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Posts Tagged ‘substantial evidence’


Third District Holds City’s Explanation and Substantial Evidence Supported Traffic Impact Conclusion, Discharge of Writ of Mandate Proper

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019

In reviewing whether the City of Sacramento complied with a peremptory writ of mandate issued by the Sacramento Superior Court (East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City v. City of Sacramento (2016) 5Cal.App.5th 281 (ESPLC I)), the Third District Court of Appeal ruled that the City had explained and provided substantial evidence supporting both its traffic threshold and its conclusion that the traffic impact was less than significant. (East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City v. City of Sacramento (2018) Cal.App. Case No. C085551.)  In ESPLC I, the Court faulted the City’s use of a General Plan threshold because, the Court concluded, the threshold was not supported by substantial evidence.

Real Parties in Interest, Encore McKinley Village, LLC, proposed a 328-unit residential development (Project), which is now 80% built out. As pertinent here, the Project EIR recognized that the Project potentially impacted four intersections in the core and, utilizing the level of service (LOS) standard from the City’s General Plan, concluded that there would be no significant impacts to traffic. The City of Sacramento (City) reviewed the Project application, certified the Project EIR, and approved the Project. East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City (ESPLC) filed suit.

The trial court denied the petition for writ of mandate, finding the EIR sufficient. ESPLC appealed. In ESPLC I, the Court of Appeal held that the EIR was sufficient except for its reliance on the General Plan LOS standards without explanation. Specifically, the City was in error in relying on the LOS standards as an automatic determinant that traffic effects at the four intersections in the core were not significant. In doing so, the City failed to provide substantial evidence to support the finding of no significant traffic impact. “The fact that a particular environmental effect meets a particular threshold cannot be used as an automatic determinant that the effect was or was not significant.” Accordingly, the Court remanded the case.

The trial court then entered judgement in favor of ESPLC and issued a preemptory writ of mandate to rescind and set aside the EIR’s certification until the City brought the transportation and circulation sections of the EIR into compliance with CEQA. The City recirculated and certified a revised EIR. The trial court found the revised EIR was sufficient and discharged the writ. ESPLC appealed the order discharging the writ.

ESPLC alleged that the City failed to provide substantial evidence to support the conclusion that the Project’s impacts on traffic at the four intersections in the core are insignificant. ESPLC claimed that it was insufficient to merely provide evidence and an explanation to support the choice of threshold of significance for traffic impacts. ESPLC contended that the City was instead required to prepare a new traffic study to support its determination. The City responded that, among other things, the appeal should be dismissed as untimely.

Here, the Appellate Court held that ESPLC I only asked that the City provide an explanation and substantial evidence for the City’s determination to use the flexible LOS standards. The Court then found that it was to review for abuse of discretion because compliance with a writ is, for all practical purposes, an attempt to comply with CEQA.  

The Court found the revised EIR provided substantial evidence supporting the City’s determination that there would be no significant traffic impacts at the challenged intersections in the core. The revised EIR provided an explanation of how the flexible LOS policy promotes infill development and achieves environmental benefits by reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas emissions. Further, the revised EIR explained that vehicle delay is not a physical impact on the environment and is preferable to roadway expansion as the latter increases VMT. These conclusions were supported by staff opinions, legislation, studies of flexible LOS, evidence of VMT in the area, and comments from Regional Transit, the Air District, and Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

ESPLC contended that the revised EIR should have studied and quantified the alleged reductions in VMT and greenhouse gas emissions in the Project area. The Court held that it was only required that the City provide “sufficient information and analysis to enable the public to discern the analytic route the agency traveled from evidence to action.” Because the City provided sufficient explanation and substantial evidence to support its selection of the threshold of significance for the traffic impacts, the Court affirmed the judgment.

The Court further established that the appeal was not untimely. A post judgment order, like that issued by the trial court discharging the writ, extends the time for filing a notice of appeal. Relying on City of Carmel-by-the-Sea v. Board of Supervisors (1982) 137 Cal.App.3d 964, the Court held that an order relating to the enforcement of a judgment is appealable. Thus, the discharge order, finding the return to the writ adequate, was an appealable post judgement order and subject to reconsideration. As such, the appeal was timely.

As a final point, the Court granted the City’s motion to strike ESPLC’s argument that the City admitted the traffic impacts were significant as defined by the 2030 General Plan because it could have been raised earlier and ESPLC failed to show why the issue was raised for the first time in their reply brief. The Court further noted that adoption of a 2035 General Plan mooted arguments based on the 2030 General Plan.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s discharge of the writ of mandate.

Note: This case is currently unpublished. Pursuant to California Rules of Court, the deadline to request publication is 20 days from filing –Wednesday, January 16, 2019.

Supreme Court Holds Inadequate Effort to Explain Nature and Magnitude of Significant Environmental Effect Subject to De Novo Review, Substitution Clause and Sufficient Guidance Make Mitigation Measures Not Vague

Friday, December 28th, 2018

In Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (2018) 2018 Cal.LEXIS 9831, the California Supreme Court held that, where the description of an environmental impact “lacks analysis or omits the magnitude of the [significant] impact,” the reviewing court applies the de novo standard of review.  The substantial evidence standard of review is reserved for wholly factual questions; where a question presented is both legal and factual, the issue shall be reviewed de novo. The Court also found that a substitution clause in a mitigation measure did not constitute deferred mitigation, a mitigation measure that only partially reduced a significant impact did not violate CEQA, and mitigation measures involving HVAC installation and tree selection were adequately enforceable.

The proposed project includes a specific plan and specific plan update covering 942-acres that together contemplate the construction of about 2,500 single and multifamily homes, commercial and recreation areas, and dedicated open space (Project) into a master-planned “pedestrian friendly” community near the unincorporated area of Friant in northern Fresno County (County). The County adopted Project alternative 3 (Northeast Development Configuration, the “environmentally superior alternative”), certified the EIR, and approved the Project.  At the same time, the County adopted a mitigation monitoring program, which noted compliance would be enforced through subsequent conditions on future discretionary actions, including use permits and tentative subdivision maps.

The Sierra Club, Revive San Joaquin, and League of Women Voters of Fresno filed suit alleging that the project approval violated CEQA. The trial court denied the petition for writ of mandate and noted that “it may not exercise its independent judgement on the evidence, but must determine only whether the act or decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Sierra Club timely appealed the decision pertinent to the air quality impacts and certain mitigation measures.

In May 2014, the Fifth District Court of Appeal held that the EIR was inadequate because it failed to include an analysis that “correlated the [P]roject’s emissions of air pollutants to its impact on human health,” only provided air quality impact mitigation measures that were “vague, unenforceable, and lack[ed] specific performance criteria,” and failed to support the claim that the mitigation measures would “substantially” reduce the Project’s significant air quality impacts. The Appellate Court reversed the trial court judgement on those grounds only and directed the preparation of a revised EIR. Real Party, Friant Ranch LP, appealed the Appellate Court decision.

The Supreme Court granted review on the issues of the air quality impact findings and conclusions in the EIR as well as the adequacy of certain mitigation measures.

The Court held that an EIR must (1) include “sufficient detail” to enable readers to understand and to “consider meaningfully” the issues that the proposed project raises, and, (2) make a “reasonable effort to substantively connect” the Project’s significant air quality impacts to likely health consequences.

Further, the Court held a lead agency has not impermissibly deferred mitigation measures where it leaves open the possibility of employing measures consistent with evolving technology nor are such measures impermissibly vague where it can be demonstrated in “good faith” that the measures will be at least partially effective.

The Court first recognized the familiar distinction between the standard of judicial review applicable to claims that the agency failed to proceed in the manner CEQA provides as compared to claims that the agency reached factual conclusions unsupported by substantial evidence: “[w]hile we determine de novo whether the agency has employed the correct procedures, ‘scrupulously enforc[ing] all legislatively mandated CEQA requirements’ [ ] we accord greater deference to the agency’s substantive factual conclusions.” The Court then recognized that “the question whether an agency has followed proper procedures is not always so clear” especially when the issue is “whether the discussion sufficiently performs the function of facilitating ‘informed agency decisionmaking and informed public participation.’”

Relying heavily on Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of University of California (1988) 47 Cal.3d 376 (Laurel Heights I), the Court found that the standard of review for the adequacy of an EIR’s discussion of certain impacts is subject to de novo review where “a description of an environmental impact is insufficient because it lacks analysis or omits the magnitude of the impact is not a substantial evidence question.”

The Court provided several examples and prior decisions addressing procedural issues subject to the de novo standard of review:

  • Did the agency provide sufficient notice and opportunity to comment on a draft EIR? (Fall River Wild Trout Foundation v. County of Shasta (1999) 70 Cal.App.4th 482, 491-493; Pub. Resources Code, § 21092; Guidelines, § 15087.)
  • Did the agency omit the required discussion of alternatives or consider a reasonable range of alternatives? (Guidelines, § 15126.6; Laurel Heights I.)
  • Did the agency fail to reasonably describe the nature and magnitude of a project’s significant environmental effect?  (Berkeley Keep Jets Over the Bay Com. v. Board of Port Cmrs. (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 1344, 1371; Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Assn. of Governments (2017) 3 Cal.5th 497, 514–515.)
  • Did the agency omit material necessary to informed decision making (Kings County Farm Bureau v. City of Hanford (1990) 221 Cal.App.3d 692, 712; East Peninsula Ed. Council, Inc. v. Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School Dist. (1989) 210 Cal.App.3d 155, 174)
  • Did the agency respond to comments? (Rural Landowners Assn. v. City Council (1983) 143 Cal.App.3d 1013, 1021–1023.)

The Court contrasted these with factual issues like the decision to use a particular methodology and reject another.

Similar to the facts in Laurel Heights I, the Court found that, while the EIR’s conclusion as to the impact may have been correct, the analysis and discussion of the significant impact was deficient as an EIR must “reasonably describe the nature and magnitude of the adverse effect.” The core purpose of an EIR is to inform the public and decision-making body, regardless of the conclusion drawn. In certifying the EIR, the County failed to disclose the analytic route that it took in making its decision relating to the Project’s significant air quality impact. This was a CEQA procedural issue as the Court determined it resulted in noncompliance with CEQA’s information disclosure provisions. Thus, the Court held, de novo review was proper.  

Applying the de novo standard of review to the EIR’s analysis of the Project’s significant air quality impacts, the Court found that the EIR’s discussion failed to correlate health impacts with the Project’s air emissions as required by CEQA Guidelines section 15126.2. It was insufficient that the EIR provided a “general discussion of adverse health effects associated with certain Project-related pollutants,” recognized “Fresno County suffers from the ‘most severe’ ozone problems,” and acknowledged that a more detailed analysis on health impacts was “not possible at this early planning phase.” Critically, the EIR failed to indicate the anticipated ozone emission levels as a result of the Project. The analysis “[was] not meaningful …because the reader ha[d] no idea how much ozone [would] be produced.”  The Court held that the EIR’s discussion of the Project’s significant air quality impacts was deficient; it must give a sense of the “nature and magnitude of the health and safety problems…resulting from the Project as required by the CEQA Guidelines … [or] explain why it was not feasible to provide an analysis.”

The Court found that briefs from the County, the Real Party, and amici curiae clarifying the connection between air emissions information in the EIR and health impacts information in the EIR were “irrelevant.” Relying on Vineyard, the Court held that the question is not whether the Project’s impacts can be clearly explained, but whether they were at the time that the Project was approved. The County’s plan to require Health Risk Assessments as part of future development projects approved within the specific plan area was also irrelevant where the issue was the sufficiency of the EIR’s discussion of the Project’s significant air quality impacts, not the sufficiency of future studies.

Turning to the Project’s mitigation measures, the Court found that the EIR was incorrect to claim a mitigation measure would “substantially reduce air quality impacts” without factual support.

The Court next held that a mitigation measure is not deficient where it leaves open the opportunity to add or substitute other measures when they become technologically available. The Court established that this kind of substitution clause “should be encouraged….and [was] not an impermissible deferral.”

The Court also held that Project mitigation measures relating to HVAC systems and tree-planting were not impermissibly vague. The first identified the anticipated cost for a HVAC catalyst that was considered feasible and detailed the HVAC brand or equivalent that could be installed. The latter required tree varieties be planted that would shade 25% within 20 years of planting, which “provide[d] sufficient guidance for selecting appropriate shade trees.” Contrary to the Appellate Court’s holding, it was of no issue that the burden of enforcement of mitigation measures was on the County as the EIR and Specific Plan was not impermissibly vague on the means of enforcement.

Finally, the Court held that a lead agency does not violate CEQA for approving a project though the environmental impacts are not reduced to less than significant levels. CEQA is satisfied where a project’s mitigation measures only partially reduced significant impacts “as long as the public is able to identify any adverse health impacts clearly, and the EIR’s discussion of those impacts includes relevant specifics about the environmental changes attributable to the project.” In such a situation, unmitigated effects must be outweighed by the project’s benefits—whether economic, social, technological, or other, as documented in a statement of overriding considerations. 

Key Point:

“[A] sufficient discussion of significant impacts requires not merely a determination of whether an impact is significant, but some effort to explain the nature and magnitude of the impact.” The determination whether an EIR achieves its informational purpose by providing such details is subject to de novo review.

Third District Court of Appeal Gives Great Deference in Quasi-Judicial Agency Decision Not to Delist Coho Salmon, Ending Decades-Long Dispute

Friday, January 5th, 2018

In Central Coast Forest Association v. Fish and Game Commission (2018) 18 Cal. App. 5th 1191, the California Third District Court of Appeal found the California Fish and Game Commission (Commission) was correct to deny a petition to delist coho salmon from state protection under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). Deferring to the scientific expertise of the Commission, the Court held there was substantial evidence to support the decision where petitioner’s arguments rested purely on speculation.

To delist a species under CESA, the Commission must find a petition is warranted and, if so, determine if the action to list or delist is warranted. The Commission bases these initial and secondary findings on highly-technical and scientific information from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The coho salmon in southern San Francisco/Santa Cruz County have been a CESA-listed endangered species since 1995. In 2004, the Commission expanded the listing’s parameters and delineated coho salmon north of Punta Gorda as a threatened species and coho salmon south of Punta Gorda as an endangered species. Central Coast Forest Association and Big Creek Lumber Company (Petitioners) sought delisting of the southern coho salmon. Petitioners alleged the fish were not endangered species as there were never wild, native salmon in the region; and if there were, they were destroyed by unfavorable environmental conditions. Further, the salmon present are solely sustained by hatchery plants, and as such, are not wild or native to California.

The Commission considered and denied Petitioners’ delisting petition in 2005 and again in 2007 for failing to contain sufficient scientific information. Petitioners twice failed to gain an order from the Superior Court overturning the decisions. Upon appeal, the California Supreme Court remanded the matter to the Third District Court of Appeal.

In reviewing, the Court focused on the sufficiency of the evidence and the deference they award to such determinations. Petitioners were required to present sufficient information to indicate the delisting may be warranted, information that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that there was a “substantial possibility” delisting could occur. Evidence is sufficient only if it is material, credible, supports the petition, and, when weighed against the Commission’s written report and any comments received, is strong enough to indicate that delisting may be justified.

Where the Commission’s decision to delist species is quasi-judicial, a higher deference is awarded to Commission findings. Specifically, the Commission’s technical and scientific resources and its legally wide discretion in decision-making makes the Court affirm the decision where the weight of the evidence is clearly justified or unclear. The Court will only reverse the decision where the evidence clearly weighs against it.

The Court examined the Commission’s evidence and Petitioner’s evidence regarding coho salmon’s historical existence in the contested area; including archaeological Native American middens, historical newspaper articles, hatchery records, drought and flood records, historical environmental factors, and genetic evidence. The Court found the Commission’s evidence was sufficient to determine Petitioner’s delisting petition unwarranted. The Commission showed that coho salmon are native to the contested area by genetically sequencing and comparing extant salmon with salmon museum specimens collected in 1895 from four adjacent streams in Santa Cruz County.

The Commission’s evidence also showed the sustained coho salmon population is not the result of hatchery planting. Historic hatchery output was sporadic and small in the southern San Francisco region, therefore the current population was not likely descended from local stock and no genetic evidence showed the current population is descended from out-of-state stock. The Court noted that even if existing populations were bolstered by local non-wild hatchery fish, these fish would genetically be considered California-native hatchery fish, and thus would be protected by the CESA.

Ultimately, the Court dismissed Petitioners’ evidence for it was “circumstantial” where they were “pick[ing] out bits of information that appear to substantiate their claim.” Thus, the Commission’s decision was appropriate where Petitioners’ claims were the product of “no scientifically credible data” and “[w]hat the petitioners call ‘evidence’ is actually persuasive writing, not valid scientific evidence.”

Answering technical questions posed by the Supreme Court, the Court found that a species “range” for consideration, per the Department of the Interior interpretation, is wherever the species is found, not only where it is known or historically known to be. Further, a portion of a listed species may only be delisted where it is individually “carved out” as a separate species, unlike what was petitioned for here.

Because the Commission has highly technical knowledge and delegated authority to list and delist endangered species, the Court affirmed the Commission decision to deny the delisting petition.

Key Point:

Where a quasi-judicial agency decision is challenged, the Court will give great deference to the decision, affirming where evidence is sufficient or unclear to support the decision. Sufficient evidence to the contrary is where credible, scientific based evidence outweighs the agency’s evidence.

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.

Substantial Evidence Test Applies to Subsequent Environmental Review After a Negative Declaration Has Been Adopted for a Project

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

In Abatti v. Imperial Irrigation District (2012) 2012 Cal.App. LEXIS 496, the court considered whether the substantial evidence, rather than the “fair argument,” test applies to determine whether further environmental review is warranted for a subsequent approval where the agency has initially adopted a negative declaration for the project.

In 2006, the irrigation district adopted an “Equitable Distribution Plan” to address the allocation of water in times of shortage, and concurrently approved a negative declaration, which concluded that the plan would not have a significant effect on the environment. The irrigation district then adopted implementing regulations in 2007, and adopted additional regulations in 2008, along with an environmental compliance report, which relied on CEQA Guidelines section 15162 to find that the 2006 negative declaration adequately addressed impacts, and no further CEQA review was required. A group of property owners challenged the 2008 regulations, arguing that an EIR should have been prepared because the regulations substantially changed the way water would be allocated. They asserted that the regulations specifically gave higher priority to geothermal users as opposed to agricultural users.

The court first considered whether it had jurisdiction in light of the fact that appellants had dismissed several non-CEQA claims without prejudice prior to the trial court’s decision on the CEQA claim. The court concluded in the affirmative, finding that a party may appeal from a judgment rendered on a particular claim on a case, regardless of whether certain other claims have been dismissed without prejudice, provided no claims remain pending between the parties.

On the merits, the court first rejected the petitioners’ argument that CEQA Guidelines section 15162 was an invalid regulation. Section 15162 provides that, after an agency has certified an EIR or negative declaration, no subsequent EIR is required unless certain circumstances occur. This section of the Guidelines implements Public Resources Code section 21166, which refers to EIRs, but not negative declarations. The appellate court rejected the petitioners’ challenge, relying on Benton v. Board of Supervisors (1991) 226 Cal.App.3d 1467, which upheld application of the standards for determining when a subsequent EIR is required for a project that has previously been reviewed when the original CEQA document was a negative declaration.

The appellate court proceeded to apply the substantial evidence test to assess the irrigation district’s determination that the 2008 regulations did not represent a substantial change in the project requiring additional CEQA review. The court found that substantial evidence supported the irrigation district’s determination. A comparison of the 2008 regulations with the pre-existing regulations showed that they were substantially similar and would not, in fact, change the priority preferences in case of water shortage, as petitioners had claimed.

Key Point:

This case affirms an agency’s ability to rely on a negative declaration for subsequent actions related to the project where substantial evidence supports the agency determination that the subsequent action has no new environmental impacts. Of particular note, the court rejected the petitioners’ attempt to characterize Benton as an “outlier” case. Instead the court upheld Benton, noting that numerous courts have agreed with that court’s conclusion that Guidelines section 15162 applies in determining whether further environmental review is warranted where the agency has initially adopted a negative declaration.

Written By: Tina Thomas and Amy Higuera
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For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

Court Orders Partial Publication of Consol. Irrigation Dist. v. City of Selma (2012) __ Cal.App.4th __

Monday, March 19th, 2012

On March 9, 2012, the Fifth Appellate District ordered a portion of its decision in Consol. Irrigation Dist. v. City of Selma (2012) __ Cal.App.4th __ (2012 Cal. App. LEXIS 277) published. Specifically, the Court ordered all but Sections I.A., III., IV.C., IV.D., V., and VI. of DISCUSSION published. The portions of the opinion ordered published relate to augmenting the administrative record, the irrigation district’s standing to file the CEQA action, and the credibility of evidence used to establish a fair argument under CEQA. The sections of the decision discussing the substantive application of the fair argument test where not ordered published.

With respect to the trial court’s decision to augment the record, the Court applied the substantial evidence standard of review. The trial court determined that the petitioner’s declaration stating that certain documents not included in the record were submitted to the City was the most credible of the declarations submitted at trial concerning augmentation of the record. The Court held that this determination by the trial court constituted substantial evidence demonstrating that the administrative record was properly augmented. The Court explained that to reject the trial court’s credibility determination its conclusion must be “physically impossible or obviously false without resorting to inference or deduction.”

In addressing the irrigation district’s standing to sue, the Court concluded Water Code section 22650 establishes that the irrigation district has standing to seek a writ of mandate. The Court concluded further that a public agency is not required to have jurisdiction over a natural resource affected by a proposed CEQA project to have a beneficial interest for the purposes of standing. Because the court found Water Code section 22650 to give the irrigation district standing, the Court declined to consider whether the irrigation district, as a governmental agency and not a citizen, can have public interest standing.

Lastly, the Court rejected the City’s argument that evidence submitted by the irrigation district was incredible and, thus, incapable of establishing a fair argument of potentially significant environmental impacts. The Court stated that to reject evidence as incredible, an agency must identify the evidence that was challenged with sufficient particularity to allow the reviewing court to determine whether there were legitimate, disputed issues of credibility. Here, the City cited no evidence that any particular statements in the record were disputed by the city council, planning commission, or staff during the administrative process. Therefore, the Court held the City’s credibility argument lacked merit.

Key Points:

Courts will not entertain an agency’s argument that evidence submitted during the administrative process lacks credibility unless the agency confronts this question during the administrative process and based on substantial evidence concludes the evidence is incredible.

Written By: Tina Thomas and Chris Butcher
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For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

Applying the Fair Argument Test, Court holds that Construction of a Large Single-Family Home was Not Exempt from CEQA Because the Unusual Circumstances Exception Applied

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

In Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2012) 203 Cal. App. 4th 656, the Berkeley Zoning Adjustment Board (Board) determined that a new roughly 10,000 square foot home in the Berkeley hills was categorically exempt from CEQA pursuant to (1) the Infill Development Exemption and (2) the New Construction / Conversion of a Small Structure Exemption. The Board also determined that none of the exceptions to the CEQA exemptions applied.

Petitioners filed an administrative appeal. During the administrative appeal, the city received a number of comment letters including two letters from a geotechnical engineer with over 50 years of experience concluding that the slope of the property, the need for massive grading, and the proximity to the Hayward fault established that the project would have very significant effects on the environment both during and after construction. Another geotechnical engineer disagreed with the above conclusions, and after allowing testimony from both engineers during the appeal hearing, the city council affirmed the decision to approve the use permits to construct the home. Thereafter, petitioners filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the city’s approval of the use permits.

On appeal from the trial court ruling upholding the city’s actions, petitioners conceded that the project is subject to the two CEQA categorical exemptions asserted by the city. Petitioners argued, however, that the “unusual circumstances” exception to the exemptions applied and prevented the city from relying on the exemptions. The court agreed, holding that “a categorical exemption does not apply where there is any reasonable possibility that proposed activity may have a significant effect on the environment.” The “unusual circumstances” exception can apply to a project that is not unusual; the existence of substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that a project normally exempt from CEQA may result in a significant environmental impact is itself an “unusual circumstance” prohibiting use of a categorical exemption. Nevertheless, the court stated that it may be helpful to first analyze whether the project is unusual in considering whether the “unusual circumstances” exception applies to a project.

Relying on the “fair argument” test, the court concluded that the administrative record included substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project is both unusual and would result in significant environmental impacts. With respect to the project’s unusual nature, the court explained that petitioners demonstrated that the home would be one of the largest in the entire city. As a matter of law, the 10,000-square-foot home was unusual “because the circumstances of the project differ from the general circumstances of projects covered by the single-family residence exemption…” Next, the court found a reasonable possibility that the proposed construction will have a significant effect on the environment due to the unusual size to the project. Although the court acknowledged that a disagreement existed between geotechnical engineers, the court held that “contrary evidence is not adequate to support a decision to dispense with an EIR.” (Original emphasis.) The court, therefore, reversed the trial court’s judgment and ordered the lower court to issue a writ of mandate directing the city to prepare an EIR.

Key Points:

For a lead agency to rely on a categorical exemption in the face of opposition, the lead agency must determine that evidence in the record does not support a “fair argument” that the project may result in one or more significant environmental impacts. If such evidence can be found in the record, then the “unusual circumstances” exception applies and use of a CEQA exemption is improper. This case represents a shift from previous case law requiring a showing of substantial evidence to support an argument that unusual circumstances exist.
Additionally, in holding that the project’s “proximity to a fault” was evidence of an unusual circumstance, the opinion is inconsistent with Ballona Wetlands Trust v. City of Los Angeles (2011) 201 Cal.App.4th 455. In Ballona Wetlands, the Court held that CEQA requires consideration of a project’s impacts on the environment and not consideration of the environment’s impact on a project (e.g. such as sea level rise or fault impacts on a project). Moreover, if “proximity to a fault” disqualifies a project from relying on CEQA exemptions, like the in-fill exemption, then most of the Bay Area will, as a practical matter, be unable to rely on CEQA exemptions for any projects.

Written By: Tina Thomas and Chris Butcher

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For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.