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

In an unpublished opinion issued August 30, 2018, Stewards of Public Land v. City of Pasadena, et al., Case No. B277996, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial of a writ of mandate challenging two Notices of Exemption (NOE) issued by the City of Pasadena (City) for minor physical and programmatic changes to the operation of an archery range in a City park (the Project). The court held that the City properly relied upon the Category 1 Exemption for minor alteration to existing structures or facilities, and that neither the historical resources or unusual circumstances exception to the exemption applied.

Petitioner Stewards of Public Land (Stewards) argued that the City failed to comply with its historical preservation ordinance, failed to comply with state planning and land use laws, and wrongly determined the Project was categorically exempt from CEQA. Stewards also argued several municipal law claims, which the court found to be without merit. As to the Stewards’ CEQA claims, the court unanimously determined:

  • The general effects of the longstanding operation of an archery range on subsequently developed residences did not constitute unusual circumstances and that no exception to a CEQA exemption applied.

Background for Appeal

In February 2015, the City Council considered a proposal for physical and programmatic changes at the Lower Arroyo archery range including:

  • Removing an unapproved path in front of the targets at the southern range
  • Relocating 150 linear feet of a main trail to increase the distance from this trail to the shooting area
  • Reorganizing shooting lines
  • Relocating two targets from private property to public property
  • Limiting times of use of the southern range
  • Establishing a mandatory safety training program for range users
  • Establishing and posting rules for use of the range
  • Placing native stones, plants, boulders, and wooden fencing as a natural barrier between walking paths and the archery ranges

The Project also amended the City’s municipal code to allow the City Manager to promulgate rules for archery on City-owned lands.

As to CEQA, the City found that the Project was categorically exempt from CEQA and that no exceptions to the categorical exemptions applied to the Project. A NOE was timely filed shortly thereafter.

Following the February 2015 meeting, the City drafted an ordinance that would allow the City Manager to promulgate rules for archery on City-owned lands and require a mandatory safety program for range users. In September 2015, the City Council adopted the ordinance and, shortly thereafter, issued a second NOE. The second NOE explained that these actions were also within the scope of the previously approved action and exempt from CEQA under Category 1 Exemption. Stewards filed suit and the trial court rejected all of its claims. Stewards then filed a timely appeal.

The City Properly Relied on the Class 1 Categorical Exemption

A Class 1 Categorical Exemption exempts a project from CEQA review if the project involves repair, maintenance, and minor alteration of existing public topographical featuring negligible or no expansion of existing uses. Stewards argued that the following required a further review through an Environmental Impact Report (EIR):

  • Removing the 14-target limit allowed under the Lower Arroyo Master Plan (LAMP)
  • Removing an unauthorized path
  • Relocating 150 feet of walking trail
  • Changing the range area of the Lower Arroyo from a mixed-use area to a single-use area dedicated exclusively to archery

Here, the court found that substantial evidence supported the City’s conclusion that the exemption applied. The court then turned to the Stewards’ more relevant claim that the historical and unusual circumstances exceptions applied.

The Historical Resources Exception Does Not Apply

The CEQA Guidelines provide an exception from CEQA’s categorical exemptions for projects that may cause substantial adverse change in the significance of a historical resource. Stewards argued that this exception applies to the Project, thereby requiring additional CEQA review.

Stewards averred that because the State Historical Resources Commission lists the Lower Arroyo — the park in which the archery range sits — in the National Register of Historical Places and the California Register of Historical Resources, any change to the archery range was a significant impact on the historic resource.

The court rejected this argument. Here, the record showed that the archery range was not a historical resource. The archery range was expressly omitted as a factor of any significance in the City’s landmark designation and in the City’s National Register of Historical Places application. Further, law enforcement identified the trail running along the face of the archery targets as a safety hazard and the trail was omitted from maps depicting authorized trails at the time the LAMP was prepared. The trail was also designated for removal under the LAMP. The court found that the portion of the path that passes along the face of the archery targets was of no historic significance.

The court also assessed whether the relocation of 150 feet of the trail could result in changes to a historically designated trail. Here, the court found no merit in the argument that relocating a 150-foot segment of the trail — which extends more than 8,000 feet though the entire Arroyo Seco — or placing natural materials along the trail to deter persons from straying into a dangerous archery field, would materially alter significant features of a historical resource. Thus, the court found Stewards failed to satisfy the burden of establishing that the Project would significantly impact a historical resource.

The Unusual Circumstances Exception Does Not Apply

A two-part test is used to determine whether the “unusual circumstances” exception to the exemption applies:

  • First, Stewards was required to establish a reasonable possibility that the Project contains unusual circumstances — some feature that distinguishes the Project from other projects within the same exempt class.
  • Second, if unusual circumstances were present, Stewards must establish the reasonable possibility of a significant effect on the environment due to the unusual circumstances.

The court found that no unusual circumstances were present. The location of the archery range next to private residences was not an unusual circumstance. The court noted that the archery range predated the construction of many of the private residences and Stewards offered no evidence that the proximity was unusual. Similarly, arrows potentially ending up on the property of nearby residences — a safety concern — was not an unusual circumstance. The court found that the City addressed this issue in the new ordinance, which required a safety course from range users, and that such a solution was within the City Council’s power and discretion. Because the court found no unusual circumstances in the Project, evaluating the second prong of the unusual circumstances test was unnecessary.

Disposition

The court held that the City’s determination that the Class 1 Categorical Exemption applied was supported by substantial evidence and that neither of the claimed exceptions applied. The trial court judgement was affirmed in full.

  • Opinion by Justice Pro-Tem Allan Goodman; with Acting Presiding Justice Judith Ashmann-Gerst, and Associate Justice Victoria M. Chavez, concurring.
  • Trial Court: Los Angeles County Superior Court, Case No. BS154299, Judge James C. Chalfant.