deference’ and ‘presumed correct.’” While the court noted that the plaintiff may have demonstrated that the City could have concluded the preservation alternative was not infeasible, other evidence in the record supported the City’s determination that the alternative was impractical or undesirable from a policy standpoint.  Thus, substantial evidence supported the City’s infeasibility findings.

Key Point:

Environmental project review documents providing detailed conservation alternatives to demolishing existing sites eligible for California Register of Historical Resources designation need not include additional conceptual designs to support these alternatives. Additionally, courts must uphold a lead agency’s finding concluding that an alternative is infeasible if supported by substantial evidence.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Upholds Environmental Review of Master-Planned Community, Finds Project Changes After Tentative Approval Non-Actionable

Friday, September 15th, 2017

The Keller Crossing Specific Plan Project map (Riverside County Planning Department)

In Residents Against Specific Plan 380 v. County of Riverside (2017) 9 Cal.App.5th 941, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court and upheld the County’s approval of the Keller Crossing Specific Plan Project (“Project”), a master-planned community proposed by Hanna Marital Trust (“Trust”). The Project proposed residential, mixed-use, commercial and open space components on approximately 200 acres of undeveloped land in the French Valley region of the County. The Project included a general plan amendment, a zoning amendment, and a specific plan (Specific Plan 380).

After finding that the Project’s air quality and noise impacts could not be reduced below the level of significance after mitigation, the County approved the Project and the plaintiffs sued, asserting the County failed to comply with procedural, informational, and substantive provisions of CEQA. The trial court held in favor of the County and the Trust.

On appeal, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the Trust and the County substantially modified the Project after the Board of Supervisors certified an EIR for the Project and approved the Project on December 18, 2012. The court explained that the administrative record clearly showed that the Board only tentatively approved the Project on December 18, 2012 and the Board approved the final version of the Project on November 5, 2013 after planning staff and the Trust had codified the plan changes discussed at the December 18, 2012 hearing.

Second, the court held that errors contained in the notice of determination did not justify unwinding the County’s approval. These errors were related to the description of the Project, such as the number of planning areas, the size of commercial office development, the number of residential units, and the acreage for residential, commercial, and mixed uses. Finding that much of the Project description in the notice was accurate, the court concluded the notice substantially complied with CEQA’s informational requirements by providing the public with the information it needed to weigh the environmental consequences of the County’s determination.

Third, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the County failed to revise and recirculate the EIR after changes were made to Specific Plan 380. The plaintiff contended these changes might cause significant traffic, biological, and noise impacts. Finding these changes related to the details of the allocation and arrangement of uses within the Project site, the court held the EIR adequately addressed potential impacts that might result from the changes to the plan.

Fourth, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the EIR failed to adequately analyze the air quality, noise, and traffic impacts from the mixed-use planning area in the Project. Specifically, the plaintiff contended that, although the EIR analyzed the impacts of development of a continuing care retirement community (“CCRC”) in the mixed-use planning area, the EIR failed to analyze the impact of higher-impact uses that could be allowed. Because the plan included a provision that uses other than a CCRC are allowed only if such uses are compatible with the adjacent planning areas and no additional environmental impacts would occur (based on review by the County) the court held that the County did not improperly defer environmental analysis of other uses.

Finally, the court held that the EIR adequately considered specific suggestions for mitigating the impact of the Project on air quality and noise levels. The court found that the Planning Department properly determined that an air quality mitigation measure proposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District – requiring all off-road diesel-powered construction equipment greater than 50 horsepower to meet Tier 3 off-road emissions standards – was not feasible because the applicant provided evidence that such equipment would not be available at the time of construction. Further, the court held that the County was not required to respond to the plaintiff’s comments in which it proposed several noise mitigation measures because they were submitted more than 14 months after the comment period ended.

Key Point:

Changes made to a project do not constitute legally actionable substantial modifications when approvals made on the project prior to modification were tentative in nature.

First District Court of Appeal Rejects Urban Decay Claim Against Courthouse Relocation Project for Failure to Show a Substantial Environmental Impact

Friday, September 15th, 2017

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.

Key Point:

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.

California Supreme Court Holds Federal Regulation of State Owned Rail Lines Does Not Preempt CEQA

Monday, August 14th, 2017

In Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Rail Road Authority, 2017 Cal. LEXIS 5650, the California Supreme Court addressed whether the federal Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA) preempts the application of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for a California railroad project governed by the state’s North Coast Rail Authority (NCRA) and operated by a privately leased entity.

NCRA was sued under CEQA for inadequacies in its rail line project EIR. NCRA argued that the line was subject to federal ICCTA regulation instead of CEQA, removed the matter to the Ninth Circuit, and rescinded its EIR. The federal court remanded the matter to state court. The trial court held that the ICCTA preempted CEQA, and the First Appellate District affirmed. In December of 2014, the California Supreme Court granted petitioners’ petition for review as it related to the preemption issue.

The Court examined the ICCTA’s statutory construction and historical background, finding that although the ICCTA contains an express preemption provision and contemplates a unified national rail system, it was intended to combat rail monopolies while minimizing the need for federal regulatory control. The ICCTA expressly allows private rail owners to govern themselves internally via market-based self-correction and corporate bylaws, as long as those internal governances do not conflict with the ICCTA or other federal regulatory agencies. The Court concluded that this freedom to govern a private rail company translates to the freedom to govern state-controlled rail companies as well.

The Court held that the federal interest in railroads does not entirely sweep away the exercise of a state’s regulatory police powers when such regulation merely implicates rail transport, and that it does not follow that any and all state regulations touching on powers that may be federally regulated are preempted. The Court determined that application of CEQA to a public entity charged with developing state property is not a classic regulatory behavior, especially when there is no encroachment on the regulatory domain of the Surface Transportation Board or inconsistency with the ICCTA. Rather, application of CEQA constitutes self-governance on the part of a sovereign state. The Court presumed that Congress did not intend to preempt a state’s adoption and use of the tools of self-governance, or to leave the state without any means of establishing the basic principles under which it will undertake significant capital expenditures. The Court further concluded that ICCTA’s preemption of CEQA would be improper because it would allow the state to start and fund a rail line, but restrict how work is done on the line, unlike private owners.

The Court, relying on analyses of Gregory v. Ashcroft (1991) 501 U.S. 452, Garcia v. San Antonio Metro. Transit Auth. (1985) 469 U.S. 528, and Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League (2004) 541 U.S. 125, held that when interpreting Congressional legislation, there must be unmistakably clear language to establish an intrusive exercise of Congress’ commerce clause powers against a state. The Court explained that when there is the possibility of preemption, the law should be presumed as preserving a State’s chosen disposition of its own power, in the absence of a clear and plain statement from the legislature. The Court utilized the presumption argument to support the view that CEQA is not preempted in this case, and concluded that preemption would interpose improper federal authority between a State and its municipal subdivisions. Particularly, the Court found that it would be improper to preempt the state’s ability to dictate how its own subdivision addresses environmental concerns caused by the state’s own railroad business.

Examining the market participant doctrine, the Court found that the while the doctrine ordinarily is used to analyze preemption when a state interacts with private parties as a participant in a private marketplace for goods, labor, or services, it does not address a state’s ability to govern its own governmental subsidiary. Nevertheless, the Court continued its analysis of the doctrine, and found that because states operating in a private marketplace are subject to the same burdens imposed by Congress on private owners, courts will presume that Congress would afford states, as owners, the same freedoms as private parties. The Court held that the state’s application of CEQA to NCRA’s proceedings can be analogized to a private corporation enforcing its bylaws.

The Court concluded that Congress did not intend to intrude upon state self-governance in this context. The Court found that affirming preemption would commit the state to a one-way ratchet—able to enter the rail business, but unable to require anything of the subordinate agency it set up to carry out the state’s rail initiative.

The Court was careful to establish that CEQA actions might cross the line into preempted regulation if the review process imposes unreasonable burdens outside the particular market in which the state is the owner and developer of a railroad enterprise. The Court also acknowledged that its holding does not mean that the ICCTA has no power to govern state-owned rail lines. State-owned rail lines, like private ones, clearly must comply with STB and ICCTA, and state regulation of rail carriers is preempted by these provisions.

Key Point:

The California Supreme Court found that Congress did not pen the ICCTA to infringe upon state self-governance in a manner dissimilar from private railway owners. Preempting the state’s ability to adopt laws governing its own development schemes would leave the state without the tools necessary to govern its own subdivision. This preemption would deprive the state of the ability to make decisions to carry out the goals the state embraced concerning development projects, including undertaking environmental mitigation or deciding not to undertake a project at all because of its environmental hazards. Although CEQA may be preempted by federal law when it imposes unreasonable burdens on rail line owners, when addressing the competing interests surrounding governance over NCRA’s contested railway, enforcing environmental procedures which California has imposed on itself does not constitute grounds for ICCTA preemption.

California Supreme Court Holds EIRs Must Analyze Impacts to ESHA

Monday, July 24th, 2017

In Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach, (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918, the California Supreme Court unanimously held that the City’s EIR prepared for the Newport Banning Ranch (NBR) project was inadequate, finding that it failed to identify potential “environmentally sensitive habit areas” (ESHAs) under the California Coastal Act (“Act”) and analyze the project’s impacts to those areas.

The Banning Ranch site is an undeveloped, 400-acre plot of land containing oil field facilities and wildlife habitat. The project site, located in the City’s “sphere of influence,” falls in the “coastal zone” under the Act. NBR proposed to develop the site with up to 1,375 residential units, 75,000 square feet of retail, and 75 hotel rooms.

After the City announced in its notice of preparation that the project site included areas that might be defined as ESHAs, numerous public comments were submitted urging the City to discuss potential ESHAs in the EIR. The City refused to do so, contending that it had no legal authority to determine if the areas were ESHA, despite the fact that it knew that the California Coastal Commission (“Commission”) staff had preliminarily determined that the project site contained ESHAs.

In July 2012, the City certified the FEIR and approved the NBR project master plan. Subsequently, Banning Ranch Conservancy (BRC) challenged the project approval, raising two issues. First, BRC claimed that the EIR failed to identify areas that might qualify as ESHAs and account for those areas in its analysis of project alternatives and mitigation measures. Second, BRC contended that the City violated its obligation under the general plan to work with the Commission to identify wetlands and habitats to be protected from development.

The trial court rejected BRC’s CEQA claim, but found that the City had not complied with their general plan obligations. The Fourth Appellate District affirmed on the CEQA issue, but reversed on the trial court’s general plan findings because the general plan did not require the City to work with the Commission before project approval.

Reversing the Fourth Appellate District’s holding related to BRC’s CEQA claim, the Supreme Court held that CEQA requires an EIR to identify areas that might qualify as ESHAs. Further, rejecting the City’s argument that CEQA imposes no duty to consider the Act’s ESHA requirements, the Court noted that the lead agency should integrate CEQA review with its project approval process. In addition, the Court held that an EIR must lay out any competing views put forward by the lead agency and other interested agencies. Finally, the Court held that it did not need to address the general plan issue because BRC was found to be entitled to relief on its CEQA claims.

Key Point:

The lead agency must identify a potential ESHA through consultation and discuss their ramifications for mitigation measures and project alternatives in the EIR when there is credible evidence that an ESHA might be present on the project site. The Court provided that whether an EIR has omitted “essential information” is a procedural question subject to de novo review, without clarifying exactly what is deemed “essential information” required to be analyzed under CEQA. Thus, the Court’s holding in this case raises a question of whether an EIR must address other similar statutory schemes relevant to the project, such as the California Fish and Game Code, the California and federal Endangered Species Acts, the federal Clean Water Act, and other statutory requirements administered by the responsible, trustee, or interested agency.