Thomas Law Blog

CEQA Updates

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

Posts Tagged ‘small facility’


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.

Sixth District Court of Appeal Upholds Application of CEQA Exemption for Small Facility —Utility Extension In the Absence of Petitioner Carrying Its Burden to Demonstrate the Location, Cumulative Impact, or Unusual Circumstances Exceptions Applied

Monday, February 5th, 2018

In Aptos Residents Association v. County of Santa Cruz (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 1039, the Sixth District Court of Appeal found a Class 3 categorical exemption for “small structures” applied to multiple small projects considered as a group. The Court held the County of Santa Cruz (County) acted properly in reviewing a series of CEQA-exempt utility pole installations individually and as an aggregate project.

Real Party in Interest Crown Castle Inc.’s (Crown) project application proposed installation of multiple microcell distributed antenna systems (DAS) in rural County areas (Project). These installations are two-foot by one-foot antennas attached to existing utility poles operated by a single wireless carrier. Crown submitted each microcell system proposal in a separate permit application. However, Crown presented, and the County considered, the installations together as a single project. The County approved the Project, finding the DAS systems exempt from CEQA as categorically exempt “small facilities.” Aptos Resident Association (ARA) filed suit against the County.

ARA contended that the Project was not exempt from CEQA because the County improperly segmented the Project and the Project fell within multiple exceptions to the exemption based on its location (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(a)), cumulative impact (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2 (b)), and unusual circumstances (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(c)). The trial court disagreed and upheld the County’s approval of the Project. ARA timely appealed the decision.

The Appellate Court held the County properly found the project to be categorically exempt from CEQA as a Class 3 exemption (CEQA Guidelines, § 15303) and thus, no environmental review was required. Class 3 exemptions include projects that propose the construction of limited small facilities or structures, as well as the installation of small equipment and facilities in small structures, incorporating electrical, gas, and utility extensions. Relying on Robinson v. City and County of San Francisco (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 950, the Court found that substantial evidence supported the County’s Class 3 exemption because the Project constituted “the installation of small new equipment on numerous existing small structures in scattered locations.”

The Court then found ARA’s segmenting claim lacked merit where the County “considered the entire group of microcell units to be the Project.” Although Crown filed separate permit applications for the individual microcell units and the County issued separate permits and exemptions for each unit, the Project was considered as a group. Rejecting the segmentation argument, the Court noted that “[t]he nature of the paperwork required for approval of the project is immaterial.”

The Court also denied ARA’s claim that the Project would fall within a cumulative impact exception (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(b)) because other cell carriers would mirror Crown’s microcell project’s approval within the County, thus increasing the visual impact. The court found ARA’s argument baseless and speculative where evidence in the record suggested to the contrary. The Northern California Joint Pole Association controlled access to the utility poles; access was only available if all of those using the pole agreed and the pole would not be overloaded by additional equipment. Thus, the possibility of additional installations on the same poles was remote.

The Court then found the location exception (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(a)) to the Class 3 exemption did not apply. The location exception is restricted to projects that “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.” The County Code designating the area as “rural” and “residential agricultural” did not have any language in the statement of purpose designating the area as an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern. ARA presented no evidence that Project site qualified.

Finally, the Court found that the County did not abuse its discretion by finding no exception based on unusual circumstances. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(c).) Relying on Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, the Court held ARA did not meet the burden of showing a reasonable possibility the activity would have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances. ARA produced no evidence that it is unusual for small structures to be used to provide utility extensions in a rural area, or in areas zoned residential agricultural.

Having dismissed each of ARA’s contentions on appeal, the Court affirmed the trial court and found the DAS installations were properly exempt from CEQA.

Key Point:

When challenging CEQA exemptions, the burden lies on petitioners to show clear and unrefuted evidence that the classification was improper; speculation and hearsay are insufficient.

Further, CEQA allows the exemption for small facilities to apply to multiple small facilities at once within a project. Agriculture zoning is inadequate to successfully claim the location exception, facts must show that the project site is actually “an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern.”