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Posts Tagged ‘historic sites’


Third District Echoes Pocket Protectors, Holds “Large Number” of Public Comments on Nontechnical Aesthetic Impacts Support Fair Argument

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

In Georgetown Preservation Society v. County of El Dorado (2018) 2018 Cal.App.LEXIS 1167, the Third District Court of Appeal held that conformity with the general plan does not insulate a project from CEQA review. Where a“large number” of public comments objected to the project for “nontechnical” aesthetic issues, there was a fair argument that the project could have a significant effect on the environment and the County improperly relied on a mitigated negative declaration (MND).

The project plans proposed to build a chain discount store in the historically registered Gold Rush-era town of Georgetown in El Dorado County (County) described by the court as a “quaint. . . hamlet.” The project consisted of a 9,100 square-foot Dollar General store and 12,400 square foot parking lot across three parcels on the unincorporated town’s main street (Project).

Comments from various community members, including a licensed architect, a city planner, a registered architect, and a landscape architect and restoration ecologist objected to the Project’s lack of conformity with the town’s aesthetic. Nonetheless, the County found that the Project would not impact the surrounding aesthetics “in ways not anticipated for lands designated by the General Plan” and was “substantially”consistent with the Historic Design Guide. The County further found that “[a]s designed and conditioned, project impacts would be less than significant” and approved the Project based on an MND. The Georgetown Preservation Society (Society) filed suit challenging this action.

The Society alleged that the County’s reliance on a MND was improper where public comments in the record supported a fair argument that the Project may have a significant aesthetic effect on the environment. The trial court, relying on Pocket Protectors v. City of Sacramento (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 903(Pocket Protectors), found that the Society’s evidence supported this claim but rejected the Society’s claims about traffic impacts, pedestrian safety, and “planning and zoning norms.”Accordingly, the trial court issued a writ of mandate compelling the County to require an EIR be prepared for the Project. The County timely appealed the decision.

Specifically, the County alleged that (1) the County’s finding that the Project complied with the planning and zoning rules via historic design review is entitled to deference and should be reviewed under a substantial evidence standard; (2) layperson public commentary does not establish a fair argument that the Project may cause substantial environmental impacts; and (3) the County’s failure to explicitly find the public comments unreliable should not preclude challenging the comments.

The Appellate Court first addressed the effect of historic design review and held that a planning or zoning finding conducted outside the requirements of CEQA does not provide a substitute for CEQA review. Instead, “the two different kinds of findings—a negative declaration under CEQA [and] a zoning or planning finding—answer[ed]different questions.” Following the rationale in Pocket Protectors, the Court held that design review does not always mitigate aesthetics, but instead is an independent decision that may aid the CEQA determination or “be entitled to greater deference…, but such [a] determination is no more than it purports to be and is not a CEQA determination.” Thus, “design review does not supplant or supersede CEQA.”

The Court dismissed the County’s argument analogizing this case to Bowman v. City of Berkeley (2004) 122 Cal.App.4th 572. Opponents of the Bowman project, a four-story, low-income housing project with retail on the ground floor and located on a busy street, requested that the project be reduced to three stories to better match the surrounding building heights. The court held that, because the construction of the project was subject to design review and approval prior to the issuance of building permits, the project would not result in aesthetic impacts.

Here, the Court dismissed the County’s claim that Bowman supported their position. Instead, the Court clarified, echoing Pocket Protectors, that the Bowman courtdid not hold a zoning determination about aesthetics obviates CEQA review nor that design review necessarily or always adequately addresses aesthetic impacts . . . it depends on the facts.” Further contrary to the County’s position, the facts of Bowman–changing a four-story building to three-stories in a busy area –were not analogous to the case here –placing a large chain store in a small, historic,and unincorporated town with a distinct character.

The Court then addressed the public comments submitted in opposition to the Project. While layperson comments lacking factual foundation or corroboration are generally dismissed,here the Court differentiated the facts from other cases. First, the evidence was not “a few stray comments” but “a large number of negative opinions”therefore “undermine[d] the argument that only a few individualized complainants [were] 
trying to thwart the [P]roject for personal reasons.” Specifically, the comments were from “interested people” and consistently said that the Project is “too big,” “too boxy,” or “monolithic” to blend in and its presence will damage the look and feel of the historic center.

Next, the objections to the Project’s aesthetic impacts concerned “nontechnical issues that [did] not require special expertise.” The Court reasoned that a “rational layperson familiar with the area could conclude a 9,100 square foot chain store spanning three lots may negatively impact the central district’s aesthetics” and it would be an “unduly narrow prism” if only comments that incorporated specific design standards into their text were considered. Thus, there was “sufficient evidence[] adduced to show this project in this location might significantly impair the central district’s unique and treasured Gold Rush character.”

Indeed, even where expert opinion is presented to the contrary of the lay person opinions, “public comments contradicted by undisputed experts does not eliminate the need for an EIR.”“Whether it likely will or will not have such an impact is a question that an EIR is designed to answer.” Thus, as was the case in Pocket Protectors, the Court’s consideration of layperson opinions only pertains to the question of if the“low-threshold fair argument test” is met.

The Court then turned to the County’s contention that it implicitly rejected the commenters’ credibility therefore the comments should be removed from the Court’s consideration. Again relying on Pocket Protectors and echoing the trial court, the Court held that public comments may not be categorically disregarded where the County made no determination as to their credibility. The Court held that “if there were grounds for rejecting commenter’s credibility,the County should have made explicit findings thereon.”

Notably, in a footnote the Court distinguished as inapplicable the recent holding of Jensenv. City of Santa Rosa (2018) 23 Cal.App.5th 877 for being factually distinguishable. That case involved non-expert opinion on technical noise studies. See our blog post on the holding here.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s holding.

Key Point:

Layperson comments on an aesthetic impact may support a fair argument where the impact involves nontechnical issues.

Conformity with the general plan and application of design guidelines does not insulate a project from CEQA review.

Layperson comments on a nontechnical impact may not be categorically disregarded without a specific finding as to their credibility.

Categorical Exemption Applies to Single Family Residence Project on Demolished Historical Resource Site

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

In Bottini v. City of San Diego (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 281, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that the City of San Diego (City) violated CEQA where it refused to rely on a categorical exemption and instead required that an EIR be prepared for a single family residence project (Project) on a vacant lot. Invoking the unusual circumstances exception, the City rejected the categorical exemption based on adverse impacts to a historical resource.  Earlier, the project applicant/property owner had lawfully demolished the Victorian-era cottage on the Project site. The Court concluded it was improper for the City to conduct retroactive environmental review premised on the cottage’s existence, and established that the baseline was the Project site without the cottage.

In 2011, the Bottini family bought the Project lot, the cottage on the site, and acquired the rights to a pending historical resource nomination in front of the City’s Historical Resources Board (Board). The Bottinis withdrew the nomination and asked the Board to issue a determination on the cottage’s eligibility for a historic designation. The Board initially found that the cottage ineligible for listing because the cottage had undergone too many alterations to meet applicable criteria. Following a public hearing and receipt of public comments, the Board declined to grant the cottage historical status. Local groups appealed this decision but those appeals were dismissed as untimely.

Later that year, the Bottinis requested that the City’s Neighborhood Code Compliance Division determine that the cottage was a nuisance under the City municipal code. The Division determined the cottage was uninhabitable to the point that no one should be allowed to occupy it and found it was a public nuisance in accordance with criteria set out in the City’s municipal code. As such, it was required to be demolished. The Bottinis bulldozed the cottage leaving an empty lot in its place.

In 2012, the Bottinis applied for a coastal development permit (CDP) to build a single-family home. City environmental staff determined the Project was categorically exempt from CEQA review as a new residential construction on a vacant lot. The La Jolla Community Planning Association and La Jolla Historical Society appealed the decision. The City Council, despite being informed by staff and the City Attorney that the Bottinis had followed the municipal code, remanded the project to the Planning Department to evaluate the Project with a January 2010 baseline—before the Bottinis owned the property and the cottage was demolished. The City Council further concluded that the Project was not categorically exempt from environmental analysis because, with the new baseline, the Project would have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances and adverse changes to a historical resource. The Bottinis filed suit alleging, among other things, that the City violated CEQA in this determination.

The trial court held that the Project was the construction of a single family home, not the demolition of the cottage. The trial court further determined that the baseline should have been set at the point when the application was submitted and the lot was vacant. On that basis, the trial court found the City abused its discretion in concluding the Project was not categorically exempt from CEQA review. The City appealed this decision.

The Appellate Court first addressed baseline standards as they apply to CEQA; “the baseline ‘normally’ consists of the physical environmental conditions in the vicinity of the project, as they exist at the time … environmental analysis is commenced.” Here, the already-demolished and non-existent cottage was not part of the existing conditions that would be affected by the Project. The Court also concluded that the Bottinis’ demolition of the cottage was permitted by the City’s municipal code.

The Court then held that a “project” for the purposes of CEQA is the “whole of an action” and may not be segmented to avoid review. With this in mind, the demolition permit was still a separate project because it served a separate purpose than the Project—to preserve the health and safety of the City by removing a nuisance. Neither the demolition permit nor the Project application referred to or relied on one another.

The Court highlighted that all parties conceded that the City’s issuance of the demolition permit is a ministerial action not subject to CEQA. CEQA specifically provides that it only applies to discretionary projects—projects over which the lead agency may influence the plans and environmental impacts. The demolition permit was therefore outside the scope of the City Council’s CEQA review.

Finally, the Court established that no exception to the categorical exemption applied here. With properly defined Project parameters and a properly considered Project baseline, it was clear that substantial evidence did not support the City Council’s conclusion. There was no historical resource to be affected and no unusual circumstances making the categorical exemption improper.

Considering the above, the Court affirmed the trial court’s holding.

Key Point:

A categorical exception is properly applied to a single family home construction project where a historical resource on the site has been demolished prior to project application.

Fact-Based Residents’ Comments Substantial Evidence Meriting CEQA Review, Special Commission’s Findings Substantial Evidence Meriting CEQA Review

Monday, July 16th, 2018

In Protect Niles v. City of Fremont (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 1129, the First District Court of Appeal held that the Niles Historical Architectural Review Board’s (HARB) factual findings and members’ collective opinions about the compatibility of a project with the Niles Historic Overlay District rose to the level of substantial evidence. Further, fact-based comments in the record by residents, city officials and staff, and professional consultants, notwithstanding a traffic impact study to the contrary, amounted to substantial evidence supporting a fair argument of a significant traffic impact.

Niles Historic Overlay District (HOD) is an officially-designated historic district within the City of Fremont (City) subject to guidelines and regulations to maintain the distinctive look and character of the area. Projects in the HOD area are initially proposed to HARB for review in light of HOD guidelines. HARB then recommends approval or denial of the project to the City Council.

In 2014, Real Parties in Interest Doug Rich and Valley Oak Partners (Valley Oak) submitted an application to build 80-90 residential townhouses on a vacant six-acre lot (Project). HARB recommended that the Project be denied because it “would be incompatible in terms of siting, massing, materials, textures, and colors with existing development in the Niles [HOD].” Amidst critical comments, the City approved the Project with a mitigated negative declaration (MND). Protect Niles, a community action group, filed suit alleging the City improperly relied on the MND.

The trial court found substantial evidence in the record supported a fair argument of significant impacts on community aesthetics and traffic and set aside the Project approval until an EIR was completed. Valley Oak timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first established that, despite Protect Niles’ claims to the contrary, the appeal was not moot. Valley Oak had already submitted a revised Project application and the City had published a draft EIR therefore “voluntarily complied” with CEQA. However, this was not tantamount to Valley Oak withdrawing the original Project or abandoning its claims.

The Court reiterated extensive precedent that CEQA must be interpreted to afford the fullest possible protection to the environment. Further, the Court held that an EIR is required where there is substantial evidence in the record, contradicted or not, supporting a fair argument that a project may have a significant effect.

There were numerous comments within the record that the Project did not fit the aesthetic of the neighborhood. Per the CEQA Guidelines, an aesthetic impact exists where a project has the potential to substantially degrade the existing visual character or quality of the site and its surroundings. Aesthetic impacts are context-specific. Here the record contained opinions of the HARB commissioners and Niles residents that the Project’s height, density, and architectural style were inconsistent with the Niles HOD. These comments “differed sharply as to the Project’s aesthetic compatibility with the historic district.” The comments were not conjecture or speculative but grounded in observations of inconsistencies with the prevailing building heights and architectural styles of the HOD. Thus, the Court found there was substantial evidence of a potential adverse aesthetic impact on the Niles HOD. The City’s reliance on a MND was improper.

The Court also criticized the traffic impact analysis and determined that substantial evidence of a fair argument required preparation of an EIR. The City had conducted a professional traffic study concluding the impacts would fall below the City’s threshold of significance. Despite this, the Court found the study was shortsighted for presuming that drivers follow the speed limit and criticized the City for failing to implement the study’s mitigation measure recommending a left-turn pocket lane. The record contained critical comments by residents, City officials and staff, and professional consultants based on their personal experiences driving in the area. The Court found, notwithstanding the traffic study, these fact-based comments constituted substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the Project will have significant adverse traffic impacts.

The Court affirmed, directing the City to prepare an EIR if it were to go through with the original Project design.

Key Point:

Personal observations on nontechnical issues can constitute substantial evidence of a fair argument of a significant environmental impact. Specifically, residents’ observations of environmental conditions where they live and commute may constitute substantial evidence even if they contradict the conclusions of a professional study.

Private Attorney General Doctrine Attorney’s Fees Proper For Party Successful in Invalidating Specific Plan Variances

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

In La Mirada Neighborhood Association v. City of Los Angeles (2018) 22 Cal.App.5th 1149, the Second District Court of Appeal held that attorneys’ fees were properly awarded per California Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 (Section 1021.5) where the challengers were successful in conferring a significant benefit in the public interest—invalidating six of eight specific plan variances approved for a single project.

Under Section 1021.5, a trial court, at its discretion, may award attorneys’ fees to a successful party that acts as the catalyst that motivates a public agency to alter its behavior. A successful party confers a significant benefit on the general public if it enforces an important right affecting the public interest, and that enforcement benefits a large number of individuals. Further, a successful party is not precluded from seeking attorneys’ fees if, after obtaining a judgment that a project violates the zoning laws then in existence, a city later changes the zoning laws.

The City of Los Angeles (City) approved a Target Superstore Project, including eight variances from the applicable specific plan. These variances excused the Project from the specific plan’s height restrictions, many design element requirements, parking space limits, delivery time restrictions, and home delivery requirements. La Mirada Neighborhood Association (La Mirada), a community association, filed suit.

The trial court partially granted and partially denied La Mirada’s writ petition; six of the eight special plan variances were found invalid because they were not supported by substantial evidence. Only the parking variance and home delivery variance were upheld. The judgment also authorized La Mirada to seek attorneys’ fees. La Mirada moved for attorneys’ fees pursuant to Section 1021.5, the “private attorney general doctrine.” The trial court granted $793,817.50 to La Mirada for success in litigating the matter and conferring a significant benefit on the City’s residents. Target and the City appealed this award.

The Appellate Court opined that, while generally parties pay their own attorneys’ fees, Section 1021.5 is an exception to this rule to encourage parties to “pursue meritorious public interest litigation vindicating important rights and benefitting a broad swath of citizens.” Therefore, a party recovering attorneys’ fees must establish “(1) it is a successful party in an action, (2) the action has resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest, (3) the action has conferred a significant benefit on the general public or a large class of persons, and (4) an award of attorney fees is appropriate in light of the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement, or of enforcement by one public entity against another public entity.”

The Court first established that La Mirada is a “successful party.” Under Section 1021.5, a successful party is one that “achieves its objectives.” Contrary to Target’s claim, a party need not receive a final judgement in a case, need not be successful on all claims, and need not personally benefit from a judgement. Instead, the Court stated, the definition is broad and measured by “the impact of the action.” Essentially, a party is successful where the lawsuit serves as a “catalyst that motivate[s] the defendant to alter its behavior.” Here, La Mirada was successful where six of the eight variances were set aside and the lawsuit motivated the City to amend the special plan to allow the Target Superstore. The lawsuit “directly prompt[ed] a legislative fix;” La Miranda was a successful party.

The Court then established that La Mirada conferred a significant benefit on the public in requiring the City to adhere to the law. This determination is a function of “(1) the significance of the benefit, and (2) the size of the class receiving [the] benefit.” The Court stated that “a benefit need not be monetary to be significant.” Rather, a party may secure a nonpecuniary benefit to the public, including the benefit of the proper enforcement of the law, if it can “show that the law being enforced furthers a significant policy.” Here, the Court found that the standard was clearly met because La Mirada’s lawsuit resulted in (1) the City adhering to legal requirements for granting variances, which the California Supreme Court has consistently recognized the importance of preserving the integrity of zoning laws as an important public policy, and (2) benefited a large group of individuals, as all residents of the City “benefit from the trial court’s ruling that holds the City Council’s zoning decisions to the letter and spirit of the Municipal Code.”

Target claimed that La Mirada was not successful because the validity of the Project under the subsequently-amended specific plan is still pending. Target claimed that La Mirada’s objective was to stop the Project from ever being built and that the City may still prevail in obtaining a ruling that the Project is valid under the new zoning law. The Court found that this argument was both factually inaccurate and legally untenable. First, the Court explained that La Mirada’s stated goal in filing the writ petition was to set aside and invalidate the eight variances granted by the City and to enjoin further construction of the Project contingent on the validity of the eight variances. The Court stated that “[a]t no point did [La Mirada] allege that their writ petitions were aimed at stopping the Project forevermore.”

Secondly, the Court explained that success under Section 1021.5 “does not require a showing that the successful party put the entire dispute to rest for once and all.” In fact, the code authorizes “interim attorney fee awards” for successes conferring significant benefits before a matter is finalized. In this case, the Court explained that, since the trial court’s judgment that the specific plan variances were invalid was left intact after the first appeal, the judgment is more final than the typical interim ruling. It can be considered “interim only against the backdrop of the broader litigation between the parties, which continues only because the City amended the zoning laws and thereby promoted a new round of petitions challenging the Project” during this appeal. Further, the Court explained, a Court may only grant writ relief after applying the law in existence at the time of its decision. Target’s argument, on the other hand, would require parties to succeed under the law in existence at time and “as it might be amended in the future.” The Court, however, declined “to define success as requiring one to achieve the impossible.”

The Court held the attorneys’ fee award to La Mirada did not demonstrate an abuse of the trial court’s discretion.

Key Point:

A party is “successful” for the purposes of being granted an award of attorney’s fees under the private attorney general doctrine where it achieves at least a portion of the stated goals of bringing the petition.

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

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.

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.