(Anderson v. County of Santa Barbara (2023) 94 Cal.App.5th 554.)

It is not unusual in the non-urban parts of California for a property owner to install landscaping within a county right-of-way without ever securing an encroachment permit.  In Santa Barbara County, like many jurisdictions, installing these improvements without County approval can be treated as a misdemeanor.  Such work can also violate the Streets and Highways Code.

Following the County road commissioner’s attempts to compel removal of unpermitted landscaping to restore street parking, the affected property owners sued and obtained a preliminary injunction from the trial court against the County, preventing the County from enforcing removal pending a trial on the merits.  The issue in this reported decision was the appropriateness of that preliminary injunction.  The appellate court reversed the trial court as to the grant of the preliminary injunction.

The appellate court addressed several important issues for city and county officials facing other enforcement scenarios. As a threshold issue, the court determined that CEQA should not be used to frustrate criminal law enforcement.  This blog focuses on the intersection of CEQA with the County enforcement efforts.  The owners challenged the lack of a CEQA document, and the County argued that multiple separate CEQA exemptions applied.  The property owners countered, arguing that the efforts to increase street parking was part of a larger project, or alternatively, that the “unusual circumstances” limitation excluded the use of exemptions.

The owners asserted that there was a larger connected project (increased trail hiking) which had never been studied. But the court concluded that the County’s project was to restore parking that had previously existed, and this project had independent utility and thus could be studied on its own.  As to exemptions, the County argued that the activity was subject to three alternative exemptions: 15301, maintenance of existing facilities; 15304, minor alterations to land; and 15321, enforcement actions by regulatory agencies.  After determining that the enforcement action had independent utility and thus was not part of a larger project, the appellate court rejected the argument that there was piecemealing and the enforcement action fit within the exemptions.  The appellate court then rejected the owners’ argument that there were unusual circumstances which operated to preclude the use of exemptions. Applying Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, the appellate court then concluded that the evidence of the road, along with its relationship to sensitive environmental lands, was not unusual compared to other nearby roads and habitat lands, and upon that basis, it reversed the trial court’s contrary finding.

When all factors were considered, the appellate court concluded that as a matter of law, a preliminary injunction against enforcement should not have been granted.  After trial, the lower court ruled in favor of the owners, but that is unlikely given the thoughtful analysis by the court of appeal.  

Bill 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.

(Martinez v. City of Clovis (2023) 90 Cal.App.5th 193)

The California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District affirmed the trial court’s ruling that City of Clovis (the “City”) did not substantially comply with the Housing Element Law (“Housing Element Law”).[1]  In order to come into compliance with the Housing Element statute, the City implemented two changes to its Municipal Code designed to accommodate greater affordable housing development.  To do so, the City amended the General Plan to allow for multi-family housing in the Public Facilities Zone (“P-F Zone”) and adopted a corresponding zoning ordinance to (a) provide for multi-family housing as a permitted use in P-F Zone and (b) add a new overlay zone district for Regional Housing Needs Allocation (“RHNA”), known as the RHN Overlay, which provided by-right approval for lower income housing in all vacant, residentially zoned property between one and 10 acres within the City limits.  Since the City had a shortfall for the current planning period—the carryover from the prior planning period—the Housing Element Law imposes a minimum density requirement to rezone sites to accommodate the shortfall of affordable housing units.  However, since the City’s overlay designation did not change the base zoning, it allowed for development to continue to occur at a density lower than the statutory minimum. Therefore, the court held the RHN Overlay sites do not comply with Housing Element Law, because it does not guarantee compliance with the mandatory statutory minimum.  In a nutshell, putting an overlay zone on the properties does not require that any of the sites be developed at the higher densities required for affordable housing units. 

City History of Housing Element Compliance

The two RHNAs that are relevant to this case are the RHNA adopted by the Fresno Council of Governments (“COG”) for the 2006 through 2013 years (the fourth revision cycle for the City’s Housing Element) and the RHNA for the January 1, 2013, to December 31, 2023, period (the fifth revision cycle).  The fifth cycle was adopted by COG on July 31, 2014, and set forth the RHNA for Clovis and all other jurisdictions in Fresno County.  Sometime in 2016, Clovis adopted the “Fresno Multijurisdictional 2015-2023 Housing Element” (2015-2023 Housing Element).  It stated that Clovis’s fifth cycle RHNA totaled 6,328 housing units, which consisted of 1,160 extremely low-income units, 1,161 very low-income units, 1,145 low-income units, 1,018 moderate income units, and 1,844 above moderate-income units.  The fifth cycle also addressed Clovis’s fourth cycle RHNA and the number of unaccommodated housing units that carried over to the fifth planning period.  The City’s fourth cycle RHNA had a total of 15,383, including 1,637 extremely low-income units, 1,638 very low-income units, and 2,354 low-income units (i.e. a total of 5,625 lower income units.  Clovis met its fourth cycle RHNA for moderate and above moderate-income units.  In contrast, Clovis failed to accommodate 4,425 units of its lower income housing RHNA of 5,629 units. 

The shortfall during the fourth cycle was caused by the City rezoning a substantial amount of land at densities that could accommodate 4,614 lower income units, but only 717 units on sites zoned R-4 met the statutory requirements for adequate sites.  For sites to satisfy the lower-income RHNA during the carryover period, they must meet the following statutory requirements:

  • Must be rezoned within the first year of the next cycle following shortfall; and
  • Must be rezoned to permit owner-occupied and rental multi-family housing by right without discretionary review of the use or density; and
  • Must be zoned with a minimum density of 20 units per acre and be large enough to accommodate at 16 units per site (Government Code § 65583.2(h)); and
  • Additionally, at least 50 percent of the low income RHNA carryover must be allowed on sites designated for exclusively residential uses. 

After going back and forth with the California Department of Housing and Community Development (“HCD”), in 2019, HCD finally deemed the City in compliance with the Housing Element Law.

Plaintiff’s Contentions

Plaintiff Martinez sought a writ of mandate for violation of the Housing Element Law challenging  (1) the adequacy of the City’s amended housing element; (2) the City’s failure to comply with the requirement to rezone to accommodate the RHNA carryover within the first year of the fifth planning period; and (3) the City’s failure to implement Program 4, the action plan the City promised HCD would cure the shortfall in lower income housing.  The trial court granted the writ of mandate for the three causes of action and directed the City to file a return within 150 days stating how it had complied with the writ.  The City appealed.  The appellate court affirmed the trial court order as to the 1st and 3rd causes of action and reversed as the 2nd cause of action because it held, unlike the trial court, that the City was not required to provide an analysis of the feasibility of development in the rezoned areas.   

Program 4 and the RHN Overlay

Program 4 in the 2015-2023 housing element stated Clovis would rezone to accommodate its fourth cycle RHNA shortfall of 4,425 lower income units by December 31, 2016.  However, the City never demonstrated implementation of the program and instead offered only an anticipated schedule for program implementation.  Clovis ultimately failed to meet its deadline in December 2016 and HCD subsequently revoked its finding that the City’s Housing Element substantially complied with state law.  In November 2018, Clovis again attempted to bring the Housing Element into compliance by adopting the RHN Overlay to provide by-right approval for multi-family housing at a density of 35 to 43 units per acre on any residentially zoned sites with a minimum of 1 acre and a maximum of 10 acres.  However, the base zoning in existence when the overlay was enacted still applied to the RHN Overlay sites. That base zoning permitted development at densities below 20 units per acre on all except one of the sites, and some densities were as low as 0.5 units per acres, far below the statutory minimum for carryover Housing Element zoning.

The Court of Appeal determined the statutory standard Clovis failed to meet was a mandatory minimum.  This means that the City is required to not only adopt zoning regulations that accommodate high-density multi-family housing, but also enforce the exclusivity of those zones for that purpose.  The City’s responsibility is not simply to refrain from housing discrimination, but rather, it is obligated to “affirmatively further fair housing.”  The Court concluded that the City could not satisfy its Housing Element duties by borrowing from existing zoned sites and merely expanding their usage; rather, it was required to rezone those sites entirely.  Consistent with this determination, the Court of Appeals also held that HCD was “clearly erroneous” when it approved the RHN Overlay as compliant with the Housing Element Law in 2019.

Feasibility Analysis

However, the court also pushed back against the plaintiff’s contentions that when designating Housing Element zones for nonvacant sites, the City is required to conduct an analysis of the feasibility of development on those sites, including publishing its methodology and including its findings in the Housing Element itself.  The court agreed with the Clovis that, although “the goal [of the Housing Element Law] is not just to identify land, but to pinpoint sites that are adequate and realistically available for residential development targets for each income level,” the City was not required to carry out an analysis that is not required by the Legislature by statute. 

Conclusion

The key takeaway from this case is that to comply with the Housing Element Law and the affirmative duty to further fair housing, many local governments will need to designate exclusive income-based housing sites rather than layering them upon existing zones.  However, the State’s emphasis with local governments remains centered on local land use control.  Local governments are still not required to build, finance, or otherwise contribute public funds to construct lower income housing.


[1]   Further references to the “Housing Element” are to sections 65580 through 56689.11, which constitute article 10.6 of Chapter 3 of Division 1 of Title 7 of the Government Code. 

Kara Anderson is a law clerk 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.

Cal. Restaurant Ass’n v. City of Berkeley (2023) 65 F.4th 1045.

In the continued effort by cities to require all-electric infrastructure in new buildings, the City of Berkeley (“Berkeley”) adopted an ordinance that prohibited, with some exceptions, natural gas infrastructure in newly constructed buildings (“Ordinance”).  Congress adopted the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (“EPCA”), 42 U.S. 6297(c)), which expressly preempts state and local regulations concerning the energy use of many natural gas appliances, including those used in household and restaurant kitchens.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (“9th Circuit”) concluded that Berkeley is preempted from prohibiting natural gas piping because Berkeley is barred from banning natural gas appliances. As denying gas piping will render any natural gas appliances useless to the homeowner or commercial user, the 9th Circuit held the EPCA preempts the Ordinance.

Scope of EPCA Preemption

EPCA preempts regulations that relate to “the quality of natural gas directly consumed by certain consumer appliances at the place where those products are used.”  EPCA concerns the end-user’s ability to use installed covered products at their intended final destinations.  A regulation that prohibits consumers from using appliances impacts the “quality of energy directly consumed by the appliances at the point of use.  So, in plain language, EPCA preempts the Ordinance because the Ordinance prohibits the installation of necessary natural gas infrastructure on premises where covered natural gas appliances are used. 

The court reinforced this interpretation of the EPCA’s scope by emphasizing that a regulation need not be written directly against the products covered under the EPCA; instead, the statute protects against regulations that “concern” such products.  Therefore, given the broadness of the term “concerns,” the court explained that local governments have less authority to regulate products under the EPCA as the statute’s terms grant widespread control over those regulations to the federal government.

Berkeley’s Contentions

Berkeley contended that its Ordinance does not regulate “energy use” because it bans natural gas rather than prescribing an affirmative “quality of energy.”  While Berkeley agreed that a prohibition on natural gas infrastructure reduces energy consumption to zero, Berkeley argued that “zero” is not a “quantity.” Thus, the Ordinance is not an “energy use” regulation.  The 9th Circuit quickly dispensed with this argument, determining it is well accepted in ordinary usage that “zero” is a “quantity.”

Berkeley’s second, equally unpersuasive argument is that EPCA’s definition of energy efficiency precludes a total prohibition on natural gas piping from being an “energy use” regulation.  EPCA defines “energy efficiency” as the “ratio of the useful output of services to the energy use of the product.  (Section 6291(5).)  According to Berkeley, “zero” cannot serve as the “quantity of energy” in “energy use;” otherwise the energy efficiency ratio would have an impermissible “zero” denominator.  But in that case, both the denominator (“energy use”) and the numerator (“output”) would be zero, which yields an indeterminate result.  The 9th Circuit doubted Congress meant to hide an exemption to the plain text of EPCA’s preemption clause in a mathematical equation.  Thus, a regulation that imposes a total ban on natural gas is not exempt from EPCA because it lowers the “quantity of energy” consumed to “zero.” 

Conclusion

In sum, Berkeley cannot bypass the preemption by banning natural gas piping within buildings rather than banning natural gas products themselves.  With several cities and counties adopting and considering similar ordinances or policies in their Climate Act Plans or through their building codes, it is essential to evaluate if the prohibitions or restrictions are preempted by the EPCA or other legislation adopted by Congress or California.  It is also vital to assess prospective policies beyond their direct implications, as the court has decided that EPCA’s preemption extends past facial regulations.   Furthermore, this is consistent with the recent California Supreme Court case holding that Monterey County’s Measure Z banning the injection of oil and gas wastewater on all lands within Monterey County is preempted by Public Resources Code section 3106.  Thus, while cities and counties have broad zoning powers, the local legislation cannot conflict with federal or state law.   (Chevron U.S.A. Inc, v. County of Monterey (2023) S271869.) 

Patrick Enright is Senior Counsel and Kara Anderson is a law clerk 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.

Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. County of Monterey

California’s oil and gas operations are governed by Division 3 of the Public Resources Code (§ 3000 et seq.) and its implementing regulations (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 14, § 1712 et seq.).  Division 3 addresses various aspects of oil and gas exploration and extraction, including notices of intent to drill and abandon (§§ 3203, 3229), blowout prevention (§ 3219), repairs (§3225), protection of water supplies (§§ 3222, 3228), and well spacing (§§ 3200-3609).  The implementing regulations, in turn, address the process for oil producers and well operators to obtain state approval of “drilling, reworking, injection, plugging, or plugging and abandonment operations” (Cal. Code regs., tit.14, § 1714) and provide instructions and timelines for filing well and safety records with CalGEM. (Id. at § 1724.1.)  The regulations are “statewide in application for onshore drilling, production, and injection operations,” and all onshore prospect, development, and service wells shall be drilled and operated in accordance with them.  (Id. at § 1712.)

Public Resources Code subdivisions 3106(a) and (b) provide:

“The [state oil and gas] supervisor shall so supervise the drilling, operation, maintenance, and abandonment of wells and the operation, maintenance, and removal or abandonment of tanks and facilities attendant to oil and gas prevention . . . [the supervisor] shall supervise the drilling, operation, maintenance, and abandonment of wells so as to permit the owners or operators of the wells to utilize all methods and practices known to the oil industry for the purpose of increasing the ultimate recovery of underground hydrocarbons and which, in the opinion of the supervisor, are suitable for this purpose in each proposed case. . . .   it is hereby declared as a policy of this state that the grant in an oil and gas lease or contract to a lessee or operator of the right or power, in substance, to explore for and remove all hydrocarbons form any lands in the state, in the absence of an express provision to the contrary contained in the lease or contract, is deemed to allow the lessee or contractor, or the lessee’s or contractor’s successors or assigns, to do what a prudent operator using reasonable diligence would do . . . including, but not limited to, the injection of air, gas, water, or other fluids into the productive strata . . .  when these methods or processes employed have been approved by the supervisor, except that nothing contained in this section imposes a legal duty upon the lessee or contractor, or the lessee’s or contractor’s successors or assigns, to conduct these operations.”

Thus, the statute directs the supervisor to administer the state’s regulations in a way that serves the dual purpose of ensuring the state has adequate oil and gas resources while protecting the environment.

Monterey County’s Measure Z

In 2016, Protect Monterey County (“PMC”) sponsored, and Monterey County (“County”) votes passed Measure Z.  This ordinance bans oil and gas wastewater injection and impoundment and the drilling of new oil and gas wells throughout the unincorporated areas of the County.[1]  What is labeled as LU-1.22 of the Measure provides,

“Prohibited Land Uses:  The development, construction, installation, or use of any facility, appurtenance, or above-ground equipment, whether temporary or permanent, mobile or fixed, accessory or principal, in support of oil and gas wastewater injection or oil and gas wastewater impoundment, is prohibited on all lands within the County’s unincorporated area.” 

LU-1.23 provided:

“Prohibited Land Uses: The drilling of new oil and gas wells is prohibited on all lands within the County’s unincorporated area.”

County’s Zoning Powers; Preemption

The Supreme Court initially discussed the County’s powers under Article XI, section 7 of the California Constitution which provides that a “county or city may make and enforce within its limits all local, police, sanitary, and other ordinances and regulations not in conflict with general laws.”  If a local legislation conflicts with state law, it is preempted by the state law and is void.  (Sherwin-Williams Co. v. City of Los Angeles (1993) 4 Cal.4th 893, 897; quoting Candid Enterprises, Inc v. Grossmont Union High School Dist. (1985) 39 Cal.3d 878, 885.)  The Supreme Court has identified three ways in which a preempting conflict may arise: if the local legislation duplicates, contradicts, or enters an area fully occupied by general law, either expressly or by legislative implication.  (Sherwin-Wiliams, supra, 4 Cal.4th at 897.)  A contradiction occurs when a local ordinance “prohibits what [a] state enactment demands.” (Quoting City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health & Wellness Center, Inc. (2013) 56 Cal.4th 729, 743.)

Here, the Court found Measure Z contradicted the statute under section 3106.  Whereas the state’s provision assigned the authority to regulate oil and gas production methods to the state supervisor, Measure Z reallocated that authority to the County.  The Measure, in explicitly banning certain methods of production, acted contrary to the state supervisor who has the statutory authority and obligation to regulate.  Thus, the Measure was preempted by 3106.  The Supreme Court was unconvinced by the appellant’s argument that a local regulation prohibiting an activity is not preempted by a statute that authorizes a state authority to permit, rather than demand, that activity.  The Court clarified that local prohibition of an activity for which permission is regulated by the state is necessarily preempted.  (Citing Cohen v. Board of Supervisors (1985) 40 Cal.3d 277, 293.)

However, the Court also reinforced that nothing in this opinion diminishes local governments’ authority to regulate where oil and gas may be produced within their localities.  It expressed the narrowness of this holding by explaining that local regulations requiring permits for oil drilling operations or restricting oil drilling operations to particular zoning districts remain valid.

Conclusion

In sum, Monterey County cannot assert a local ordinance under Measure Z that contradicts Public Resources Code section 3106 because the latter preempts the former.  This is consistent with the recent Ninth Circuit decision holding that the City of Berkeley is preempted from implementing a local ban on natural gas piping because, under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, local governments cannot ban natural gas products.  (Cal. Restaurant Ass’n v. City of Berkeley (2023) 65 F.4th 1045.)  Thus, while cities and counties have broad zoning powers, local legislation cannot conflict with state or federal law.


[1]   The Measure also banned fracking, but the Court determine no petitioner was using or proposing to sue the fracking process banned in Measure Z.  Thus, the Court did not have address the fracking provisions of Measure Z. 

Patrick Enright is Senior Counsel and Kara Anderson is a law clerk 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.

Diane G. Kindermann (2015-2023) and William W. Abbott (2004-2023) were again selected for the Northern California Super Lawyers List in the practice areas of Land Use and Zoning law. More information is available here.

Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. has been serving private and public clients in California on land use, environmental, and real estate matters for more than 25 years.

For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Diane Kindermann, Bill Abbott, Glen Hansen or Patrick Enright at 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.

California’s wildfire season now spans nearly the full calendar year. For California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) practitioners, this means the enhanced scrutiny of wildfire and evacuation impact discussions in CEQA documents is an emerging issue that compels more robust CEQA evaluation than has traditionally been afforded to this topic. This new emphasis comes from revisions to the CEQA Guidelines (the “Guidelines”), trial court filings, and appellate court decisions. This article is devoted to identifying useful resource documents that can assist local agency planners and CEQA consultants in addressing project review and impact analysis. This blog reviews the CEQA Guidelines and recent case law evaluating wildfire impact analyses, along with additional resources for planners and CEQA practitioners.

These materials are arranged as follows:

I. Wildfire and the CEQA Guidelines

II. CEQA Caselaw and Wildfire Issues

III. Related Statutes and Regulations

IV. CEQA Guidance (California Attorney General)

V. Land Use Planning Guidance (OPR)

VI. Wildfire Resource Links

I. Wildfire and the CEQA Guidelines

The Guidelines address fire risk in two separate Appendix G analyses: Sections IX and XX:

Section IX: Hazards and Hazardous Materials, part of the Guidelines for many years, asks the following relevant questions regarding whether a proposal would:

f) Impair implementation of or physically interfere with an adopted emergency response plan or emergency evacuation plan; or

g) Expose people or structures, either directly or indirectly, to a significant risk of loss, injury or death involving wildland fires.

Section XX: Wildfire, added to the Guidelines in 2018, asks additional wildfire-related questions aimed at proposals located in or near state responsibility areas or lands classified as very high fire hazard severity zones. The section asks whether the project would:

a) Substantially impair an adopted emergency response plan or emergency evacuation plan;

b) Due to slope, prevailing winds, and other factors, exacerbate wildfire risks, and thereby expose project occupants to, pollutant concentrations from a wildfire or the uncontrolled spread of a wildfire;

c) Require the installation or maintenance of associated infrastructure (such as roads, fuel breaks, emergency water sources, power lines, or other utilities) that may exacerbate fire risk or that may result in temporary or ongoing impacts to the environment; or

d) Expose people or structures to significant risks, including downslope or downstream flooding or landslides, as a result of runoff, post-fire slope instability, or drainage changes.

Additionally, the Guidelines indirectly address fire-related risk in the mandatory findings of significance (Guidelines § 15065(a)(4)), which provide for a mandatory finding when “[t]he environmental effects of a project will cause substantial adverse effects on human beings, either directly or indirectly.”

II. CEQA Caselaw and Wildfire Issues

Clews Land & Livestock, LLC. v. City of San Diego (2017) 19 Cal.App.5th 161

Clews involved a mitigated negative declaration (“MND”) approved for the construction of a school atop a bluff in San Diego’s Carmel Valley. Clews Land and Livestock, LLC. (“Clews”) owned a horse ranch adjacent to the proposed location of Cal Coast Academy that was approved by the city (together, “Respondents”). The area is within a “very high fire hazard severity zone.” The Clews alleged an environmental impact report (“EIR”) should have been performed under CEQA because the project exacerbated fire hazards, among other concerns. Specifically, Clews argued the proposal interfered with the ability of people and animals at the ranch to evacuate in the event of a wildfire. The Fourth District Court of Appeal disagreed, reasoning that the city’s fire marshal found the project complied with city fire codes, and the project did not introduce any new fire hazards that did not already exist.

Clews’ argument was primarily based on a report prepared by its fire safety hazard expert, who posed several questions about fire safety that the consultant alleged went unanswered in the MND. Among the topics the expert addressed were the school’s evacuation plan, and first responder response times and capabilities. Clews’ expert contended the main roadway would be inadequate to support the safe evacuation of the school in addition to the animals and people at the ranch in the event of a wildfire. The appellate court, however, said the expert’s comments were “conclusory, speculative or otherwise unsupported,” and that Clews generally failed to present a fair argument that the addition of more people in the area would have caused significant environmental impacts.

The appellate court concluded that Clews failed to show a fair argument existed that the project would materially affect evacuation routes in the area. It said the city was not required to prepare an EIR because the fire risk in the area, while high generally, was not increased due to the existence of the new project. In fact, the court pointed out that Respondents, by incorporating a new water line and fire hydrant line, appeared to increase fire safety in the area. It was dissuaded by Clews’ contention that the main road was inadequate to satisfy a successful evacuation of the occupants and animals at both properties. The court pointed out that an alternative fire evacuation route existed along a nearby dirt road. It also relied on the fact that the school intended to only operate part of the year and intended to close on red flag days out of an abundance of caution. Additionally, the court reasoned that the inherent difficulty in evacuating the ranch—comprising 135 horses, 15 cattle, ranch personnel, clients and trailers—existed prior to the school proposal, and thus, would not be significantly affected by the school.

Newtown Preservation Society v. County of El Dorado (2021) 65 Cal.App.5th 771

Newtown Preservation Society involved a bridge replacement project in El Dorado County. The County of El Dorado (“County”) approved an MND stating that the project’s impacts would be less than significant. A local community group, Newtown Preservation Society (“Newtown”), sued the County, contending an EIR should have been prepared instead. Newtown alleged substantial evidence existed that pointed toward significant environmental impacts related to resident safety and emergency evacuations in the event of a wildfire.

The MND acknowledged that bridge construction would force the closure of a main road, forcing traffic to detour onto another road, which was a longer route out of the area. The MND provided mitigation measures including the creation of a temporary evacuation route downstream from the new bridge by acquiring a temporary easement over a property near the bridge. The MND concluded that the completed project, as mitigated, would not expose people or structures to new or increased significant risk of loss, injury, or death involving wildland fires.

Newtown purported to offer substantial evidence, which comprised of residents’ comments. One of the statements came from a retired Cal Fire aerial firefighter who contended that the proposal would block one of the primary escape routes from the canyon for up to two fire seasons. The Third District Court of Appeal found Newtown failed to provide any facts related to how the firefighter was an expert in ground evacuation routes. It cited Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino1 Cal.App.5th 677, 690-691 (2016), which concluded a lay person’s opinion based on technical information that requires expertise does not qualify as substantial evidence.

The appellate court concluded residents’ statements regarding existing threats of wildfire and individual sentiments related to experiences with past wildfire were insufficient to constitute substantial evidence needed to require an EIR under CEQA. While expert opinion substantiated by fact will normally satisfy as substantial evidence, the court concluded the residents’ comments lacked factual foundation and failed to show how the alternative evacuation plan included in the MND would fail to sufficiently mitigate impacts on safety.

Save the El Dorado Ditch v. El Dorado Irrigation Dist. (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 239

Save the El Dorado Ditch (“Appellant”) challenged the approval of an EIR by the El Dorado Irrigation District (“EID”) for a water pipeline project. Among Appellants’ allegations was a contention that EID failed to adequately analyze the impacts of the project on firefighting water supplies, thereby increasing the risks associated with wildfire. The Third District Court of Appeal, however, concluded the EIR was sufficient, as Appellants failed to present substantial evidence to the contrary.

EID sought to replace approximately three miles of an unlined earthen ditch system with a buried water transmission pipeline proposed to be located either beneath the ditch itself or beneath a berm located alongside the ditch. However, EID instead approved an alternative to the project, which essentially abandoned EID’s use of the ditch altogether in favor of most of the pipeline being placed under a nearby roadway.

Appellants sued, alleging EID’s approval of the alternative project violated CEQA because, by abandoning the ditch, EID would also be abandoning a water source for firefighters to utilize in the event of wildfire. Appellants contended the EIR was deficient because it discussed only construction-related firefighting risks and disregarded contentions regarding the loss of the ditch water for firefighting purposes.

The draft EIR noted the alternative project would have similar impacts to wildland fire risk as the initial proposal. The analysis concluded fire hazards in the project area would be unaffected because the proposal did not create a fire hazard. The draft EIR stated that the ditch’s water supply is not part of the local Cal Fire unit’s strategic plan for fighting wildfire in the area.

Several public comments were submitted during the comment period concerning the alleged removal of a water source used as a firefighting tool. The final EIR directed at least one commenter to a wildfire protection-related master response that stated that the ditch is not a firefighting resource, and thus, there were no significant impacts to be mitigated. The appellate court concluded EID’s response to the comments in the final EIR was sufficient.

League to Save Lake Tahoe Mountain v. County of Placer (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 63

In October 2016, the Placer County Board of Supervisors certified an EIR and approved a specific plan for a project involving lands in a “very high fire hazard severity zone,” as classified by Cal Fire. The specific plan provided for development of up 1,360 dwelling units and up to 6.6 acres of commercial use. Within this area, the County of Placer (“County”) maintained an evacuation plan, the Placer Operational Area East Side Emergency Evacuation Plan. The project opponents (“League”) filed suit, challenging the less-than-significant impact analysis conclusion in the EIR as it pertained to interference with an evacuation plan, among other issues. The trial court determined that the fire/evacuation analysis did not comply with CEQA. The developer appealed on this issue (other issues were appealed by the developer, as well as the project opponents), and the Third District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision, concluding that the hazards analysis, and the conclusion of a less-than-significant impact, complied with CEQA.

To put this appellate court decision into context, the Guidelines, as it pertains to wildfire, were amended in 2018, so the decision relied upon the prior version of the Guidelines. The EIR considered the Guidelines as they existed pre-2018, using the following threshold of significance:  the project’s impact would be significant if the project would “impair implementation of or physically interfere with an adopted emergency response plan or emergency evacuation plan.” The draft EIR concluded that the impact would be less than significant, based on several factors:

  • The project included emergency access;
  • The project’s incremental traffic increase would be insufficient to interfere with the use of the main highway under the County’s evacuation plan or otherwise modify any existing evacuation routes;
  • The project included an emergency preparedness and evacuation plan, coordinated with the County’s plan and the closest fire district. The plan included a requirement for later project EIRs to require the homeowner’s association (“HOA”) (prior to a specified development threshold) to construct a shelter-in-place amenity; and
  • The cumulative effects of this project and others were not cumulatively considerable.

In response to public comments on the draft, the County expanded the discussion of this issue.  The master response in the final EIR discussed the emergency plan in greater detail focusing on the implementation of existing regulations, including defensible space, fuel maintenance, structural and infrastructure requirements and building code requirements. The plan would also impose requirements on water supply and flow, emergency access, evacuation signage, public education and communication, forestry management, strategies to address onsite hazards and development restrictions. The final EIR also reviewed a study performed by a traffic consultant, evaluating how long evacuation would take assuming maximum occupancy, during the summer months, a peak time for traffic. The study concluded that project evacuation (existing plus project) would be 1.3 hours, and 1.5 hours under cumulative conditions. The final EIR noted that any project would add evacuation time, but that this did not necessarily generate a safety risk. Emergency personnel take into consideration the time necessary for evacuation when determining when and where to issue evacuation orders.

The master response also addressed the comment complaining of a lack of modeled traffic events during an emergency event. The final EIR noted the significant number of different hypothetical fire events influenced by humidity levels, wind direction, and fuel loading. The EIR noted that any one model would be speculative and not representative of actual conditions on the ground.  Given those constraints, an evaluation, such as the one performed, which looked at total time to exit, was a reasonable metric to apply.

The appellate court concluded that the record included substantial evidence to support the less-than-significant conclusion, noting the following:

  • Nothing in the project or cumulative conditions would prevent or interfere with the County evacuation plan;
  • The project would include two additional evacuation access routes for a total of three;
  • The project included internal access roads so that every parcel had two routes for ingress and egress;
  • In reviewing the traffic consultant’s study, the County implicitly found that 1.3 and 1.5 hours for evacuation were reasonable;
  • The project would not significantly increase response times from the nearby fire district;
  • Between impact fees and financial contributions through the development agreement (“DA”), the project would contribute to help fund two additional firefighter positions;
  • The final EIR provided a reasonable response and explanation regarding the traffic model. EIRs are not required to engage in speculation;
  • The County was not required to use its standard significance thresholds for traffic (note: this EIR evolved prior to the CEQA change to vehicle miles traveled (“VMT”) analysis), and the EIR adequately disclosed the basis for the different metric applied by the County; and
  • Although the project’s emergency plan contained many measures unrelated to evacuation, these measures (e.g., vegetation control) would reduce the risk of fire or the spread of fire which would otherwise lead to an evacuation event.

Based upon these considerations, the appellate court concluded that substantial evidence supported the conclusion that the project’s impacts related to an adopted evacuation plan were less than significant.

The Claremont Canyon Conservancy v. Regents of the University of California (2023) 92 Cal.App.5th 474

The Regents of the University of California (“Regents”) certified an EIR for a project aimed at reducing wildfire risk at UC Berkeley’s Hill Campus, located in the East Bay Hills. Environmental organizations (“Opponents”) filed suit, contending, relevant here, that the EIR included an inadequate project description. The Opponents generally argued that the EIR should have detailed the precise quantity of trees to be removed. The trial court sided with the Opponents, concluding the project description was “uncertain and ambiguous.” The First District Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the project description included sufficient information to allow the public to understand the project’s environmental impacts.

CEQA Guidelines § 15124 requires that a project description include: the precise location and boundaries of the proposed project on a detailed map; a general description of the proposed project’s objectives, including the project’s underlying purpose; a general description of the project’s technical, economic, and environmental characteristics; and a brief description of the EIR’s intended uses. The First District held the project description satisfied Guidelines § 15124 in that the EIR included: a sufficiently detailed map, a sufficient description of the project’s objectives, which stated the project’s underlying purpose as “reduc[ing] the amount and continuity of vegetation that increases wildland fire hazards, including highly flammable invasive plant species” while explaining why vegetation removal was required in the included areas; provided sufficient descriptions of the vegetation found in each project area, while listing “objective removal criteria” and a summary of “the methods used to remove vegetation;” and included a sufficient description of the EIR’s intended uses.

Moreover, regarding the Opponents’ displeasure with the EIR not specifying the exact number of trees that would be removed during the project, the court concluded the “principles of density thinning and objective criteria listed” in the EIR was sufficient. Guidelines § 15124 states that project descriptions “should not supply extensive detail beyond that needed for evaluation and review of the environmental impact.” Here, the appellate court concluded that the EIR included a stable project description along with a sufficient level of detail. The EIR included a description of the iterative decision-making process to be employed in the field by arborists and professional foresters. The site-specific evaluation would take into consideration site-specific issues such as fuel mix, density terrain, tree height, and canopy cover. Given the potential for vegetation changes between EIR certification and project implementation, the appellate court agreed with the Regents that it was not feasible to do more at the time of EIR certification, as EIRs do not require “technical perfection,” “scientific certainty,” and “exhaustive analysis,” but rather, require only “adequacy, completeness and a good-faith effort at full disclosure.”

Also relevant is the court’s apparent endorsement of the Regents’ usage of fire models to predict fire behavior on the Hill Campus. “The modeling considered factors including flame length, rate of spread, crown fire activity, and maximum spotting distance, along with the vegetation in a particular location—e.g., oak-bay woodland, eucalyptus forest, and coniferous forest. The EIR contains figures showing vegetation and fuel distribution in the project areas and the predicted crown fire activity under certain weather conditions.” In its recently released guidance concerning best practices for wildfire risk mitigation under CEQA, discussed in more detail below, the California Attorney General ‘s office recommended the use of fire modeling in quantifying wildfire risk, stating models should include a variety of plausible scenarios.

III. Related Statutes and Regulations

A. The Subdivision Map Act requires certain findings for subdivisions located in state responsibility areas or very high fire hazard severity zones. Government code 66474.02 provides as follows:

(a) Before approving a tentative map, or a parcel map for which a tentative map was not required, for an area located in a state responsibility area or a very high fire hazard severity zone, as both are defined in Section 51177, a legislative body of a county shall, except as provided in subdivision (b), make the following findings:

(1) A finding supported by substantial evidence in the record that the subdivision is consistent with regulations adopted by the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection pursuant to Sections 4290 and 4291 of the Public Resources Code or consistent with local ordinances certified by the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection as meeting or exceeding the state regulations.

(2) A finding supported by substantial evidence in the record that structural fire protection and suppression services will be available for the subdivision through any of the following entities:

(A) A county, city, special district, political subdivision of the state, or another entity organized solely to provide fire protection services that is monitored and funded by a county or other public entity

(B) The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection by contract entered into pursuant to Section 4133, 4142, or 4144 of the Public Resources Code.

(b) Upon approving a tentative map, or a parcel map for which a tentative map was not required, for an area located in a state responsibility area or a very high fire hazard severity zone, as both are defined in Section 51177, a legislative body of a county shall transmit a copy of the findings required in subdivision (a) and accompanying maps to the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection.

(c) (1) Subdivision (a) does not apply to the approval of a tentative map, or a parcel map for which a tentative map was not required, that would subdivide land identified in the open space element of the general plan for the managed production of resources, including, but not limited to, forest land, rangeland, agricultural land, and areas of economic importance for the production of food or fiber, if the subdivision is consistent with the open space purpose and if, for the subdivision of land that would result in parcels that are 40 acres or smaller in size, those parcels are subject to a binding and recorded restriction prohibiting the development of a habitable, industrial, or commercial building or structure. All other structures shall comply with defensible space requirements described in Section 51182 of this code or Sections 4290 and 4291 of the Public Resources Code.

(2) Any later approval to remove a binding restriction placed as a condition of a tentative map, or a parcel map for which a tentative map was not required, that would allow the development of a building or structure for a parcel that has previously been exempted from the requirements of subdivision (a) pursuant to paragraph (1) of this subdivision shall be subject to the requirements of subdivision (a).

(d) This section does not supersede regulations established by the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection or local ordinances that provide equivalent or more stringent minimum requirements than those contained within this section.

B. Cal Fire’ s authority to adopt regulations for land development and construction: Public Resources Code Section 4290, Public Resources Code Section 4291.

C. Cal Fire General Plan Safety Element Review regulations: Cal. Code Regs., tit. 14, §§ 1265.00-1265.03.

D. Cal Fire State Responsibility Area Minimum Fire Safe regulations: Cal. Code Regs., tit 14, §§ 1270.00-1276.05.

E. Wildfire Risk and the Housing Crisis Act

Preliminary Applications

The Housing Crisis Act of 2019 (“HAA”) established a Preliminary Application process that entitles developers of housing projects to lock into place city fees, policies, and ordinances prior to filing a complete application.  (Gov. Code § 65589.5, subd. (o).)

Though the provisions of the HAA generally “prevail over any conflicting provision of this title or other law regulating housing development in this state” (Gov. Code § 66300, subd. (f)(1)), an exception exists for projects proposed in areas which qualify as very high fire hazard severity zones, as defined in Government Code Section 51177. (Gov. Code § 66300, subd. (f)(4).)

Thus, applicants cannot take advantage of the HAA’s Preliminary Application process to the extent it is preempted by the plethora of state laws related to development very high fire hazard severity zones. Practitioners should be aware of that exception from the onset of a new project to avoid unnecessary expense. The HAA provides a procedural pathway for applicants to learn this of this exception early in a project’s timeline, though it may not be early enough in all circumstances. (See Gov. Code § 65589.5, subd. (a)(8)(A) [A Preliminary Application is deemed submitted when an applicant provides various information including whether the subject parcel is located in areas which qualify as very high fire hazard severity zones.].)

Limitations on Downzoning or Adopting Moratoria

The HAA limits “affected” cities or counties from downzoning (unless accompanied by concurrent upzoning) (Gov. Code § 66300, subd. (b)(1)(A)) or adopting moratoriums or other growth control measures on new housing developments (Gov. Code § 66300, subd. (b)(1)(B), (D)).  Those restrictions, however, do not apply to housing development projects located in a very high fire hazard severity zone. (See Gov. Code § 66300, subd. (f)(4).)

IV. CEQA Guidance

Best Practices for Analyzing and Mitigating Wildfire Impacts of Development Projects Under CEQA

In 2022, the California Attorney General became active in local land use issues concerning rural development and wildfire risk.  The focus was the sufficiency of the CEQA documentation for projects which were located in higher fire risk areas.  The Attorney General also took the unusual step in October 2022 to issue a CEQA “best practices” memorandum.  This Memorandum provided detailed background and recommendations for how local governments should be evaluating risk and mitigation – no small undertaking.  This Memorandum sets the bar extremely high.  It is inescapable that the Memorandum will be used as a metric for evaluating the legal sufficiency of CEQA documents.  This can only increase the cost of CEQA documentation and increase the legal risk for potential projects in areas at risk from wildfires.  This Memorandum and the expanded CEQA consciousness that comes with it addresses only a part of the problem.  CEQA does not address existing rural land use patterns, nor does it solve the serviceability of existing roadway systems or sufficiency of local fire departments and Cal-Fire resources.  These issues will need to be addressed by the Governor and the Legislature.

For more information specifically regarding CEQA, see:

The California Environmental Quality Act requires local jurisdictions considering development projects to prepare an environmental impact report or a mitigated negative declaration if the project may have a significant impact on the environment and is not otherwise exempt from CEQA.  The “environmental checklist form” in Appendix G of the CEQA Guidelines, Section XX, directs lead agencies to assess whether projects located in or near state responsibility areas of lands classified as very high fire hazard severity zones, would:

  1. Substantially impair an adopted emergency response plan emergency evacuation plan.
  2. Due to slope, prevailing winds, and other factors, exacerbate wildfire risks, and thereby expose project occupants to pollutant concentrations from a wildfire or the uncontrolled spread of a wildfire.
  3. Require the installation or maintenance of associated infrastructure (such as roads, fuel breaks, emergency water sources, power lines or other utilities) that may exacerbate fire risk or that may result in temporary or ongoing impacts to the environment; or
  4. Expose people or structures to significant risks, including downslope or downstream flooding or landslides, as a result of runoff, post-fire slope instability, or drainage changes.

In addition, Section IX (g) of the checklist broadly directs lead agencies to consider whether a project will “expose people or structures, either directly or indirectly, to a significant risk of loss, injury or death involving wildland fires.”  Lead agencies must consider both on- and off-site impacts.

Several variables should be considered in analyzing a project’s impact on wildfire risk, including:

Project Density

Project density influences how likely a fire is to start or spread, and how likely it is that the development and its occupants will be in danger when a fire starts.  Fire spread and structure loss is more likely to occur in low-to-intermediate-density development.  This is because there are more present to ignite a fire (as compared to undeveloped land), and the development is not concentrated enough (as compared to high-density developments) to disrupt fire spread by removing or substantially fragmenting wildland vegetation.  The conflict here is that the very reason many people move to the foothills and mountains is to live in a low-density development.

Project Location in the Landscape

Project placement in the landscape relative to fire history, topography, and wind patterns.

Water Supply and Infrastructure

Analyze the adequacy of water supplies and infrastructure to address firefighting within the project site.  The analysis should consider the potential loss of water pressure during a fire, which may decrease the available water supply and the potential loss of power, which may eliminate the supply.

Lead agencies are encouraged to develop thresholds of significance that either identity an increase in wildfire risk as a significant impact or determine, based on substantial evidence, that some increase in the risk of wildfires is not considered a significant impact.

Lead agencies must consider the wildfire risks, landscape, and development for new development.  This includes the density of housing, topography, and water supply as well as evacuation routes.

V. Land Use Planning Guidance

Land Use Planning Guidance

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research “(OPR)” periodically publishes independent planning analysis documents. On August 2022, OPR updated its Fire Hazard Technical Assistance Memorandum: Fire Hazard Planning Technical Advisory, 2022 Update, also referenced above in regards to CEQA Guidance.

This advisory discusses the regulatory and policy background along with sample planning policies. OPR’s advisories are not adopted as regulations through the California Administrative Code.

VI. Wildfire Resource Links

  • Cal Fire publishes Fire Hazard Severity Zone Maps for all regions in California.
  • The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection has provided a variety of tools to help implement the California Vegetation Treatment Program, including a variety of examples of Project-Specific Analysis.
  • In an unpublished appellate decision, the Fourth District Court of Appeal viewed favorably a lead agency’s evacuation analysis and the corresponding EIR analysis.
  • Additionally, here are links to the evacuation analysis and EIR analysis that formed the basis for the Court of Appeal to reverse the trial court in League to Save Tahoe Mountain, discussed above.
  • The California Building Industry Association submitted a study and comments to Cal Fire for the agency’s consideration when drafting new fire risk regulations for development. This study supports the conclusion that new master plan communities face reduced risk compared to older existing developed areas due to, among other design features, updated fire codes for new construction, inclusion of secondary access, and vegetation management.

William Abbott is Of Counsel and Garrett Bergthold and Kara Anderson are Law Clerks 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.

Planning professionals are generally aware that many recorded subdivision maps preceded the adoption of the first subdivision map statute in 1893, and that the recording of a subdivision map, by itself, would not create separate legal parcels.   (See Gardener v. County of Sonoma (2003) 29 Cal.4th 990.)   As a recent case illustrates (Crescent Trust v. City of Oakland (2023) 91 Cal.App.5th 850, review granted July 12, 2023, S2080234), concentrating on the original map may be like watching a magician; you can miss what else is really going on.  Unlike a magician, however, there was no slight of hand in:  the subdivision was hiding in plain sight.

The chronology

1869    Map recorded, denoting multiple “blocks” and “lots”.

1877    Lots 15, 16, 17 and 18 conveyed with four others in probate.

1881    Lots 10-18 conveyed to a bank for financing purposes.

1885    Lots 15-18 conveyed by bank to grantee.

1887    Lots 15-18 conveyed by 1885 grantee to new owner.

1913    Lots 15-18 conveyed to new owner.

1932    Lots 17-18 conveyed through a probate proceeding later challenged.  Lots boundaries were adjusted.  Lot 18 boundaries are unaffected.    The transfer document described the property conveyed using both legal descriptions and lot number references (relying upon the 1869 map.)

1944    Lots 17, 18 and a portion of 16 conveyed.

2015    Petitioner acquires property, requests certificate of compliance on lot 18.   The city surveyor denies the certificate of compliance on the grounds that the 1932 probate proceeding resulted in a merger of the units.    Since 1972, there had been no separate assessments.   Petitioner files a petition for writ of mandate to compel the City to issue a certificate of compliance.    The trial court rejected the petition, but was reversed by the Court of Appeal (“Court”).

Section 66412.6, the curative statute

At issue was section 66412.6 which provides as follows: 

66412.6.  

(a) For purposes of this division or of a local ordinance enacted pursuant thereto, any parcel created prior to March 4, 1972, shall be conclusively presumed to have been lawfully created if the parcel resulted from a division of land in which fewer than five parcels were created and if at the time of the creation of the parcel, there was no local ordinance in effect which regulated divisions of land creating fewer than five parcels.

(b) For purposes of this division or of a local ordinance enacted pursuant thereto, any parcel created prior to March 4, 1972, shall be conclusively presumed to have been lawfully created if any subsequent purchaser acquired that parcel for valuable consideration without actual or constructive knowledge of a violation of this division or the local ordinance. Owners of parcels or units of land affected by the provisions of this subdivision shall be required to obtain a certificate of compliance or a conditional certificate of compliance pursuant to Section 66499.35 prior to obtaining a permit or other grant of approval for development of the parcel or unit of land. For purposes of determining whether the parcel or unit of land complies with the provisions of this division and of local ordinances enacted pursuant thereto, as required pursuant to subdivision (a) of Section 66499.35, the presumption declared in this subdivision shall not be operative.

(c) This section shall become operative January 1, 1995.

As the litigation progressed, the City took the position that no lots had ever been created by the original map.     From the City’s perspective, the reference to lots on a map which was not a valid map did not create discrete units of land in later transactions.   The Court disagreed relying upon section 66412.6.    Petitioner argued that Lot 18 had been part of conveyances of less than five parcels in four different transactions, all during a time period in which there was no statute or ordinance in place regulating the creation of less than five parcels.   The court recognized that conveyance documents in California had long utilized lot numbers on early maps as a valid form of describing separate units of land.  The fact that the conveyance documents used both metes and bounds descriptions as well map references did not defeat the right of the owner of lot 18 to separately request a certificate of compliance.

The Supreme Court has granted review of the case, presenting the following issue

Comment:   For those involved with antiquated subdivisions, your library of documents should include copies of that jurisdiction’s subdivision ordinance (and possibly the county ordinances if the original map and any transactions occurred prior to annexation or incorporation into a city.

The Supreme Court has granted review on the following issue: “Is a pre-1972 conveyance by a single deed of a group of fewer than five contiguous lots that are separately described in the deed by reference to lot numbers on a pre-1893 survey map a “division” of land that “creates” an individual lawful lot for each of the separately described lots in the single deed under the conclusive presumption set forth in Government Code section 66412.6, subdivision (a) of the Subdivision Map Act?”

William W. Abbott is Of Counsel with 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.

East Oakland Stadium  Alliance v. City of Oakland  (2023) 89 Cal.App.5th 1226

In the never-ending saga for the City of Oakland (“City”) to retain its professional baseball team after losing the Raiders to Las Vegas and the Warriors to San Francisco, the City proposes to construct a new ballpark and a large adjoining development featuring commercial and residential buildings in  the Port of Oakland. (“Project”)  East Oakland Stadium Alliance (“Alliance”) filed a writ of mandate challenging the environmental impact report (“EIR”). The trial found inadequate the mitigation measure designed to address the  project’s adverse wind impacts, but the trial court rejected all of Alliance’s other arguments. The First Appellant Court (“Court”) affirmed the trial court’s decision.

The Court gave a detailed analysis of the requirements for an EIR to defer mitigation measures for Greenhouse Gas Emissions (“GHG”) and Wind impacts. In the case of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, the Court determined that the EIR met the requirements for §15126.4[1] and in the instance of the wind impact the City failed to provide specific performance standards.

Greenhouse Gas  Emissions

Alliance contended the EIR improperly deferred mitigation of the Project’s GHG. The EIR required that for a finding of no significance over its 30-year life, the plan will achieve no net additional GHGs. The current level of emissions was quantified and reported in the EIR and the requirement of “no net additional emissions” is no different from a quantitative cap on emissions set at the current level. The EIR  determined that, without mitigation, the Project failed to meet this standard.

To reduce GHG emissions to the significance standard of achieving no net additional emissions, the EIR adopted a single mitigation measure that prohibited the City  from approving any construction related permit for the project unless the project sponsor has “retained a qualified air quality consultant to develop a Project-wide GHG Reduction Plan (“Plan”) that shall specify anticipated GHG emission reduction measures sufficient to reduce or offset GHG emission that will achieve no net additional GHGs  than currently emitted in connection with the Project’s activities.   The mitigation measure described in detail the contents of the required emissions reduction Plan, including the way emissions are measured and estimated. The Plan must specify separately the GHG emissions for each Project phrase and must be “verifiable and feasible  to implement,” and the plan is required to identify the person or identity responsible for monitoring each reduction measure. The Plan must incorporate the EIR’s air quality mitigation measures and must adopt other on-site and off-site emissions reduction measures from a detailed, five-page list as necessary to meet the significance standard. Further, the mitigation measure provided detailed instructions for implementing and monitoring the Plan, including requiring an annual report summarizing the plan’s implementation and compliance. The Plan must be updated at each phase of development, demonstrating with each update that the goal of no net additional emission has been met.

The general rule is that an EIR is required to provide the information needed to alert the public and the decision makers of the significant problems a project would create and to discuss currently feasible mitigation measures. (Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (2018) 6 Cal.5th  502, 523)  Prior to 2019, the CEQA Guidelines generally  prohibited the deferral of mitigation measures, stating that “formation of mitigation should not be deferred until some future time.” However, measures could specify performance standards which would mitigate the significant effect of the Project, and which may be accomplished in more than one specified way. In 2021, the Guidelines were amended to permit an agency to develop the specific details of a mitigation measure  after project approval when it is impractical  or infeasible to include those details during the project’s environmental review. (§15126.4(a)(1)(B)). In such circumstances, deferral of mitigation measure details are permitted if the agency (1)  commits itself to the mitigation, (2) adopts specific performance standards the mitigation will achieve, and (3) identifies the type(s) of potential action(s) that can feasibly achieve that performance standard and that will be considered, analyzed, and potentially incorporated in the mitigation measure.  (See Save Our Capital! V. Department of General Services (2022) 85 Cal.App.5th 1101, 1134).

Alliance did not challenge the City’s implicit conclusion that it was impracticable or infeasible to formulate the details of the GHG mitigation measure at the time the EIR was prepared. The Court evaluated whether the GHG mitigation measure satisfied the three requirements of §15216.4. The Court easily dealt with the first two requirements, but carefully analyzed the third requirement  to identify the type(s) of potential action(s) that can feasibly achieve the performance standard.

The Court relied heavily on the five pages of detailed measures, some that were mandatory and all of which must be implemented if necessary to prevent additional GHG emissions. Alliance argued the EIR left specific mitigation measures to future determination. The Court determined the EIR represented a good faith attempt by the City to ensure no increase in GHG emissions while coping with the uncertainties created by years of construction, development, and the anticipated evolution of GHG reduction technology.

Wind Mitigation Measure  

Like GHG emissions, the EIR deferred mitigation of the wind impacts. The mitigation measure  contained no specific performance standard required by § 15126.4 (a)(1)(B)(1). The Court therefore directed the city to reconsider its adoption of the  wind mitigation measure.

The EIR contained a relatively brief discussion of the project’s impacts on wind current caused by the taller buildings of the project, which cause higher wind speeds, defined as exceeding 36 mph for more than one hour during daylight hours. The EIR discussed a variety of design and landscaping modifications that might reduce the wind impacts of the buildings. The EIR concluded that it cannot be stated with certainty at this stage of the Project design that all wind hazards identified in the wind tunnel test would be eliminated with  this type of mitigation. Therefore, the EIR determined that the wind impact of the Project would be significant and unavoidable.

The EIR’s wind mitigation measure required a wind tunnel analysis for each proposed building exceeding one hundred feet in height prior to the issuance  of a building permit. The measure required no further action if the analysis determines the building “would not create a net increase in hazardous wind hours or location compared to then existing conditions.”  If, the building’s design  would cause an increase  in significant wind  impacts, the  project sponsor is required to “work with the wind consultant to identify feasible mitigation strategies, including design changes (e.g., setbacks, rounded/chamfered building corners, or stepped facades), to eliminate or reduce wind hazards to the maximum feasible extent without unduly restricting development potential. 

The Court determined the performance standard failed to satisfy §15126.4 for the simple reason that it is not “specific.”  By requiring a reduction in wind impacts to the maximum feasible extent without unduly restricting development potential, the mitigation measure seeks a balance between competing factors, mitigating adverse wind impacts only to the extent possible without “unduly” impacting the commercial value of the buildings. (Italics in original)   Even if a mitigation measure may seek a balance between competing factors, the mitigation measure must  inform the public where that balance has been struck. Mitigation measures need not include precise quantitative performance standards, but § 15126.4’s reference to “specific performance standards imply a reasonably clear and objective measure of compliance. “ (Sierra Club, supra, 6 Cal.5th at p. 523)  Unlike the mitigation measure for the GHG emissions, the vague language in the wind mitigation measure failed the test.

Other Environmental Impacts Addressed by Court

  1. Mitigation of Railroad Impacts

Alliance contended that the EIR’s plan for safeguarding ballpark visitors from rail traffic is infeasible and ineffective. The Project is bounded on the north by railroad tracks that actively serve both passenger and freight lines. To address the impact of the railroad tracks, the City adopted a series of mitigation measures, including the installation of fencing on both sides of the tracks for the length of the Project’s frontage; the elimination of one intersection and the installation of enhanced safety features at the remaining intersections; and the construction of two overcrossings, one for bicycles and pedestrians and a second for vehicles.  Although these mitigation measures will improve existing conditions, the EIR found that the project will present significant and unavoidable environmental impacts because it will expose the vehicles and pedestrians expected to cross the tracks at the five remaining at-grade intersections to the safety hazards created by the railroad tracks. The Court discussed extensively each mitigation measure and concluded that the infeasibility of a single feature of a mitigation measure does not necessarily render the entire measure infeasible.[2]

  1. Mitigation of Displacement and Relocation of Businesses at Howard Terminal

The businesses to be displaced are parking for trucks and container storage, longshoreperson training facility, a vessel berth for maintenance and storage, and facilities for truck repairs. Since economic impact of displacement of businesses is not in and of itself considered a significant impact for CEQA purposes, the EIR is not required to identify potential relocation sites as mitigation. To evaluate the environmental impact of displacements, however, the EIR is required to make reasonable assumptions about the way relocation would occur.

The EIR included a discussion on the displacement on local air quality and assumed that the trucks will find sufficient alternative overnight parking within the Port of Oakland, based on a 2020 study of overnight truck parking needs at the Port of Oakland (“Seaport Forecast”)[3] through the year 2050.

  1. Air Quality Impacts

Alliance contended that the EIR’s analysis of emissions from emergency electricity generators at the project site was inadequate. The EIR’s air quality analysis conservatively assumed that the Project would include seventeen (17) new emergency generators, one each at the ballpark and the mixed-use buildings. The analysis assumed that these generators would run for fifty (50) hours per year, a figure chosen because it represented the maximum time allowed by California regulations for annual testing and maintenance of such generators. Alliance contended that the estimated time of operation should be 150 hours-based on a Bay Area Air Quality Management Board (BAAQMD) policy document that presumes in determining the applicability of certain agency regulations, one hundred (100) hours of annual generator use in addition to the time for testing and maintenance. The City was required to analyze the reasonably foreseeable operation of the emergency generators. (Save the El Dorado Canal v. El Dorado Irrigation Dist. (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 239, 264)   The Court held the EIR was required to make neither a generally applicable nor a worst-case assumption; rather it was required to make reasonable estimate of likely annual use of the generators at the project site and it did so.

Conclusion

In the few short weeks since this opinion was issued, the Oakland Athletics announced that they will be moving to Las Vegas as they purchased real property in Las Vegas to  build a stadium. However, this case is still an important CEQA case in its analysis of GHG emissions, wind impacts, railroad impacts, displacement, and relocation of businesses at Howard  Terminal  and air quality impacts.


[1]   All section references shall be to the CEQA Guidelines.

[2]   The fencing on both sides of the railroad tracks was deemed infeasible as it was in the right of way of Union Pacific’s property.

[3]   The Seaport Forecast was a 2020 study of overnight truck parking needs at the Port of Oakland through the year 2050, which  included in a broader study of future Port activities.

William W. Abbott is Of Counsel and Patrick L. Enright is an Attorney 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.

Legislation

SB 9  (2021 Chapter 162) Housing development approvals: Duplex and lot split zoning.

The California Legislature has continued to address California’s housing shortage by expanding opportunities for construction of duplexes and fourplexes in residential areas.  Upon passage of SB 9, there are estimates of over 700,000 market-feasible homes to be built statewide.  However, as with other housing legislation there is no silver bullet to addressing the housing shortage statewide, so each bill must be viewed as one more tool for homeowners, builders, and cities to address the shortage.  SB 9 was passed in 2021, and become effective on January 1, 2022, but some critics have already deemed the legislation a failure because only two percent of homeowners are filing applications for housing development approvals under the law and cities are opposing the implementation of the legislation due to loss of local land use controls  in  their cities.

Promotes Small-Scale Neighborhood Development

Government Code §§ 65852.21 and  66411.7 promotes small-scale neighborhood residential development by streamlining the process for a homeowner to create a duplex or subdivide an existing lot.  Any new housing created as a result of this SB 9 legislation must meet a specific list of qualifications that ensure the protection of historic districts, environmental quality, and existing tenants vulnerable to displacement.   The bill establishes a statewide path for homeowners seeking to create a duplex or subdivide an existing residential parcel by ensuring local governments approve qualified applications without discretionary review, eliminating overly burdensome requirements that slows qualified application. 

Housing Development Must Satisfy Several Location Qualifying Criteria:

  • The project is in a city or urbanized portion of an unincorporated area within a county.
  • The project site is not located on or in any of the following:
    • Prime farmland, or farmland of statewide importance
    • Wetlands
    • Within a very high fire severity zone
    • A hazardous waste or hazardous list sit
    • Within a delineated earthquake fault zone,
    • Within a 100-year flood zone,
    • Within a floodway
    • Identified for conservation n an adopted natural community conservation plan,
    • Habitat for protected species or
    • Land under conservation easement 

Restrictions on Impacts on Affordable and Historic Buildings:

  • The project cannot require demolition or alteration of any housing if 1) housing is restricted affordable housing, 2) subject to rent control, or 3) contains tenant occupied housing in the last three years. 
  • The project site cannot be withdrawn from the rental market (i.e., under the Ellis Act) within the past 15 years.
  • The project does not propose demolition of more than 25 percent of the easing exterior walls unless wither 1) the local ordinance allows more demolitions, or 2) the site has not been occupied by a tenant in the past three years.
  • The project site is not within a historic district or property included on the California Historical Resources Inventory or within a site that is designated or listed as a city or county landmark  or historic property or district pursuant to a city or county ordinance. 

Local Agencies (Cities and Counties) Authority and Zoning Limitations:

To be considered for ministerial approval, the proposed development project must meet certain local development criteria:

  • A local agency may impose objective zoning, subdivision and design review standards  providing such objective standards do not preclude the construction of either of the two units being less than 800 square feet in area.
  • No setbacks are required for an existing structure, or a structure constructed in the same location and to the same dimensions as an existing structure.    In other circumstances, the  local agency may require four-foot side and real yard setbacks. 
  • Parking of no more than one space per dwelling unit is allowed, except no parking required for projects a) within a half-mile walking distance of a high-quality transit corridor or a major transit stop or b) within one block of car share. 
  • A local agency may deny such a housing development project if there is a written finding that the project would create a specific adverse impact upon public health and safety or the physical environment that there is no way to mitigate. 
  • The rental of any unit created must be for a term longer than 30 days.
  • The California Coastal Act still applies, except that no public hearing is required for Coastal Development Permits for housing developments pursuant to this legislation. 
  • A local agency may not be required to permit an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or Junior ADU (JADA) in addition to the second unit it there is a lot split. 
  • A local agency may not reject housing solely on the basis that a project proposes adjacent or connected structures provided that the structures meet building code safety standards and are sufficient to allow separate conveyance. 

If these criteria are satisfied, the local agency must approve the project ministerially (i.e., without discretionary review or hearings).  Projects approved  ministerially are not subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).   

Lot Splits To Be Approved Ministerially Pursuant to a Parcel Map

In addition, SB 9  (Government Code § 66411.7) requires qualifying lot splits to be approved ministerially pursuant to a parcel map, upon meeting a number of criteria, including many of the same  criteria as specified above  pursuant to Government Code § 65852.21).  Additional criteria including the following:  

  • Each parcel must be at least 40 percent of the original parcel’s size
  • Each  parcel must be at least 1,200 square feet in lot size unless the local agency permits smaller lot size per ordinance.
  • There cannot be a sequential lot split on the same parcel, nor can there be a lot split if the owner of the parcel being subdivided  (or someone working  in concert with that owner0 has subdivided an adjacent parcel pursuant to this lot split legislation. 
  • No right-of-way dedication or off-site improvement may be required. 
  • The parcel must be limited to residential use.
  • An affidavit that the applicant intends to use one of the housing units as a principal residence for at least three years from the date of approval is required.
  • The local agency shall not require a condition that requires correction of nonconforming zoning conditions.
  • For each parcel created, a local agency is not required to permit more than two dwelling units on a parcel.

A local agency may require as, conditions of approval: 

  • Easements for public services and facilities.
  • Access to the public right-of-way

Cities’ Ability to Craft Objective Standards Consistent with the Housing Crisis Act of 2019 (SB 330)

Government Code 65852.21(b) explicitly authorizes local agencies to “impose objective zoning standards, objective subdivision standards, and objective design review standards” provided the standards to not physically preclude the construction of up to two 800 square feet units, subject to certain other restrictions.[1]  However, this provision does not directly address the application of the Housing Crisis Act of  2019 (Government Code § 66300(b)(1)(A)).   Government Code 66300 limits an affected county or city[2] in its ability to amend its general plan, specific plans, or zoning code in a way that would improperly reduce the intensity of residential developments.    “Reducing the intensity of land use includes,” but is not limited to, reductions to height, density, or floor area ratio, new or increased open space or lot size requirements, new or increased setback requirements, minimum frontage requirements, or maximum lot coverage implications, or any other actin that would individually or cumulatively  reduce ethe site’s residential development capacity.  (Govern Code § 66300(b)(1)(A).   Affected cities and counties are prohibited from reducing the intensity of land use “below what was allowed under the land use designation or zoning ordinances of the affected county or affected city, as applicable, as in effect on January 1, 2018.”  (Government Code § 66300)  Since the typical jurisdiction’s zoning ordinance on that date would not have allowed the projects authorized by SB 9, subjecting SB 9 projects to standards different from what apply to traditional single-family homes is not necessarily reducing the intensity of land use below that allowed on January 1, 2018. 

A reduction in the intensity of land use is defined as an action that would reduce a site’s “residential development capacity.”  That phase is not defined and is not used anywhere else in the Planning and Zoning Law.  However, the most logical way to understand SB 330’s requirements is to prohibit a change in zoning standards would reduce the number of housing units that can be constructed and not the size of these units.  This is consistent with the findings the Legislature made when adopting SB 330 that the development of more housing units was necessary to address the housing crisis.  In the  context of multi-family housing, changes in zoning standards, such as a reduction in height, can directly impact the number of housing units that can be built on a site.  The same is true for SB 9, where state law already restricts the number of units that can be constructed.  For example, a strict regulation limiting SB 9 units to 800 square feet regardless of other standards would obviously limit the size of units built pursuant to SB 9, but would not limit the number of units.  Accordingly, many types of regulations will arguably not reduce the “residential development capacity” of sites in single family zoning districts.  SB 330 does not restrict a city’s ability to adopt a regulation specific to SB 9 projects if the regulation does not reduce “residential development capacity.”  Thus, the presence or absence of similar objective standards in a city’s zoning code to other types of residential projects arguably does not impact whether the city may adopt additional objective standards that are only applicable to SB 9 projects if such standards are consistent with state law.

Examples of Discretion a City or County Does Have on SB 9 Projects

As previously stated SB 9 allows cities and counties to impose objective zoning, subdivision and design review standards that do not conflict with SB 9.  Local agencies may also elect to impose less stringent requirements than those contained in state law.  If local agencies regulations do not violate SB 9 (such as the requirement to allow at least an 800 square foot unit), local agencies have discretion to:

Development Standards

  • Front Yard SetbacksCities may retain the standard front yard setback requirements or be more permissive and reduce the mandatory setbacks.
  • Side and Rear Setbacks.  Local agencies may be more permissive than the 4 four-foot state law maximums. 
  • Heights. SB 9 does not directly regulate minimum or maximum heights or limits on stories.  However, for multi-family units, be aware of the restrictions of SB 330.
  • Maximum Size.  Must allow units to be at least 800 square feet.  Local Agencies may increase the maximum size.  
  • Parking.  At most one parking space per unit is allowed – local agencies can opt to require less parking.
  • Design Requirements.  May authorize objective design review standards under SB 9 that do not physically preclude construction of an 800 square foot unit.  Local agencies have implemented a number of requirements that would qualify as objective design standards:
    • Eave protection
    • Roof pitch
    • Façade materials and minimum articulation
    • Color requirements (e.g., matching the color of the primary dwelling)
    • Design requirements for features such as windows, porches, balconies, etc.
    • Exterior lighting direction and shield
    • Height requirements for units, entrances, fences, retaining walls, and landscape.
  • Incentives.  Local agencies may include incentives to comply with specific standards.  For example, in exchange for applicants volunteering to comply with setback requirements that are more stringent than otherwise allowed by SB 9, a local agency could allow additional height or stories for such units. 

Lot Splits

Requires for qualifying parcels, ministerial approval of two-unit housing developments in single-family zoning districts and would allow single-family parcels to be subdivided into two lots.

Accessory Dwelling Units

SB 9 and Accessory Dwelling Unit (“ADU”) Law (Government Code §§ 65852.2 and 65858.22) are complementary.  The requirements of each can be implemented in ways that result in development with both “SB 9 Units” and ADUs.  However, specific provisions of SB 9 typically overlap with State ADU Law only to a limited extent on a relatively small number of topics.

Units Defined.  The three types of housing units that are described in SB 9 and related ADU Law are presented below to clarify which development scenarios are (and are not) made possible by SB 9. 

            Primary Unit.  A primary unit (also called a residential dwelling unit or residential unit) is typically a single-family residence or a residential unit within a multi-family residential development.   Examples of primary units include a single-family residence, a duplex, a four-plex. 

            Accessory Dwelling Unit.  An ADU is an attached or detached residential dwelling unit that provides complete independent  living facilities for one or more person and is located on a lot with a proposed or existing  primary residence.  It includes permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking, and sanitation on the same parcel on which the single-family or multifamily dwellings or will be situated. 

            Junior Accessory Dwelling Unit.  A Junior ADU is a unit that is no more than 500 square feet in size and contained entirely within a single-family residence.  A Junior ADU may include separate sanitation facilities or may share sanitation facilities with the existing structure. 

Number of ADUs Allowed.  ADUs can be combined with primary units in a variety of ways to achieve the maximum unit counts provided for under SB 9. SB 9 allows for up to four units to be built in the same lot area typically used for a single-family home.  The calculation varies slightly depending on whether a lot split is involved, but the outcomes regarding total maximum unit counts are identical. 

            Lot Split.  When a lot split occurs, the local agency must allow up to two units on each lot resulting from the lot split.  In this situation all unit types (i.e. primary unit, ADU, and Junior ADU) count toward this two-unit limit.  For example, the limit could be reached on each lot by creating two primary units, or a primary unit and an ADU, or a primary unit and a Junior ADU.  By building two units on each lot, the overall maximum of four units allowed under SB 9 is achieved.  (Government Code § 66411.7(j)).   Note that the local agency may choose to allow more than two units per lot if desired. 

            No Lot Split.  When a lot split has not occurred, the lot is eligible to receive ADUs and/or Junior ADUs as it ordinarily would under ADU law.  Unlike when a project is proposed following a lot split, the local agency must allow, in addition to one or two primary units under SB 9, ADUs and /or JADUs under ADJU Law. 

Conclusion

One year in, there is limited utilization of the benefits of SB 9.  Many California cities, including St. Helena and Yountville, have passed urgency ordinances implementing additional requirements required prior to implementing the benefits of SB 9.  The Turner Center for Housing and Innovation (https://ternercenter.berkeley.edu/reasearch-andpolcy/sb-9-turns-one-applications/ )  showed for 2022, a sample of 13 municipalities  that shared data on application, Los Angeles approved 38 SB 9 units and zero lot splits.[3]  Eight municipalities, including Anaheim, Bakersfield, Berkeley, Danville, Long Beach, San Diego, San Jose and Santa Maria, did not approve a single SB 9 unit in 2022.[4]   The survey concluded that one reason cited by planners is that statewide ADU laws guarantee lower fees, no owner-occupancy requirements, standardized designed rules, and permitting streamlining and offer a better deal for building looking to build additional housing on single-family lots.  SB 9 projects enjoy none of these protections.  Without these protections for SB 9 projects, SB 9 is unlikely  to meet its full potential.  By comparison, Los Angeles permitted 5,064 ADUs in 2021, and while the data for 2022 is not yet available, it is likely to be similar. 


[1]  To be considered “objective”, such standards must involve “no personal or subjective judgement by a public official” and are uniformly verifiable by an external and unform benchmark that is available and knowable by both the developer and the public official prior to submitting an application.  (Government Code §§ 65852.21(i)(2); 66411.7(m)(1).

[2]   Affected cities is any city, including a charter city, that is in an urbanized areas or urban cluster, as designed by the US Census Bureau.  Any city of a population of less than 5,000 and not located within an urbanized area is exempt.  Based on HCD’s determination, 445 of the 482 cities statewide qualify as “affected cities.”  Counties have a similar definition with 22 of the 58 counties being qualified as “affected counties.” 

[3] By comparison, Los Angeles permitted 5,064 ADUs in 2021, and while the data for 2022 is not yet available, it is likely to be similar. 

[4]   Danville and Saratoga received amount the most split applications in absolute terms – 20 and 21 respectively.  Danville approved 13 of these applications, while Saratoga approved two.  This may be due the large lots sizes in these cities. 

William W. Abbott is Of Counsel and Patrick L. Enright is an Attorney 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.

In Pacific Palisades Residents Assn, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (2023) 88 Cal.App.5th 1338, neighbors challenged a proposed four-story senior living facility in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood in the City of Angeles. They alleged the project was inconsistent with the surrounding “parklike neighborhood,” it would disturb “scenic values and views,” worsen of traffic and congestion, among other complaints. The city’s zoning administrator endorsed the project. The neighbors appealed to the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission, which approved the project, finding it was consistent with the general plan, followed applicable design guidelines, and preserved neighborhood character. The neighbors then lodged duel appeals to the California Coastal Commission (“Commission”) and the Los Angeles City Council. Both bodies held hearings. The Commission concluded the appeal presented no substantial issue and rejected the appeal. The City Council approved the project. The neighbors sued the City of Angeles and the Commission. The trial court rejected the neighbor’s contentions, holding, relevant here, that the city properly exempted the project from CEQA pursuant to the Class 32 CEQA infill exemption (Cal. Code Regs. tit 14 § 15332.)

On appeal, the neighbor’s CEQA claims centered on just one of the five requirements required for a Class 32 infill exemption, which includes that a project must be consistent with “all applicable general plan policies.” (Cal. Code Regs. tit 14 § 15332, subd. (b).) The neighbors on appeal contended that the project violated the policy of the local community plan that seeks to “preserve and protect views from hillsides, public lands, and roadways.” The Second District Court of Appeal reviewed the city’s factual findings of general plan conformity under the deferential substantial evidence standard. The Second Appellate District held that the city had ample basis for finding the project, which the court described as an urban building, was appropriate for an urban area. The court focused primarily on the neighbor’s complaints that the project would disturb “scenic values and views.” However, the court pointed to evidence in the record that hundreds of buildings in the neighbors’ subdivision already intrude on the views of nearby open space, defining the neighborhood as “an urban neighborhood against a backdrop of open space.” The court concluded that the city was thus entitled to determine that the addition of another urban building to that setting was compatible with the local community plan, and thus, the general plan.

The neighbors relied in part on Georgetown Preservation Society v. County of El Dorado (2018) 30 Cal.App.4th 358, where the Third District held opinions by local neighbors that a project would be in disharmony with the existing aesthetic character of a community can create a fair argument of significant environmental impacts related to a proposed retail store. The Second District, meanwhile, distinguished that case. The court reasoned that Georgetown was decided using the less deferential fair argument standard due to the challenged adoption of a mitigated negative declaration at issue in that case.

Patrick L. Enright is an Attorney with Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. and Garrett Bergthold is a law clerk 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.