Judging by all the recent articles and blog posts written about it, many commenters believe the Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Taxpayers For Accountable School Bond Spending v. San Diego Unified School Dist. (“Taxpayers”) (4th Dist 2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 1013 has broken (or at least replowed) significant legal ground and created serious new problems for local agencies and project developers by reinstituting a former CEQA requirement that a project’s impacts on “parking” be analyzed. 

This impression was, no doubt, bolstered by the Court of Appeal’s own statements that it “rejected[ed] [relevant] language” of San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. City and County of San Francisco (“SFUDP”) (1st Dist. 2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 656 and was “unpersuaded by its reasoning” on the “parking” issue.  (Taxpayers, supra, 215 Cal.App.4th at 1052.)  My own take is that nothing much has changed, and the current controversy appears to be much ado about mere semantics.  Both the First District and Fourth District decisions are correct and readily harmonized with one another, despite the recent opinion’s unnecessarily antagonistic tone.

Those familiar with the CEQA parking debate will recall that the First District, in its referenced 2002 SFUDP decision, upheld the adequacy of an EIR that stated “[p]arking shortfalls relative to demand are not considered significant environmental impacts in the urban context of San Francisco.  Parking deficits are an inconvenience to drivers, but are not a significant physical impact on the environment.”  (SFUDP, supra, at 697, emph. in orig.)  While the Court’s holding would have been clearer had it added “in and of themselves” before the “not” in the last sentence, it went on to explain:  “The EIR then fulfilled its CEQA-mandated purpose by identifying ways in which the secondary environmental impacts resulting from the project parking deficits could be mitigated in keeping with the specific environmental strictures imposed by the City’s own transit-first policy.”  (Ibid., emph. in orig.)  Rough translation:  The mere fact that an urban development project does not “self-park” is not a CEQA impact, but any environmental impacts foreseeably resulting from a project’s “on-site” parking deficit should be analyzed and mitigated.  This is completely logical; a contrary rule – i.e., holding a projects’ parking deficits themselves are per se “impacts” requiring mitigation under CEQA – would be antithetical to many environmentally-beneficial “smart growth” policies which discourage on-site parking and automobile use and encourage mass transit and alternative forms of transportation.

Following the SFUDP decision, the CEQA Guidelines’ Appendix G checklist was – again logically – revised to delete from its Transportation/Traffic section the question:  “Would the project … [r]esult in inadequate parking capacity?”  Significantly, however, it retained questions regarding whether a project would cause increases in traffic congestion, safety hazards, etc.  Again, this change is properly understood as meaning that project parking deficits in and of themselves are not a CEQA issue, but that secondary impacts which could result from such shortages are impacts requiring CEQA analysis.  Thus, for example, if a local ordinance requires a new project to “self-park” on the project site, but a proposed project does not do so, there will still likely be no CEQA-recognizable impacts from the deficit if it is shown that abundant public parking (whether on or off-street) is safely accessible in close proximity.  While the City might have a problem with the violation of its parking ordinance, the project would not pose environmental impact issues related to parking requiring CEQA analysis and mitigation.

Fast forward to 2013 and this year’s decision in Taxpayers, which reversed a judgment to the extent it upheld a mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a project involving an upgraded football stadium and athletic facilities at Hoover High School in San Diego.  In purporting to “reject” SFUDP’s language and analysis on the “parking” issue, it held that “regardless of whether parking is considered a primary or secondary impact of a project, a project’s impact on parking generally should be studied for any potential impact on the environment.”  After reciting CEQA’s principles governing analysis of direct and indirect project impacts, the Court stated:

Vehicles, whether driven or parked, in effect constitute manmade conditions and therefore may constitute physical conditions in an area that may be affected by a proposed project, thereby requiring a lead agency to study whether a project’s impact on parking may cause a significant effect on parking and thus the environment.  Furthermore, to the extent the lack of parking affects humans, that factor may be considered in determining whether the project’s effect on parking is significant under CEQA.

(Taxpayers, 215 Cal.App.4th at 1053, citing 14Cal. Code Regs. § 15064(e).)

This analysis is both sound and consistent with SFUDP and the CEQA Guidelines.  The Taxpayers court found substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the Hoover High project at issue there may have a significant impact on parking and thus the environment.  The evidence showed, among other things, that the project would create a parking shortage of 174 on-site spaces for evening football games, in an area that is landlocked by canyons, leaving no options available except to park completely out of the area or to illegally park (the common choice), thus impairing visibility on narrow streets and from cross streets, blocking driveways, crosswalks, and access to fire hydrants.  No attempt was made in the MND to ascertain the number of available, off-site parking spaces and there was thus no basis for its conclusion that the shortage would be filled by available off-site street parking in the immediate area.  Neighbors further documented that existing inadequate on-site school parking in this extremely limited and constrained area already resulted in spillover parking and traffic into the bedroom community behind the school, which would be exacerbated by the project’s impacts and would prevent parking for area residents returning home from work in the evening.

The Court’s opinion makes clear that, under the right factual circumstances, a project’s creation of parking demand in excess of its on-site parking supply can result in significant off-site adverse environmental impacts requiring study and mitigation, although it does not necessarily do so.  But that is nothing new in CEQA law, and is not the same as saying that a project’s mere failure to “self-park” is a CEQA impact requiring mitigation.