By Daniel S. Cucchi

City of San Jose v. Superior Court (March 2, 2017, S218066) ___ Cal.5th ___.

Citing the need to broaden the definition of “public records” to address the “evolving methods of electronic communication,” a unanimous California Supreme Court reversed the Sixth District Court of Appeal, holding that communications related to the “conduct of the public’s business” by agency officials and employees on their personal accounts are subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”).

In June 2009, the petitioner filed a CPRA request with the City of San Jose (the “City”), which included the City’s redevelopment agency, certain elected officials and staff, for all documents related to redevelopment efforts in the City’s downtown.  The request for documents included “emails and text messages ‘sent or received on private electronic devices used by’ the mayor, two city council members, and their staff.”  The City refused to provide the information on private electronic devices, stating that they were not public records, because the emails and texts were not within the City’s custody or control.  Petitioner filed suit and the trial court ordered disclosure.  The City appealed and the appellate court reversed.  The California Supreme Court granted the petition for review.

Seeking to balance the public’s right to know enshrined within the CPRA and the California Constitution against an individual’s right to privacy, the Court outlined a standard intended to avoid an interpretation that “would allow evasion of the CPRA simply by the use of a personal account,” while limiting disclosure of private communications to only those that involve substantive discussions of public matters.  While recognizing the standard cited in San Gabriel Tribune v. Superior Court (1983) 143 Cal.App.3d 762, 774, which normally excludes only communications “totally void of reference to governmental activities” under the CPRA, the Court distinguished the context of communications sent through personal accounts, reasoning that this broad standard would likely sweep up more than necessary to comply with the CPRA.  Instead, the Court laid out a less exacting standard that these communications “must relate in some substantive way to the conduct of the public’s business” before they become a public record.  Thus, incidental mentions of a public matter would normally be insufficient to trigger disclosure.

The City also claimed that the private communications were not a public record because they were not “prepared, owned, used, or retained” by the City, nor were they accessible to, or retained by, the City.  The Court rejected this interpretation of the statute, reasoning that (1) agencies, much like corporations, can only act through its officials, and (2) the City still had constructive control over the records because its own officials and employees had access to those records.  It further noted that to conclude otherwise would allow an agency to avoid disclosure by transferring custody to a third party, or even its own employees.  The Court concluded by reviewing the various exemptions available to protect the privacy of officials and employees, including preliminary and draft notes and memoranda (Gov. Code §6254(a)), personal financial data (Id. §6254(n)), as well as the “catchall” exemption when the public interest in withholding “clearly outweighs” the public interest in disclosure (Id. §6255(a)).

In the age of technology and instant communications, it can be easy for agency officials to grab their phone to send that text or email, particularly when they do not have a device issued by the agency. Whether or not such communications were ever intended to avoid disclosure, the Court’s decision puts to rest any question that substantive communications about public matters will be considered a public record. Agencies can best avoid these complex and costly issues by establishing clear technology policies strongly discouraging use of private communication systems for public matters and, at a minimum, issuing phones and/or other similar devices to those agency officials that are most likely to generate electronic communications for agency business outside of the office.  And of course, there are always the very old school options of simply picking up the telephone or a face-to-face conversation.

Daniel S. Cucchi is an associate at Abbott & Kindermann, Inc.  For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, Inc., 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.

 

By Daniel S. Cucchi

Hernandez v. Town of Apple Valley (2017) 7 Cal.App.5th 194

In 2011, the Town of Apple Valley (the “Town”) circulated a local initiative called the “Wal-Mart Initiative Measure,” or in some cases the “Wal-Mart Supercenter Ballot Initiative,” which was subsequently declared null and void. Two years later, the Town noticed a city council agenda item for a “Wal-Mart Initiative Measure” with a recommended action to “provide direction to staff.”  Petitioner did not attend the council meeting believing the matter was follow-up activities related to the 2011 measure.  He later learned that the Town council had adopted two resolutions for a new voter initiative for a proposed 30-acre commercial development that included a new Wal-Mart Supercenter, as well as a Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) to accept a gift from Wal-Mart to pay for the special election. After filing a request with the Town to cure the alleged agenda defect, which the Town rejected, Petitioner filed suit arguing the Town violated the Ralph M. Brown Act and that the initiative measure itself violated California Constitution, article II, section 12’s prohibition against specifically naming any individual or corporation to “perform any function or to have any power or duty….”  The trial court granted petitioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment on both claims, finding the MOU and the initiative were void and invalid.  The Town and Wal-Mart appealed.

The appellate court first considered the Brown Act claim, finding that while the resolutions calling for the special election were properly noticed, the Town’s adoption of the MOU was not, creating a fatal flaw in the approval of all of the resolutions. The Town argued that the agenda packet included all of the relevant information regarding the proposed initiative, but the court was not persuaded. While choosing not to rule on the question of whether information in an agenda packet can be used to bring an agency into compliance with the Brown Act, it noted that the record showed that the MOU resolution was added to the agenda item after release of the agenda.  This was fatal, the court reasoned, because it was reasonable to conclude the MOU was “a major factor in the decision to send the matter to the electorate.”  Thus, since the MOU resolution was improperly noticed, the resolutions to place the initiative measure on the ballot were null and void as a result.

Anticipating the likelihood that the initiative measure would likely return to the ballot, the court next turned to the question of whether the measure violated the California Constitution. Petitioner argued that although Wal-Mart was not specifically named in the initiative text, the ballot measure materials clearly established that approval would grant powers to the owner and developer, Wal-Mart.  The court disagreed.  It held that the initiative was properly drafted, even though it ultimately benefitted Wal-Mart, because the text of the initiative did not specifically name Wal-Mart.  It reasoned that the use of the words “developer” and “owner” in the initiative meant that if Wal-Mart were to sell the property, it would retain no superior rights in the property over the subsequent owner.  Thus, Wal-Mart’s current beneficial position was granted by ownership of the subject property and not by the initiative itself.

Daniel S. Cucchi is an associate at Abbott & Kindermann, Inc.  For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, Inc., 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.

 

Reserve your seat for one of four seminars taking place in early 2017.

In January 2017 Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. will present its 16th annual educational program for clients and colleagues interested in current land use, environmental, and real estate issues affecting commercial and residential development, agriculture, real estate transactions, easements, mining and the construction materials production industry.  

A summary of 2016 case law and legislative updates includes the following hot topics for 2017:

  • Air Quality and Climate Change: including CEQA Guidelines and Mandatory Reporting
  • Mining
  • Updating Land Use Entitlements
  • Endangered Species
  • Water Quality and Wetlands
  • Water Rights and Supply
  • Cultural Resources
  • Renewable Energy
  • Environmental Enforcement
  • Hazardous Substance Control and Cleanup
  • Timber Resources
  • CEQA:  Exemptions, Baseline, Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change
  • CEQA Litigation
  • Real Estate Acquisition and Development

Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. will present its annual program at four locations: Redding, Sacramento, Modesto, and Napa.  Details for the seminars are below.  We hope you can join us and we look forward to seeing you there.

Redding Conference  (To Register for the Redding Location Click Here)

Date: Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Location: Hilton Garden Inn Redding, 5050 Bechelli Lane

Registration: 12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Program: 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Sacramento Conference  (To Register for the Sacramento Location Click Here)

Date: Friday, January 20, 2017

Location: Sacramento Hilton Arden West, 2200 Harvard Street

Registration: 8:30 a.m. – 9:00 a.m. with continental breakfast

Program: 9:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon

Modesto Conference  (To Register for the Modesto Location Click Here)

Date: Friday, January 27, 2017

Location: Double Tree Hotel Modesto, 1150 Ninth Street

Registration: 12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Program: 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Napa Conference  (To Register for the Napa Location Click Here)

Date: Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Location: Embassy Suites, 1075 California Boulevard

Registration: 12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Program: 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

The registration fee for the program is $80.00. Please register early to reserve your seat. Select the links above to see registration details for each location, as they differ. MCLE and AICP CM credits are available (approval pending).

Please call (916) 456-9595 with any questions.

East Sacramento Partnerships for a Livable City v. City of Sacramento (2016) 5 Cal.App.5th.281.

By William W. Abbott

Note: Requests for depublication have been filed with the California Supreme Court.  The court extended time to review these request until March 17, 2017.

Judicial deference and absence of prejudice were the continuing themes in the recent Third Appellate District decision reviewing a challenge to an EIR and a general plan consistency analysis. The project involved McKinley Village, an infill project consisting of 328 dwelling units, (http://mckinleyvillage.com/) and the project approvals were challenged based upon allegations of deficiencies in the EIR as well as arguments regarding inconsistency with the city’s general plan. The trial court ruled in favor of the city. With one exception discussed below, the appellate court affirmed.

As to the CEQA claims, a neighborhood group East Sacramento Partnerships for a Livable City (ESPLC) argued that the EIR was deficient as a result of a defective project description, improper piecemealing, failure to analyzed health risks, failure to recognize traffic impacts and failure to disclose or mitigate methane migration. First, ESPLC argued that the project description failed to include the development agreement, a rezoning request for the multifamily units, an increase in the total units from 328 to 336 as well as variances from standard driveway widths for a limited number of dwellings.

As to the development agreement, it was disclosed to the planning commission and city council public hearings and ESPLC commented on the development agreement. This satisfied the public disclosure requirements. ESPLC further argued that the development agreement was used to modify the project at the very end of the process, when the city council, in response to citizen request, considered a second vehicular access tunnel. However, the tunnel was to become a city project and may or may not be constructed in the future. As it was not part of the developer’s project, it did not have to be part of the project description. As to the rezoning, the deletion of some single family and addition of multifamily product (a net increase of 8 units) triggered a rezoning. The impacts of the additional units were evaluated in the FEIR. The appellate court characterized this as a slight change and to be expected in the CEQA process. The opponents failed to show how the analysis was defective or how meaningful decisionmaking or public comment was precluded.

The final EIR included a discussion of a variance for driveway width in one area within the project. However, the opponents failed to demonstrate prejudice from the omission or that the modification had any significant impacts. ESPLC next argued that the city had improperly piecemealed the project. Its first argument involved the potential second tunnel, but having concluded that the tunnel was not part of the developer’s project, that there was no piecemealing issue. In response to public comment, the city included a half street closure, the effect of which was to reduce traffic impacts on one street and divert traffic to a street with greater capacity. The appellate court concluded that the minor change in response to public comment did not result in piecemeling. As part of the deliberations of the half street closure, the council directed the city manager to initiate steps to eliminate a nearby connector from the city’s general plan. While the resolution was not in the administrative record, it appears that the council direction was to consider the general plan amendment at a later date. This later action would be subject to its own CEQA review and was not considered to be piecemealing.

Turning next to health risks, the appellate court followed the Supreme Court’s holding in CBIA v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (2015) 62 Cal.4th 369, noting that the EIR was not required to assess the impacts of the existing conditions (nearby landfill, interstate and railroad tracks). While ESPLC argued that the project would exacerbate existing conditions, those issues were already addressed in the EIR or too vague and speculative to warrant further consideration.

As to traffic, the project was consistent with the region’s sustainable communities strategy and the regional MTP, and as such was not required to address certain transportation impacts. Public Resources code section 1159.28(a). The opponent also challenged the use of intersection analysis to measure traffic impacts and ignoring roadway capacity. However, the court found substantial evidence to support the city’s methodology. EPSLC was unable to show how the city’s methodology failed to adequately assess traffic impacts.

The appellate court did agree with ESPLC on one issue. The EIR discussed that there were different general plan LOS standards for downtown (accepting higher congestion) compared those to residential neighborhoods. The court faulted the city for relying upon its general plan policies and standards, and failing to explain how the same level of traffic congestion is an impact in one neighborhood but not another. This issue resulted in the appellate court compelling the EIR be set aside, although only this one issue was required to be addressed upon remand.

Turning to ESPLC’s land use contentions, the appellate court applied a very deferential standard of review, acknowledging the weighing and balancing steps that a city or county employs in evaluating a project. (Certain of ESPLC’s arguments were based upon general plan policies which had been subsequently modified or repealed. The appellate court considered those claims to be moot.) ESPLC argued inconsistency over public health, transportation and noise policies and standards. The appellate court noted that some of ESPLCs arguments were based upon vague policies or ones which were not mandatory, and applying a deferential standard of review, the court concluded that it could not be said as a certainty that the project was inconsistent. Of note was the court’s recognition of a policy which required noise mitigation “to the extent feasible”, a concept found in many general plans. As this requirement was not mandatory in each circumstance, the appellate court could not find error.

William W. Abbott is a shareholder in Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, Inc., 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.

Reserve your seat for one of four seminars taking place in early 2017.

In January 2017 Abbott & Kindermann, LLP will present its 16th annual educational program for clients and colleagues interested in current land use, environmental, and real estate issues affecting commercial and residential development, agriculture, real estate transactions, easements, mining and the construction materials production industry.  

A summary of 2016 case law and legislative updates includes the following hot topics for 2017:

  • Air Quality and Climate Change: including CEQA Guidelines and Mandatory Reporting
  • Mining
  • Updating Land Use Entitlements
  • Endangered Species
  • Water Quality and Wetlands
  • Water Rights and Supply
  • Cultural Resources
  • Renewable Energy
  • Environmental Enforcement
  • Hazardous Substance Control and Cleanup
  • Timber Resources
  • CEQA:  Exemptions, Baseline, Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change
  • CEQA Litigation
  • Real Estate Acquisition and Development

Abbott & Kindermann, LLP will present its annual program at four locations: Redding, Sacramento, Modesto, and Napa.  Details for the seminars are below.  We hope you can join us and we look forward to seeing you there.

Redding Conference  (To Register for the Redding Location Click Here)

Date: Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Location: Hilton Garden Inn Redding, 5050 Bechelli Lane

Registration: 12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Program: 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Sacramento Conference  (To Register for the Sacramento Location Click Here)

Date: Friday, January 20, 2017

Location: Sacramento Hilton Arden West, 2200 Harvard Street

Registration: 8:30 a.m. – 9:00 a.m. with continental breakfast

Program: 9:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon

Modesto Conference  (To Register for the Modesto Location Click Here)

Date: Friday, January 27, 2017

Location: Double Tree Hotel Modesto, 1150 Ninth Street

Registration: 12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Program: 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Napa Conference  (To Register for the Napa Location Click Here)

Date: Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Location: Embassy Suites, 1075 California Boulevard

Registration: 12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Program: 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

The registration fee for the program is $80.00. Please register early to reserve your seat. Select the links above to see registration details for each location, as they differ. MCLE and AICP CM credits are available (approval pending).

Please call (916) 456-9595 with any questions.

 

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.

 

Mark your calendar – registration for Abbott & Kindermann’s 16th Annual Land Use, Real Estate, and Environmental Law Update will open on October 18, 2016.

In January 2017 Abbott & Kindermann, LLP will present its 16th annual educational program for clients and colleagues interested in current land use, environmental, and real estate issues affecting commercial and residential development, agriculture, real estate transactions, easements, mining and the construction materials production industry.  

A summary of 2016 case law and legislative updates includes the following hot topics for 2017:

  • Air Quality and Climate Change: including CEQA Guidelines and Mandatory Reporting
  • Mining
  • Updating Land Use Entitlements
  • Endangered Species
  • Water Quality and Wetlands
  • Water Rights and Supply
  • Cultural Resources
  • Renewable Energy
  • Environmental Enforcement
  • Hazardous Substance Control and Cleanup
  • Timber Resources
  • CEQA:  Exemptions, Baseline, Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change
  • CEQA Litigation
  • Real Estate Acquisition and Development

Abbott & Kindermann, LLP will present its annual program at four locations: Redding, Sacramento, Modesto and Napa.  Details for the seminars are below.  We hope you can join us and we look forward to seeing you there.

Redding Conference 

Date: Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Location: Hilton Garden Inn Redding, 5050 Bechelli Lane

Registration: 12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Program: 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Sacramento Conference 

Date: Friday, January 20, 2017

Location: Sacramento Hilton Arden West, 2200 Harvard Street

Registration: 8:30 a.m. – 9:00 a.m. with continental breakfast

Program: 9:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon

Modesto Conference 

Date: Friday, January 27, 2017

Location: Double Tree Hotel Modesto, 1150 Ninth Street

Registration: 12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Program: 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Napa Conference 

Date: Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Location: Embassy Suites, 1075 California Boulevard

Registration: 12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Program: 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

The registration fee for the program is $80.00. MCLE and AICP CM credits are available (approval pending).

Please call (916) 456-9595 with any questions.

 

No Toxic Air, Inc. v Lehigh Southwest Cement Co. ( 2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 1136

By William W. Abbott

If required due to the complexity of the matter, a prevailing party may be able to recover reasonable legal and paralegal costs incurred in preparing an administrative record required by an action in administrative mandamus.

Project opponents unsuccessfully challenged in court a vested rights determination made by Santa Clara County pertaining to a long time mining operation.  At issue was a mine begun in 1903 and had been an ongoing concern ever since, expanding in terms of physical scope and mine related activities through the years.  In 2010, the then owner sought a determination of vested rights from the County.   The County made the vested rights determination and was unsuccessfully challenged in court. The real party in interest filed a cost bill which included the attorney and paralegal costs associated with assembling the administrative record.  The unsuccessful plaintiffs moved to tax costs.  The trial court determined that the costs were reasonably incurred and appropriate for the complexity of the case, but granted the motion to tax for lack of authority to allow those costs. The real party in interest appealed. 

Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5 provides in part “if the expense of preparing all or any part of the record has been borne by the prevailing party, the expense shall be taxable as costs.”  Looking to CEQA cases for guidance on this question, the appellate court concluded once the trial court determined the appropriateness and need for the attorney and paralegal work to prepare the record, that the motion to tax costs should have been denied and reversed.

William W. Abbott is a partner 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, nor 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.

 

 

Bay Area Citizens v. Association of Bay Area Governments (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 966.

By William W. Abbott

In a case perhaps driven primarily by philosophical considerations, the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District) upheld ABAG’s Sustainable Communities plan (the “Plan”), adopted under the authority of SB 375 (Steinberg).  SB 375, adopted in 2008, created a framework for linking transportation investment and land use planning in a manner to move the state closer to its targeted reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by passenger vehicles and light trucks. The heavy lifting under SB 375 is by the regional planning agencies, in this case Association of Bay Area Governments (“ABAG”) in consultation with the California Air Resources Board (“CARB”) as it discharges its responsibilities developing and implementing the State Scoping Plan.

In response to the targets set by CARB, ABAG developed and released a Draft Plan. The Plan identified land use and transportation strategies believed to meet the required per capita reductions. These strategies included land use intensification around transit corridors. Ultimate implementation of the strategies would rest with the individual cities and counties as the ABAG Plan did not directly control land use decisionmaking. ABAG prepared an EIR to go with the Draft Plan. The EIR evaluated (a) the Plan’s ability to meet the regional SB 375 generated targets, (b) anticipated changes in greenhouse emissions (direct and indirect) by 2040, and (c) compliance with the Executive Orders (S-3-05 and B-16-2012). With respect to the first analysis (meeting the regional targets), the EIR excluded any benefits from the Pavley I legislation and low carbon fuel requirements, whereas Pavley I and low carbon adjustments were factored into the analysis for the second and third evaluations.  ABAG submitted its Draft Plan to CARB for technical review as provided for by SB 375, and CARB approved the methodology.

Bay Area Citizens was critical of the Draft Plan along with the EIR, and offered its own alternative. Citizens claims included the argument that the Plan had to account for reductions from Pavley I and low carbon fuels and that ABAG should have considered its alternative which avoided “draconian” land use and transportation strategies. Dissatisfied with the Plan and EIR, Citizens following adoption filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the adoption. The trial court denied relief as did the appellate court.

The appellate decision is quite detailed, setting forth the full regulatory structure for the adoption of the regional plans, including CARB’s role. Citizen’s primary attack dealt with the role of reductions from Pavley I and low carbon fuels. As the court noted, the regional targets for reductions are separate and distinct from the reductions taken under the Scoping Plan for Pavley I and low carbon fuels. The appellate court agreed with ABAG that factoring Pavley I and low carbon into the regional targets would result in double counting. As most of Citizen’s arguments were tied to its fundamental attack regarding exclusion of Pavley I and low carbon fuels into the regional targets, the appellate court rejected those as well.

Although the appellate decision is mostly dedicated to SB 375, Citizens also challenged the EIR. Its first argument challenged the project description, reintroducing the theme that Pavley I and low carbon should have been factored in as part of the project description. The appellate court readily disposed of this argument, reciting that the seven identified goals for the Plan were sufficiently broad and appropriately linked to SB 375. The appellate court then turned to Citizens’ challenge to the EIR’s alternatives. Citizens first argued that the No Project alternative was required to reflect the benefits of other state programs (notably Pavley I and low carbon fuels) which largely centered upon an argument that the EIR should have included the Citizen’s alternative. Again, the appellate court disagreed noting that the targets in greenhouse gas reduction and climate change from the Plan were developed independent from and were additive to the anticipated benefits of Pavley I and low carbon fuels. The appellate court also determined that the Pavley II impacts were not known until too late in the EIR process and therefore were not required to be reflected in the EIR. Citizens also argued that the EIR was required to review its plan as an alternative, suggesting that its plan would have met basic project objectives without the secondary effects of higher density development. The court rejected this argument finding that the EIR included a reasonable range of alternatives and that Citizens had failed to demonstrate any shortcomings against that legal standard. Citizens last argument was a variation on the same theme: because the Agency failed to account for the benefits of Pavely I and low carbon fuels, the Agency failed to adequately respond to the Citizens comments as to those issues. Again noted the appellate court, the Citizens had it wrong.

Finally, as an independent ground to uphold the EIR, the Court agreed with amicus California Attorney General that the EIR was a full disclosure document. The document was clear when and where it relied upon Pavley I and low carbon fuels, and that the challengers failed show why more analysis was required. Essentially then, Citizens challenge was to the wisdom of the Plan itself, essentially at its best that the Plan did more than the minimum to meet the law.  In the end, a challenge to the wisdom of the Plan was not a CEQA challenge.

William W. Abbott is a partner 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, nor 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.

 

Naraghi Lakes Neighborhood Preservation v. City of Modesto (June 7, 2016, F071768) ___ Cal.App.4th ___.

By William W. Abbott

Why Words Matter In Your General Plan: Resolving Issues Of Horizontal And Vertical Consistency.

When does language in a general plan regarding the size of a shopping center denote a mandatory or directory requirement for purposes of determining consistency? It all depends upon the wording according to the Fifth Appellate District.  At issue was the City of Modesto General Plan and the policies adopted (in 1974) in the general plan as part of the Neighborhood Plan Prototype (NPP). Within neighborhoods (estimated at 480 acres), the NPP called for a 7-9 acre shopping center with 60000-100,000 square feet of gross leasable area. In 2011, a developer proposed an 18 acre shopping center with approximately 170,000 square feet of gross leasable area. While the City initially processed a negative declaration, the CEQA processing shifted to an EIR. The project was opposed by neighboring property owners, and following City approval of the project, the neighbors filed suit on both land use and CEQA grounds. The trial court ruled for the City, and the neighbors appealed. The appellate court upheld the City’s decision, but published only the portion of the opinion pertaining to the land use claims.

The land use claim tested the consistency of the shopping center with the NPP, given that it was significantly larger than the acreage range contained within the NPP. The court cited the established rule that the consistency does not require exact conformity, but general compatibility. Sequoya Hills Homeowners Association v. City of Oakland (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 704 and Friends of Lagoon Valley v. City of Vacaville (2007) 154 Cal.App.4th 807. The court also noted that a city or county was entitled to deference when making those findings. The City’s findings had noted that the acreage notations in the NPP were for guidance purpose, and also noted that the City had approved a number of commercial centers in excess of the 7-9 acre range. While there was a legal debate as to whether the referenced centers were subject to the NPP, the appellate court concluded that it did not matter in the end. In the court’s view, there was substantial evidence in the record to support the City’s consistency determination in that the site fit the City’s location criteria for commercial centers and conformed to all of the other policies. One troubling argument involved the language of the NPP which recognized the need for potential minor adjustments to accommodate existing development in the area. The neighbors used this exception language to argue that the acreage range was in fact a mandatory standard. The appellate court concluded that this language, by its terms, only concerned itself with existing development and was not controlling as the question of whether or not the other NPP policies were mandatory and binding.

Comment: It is all about the staff report and findings. As this case illustrates, a city or county needs to make the case for consistency and other required determinations while the project is being processed. The reward for doing your homework is judicial deference, a worthy incentive.

William W. Abbott is a partner 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, nor 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.