Developing real property in California is notoriously difficult. Given minimal standing requirements, project opponents can and do tie up and delay new development for the mere cost of a filing fee. In order to prevail in such challenges, however, project opponents must do more than make empty arguments without adequate factual or legal support.

This principle is addressed in Walters v. City of Redondo Beach, __ Cal.App.4th __ (2016) (Case No. B258638). In that case, the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District affirmed a trial court decision denying a challenge to the City of Redondo Beach’s approval of a conditional use permit for construction of a combination car wash and coffee shop on a vacant lot adjacent to existing homes. The case also raised interesting CEQA issues regarding the scope of the categorical exemption for new construction or conversion of small structures and the unusual circumstances exception to categorical exemptions. My partner, Art Coon, will write about those issues in his CEQA Developments blog.

The background facts in Walters indicate that the City had approved a CUP for a car wash and snack bar on the same property, at the corner of a busy intersection, in 1965. The car wash operated there until 2001, and the property fell into disrepair. Five years later the plaintiffs’ homes were constructed on the abutting property lines. In 2012, the property was considered to be a blight on the area and the City prosecuted the owner for nuisance and other charges. The owner responded by demolishing the remaining structure and proposing to rebuild the car wash.

The Planning Commission denied the first proposal for an express car wash, but later granted a CUP for a full-service car wash and found that it was categorically exempt from CEQA under Guidelines section 15303(c). The CUP included a variety of restrictions, including a limitation on the number of vehicles that could be serviced daily. In addition, the administrative record included a traffic study and a noise study provided by the applicant. The traffic study concluded that the proposed car wash would not change the level of service at the intersection from its present “A” status, even at peak operating times. The noise study determined that the only significant noise source would be the blower/dryer systems inside the car wash tunnel and that the noise would largely be contained by the design and materials to be used in constructing the facility.

The neighbors appealed the decision to the City Council. Before the hearing on the appeal, the owner requested the removal of the restriction on the number of vehicles that could be serviced daily because that restriction would impair the profitability of the car wash. At the appeal hearing, the City Council approved the project with revised conditions. The Council also found that (1) the building site is adequate in size to accommodate the car wash, (2) the car wash has adequate street access and will not have a significant impact on traffic, (3) the car wash will have no adverse effect on abutting properties, (4) the noise that will be generated by the car wash blowers and vacuum drops does not exceed the permitted interior and exterior limits, and (5) the project is exempt from CEQA and will not have a significant effect on the environment.

The neighbors challenged the CEQA exemption and the City’s approval of the CUP, both of which the trial court denied.

On appeal, the neighbors claimed that in issuing the CUP the City violated the Municipal Code in three respects. First, they argued that the lot has an inadequate size and shape to accommodate the car wash. The court rejected that argument because the lot successfully accommodated a car wash and snack bar for decades. Second, they argued that the noise will disrupt health, safety, and welfare, particularly with respect to noise and traffic. The court rejected that argument because the project, as approved, requires strict compliance with the City’s noise ordinance, and substantial evidence establishes that it will not significantly impact traffic flow in the area. Finally, they argued that “all potential adverse impacts that may be created by a proposed project must be addressed,” which may include a wide range of potential impacts including additional light, glare, noise, vibrations, odors, air or water pollution, traffic, parking, and other potentially undesirable impacts. The court rejected that argument because the record reflects that the City did address these impacts and the City expressly found that the design of the project considers those impacts.

Critically, the court held that the neighbors provided no reliable authority or legal support demonstrating that the City’s findings were not supported by substantial evidence or that they should be reversed. Walters fits in a long line of cases holding that suggestions of error without supporting argument or authority, other than general abstract principles, do not properly present grounds for appellate review. Courts are not required to make an independent, unassisted study of the record in search of error.