Speculation Concerning Potential Impacts Insufficient To Defeat Use Of A Categorical Exemption

Walters v. City of Redondo Beach (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 809.

By Brian Russell

Auto-Spa applied for a conditional use permit to build a car wash and coffee shop in Redondo Beach, California. The property is zoned commercial. The project consisted of a 90-foot car wash tunnel and an attached coffee shop totaling 4,080 square feet. The rest of the property would be used for drying and parking cars. Entry to the car wash was from a residential street, just off of a major street. From 1965 to 2001, there was a car wash on the property.

The Planning Commission approved the project under a categorical exemption in CEQA Guidelines section 15303(c).  That provided an exemption from CEQA review for commercial buildings not exceeding 10,000 square feet in floor area on sites zoned for such use if not involving the use of significant amounts of hazardous substances, where all necessary public services and facilities are available and the surrounding area is not environmentally sensitive.

After an appeal and approval by city council, Appellants filed a petition challenging the CEQA exemption. The trial court ruled in favor of the city.

On appeal, the initial issue was whether the project qualified as a commercial structure and met the square footage limitations of the CEQA exemption. In reviewing the determination of whether a project fits within an exemption, the court applied the substantial evidence test and agreed with the city that the exemption embraced a broad range of commercial projects. The appellant also urged that the use of hazardous materials was not allowed in conjunction with the exemption. However, the evidence did not support this argument, and that the argument was based upon speculation.

Appellants then argued that even if the exemption applies, it should not apply for this project because “there is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances.”  Under the Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086 (“Berkeley Hillside”), a challenger must prove both the unusual circumstances and a significant environmental effect that is due to those circumstances. If unusual circumstances are found, agencies apply the fair argument standard in determining whether there is a reasonable possibility of a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances. Alternatively, under Berkeley Hillside, a challenger may establish an unusual circumstance with evidence that the project will have a significant environmental effect, applying the traditional substantial evidence test. Here, the court explained that a party can show an unusual circumstance by demonstrating that the project has some characteristic or feature that distinguishes it from others in the exempt class, such as its size or location. But the court concluded that there is nothing particularly unusual about the proposed car wash and coffee shop. The evidence establishes that there are many other car washes in the surrounding area, plus the site itself was a car wash and snack bar for nearly 40 years, which suggests that this project is not an unusual circumstance.

The court further analyzed whether the plaintiffs had established that the unusual circumstances will have a significant environmental effect. The plaintiffs argued that the operation of the car wash would violate the city’s interior and exterior noise limits at the abutting property line. However, the court rejected that argument, and found that the exceedance will not occur, because the project was conditioned upon the car wash’s adherence to the city’s noise standards. Furthermore there was an additional condition that provides that compliance with the noise requirements “shall be tested and documented prior to the final inspection and opening of the car wash operation.” Given those conditions and assurances, plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of showing that the project will actually have a significant environmental effect.

Plaintiffs then argue that the project will have a significant impact on traffic. They argued that the design of the car wash is inefficient and will cause back ups within the project property. However, the court held that plaintiffs’ argument was speculative and was contradicted by both the plaintiffs’ expert and the city’s findings that any such backup could be avoided by managing the flow of cars through the car wash. The court found that, at best, plaintiffs provided evidence that suggests that the project possibly could have a periodic impact on traffic. That was insufficient. The court held that plaintiffs failed to provide evidence that the project will actually have a significant impact on the environment by causing a substantial adverse change in the physical conditions that exist in the area.

With that holding, the court concluded that plaintiffs failed to establish the unusual circumstances exception under the Berkeley Hillside alternative analysis. Therefore, the city properly determined that the car wash project is categorically exempt under the CEQA Guidelines.

Brian Russell is an attorney at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP.  For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, or the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

 

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