By Brian Russell 

North County Advocates v.City of Carlsbad (2015) 241 Cal.App.4th 94.

Westfield, the landowner and developer, (“Westfield”) proposed to renovate a 40‑year‑old shopping center located in the City of Carlsbad, California (“City”). In July 2013, the City approved Westfield’s request to renovate the former Robinsons-May store and other small portions of the shopping center (“Project”). North County Advocates (“Advocates”) challenged the City’s approval under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), arguing that the Project’s environmental impact report (“EIR”) used an improper baseline in its traffic analysis because it treated the Robinsons-May store as fully occupied, even though it was vacated in 2006 and had been only periodically occupied since.

Advocates filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the City’s approval of the project, and the trial court denied Advocates’ petition. Advocates appealed the trial court’s judgment to the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

Advocates contended that the EIR’s traffic baseline is “incorrect and misleading” because it did not follow the “‘normally’” applicable rule of measuring conditions as they actually existed when environmental review began. Advocates argued that the City instead “falsely inflated the existing traffic conditions” by “imputing over 5,000 daily trips” to the baseline premised on a fully occupied Robinsons-May building when, in fact, Robinsons-May vacated the space in 2006. By falsely inflating the existing traffic conditions, the baseline understates the Project’s true impact on the environment.

The EIR’s Transportation Study elaborated on the City’s determination of the traffic baseline:

“Westfield Plaza Camino Real is an existing super regional shopping center which is entitled for 1,151,092 square feet of retail commercial space. All of the currently entitled square footage is completely constructed. However, the nature of a shopping center is that tenants change and the amount of occupied space constantly fluctuates. Plaza Camino Real currently has unoccupied leasable space beyond the normal amount, mainly the 148,159 square foot Robinsons-May building. Since this space is currently vacant, traffic from this space is not included in the actual traffic counts conducted at the analyzed intersections and street segments. However, for the purposes of determining the Existing Baseline Conditions pursuant to CEQA Guidelines Section 15125, trips attributable to that currently unoccupied space are imputed. A full occupancy assumption is consistent with San Diego Association of Government’s regional traffic modeling methodology which assumes full occupancy of all entitled square footage. It is also consistent with the City of Carlsbad and City of Oceanside’s determination of existing baseline because the currently vacant space could be occupied at anytime without discretionary action. In fact, portions of that space are periodically occupied with temporary uses such as a Halloween store which leases the space in the month of October. For these reasons, full occupancy of all entitled square footage is assumed in determining the Existing Baseline Conditions.”

Using the baseline with the imputed Robinsons-May traffic, the Transportation Study concluded the “Project will not result in a significant impact at any of the analyzed intersections during either peak hour, or any of the analyzed street segments during either peak hour or daily conditions.”

The appellate court concluded that the City’s selection of a traffic baseline that assumed full occupancy of the Robinsons-May space was not merely hypothetical because it was not based solely on Westfield’s entitlement to reoccupy the Robinsons-May building “at anytime with discretionary action” but was also based on the actual historical operation of the space at full occupancy for more than 30 years up until 2006. Then, from 2007 to 2009, the Robinson-May space had a reduction in occupied square footage. The court viewed this fluctuating occupancy, “which is the nature of a shopping center,” to allow the agency to have the discretion to consider conditions over a range of time periods to account for a temporary lull or spike in operations. Further, the City’s decision to base the traffic baseline on historical occupancy rates is further supported by substantial evidence consisting of San Diego Association of Government data on such use levels. These factors together were substantial evidence which supported the City’s exercise of discretion in selecting a traffic baseline that assumed a fully occupied Robinsons‑May building.

Brian Russell is an associate 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.