Historic and Cultural Resources

In an opinion filed December 18, 2018, and later ordered published on January 10, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying appellant citizen groups’ writ petition challenging the City of St. Helena’s approval of an 8-unit, multifamily housing project and related demolition and design review.  McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group, et al. v. City of St. Helena, et al. (2019) _____ Cal.App.5th _____.  The decision applied the basic principle that CEQA does not apply to ministerial project approvals, and further clarified that CEQA does not apply to “mixed” discretionary/ministerial approvals where the “discretionary component” does not give the agency the authority to mitigate environmental impacts.  It held that because the City’s discretion under its local design review ordinance does not extend to addressing environmental effects it does not implicate CEQA, and therefore the City’s reliance on the CEQA Guidelines’ Class 32 exemption was unnecessary.

Continue Reading Delineating CEQA’s Scope: First District Holds CEQA Does Not Apply To Ministerial Approval Of Multifamily Housing Project Allowed By Right Under Zoning Where City’s Discretion Was Limited To Design Review

In a published opinion filed December 17, 2018, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment granting a writ setting aside El Dorado County’s approval of, and related Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for, construction of a Dollar General Store in the “quaint” downtown area of unincorporated Georgetown, a Gold Rush-era “hamlet” designated as a State Historical Landmark.  Georgetown Preservation Society v. County of El Dorado (Simoncre Abbie, LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2018) _____ Cal.App.5th _____.  The Court held lay public commentary on nontechnical issues concerning the project’s size and general appearance constituted substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project may have significant aesthetic impacts, and thus required an EIR, notwithstanding County’s findings that the project complied with its Historic Design Guide.  The Court also held County’s failure to make explicit findings in the record on alleged credibility and foundation issues precluded its “manufacturing after-the-fact findings” to justify its dismissal of the public comments on the ground that they did not constitute “substantial evidence.”

Continue Reading When CEQA Gets Ugly: Third District Holds Lay Public Opinion Supports Fair Argument That Project May Have Significant Aesthetic Effect Requiring EIR

The Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. 1) held in a published opinion filed October 24, 2018, that CEQA Guidelines § 15164 validly establishes an addendum process that is consistent with the CEQA statute, implementing and filling gaps in Public Resources Code § 21166.  The Court also held that new findings under Public Resources Code § 21081 addressing a project’s significant impacts are not required when a lead agency approves an addendum to an EIR.  Save Our Heritage Organisation v. City of San Diego (The Plaza de Panama Committee, Real Party in Interest) (2018) 28 Cal.App.5th 656.

Continue Reading Fourth District Holds Addendum Process Authorized By CEQA, No New Findings Required

In a published opinion filed September 18, 2018, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Div. 1) affirmed a judgment granting a writ setting aside the City of San Diego’s (City) decision to subject a coastal development permit (CDP) application for construction of a single family home on a vacant La Jolla lot to CEQA review.  Francis A. Bottini, Jr. v. City of San Diego (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 281.

Continue Reading Fourth District Holds City Violated CEQA By Refusing To Recognize Exemption For Single Family Residence Project And Attempting To Subject Owner’s Already Authorized And Completed Demolition Action To Retroactive Environmental Review (Yet Absolves City From Liability For Regulatory Taking)

On September 7, 2018, Governor Brown signed two bills amending CEQA in relatively minor ways that will become effective January 1, 2019.

AB 2341 (Chapter 298) (Mathis) adds Public Resources Code § 21081.3 to provide that “a lead agency is not required to evaluate the aesthetic effects of a project and aesthetic effects shall not be considered significant effects on the environment if the project involves the refurbishment, conversion, repurposing, or replacement of an existing building that meets … [five specified] requirements[.]”  To fall within this new partial statutory exemption, (1) the building must be abandoned, dilapidated (defined as “decayed, deteriorated, or fallen into such disrepair through neglect or misuse so as to require substantial repair for safe and proper use”), or have been vacant for over a year; (2) the site must be immediately adjacent to parcels developed with qualified urban uses or 75 percent of its perimeter must adjoin such parcels (with the remainder adjoining parcels previously so developed); (3) the project must include housing construction; (4) any new structure must “not substantially exceed the height of the existing structure”; and (5) the project must “not create a new source of substantial light or glare.”

Continue Reading More Mild Than Wild: Legislature Tinkers With Modestly Reforming Scope Of CEQA Analysis In Two New Laws

In an opinion filed July 16, and belatedly ordered published on August 9, 2018, the First District Court of Appeal (Division 5) affirmed the trial court’s judgment setting aside the City of Fremont’s approvals of a mixed residential/retail project (“Project”) and related Mitigated Negative Declaration (“MND”), and ordering preparation of an EIR based on the Project’s potentially significant aesthetic and traffic impacts on the Niles historical district.  Protect Niles v. City of Fremont (Doug Rich, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 1129.  The opinion is a good reminder of the legal vulnerability of any species of negative declaration under CEQA’s applicable “fair argument” standard of review.  It also provides guidance in the areas of mootness; analysis of aesthetic, historical resources, traffic level of service (“LOS”), and traffic safety impacts; the operation of traffic thresholds of significance; and the nature of substantial evidence sufficient to support a “fair argument,” both generally and in the unique “historical district” context presented by this particular case.

Continue Reading Context Matters: First District Holds CEQA Requires EIR, Not MND, To Analyze Mixed-Use Project’s Potentially Significant Aesthetic And Traffic Impacts On Fremont’s Niles Historical District

In a lengthy opinion filed December 20, 2017, and belatedly ordered published on January 8, 2018, the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division 1, affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition asserting CEQA and land use law challenges to the City of San Diego’s (“City”) approval of a small high school on previously developed, open-space designated lands adjacent to a commercial equestrian facility. Clews Land and Livestock, LLC v. City of San Diego (Jan Dunning, et al, Real Parties In Interest) (2017) 19 Cal.App.5th 161.  The opinion underscores the critical importance of correctly interpreting and scrupulously following a local lead agency’s administrative appeal procedures in order to exhaust administrative remedies and preserve CEQA claims for judicial review.  (The non-CEQA, land use law aspects of the opinion will not be analyzed here but will be covered in a subsequent blog post by my partner, Bryan Wenter.)

Continue Reading Fourth District Rejects CEQA Challenge to MND for Small Rural High School Project Based on Challenger’s Failure to Exhaust Available Administrative Appeal and on Merits

In an opinion filed on November 30, and belatedly ordered published on December 22, 2017, the Second District Court of Appeal, Division 1, affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying all CEQA challenges asserted by plaintiff/appellant Los Angeles Conservancy (“Conservancy”) to the City of West Hollywood’s (“City”) approval of the “Melrose Triangle” project (“project”).  Los Angeles Conservancy v. City of West Hollywood (Charles Company, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2017) ____ Cal.App.5th _____.

The project proposed office, retail, residential and restaurant uses, and public and private open space and pedestrian paseos, on a 3-acre site at the City’s western “gateway,” and called for demolition of the site’s existing structures, which included an architecturally significant building originally constructed in 1928 and potentially eligible for listing in the California Register of Historical Resources (the “9080 Building”).  By 2012 amendments, the City’s general plan called for the site’s development with an iconic “Gateway” building with exemplary architecture, and significant open space and pedestrian walkthroughs open to the sky.  Developer Charles Company’s proposed Gateway Building would occupy the space currently occupied by the 9080 Building, and other buildings and features on the site were also proposed to implement the general plan’s development vision.

Continue Reading Second District Holds Melrose Triangle Project EIR’s Alternatives Analysis and Responses to Comments Comply with CEQA, Upholds City of West Hollywood’s Findings Rejecting Historic Building Preservation Alternative as Infeasible

In 15-page opinion filed on September 15, and later certified for publication on October 16, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying a writ petition challenging the Judicial Council of California’s (“Judicial Council”) EIR for its project to relocate and consolidate El Dorado County Superior Court operations into a single new building on the outskirts of Placerville.  Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California (County of El Dorado, et al., Real Parties In Interest) (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 187.  The Court of Appeal held that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that “the possible economic impact of moving judicial activities from the downtown courthouse … was not likely to be severe enough to cause urban decay in downtown Placerville.”  It also held that the Council did not need to adopt mitigation mandating re-use of the courthouse to support this conclusion.

Continue Reading Keeping CEQA In Its Lane: First District Holds Substantial Evidence Supports EIR’s Conclusion That “Urban Decay” Is Not Reasonably Foreseeable Indirect Effect Of Project Relocating Trial Court Operations From Historic Placerville Courthouse

A project that may cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of a “historical resource” may, for that reason, have a significant effect on the environment for purposes of CEQA. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21084.1.) And those familiar with CEQA know that, under its “fair argument” test, where there is any substantial evidence in the record that a project may have a significant effect on the environment, an EIR must be prepared. (§ 21080(d).) But just what is a “historical resource”? How is the determination of its historicity made, by whom, and by applying what standards to the relevant evidence? Those important questions are addressed by the August 12, 2016 published opinion of the Sixth Appellate District Court of Appeal in Friends of the Willow Glen Trestle v. City of San Jose (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 457.

Continue Reading Sixth District Holds CEQA’s “Fair Argument” Test Inapplicable To City Of San Jose’s Discretionary Determination That 1922 Wooden Railroad Trestle Is Not Historical Resource