CEQA Case Report: Understanding the Judicial Landscape for Development[i]

In a published opinion issued February 28, 2018, Covina Residents for Responsible Development v. City of Covina, Case No. B279590, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment and upheld the City of Covina’s (the City) approval of a 68-unit mixed-use infill project (Project). In summary, the court determined:

  • An EIR must address secondary parking impacts caused by traffic congestion, but parking impacts, in and of themselves, are exempt from CEQA review.
  • An agency is permitted to tier from a specific plan EIR if (1) the proposed action falls under an exemption, or (2) potential project impacts have been adequately analyzed and mitigated in the specific plan EIR.
  • In determining whether to approve a tentative map for a project, local agencies must make findings showing the proposed map’s compatibility with objectives, policies, and programs in the specific plan, but need not show perfect conformity.

Covina Residents for Responsible Development (Petitioner) petitioned for writ of mandate, arguing that the City:

  • Improperly approved the Project without preparing an environmental impact report (EIR)
  • Improperly tiered the mitigated negative declaration (MND) the City adopted from the Town Center Specific Plan (TCSP) EIR
  • Violated the Subdivision Map Act by failing to make the necessary findings for approval of the Project, or in the alternative, making findings that were not supported by substantial evidence in the record
  • Violated due process by failing to respond to last-minute revisions in the project

The trial court and the Court of Appeal both rejected these arguments and denied the petition.

Background for Appeal

On December 2012, the Project developer submitted an application to the City for the Project. After nearly a year of revising the Project to accommodate recommendations of City staff, the City circulated an initial study on November 20, 2013, and proposed an MND describing measures to mitigate potentially significant environmental impacts. On February 18, 2014, staff recommended the City Council adopt the MND and approve the Project, which at that time included a request for 19 transit-related parking credits. At the City’s direction, the developer revised the Project to eliminate the parking deficit. On March 4, 2014, the City Council approved the revised Project and adopted the MND. The Petitioner then filed an action seeking to invalidate the City’s approval of the Project. The trial court denied the petition, and the petitioner appealed, asserting all but the due process claim.

Parking Impacts Exempt From CEQA Review

First, Petitioner argued the City was required to prepare an EIR due to the Project’s significant parking impacts. Although an EIR is required to evaluate all significant impacts on the environment from a proposed project, CEQA specifically provides that parking impacts of a residential or mixed-use residential project on an infill site within a transit priority area are not considered significant impacts on the environment. Thus, they are exempt from CEQA review.

Here, the Project’s parking impacts were exempt from CEQA because the Project was located on an infill site and within a transit priority area. Prior to the enactment of the Public Resources Code Section 21099 exemption, case law conflicted regarding the extent to which parking shortages should be analyzed under CEQA. The court observed that through the enactment of Section 21099, the Legislature endorsed the approach in San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. City and County of San Francisco (2002), 102 Cal.App.4th 658. In San Franciscans, the court found that parking deficits were not significant environmental impacts in an urban context. As such, in this case, the court held that, CEQA review must address secondary environmental impacts associated with traffic congestion from parking shortages — such as air quality, noise, and safety. However, parking impacts, in and of themselves, are exempt from CEQA review for urban, infill projects near transit hubs. Because Petitioner failed to demonstrate evidence of secondary environmental impacts associated with the Project’s allegedly inadequate parking, and instead only provided evidence of social and commercial concerns for downtown businesses, the court held that CEQA review was not required.

MND Tiering From a Specific Plan EIR

Second, Petitioner challenged the MND’s reliance on the TCSP EIR’s analysis of traffic impacts from the alleged parking shortage. An agency is permitted to tier, or use the analysis from another EIR, if either of the below conditions are satisfied:

  • The proposed action falls under an exemption
  • The potential project impacts have been adequately analyzed and mitigated under that EIR

In this case, the court held that the City properly tiered because it met both conditions. First, the Project’s parking impacts were exempt under Section 21099. Second, the court found that the petitioner provided no evidence that the TCSP EIR was inadequate. Because the Project complied with the TCSP’s parking requirements and Petitioner had not demonstrated the inadequacy of the traffic analysis or the City’s project-specific trip analysis, the court held that the record contained no evidence to support Petitioner’s assertion that the Project had impacts that the TCSP EIR had not contemplated. Thus, the City properly tiered its review from the TCSP EIR.

Specific Plan Consistency

Third, Petitioner argued that the City’s findings that the Project’s tentative map was consistent with the TCSP traffic circulation elements and parking standards were not supported by substantial evidence. The California Government Code requires local agencies to make a series of findings related to the consistency of the proposed map and design of a project with the applicable general or specific plan. Here, the court determined that the City Council made and adopted the necessary findings at its March 4, 2014 meeting. Petitioner did not identify any evidence suggesting the Project was not compatible with the policies in the TCSP, and the MND analyzed and concluded that the Project would not conflict with the TCSP’s public transit policies and programs. Thus, the court found that the Project’s map was fully consistent with the goals and policies set forth in the TCSP.

Disposition

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment and upheld the City’s approval of the Project.

  • Opinion by Dennis M. Perluss, with John Segal and Kerry R. Bensinger, concurring.
  • Trial Court: Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Case No. BS147861, Judge Amy D. Hogue.