Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll v. City of Agoura Hills (2020) 2020 Cal.App. LEXIS 222

Kate Wolf, singer/songwriter, phrased it well in her song Here in California: “It’s an old familiar story. An old familiar rhyme.” The familiar story in this blog is that of the fair argument standard, and the difficulty faced by the lead agency when defending a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration. The facts involve a relatively small project on 8.2 acres, and the developer’s plan was to consolidate 24 parcels into two lots, with a mixed-use project on 6.23 acres and the balance of 1.98 acres as an open space lot. Most of the site was covered by a specific plan adopted in 2008, the balance noted as a Significant Ecological Area. The City Council approved the project based upon a negative declaration following an appeal from the planning commission approval. The trial court ruled against the lead agency and developer (Gelfand) based upon CEQA claims and violation of the City oak tree ordinance. The court of appeal in a very detailed decision covering several substantive and procedural issues, affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Tribal Cultural Resources. In prior studies, a portion of the project site had been identified as a significant heritage resource, and prior consultants believed that the site met the requirements for inclusion in the California Register of Historic Resources. The negative declaration included three mitigation measures to reduce impacts to less-than-significant levels: (i) CS-CR-1 (monitoring during construction with an action plan to be developed based upon resources which are discovered), (ii) CS-CR-2 (notification steps if human remains discovered), and (iii) CS-CR-3 (excavation program if the site cannot be avoided). On appeal, the issues were (1) whether the City properly consulted with the Tribe with respect to tribal cultural resources (“TCRs”), and (2) the sufficiency of CS-CR-3. (The appellate decision does not address the consultation issue any further than to note that there had been exhaustion of administrative remedies.)

As to the merits of the mitigation measures, the appellate court faulted the City because (1) the extent of the resource site had never been established, (2) the response plan if resources were discovered was improperly deferred and was not tied to a performance standard, and (3) there was competent evidence of a fair argument by an expert that the project would destroy the cultural resource. In response to the same expert’s conclusion that the data recovery program would be expensive, the court ventured into unchartered waters concluding  that the negative declaration failed to assess the feasibility of the data recovery program required as part of Mitigation Measure CS-CR-3. (In this author’s opinion, this evaluation is not required.) All of these facts undermined the conclusion that impacts would be mitigated to a less than significant level.

Sensitive Plant Species. The negative declaration included mitigation for impacts on sensitive plant species. CS-Bio-1 required surveys for two species in advance of grading and replanting requirements. The appellate court concluded that there was substantial evidence of a fair argument of potential impacts because (1) a letter from California Department of Fish and Wildlife indicated that the studies relied upon were “outdated,” and (2) the most recent study was during a drought period, and the department recommended additional studies. The appellate court concluded that there was no substantial evidence that the additional studies could not have been performed. Additionally, CDFW also questioned the success of restoration planting for the two species, and a previous study had noted that most of the attempts to re-establish the plants had failed. The court also concluded that there was improper deferral as there was no standard identified to determine if avoidance was infeasible and that there was no detail about what the maintenance plan actions would entail.

As to a third plant, a special status species, the appellate court also found that the administrative record contained sufficient evidence to support a fair argument that mitigation through onsite preservation or offsite restoration may not succeed, and therefore there may be a significant impact.

CS-Bio-2 dealt with the location of the key plants in areas of firebreaks. However, the mitigation strategy was only crafted to address plant protection initially during construction, and not long term. The CDFW letter expressed concern for the disruption of the plant species (although not in very emphatic terms) and this letter was sufficient to provide the required evidence in support of a fair argument.

Oaks. The site included a number of oak trees and scrub oak habitat, and the project would require significant oak and habitat removal. The appellate court concluded that the mitigation measures were insufficient, and that there was substantial evidence of a fair argument as to potential impacts. As to the oaks retained on site, there was testimony that site grading could have an adverse effect on the subsurface water flow to the oaks, jeopardizing the trees according to the appellant’s consultant, a point also confirmed by the City’s own consultant. Additionally, there was substantial evidence of a fair argument that replanting, as one of the mitigation options, had not been demonstrated as successful in recreating oak woodlands. Finally, allowed mitigation included payment into an in lieu fund. The court rejected this mitigation option as the negative declaration did not specify the fees to be paid, the number of trees to be planted offsite or any analysis of the feasibility of an offsite mitigation program. (It appears that the City’s fee program had not gone through its own CEQA review.)

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies. On appeal, City and developer vigorously argued that the issues raised in court had not been raised during the administrative proceeding, leading to a defense of failure to exhaust administrative remedies. This is a fact intense inquiry, but for each argument, the Court of Appeal found record of sufficient objections during the project review process to satisfy the exhaustion requirement.

Standing. On appeal, the City and developer argued that there was no evidence that the petitioner, or a member of the organization had objected to the project, and that the amended pleading which added California Native Plant Society as a petitioner occurred after the expiration of the statute of limitations. Thus, argued the City/developer, the case should be dismissed. However, this defense was not raised at the trial court, but only included in the developer’s reply brief. In these circumstances, the argument was considered to be waived.

Attorneys Fees (Code of Civil Procedure §1021.5). The trial court awarded the opponents $142,148 in fees and costs (the opponents sought nearly $340,000), and allocated one half of the liability to the City and the balance to the developer (personally) and the partnership, jointly and severally. On appeal, the appellants argued that the petitioners were not entitled to any award on the basis that a copy of the petition had not been timely served on the California Attorney General. (See Public Resources Code §21167.7.)  A prior decision had reached that conclusion. (Schwartz v. City of Rosemead (1984) 155 Cal.App.3d 547.) However, this court found the facts to be distinguishable (in Schwartz, the service was not accomplished until right before the hearing on the merits. Here, the service was well in advance of the court hearing, leaving the Attorney General ample time to participate in the litigation.)

The court of appeal also affirmed the developer’s personal liability. The developer Gelfand was an officer of the corporation which served as the general partner in the limited partnership. Gelfand had been listed as the applicant in the notice of determination as did the resolutions of approval. Additionally, there was evidence that Gelfand had more of an interest in the property than just serving as a corporate officer, supporting the conclusion that Gelfand had a personal interest in the project and outcome and that he was holding himself out as “a property owner and/or project applicant.” In these circumstances, the trial court did not err in finding Gelfand and the corporation general partner as jointly and severally liable for one half of the award. (Obviously, applicants would do well to follow more disciplined communication practices when communicating with the city or county as part of the application process.)

As I started this blog with a song excerpt, so I will conclude with one as well, recognizing that Kenny Rogers just passed away last week. “Know when to walk away, know when to run.” Who knew he was singing about negative declarations?

William Abbott is Of Counsel 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.