Thomas Law Blog

CEQA Updates

Keeping You Up-to-Date on the California Environmental Quality Act

Posts Tagged ‘General Plan’


County General Plan EIR Need Only Address “Reasonably Foreseeable Development” Outside the Planning Area, Population Reports in the Record Showed Possible Subdivision Unlikely

Thursday, December 20th, 2018

In High Sierra Rural Alliance v. County of Plumas (2018) 29 Cal.App.5th 102, the Third District Court of Appeal held a general plan update and EIR were valid where evidence in the record supported the County of Plumas’ (County) determination that there was no “reasonably foreseeable development” outside the planning area. The Court also held that adding building intensity standards and a comprehensive map to the EIR did not require recirculation after close of the comment period where the specific zones were not likely to be developed and the map information was otherwise available during the public comment period.

The County certified a final EIR and approved a general plan update (Project) in December 2013. The update focused on new population growth and housing construction in the “planning area” in order to preclude urban sprawl and degradation of natural resources. The planning area boundary encompassed the existing developed land area and the potential expansion area directly surrounding it. In contrast, rural areas were those “defined as having little to no public infrastructure and services.” High Sierra Rural Alliance (High Sierra) filed suit alleging that the County violated CEQA by failing to consider growth and subdivision development outside the planning area and failing to recirculate the final EIR once adding maps and building intensity standards after the close of the public comment period.

The trial court held that the EIR was a “reasonably crafted…first-tier environmental document that assesses and documents broad environmental impacts of a program with the understanding that a more detailed site-specific review may be required to assess future projects.” Further, substantial evidence supported that the County’s policies and mitigation measures contained in the EIR were sufficient to reduce the severity of any environmental impacts of future projects. Lastly, the addition of building intensity standards and cumulative maps, while possibly in error, was not prejudicial error under CEQA meriting recirculation. High Sierra timely appealed.

The Appellate Court confirmed that its role is not to determine “the correctness of the EIR’s environmental conclusion, but only its sufficiency as an informative document.” Applying these principles, the Court affirmed the judgment.

The Court first addressed High Sierra’s claim that the EIR was functionally deficient for failing to assess the impacts of development, especially subdivision development, outside of the planning area. The Court clarified that CEQA only required the County to address “reasonably foreseeable development” within the County. It is of no consequence to the Court’s determination if this excludes rural areas within the County.

The record showed that the County consulted population and economic data from the Department of Finance and CalTrans and determined that the County growth rate over the planning period would be minimal. This data supported the County’s determination that all reasonably foreseeable growth was to occur almost exclusively in the planning area. Further, sections of the general plan specifically provided restrictions on development in rural areas by requiring adequate, independent fire protection for each new development. Finally, the EIR specifically provided that the minimal amount of development that may occur will be best addressed in a site-specific manner. Thus, the EIR was a proper first-tier environmental document. The Court held that the County adequately addressed development outside of the planning area.

The Court then turned to High Sierra’s argument that the County failed to recirculate the EIR. The Court confirmed that recirculation is required when “significant new information is added…in a way that deprives the public of meaningful opportunity to comment upon a substantial adverse environmental effect.” (CEQA Guidelines 15088.5.)

High Sierra alleged that the County violated CEQA by failing to recirculate the EIR after adding maps and building intensity standards to the final EIR. The Court held that evidence in the record showed that the addition of comprehensive maps to the final EIR was not “significant new information” as the public had access to maps with land use designations for the County throughout the comment period. Further, the addition of building intensity standards for certain rural zones did not constitute “significant new information” where the additions did not change the scope of the Project. Also, the record supported a finding that even fewer structures in those zones would be built during the planning period than the small number in the past decade. Thus, the building intensity standards were nearly inconsequential and not “significant.” Considering these findings, the Court held that the scope of the Project did not change between the draft EIR and final EIR in a manner that requires recirculation.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment and upheld the EIR.

Key Point:

A general plan EIR is only required to address “reasonably foreseeable development,” supported by evidence in the record, outside of the planning area to be sufficient under CEQA.

“Significant new information” meriting recirculation of an EIR does not include maps whose information was available elsewhere during the comment period nor standards that did not change the scope of the project.

OPR Accepts Comments on General Plan Guidelines Environmental Justice Chapter

Monday, December 17th, 2018

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research is accepting comments on a revised Environmental Justice Chapter in the General Plan Guidelines until Thursday, December 20. Senate Bill 1000, proposed by California State Senator Connie Leyva (D –Chino), requires that local jurisdictions with disadvantaged communities incorporate an environmental justice element into their General Plan or, in the alternative, integrate goals, policies, and objectives into other elements of their General Plan to achieve similar goals.

Following significant outreach across the state with environmental justice groups, city and county planning departments, state agencies, and many other stakeholders to provide guidance, OPR distributed a draft of the Environmental Justice Chapter on November 20. This draft contains: (1) a process by which to determine if a local jurisdiction is subject to the SB 1000 requirements; (2) new considerations regarding private-public entity partnerships; (3) additional information about updates when cities and/or counties have some policies for SB 1000; (4) example policy language and data sources; and (5) updated discussions on thematic areas to include under SB 1000.

To view the draft chapter, visit http://opr.ca.gov/docs/20181120-EJ_Chapter_Public_Comment.pdf 

Comments must be submitted by 5:00 on December 20, 2018 to SB1000@opr.gov 

City Charter Must Explicitly Limit Municipal Power to Approve General Plan Amendment of Single Parcel Initiated with Project Proposal, Los Angeles Auto Mall Conversion Project Valid

Monday, October 1st, 2018

In Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment v. City of Los Angeles (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 1079, the Second District Court of Appeal held that a charter city may approve a general plan amendment for a single project site, even if initially requested by a project applicant, so long as the city’s charter did not “clearly and explicitly” limit or restrict such an action.

In 2013, Real Party in Interest Philena Property Management, LLC (Philena) filed for a land use permit with the City of Los Angeles (City), a charter city, to convert an auto mall into residential, retail, and office space close to a new light rail station and other transit (Project). The Project required preparation of an EIR, a development agreement between Philena and the City, several conditional use permits, and, of chief concern here, an amendment to the City’s general plan to change the project site land use designation. The City reviewed the proposal, granted the project requirements, and approved the Project in September 2016. Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment (Westsiders), an association of neighborhood residents, filed suit.

Westsiders alleged that the City exceeded its authority in the Los Angeles City Charter section 555 subdivisions (a) and (b) (Sections 555(a) and 555(b)) by approving a general plan amendment for a single parcel and allowing Philena to effectively initiate the amendment. The trial court held that the City did not exceed its authority or abuse its discretion in amending the general plan. Further, the trial court denied Westsiders’ request for judicial notice of early drafts and proposed amendments to Section 555 where interpreting the statute did not require review of its legislative history. Westsiders timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first addressed whether it is proper to seek a writ of mandate or administrative mandamus for relief in this situation. Westsiders contended that Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5 applied and the award of an administrative mandamus is appropriate here “to review the final adjudicative action of an administrative body.” The Court found that this claim misplaced as a general plan amendment is a legislative action and Government Code section 65301.5 explicitly says that a legislative action is to be reviewed for a writ of mandate, pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 1085.

The Court then laid out that such legislative acts are presumed valid per San Francisco Tomorrow v. City and County of San Francisco (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 498. Further, the Court must be “[m]indful of the rule that [it] cannot construe a charter to restrict municipal power without a clear mandate in the charter itself.” Such a restraint requires “clear and explicit limitations or restrictions” in the charter itself. This standard is in addition to principles of statutory construction which require the Court to, in the first instance, rely on the plain language of the statute. If clear, the Court need not go any further in its inquiry. Ultimately, the City’s interpretation of its own charter is “entitled to great weight and respect unless shown to be clearly erroneous and must be upheld if it has a reasonable basis.”

With this in mind, the Court turned to Westsiders’ arguments that the City exceeded its authority in approving the general plan amendment. Section 555(a) permits general plan amendments for, as pertinent here, “geographic areas, provided that the part or area involved has significant social, economic, or physical identity.” Westsiders claimed that a single parcel of land could not qualify as a geographic area. Relying on the dictionary definitions for each word, the Court determined that “geographic area” means any physical region. The parcel was indeed a physical region that satisfied this definition despite its singularity and small size. Second, Westsiders claimed that the parcel did not have “significant social, economic, or physical identity” as it was a car lot in a busy area with no distinctive features. The Court held that the City had no “clear and explicit” categorical limits on what it could and could not determine to be significant. Consequentially, the Court held in favor of not restricting municipal power.

Westsiders alleged that the City was required to make explicit findings that the project site qualified as a geographic area of significant economic or physical identity. The Court, after pointing out that Westsiders did not cite any authority for this claim, held that the City was not required to make explicit findings for a legislative act per San Francisco Tomorrow. The City did find that the project site had a significant physical and economic identity near a transit-oriented area and was one of the largest underutilized parcels in the area. These findings, though unnecessary, supported the City’s decision to issue a general plan amendment for the site.

The Court then addressed Westsiders’ argument that the City violated Section 555(b) by allowing Philena to initiate a general plan amendment with a project proposal. The Section provides “[t]he Council, the City Planning Commission, or the Director of the Planning Commission may propose amendments to the General Plan.” The Court found that, while the Charter outlined certain permissions for initiating an amendment, it did not provide any “clear and explicit limitation” to do so. The Court held that, absent such a limitation, the City did not violate Section 555(b) in responding to Philena’s request for the amendment.

Finally, the Court addressed Westsiders’ contention that the City’s action constituted impermissible spot zoning where there was no “substantial public need.” Since Westsiders did not raise this claim at the trial level, they waived their right to appeal the issue.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the petition.

Key Point:

Claims against a charter city’s legislative action must be supported by “clear and explicit” limitations in the plain language of the city’s charter.

California Supreme Court Allows Referendum Vote That Would Make Zoning Ordinance Inconsistent with General Plan for “Reasonable Time”

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

In City of Morgan Hill v. Bushey (2018) 5 Cal.5th 1068, the California Supreme Court held that a local referendum challenging a zoning ordinance amendment in the City of Morgan Hill (a general law city) was valid even where the referendum, if adopted by the local electorate, would be inconsistent with the general plan, so long as the city has the means to make the two consistent within a “reasonable amount” of time.

Seeking the construction of a hotel, the City of Morgan Hill, amended the city’s general plan to change a parcel designation from industrial use to commercial use in 2014; the zoning ordinance remained unchanged. Subsequently, in early 2015, the city approved rezoning the parcel from “ML-Light Industrial” to “CG-General Commercial.” Local hotel owners established the Morgan Hill Hotel Coalition (Coalition) to challenge the city’s approval of the rezone by referendum. The city declined to place the referendum on the ballot concluding that it was invalid because, if adopted by the local electorate, it would result in an inconsistency between the city’s current general plan and zoning ordinance. Coalition brought suit challenging the city’s decision not to place the referendum on the ballot.

The trial court, following the holding in deBottari v. City of Norco (1985) 171 Cal.App.3d 1204 (deBottari) that a referendum that “enacts” a zoning ordinance inconsistent with the general plan is invalid, held in favor of the city. Coalition filed an appeal.

The appellate court disagreed with the holding in deBottari and reversed the trial court, holding that referendums are not per se invalid if they contradict the general plan. Citing Government Code section 65860, subsection (c), the appellate court held, where a city could adopt a new designation within a “reasonable time,” a referendum may be valid. (City of Morgan Hill v. Bushey (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 34.) The California Supreme Court granted review.

The Court first emphasized the importance of the referendum power to alter local government policy, subject to preemption by the state legislature in only a few cases. At a local level, this power may only be preempted where there is a “definite indication” or “clear showing” that it was within the ambit of the Legislature’s purpose to restrict those rights. For instance, the Court elaborated, there is no reason to maintain the referendum power over ministerial or administrative tasks of local governments, they have no discretion. In addition, the Legislature maintains some power over local government authority to guide land use where it is an issue of “statewide concern,” for example the mandate to have a general plan.

Turning to the issue at hand, the City claimed that the referendum was invalid because it was “essentially an initiative causing the zoning ordinance and general plan to conflict.” The Court held that a referendum is not null simply because of an inconsistency with the general plan. Relying on Government Code section 65860, subdivision (a), the Court explained that such a referendum is not the final imposition where a local government “can use other means to bring consistency to the zoning ordinance and the general plan.” Here, the Court found that, if the referendum passed, the city was at liberty to change the zoning ordinance to another conforming use that was in line with the general plan. Essentially, the city was not without options.

The Court clarified that the referendum power should not be viewed as the power to repeal an ordinance or revive another, instead it provides the ability of the electorate to weigh in on a local government decision. Thus, the trial court was wrong to say the referendum would “enact” an ordinance. A referendum, rather than rewriting and establishing a specific ordinance, merely prevents a certain type of change from happening and directs the local government to take a different direction.

The Court concluded:

Given our duty to protect the referendum power, we conclude the Court of Appeal was correct to hold that a referendum can be used to challenge a zoning ordinance amendment that attempts to make the zoning ordinance consistent with an amended general plan. But it is not clear if other zoning designations were available for the property here, or whether the City has other means to comply with a successful referendum while making the zoning ordinance and the general plan consistent with one another. So we vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remand the case to the Court of Appeal with directions to remand to the trial court to address these questions.

Key Point:

A referendum that results in a zoning ordinance inconsistent with the general plan may be valid so long as the local government may be able to bring them in to congruence with one another within a “reasonable time.”  In reaching its holding, the Court focused on Government Code section 65860, which applies to general law cities and certain charter cities (pursuant to subdivision (d) of the statute).  Therefore, the Court’s holding does not directly apply to charter cities that are not subject to Government Code section 65860.

Population Projections Proper Baseline for San Francisco General Plan Housing Element Update

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018

In San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods v. City and County of San Francisco (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 596, the First District Court of Appeal held the City of San Francisco (City) general plan housing element EIR satisfied CEQA in using 2025 population projections as a baseline for a growth-accommodating policy and adequately considered traffic impacts, water needs, and project alternatives.

In 2011, the City updated the housing element to the City’s general plan. The housing element EIR baseline was based on 2025 population projections. San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods (SFLN) filed suit alleging the EIR used an improper baseline and failed to adequately address various environmental impacts.

The trial court held that the City complied with CEQA in most respects. Specifically, the trial court agreed with Respondents that the general plan was not internally inconsistent, the City need not have recirculated the EIR after publication, and the EIR contained an adequate project description, sufficient impact analyses, and a reasonable range of project alternatives. However, the trial court found that the EIR was inadequate in its analysis of alternatives and findings regarding potentially feasible mitigation measures. Parties timely appealed.

Typically, CEQA requires an EIR baseline to employ present environmental conditions for the baseline analysis. However, the Appellate Court held that the use of an alternative baseline was permissible under CEQA so long as contextual factors support the alternative baseline and the agency takes an informed, deliberate approach. An agency may adjust its baseline conditions at its own discretion and in appropriate circumstances in order to account for a major change in environmental conditions expected to occur before project implementation. For instance, where an amendment to a general plan takes a long view of city planning, the analysis of the amendment’s impacts may do so as well. Here, the City used a hypothetical baseline—population projections for 2025—in order to measure resulting traffic and water impacts related to the housing element. Recognizing “it would be absurd to ask the City to hypothesize the impacts of a long-term housing plan taking hold immediately,” the Court held the City acted within its discretion to define the baseline with 2025 population projections and forecast traffic and water impacts in 2025 rather than compare the existing conditions with and without the housing element.

The Court determined that the housing element sought to accommodate housing needs in response to a growing population, growth that would happen regardless of the housing element, therefore it was a growth-accommodating policy rather than a growth-inducing policy. Cases relied on by SFLN were unconvincing as they analyzed project approvals that would result in population growth in previously undeveloped areas.

With the baseline properly defined, the Court then held the EIR’s analysis of environmental impacts was sufficient. The EIR reasonably concluded that the housing element would not have a substantial impact on visual resources or neighborhood character as it encouraged residential uses in areas that were already allotted or existing and did not change any zoning.

Then focusing on the EIR traffic impact analysis, the Court held the City was not required to study in-the-pipeline projects with potential traffic impacts as they are subject to their own CEQA review and EIR process. Nonetheless, the City did so at sixty intersections and properly relied on 2025 population projections in their analysis for the above reasons.

The Court then held the EIR’s water supply impact analysis was sufficient where it acknowledged the “degree of uncertainty involved, discuss[ed] the reasonably foreseeable alternatives—including alternative water sources and the option of curtailing the development if sufficient water is not available for later phases—and disclos[ed] the significant foreseeable environmental effects of each alternative, as well as mitigation measures to minimize each adverse impact.”

Finally, the Court held the EIR’s analysis of alternatives complied with CEQA where it identified and provided “extensive information and analysis regarding the alternatives” for at least three alternatives. SFLN failed to meet their burden to show the range of alternatives are “manifestly unreasonable or deprive[] the decision-makers and the public of information they need to evaluate the project and its impacts.” Where the EIR’s alternatives allowed decision makers a meaningful context to weigh the project’s objective against its environmental impacts, it complied with CEQA.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s holding on these issues.

Key Point:

An alternative project baseline for CEQA purposes may be proper so long as contextual factors support the alternative baseline and the agency takes an informed, deliberate approach in utilizing it.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Finds Minor Telecommunications Facility on Dedicated Park Land Is Not An “Unusual Circumstance” Exception to CEQA Small Facility Exemption

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

In Don’t Cell Our Parks v. City of San Diego (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 338, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found that the San Diego City Charter (Charter 55) did not prohibit the City of San Diego (City) from approving a telecommunications project within real property held in perpetuity by the City for “park purposes.” The project did not create a “change in use or purpose” of the property, which would require a vote of two-thirds of City voters. Further, a dedicated park is not a “sensitive and protected resource area” for the purposes of CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2(a) unless explicitly designated as such.

Rancho Peñasquitos is an 8.5-acre park dedicated to the City in perpetuity for recreational purposes in accordance with Charter 55. Verizon filed a project application to build a wireless telecommunications facility in a corner of the park (Project), including a 35-foot tall cell tower disguised as a faux eucalyptus tree and a 250-square-foot landscaped equipment enclosure with a trellis roof. The San Diego Planning Board determined the Project was exempt from CEQA as being a small structure (CEQA Guidelines, § 15303) and approved the Project. Don’t Cell Our Parks (DCOP) filed suit against the City.

DCOP alleged that placing the facility within the park was not a permissible “park or recreational purpose” under the plain language of Charter 55. The trial court disagreed and held the Project was properly approved, exempt from CEQA as a small facility, and no unusual circumstances established an exception to the CEQA exemption. DCOP timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first turned to the language and context of Charter 55 wherein real property dedicated to the City without an ordinance or statute explicitly guiding its management may be used for any public purpose deemed necessary by the City. Voter approval is only required where a project would “change the use or purpose” of a dedicated park. After reviewing the record, the Court held the Project did not change the use or nature of the park –the facility’s faux-tree would be installed in an existing stand of trees and the structure would be shrouded by native plants. The Court also found that the construction of the wireless facility would “clearly benefit park visitors” by providing greater access to 911 services. In sum, the Court deferred to the City’s interpretation of its Charter.

The Court rejected all of DCOP’s arguments that the project was erroneously approved as a Class 3 categorical exemption from CEQA.

The Court found that the Project qualified for the Class 3 exemption (CEQA Guidelines, § 15303), rejecting Petitioners’ claims that telecommunications are not explicitly listed in the statute. The Court noted that exemption categories are not exclusive and that the exemption is meant to apply to multiple types of small facilities. Here, the Project is roughly 523 square feet, most of which are faux tree branches. Substantial evidence supported the City’s conclusion that the Project was smaller than the examples listed in Section 15303 such as a store, motel, or family residence. Thus, the Project was properly a Class 3 exemption.

Second, the Court addressed DCOP’s claim that an unusual circumstances exception applied per CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2(c). The two-pronged test in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley, (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, provided that determining an unusual circumstance exists is a factual inquiry and the Court reviews this claim under the deferential substantial evidence standard of review. If there is evidence of an unusual circumstance, and no substantial evidence to the contrary, then the Court examines the record for evidence whether the unusual circumstance results in a potentially significant impact to the environment. In this second part of the Court’s review, the Court applies the fair argument standard of review. Here, DCOP failed to satisfy either of these standards.

The Court held that the Project’s location in a dedicated park was not an unusual circumstance as 37 other similar facilities existed in other dedicated parks in the City. In the State, many similar cell towers and reception boxes have been unsuccessfully challenged for being placed in parks and subsequently permitted. The record included sufficient evidence to show that the Project location was not an unusual circumstance.

Next, the Court rejected DCOP’s claim that the park was environmentally sensitive land. An exception exists where a project “may impact [] an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern where designated, precisely mapped, and officially adopted pursuant to law by federal, state, or local agencies.” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(a).) DCOP presented no evidence that the park was “designated” as an “environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern” by any federal, state, or local agency. The City’s general plan designation and zoning of the Project site as a park was insufficient to support such a finding. In fact, the record included a biological resource report created by the City for the project approval, which showed that the area where the Project was proposed for construction was mostly disturbed habitat.

The Court affirmed the trial court judgement.

Key Point:

The list of project types set forth in the Class 3 exemption is not exhaustive.  In evaluating whether a project is covered by the exemption, a court may consider whether the project is similar in size or scope to other project types listed in the exemption.

Second District Court of Appeal Finds Secondary Parking Impacts Exempt from CEQA Review, Encourages Project Area Contextualization

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

In Covina Residents for Responsible Development v. City of Covina, (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 712, the Second District Court of Appeal held that parking impacts caused by a project are exempt from CEQA review, per Public Resources Code section 21099. Additionally, the Court found that the City of Covina (City) properly tiered from a prior EIR for a specific plan where potential project-specific impacts were addressed in a project-specific analysis and mitigation measures were imposed to address identified impacts. Further, where impacts are statutorily exempt, as they were here for parking impacts, no further analysis is required in the tiered document. Finally, approval of a project tentative map is only appropriate where the local agency makes findings that the map is compatible with objectives, policies, general land uses and programs in the specific plan but need not show perfect conformity.

In 2012, project applicants submitted a proposal to the City of Covina (City) for the construction of a mixed-used urban residential infill project (Project) near the Covina Metrolink commuter rail station. The Project underwent numerous revisions and was repeatedly challenged for its alleged impacts on parking in and around the project site. Ultimately, the City approved the Project and issued a mitigated negative declaration (MND). Covina Residents for Responsible Development (CRRD) filed suit alleging the City was required to prepare an EIR, improperly tiered the MND from the specific plan EIR, and violated the Subdivision Map Act by failing to make necessary findings. CRRD’s principal CEQA challenge focused on the project’s allegedly inadequate parking.

The trial court denied the petition, finding (a) no substantial evidence supported CRRD’s claim that the parking shortage would result in environmental impacts; (b) parking impacts from the Project were exempt from environmental review under Public Resources Code section 21099; (c) the City properly tiered its environmental review from the specific plan EIR; and (d) the City did not violate the Subdivision Map Act. CRRD timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first addressed whether the alleged parking impacts are exempt from environmental review under Public Resources Code section 21099 subdivision (d)(1), which provides, “[a]esthetic and parking impacts of a residential, mixed-use residential, or employment center project on an infill site within a transit priority area shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment.” The Court concluded that parking impacts need not be addressed in the City’s environmental analysis because Section 21099 specifically exempted such analysis for infill sites within a transit priority area. The Court established that the Project was within a transit priority area and that the City had no obligation to analyze parking impacts caused by the Project.

The Court noted that the statutory intent of the bill was to address climate change and the state’s long term environmental goals and to build on prior statutes, including AB 32 and SB 375.

The Court then dismissed Petitioner’s claim that the MND improperly tiered from the specific plan EIR. Traffic impacts from a parking shortage related to an infill project, as discussed above, are exempt from CEQA review though were nevertheless adequately considered in the specific plan EIR.

Finally, the Court dismissed CRRD’s claim that the City’s findings relating to the consistency of the Project’s tentative map were not supported by substantial evidence. Government Code sections 66473.5 and 66474 require local agencies to make findings related to consistency with the specific plan and design of the project. Here, the Court determined the City adopted all necessary findings and CRRD failed to identify evidence in the record that the Project was incompatible with the specific plan.

Key Point:

Public Resources Code section 21099 exempts project parking impacts from CEQA review when the project is contextualized in an urban infill setting.

Where impacts are statutorily exempt, no further analysis is required in a tiered EIR.

Approval of a project tentative map is only appropriate where the local agency makes findings that the map is compatible with objectives, policies, general land uses and programs in the specific plan but need not show perfect conformity.

First District Court of Appeal Strikes Down Challenge to Categorically Exempt Project, Rejects Argument that Conditions of Approval Signal Significant Impacts

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

In Protect Telegraph Hill v. City and County of San Francisco (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 261, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court and upheld the City and County of San Francisco’s (“City”) approval of the construction of a three-story-over-basement, three-unit condominium and the restoration of an existing cottage on a 7,517-square-foot lot on the south side of Telegraph Hill (“Project”).

In September 2014, the San Francisco Planning Department (“Department”) determined that the Project was categorically exempt from CEQA. Subsequently, the Planning Commission approved a conditional use authorization for the Project. The plaintiffs appealed the Department’s decision exempting the Project from environmental review and the Planning Commission’s conditional use authorization to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (“Board”). Both the Planning Commission and the Board imposed conditions related to pedestrian safety and possible disruption of traffic on Telegraph Hill during construction. After the Board affirmed the Planning Commission’s decisions, the plaintiffs sued the City. The trial court ruled for the City.

On appeal, calling the plaintiffs’ argument an ipse dixit, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the fact that conditions of approval were imposed on the Project meant the Project would have a significant impact. The court explained that the conditions were intended to address the ordinarily anticipated inconvenience and danger associated with significant construction activity in a congested urban environment. The court found that the conditions were not adopted out of concern that the Project would have a significant environmental effect, given that the Department approved the categorical exemptions without qualifications.

Second, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that the project description was inadequate. The court found that County of Inyo v. City of Los Angeles (1977) 71 Cal.App.3d 185, the only authority on which the plaintiffs relied to support their argument, was inapposite because Inyo considered the adequacy of a project description for an EIR, and not a CEQA exemption. The court held that the project description was adequate because it met the requirements in the City’s Administrative Code, though it did not meet the specifications for a project description in an EIR set forth in the CEQA Guidelines section 15124.

Third, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the unusual circumstances exception applied in this case because the Project’s location and site constraints were “unequivocally rare.” The court found that substantial evidence in the record supported the City’s determination that the Project presented no unusual circumstances with respect to the nearby intersection, views, and the site topography.

Finally, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the City impermissibly approved the conditional use authorization because the Project was inconsistent with the general plan. The plaintiffs argued that the Project conflicted with one of the policies in the general plan, which protects access to vistas, because the Project would obscure the views from the stairway leading to Pioneer Park. The court explained that the policy directives contained in the San Francisco general plan are not strictly construed because the agency has discretion to interpret its own plans, citing San Francisco Tomorrow v. City and County of San Francisco (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 498.

Key Point:

When challenging the approval of categorically exempt projects on the basis of deficient project descriptions, it is imperative to cite to precedent which specifically governs categorical exemptions. Also, it is important to note that conditions of approval on a project from a lead agency do not indicate that the project has a significant impact per se.

General Plan Update Size Limit Not Likely to Cause Urban Decay, Local Commercial Real Estate Agent Letter “Speculative,” Not Substantial Evidence of a Fair Argument

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

In Visalia Retail, LP v. City of Visalia (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 1, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed a trial court judgment maintaining a general plan amendment and accompanying EIR limiting commercial tenants to 40,000 square feet of space. A letter from a local commercial real estate agent predicting that the size cap would cause grocers to refuse to locate in the neighborhood commercial centers leading to a “downward spiral of physical deterioration” was insufficient to support a fair argument of an environmental impact.

On October 14, 2014, Visalia City Council approved a final EIR for the City’s general plan update establishing a 40,000 square foot cap on tenants in neighborhood commercial zones. Visalia Retail, LP brought suit claiming that the potential for urban decay was not adequately addressed in the EIR. The trial court denied the petition. Visalia Retail timely appealed.

Appellant claimed that the EIR was insufficient for failing to consider the potential for urban decay as large stores would be discouraged from establishing themselves in the neighborhood under the new restriction on square footage. The Court, unconvinced, found that CEQA is focused on significant environmental effects, not purely economic impacts. Relying on Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 677, the Court found CEQA environmental review of potential for urban decay is only appropriate where there is a potential for physical deterioration. Absent such a showing, CEQA is satisfied.

The primary evidence of urban decay submitted by Appellant was a letter prepared by a local commercial real estate agent who claimed the 40,000 square foot cap would discourage grocers from locating in neighborhood commercial centers, “which will cause vacancies, which in turn will result in urban decay.” The real estate agency offered the following support for these claims: (1) the real estate agent was personally unaware of any grocers willing to build new stores under 40,000 square feet; (2) a “typical” large grocer requires at least 50,000 square feet to profit at any one site; (3) a recent line of 10,000 – 20,000 square foot stores was unsuccessful; and (4) three Visalia stores under 40,000 square feet went out of business.

The Court found the letter to be speculative and not rising to the level of substantial evidence on which a fair argument of urban decay could be predicated. First, the limit of the real estate agent’s personal knowledge did not preclude the existence of stores that may be willing to come into the area or have an atypical store size. Further, the fact that other stores were unsuccessful, some a quarter the size of the cap, was not evidence that stores will fail in the City in the future, especially absent discussion or explanation of why they failed. The letter demonstrated speculative causation and failed to show that urban decay would likely result from the cap.

Appellants also claimed the cap made the City’s general plan internally inconsistent by discouraging development in neighborhood commercial sites where the general plan encourages such infill. The Court, presuming the general plan amendment was correct under established precedent, clarified that “just because the general plan prioritizes infill development, avoiding urban sprawl, does not mean all of its policies must encourage all types of infill development. General plans must balance various interests and the fact that one stated goal must yield to another does not mean the general plan is fatally inconsistent.” Essentially, the general plan may give preference to infill that has a 40,000 square foot cap and still be internally consistent.

The Court affirmed the trial court judgement.

Key Point:

Evidence of economic impacts alone is insufficient to support a claim that a project will result in urban decay; urban decay need only be addressed by an EIR where there is potential for physical deterioration.

A single comment letter, unsupported by facts, explanation, or critical analysis, does not raise to the level of “substantial evidence of a fair argument” required by CEQA.

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

Friday, September 15th, 2017

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.