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California Court of Appeal Upholds Coastal Commission’s Certification of San Diego Port District’s Master Plan Amendment

California Court of Appeal Upholds Coastal Commission’s Certification of San Diego Port District’s Master Plan Amendment

By James Purvis, Esq.

A public benefit organization filed a petition for writ of mandate against the California Coastal Commission (Commission) and the San Diego Unified Port District (Port), challenging the Commission’s certification of the port master plan amendment, which authorized coastal development permits for the proposed expansion of a convention center and adjacent hotel (Amendment), as consistent with the California Coastal Act. The developers intervened, and the organization amended its petition to add them as defendants. Following a bench trial, the superior court denied the petition. The Court of Appeal for the Fourth Judicial District then affirmed. [San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition v. California Coastal Commission, 40 Cal.App.5th 563 (4th Dist. 2019).]

Factual and Procedural Background

This case involves the proposed expansion of the San Diego Convention Center (Convention Center) by the City of San Diego and of the adjacent Hilton San Diego Bayfront hotel by One Park Boulevard, LLC (One Park). The Convention Center is located in downtown San Diego, next to San Diego Bay, and the Hilton is across Park Boulevard, which is located nearby. As part of a proposed expansion, the Port circulated the Amendment and a draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for public review and comment in May 2012. Later that year, in September 2012, the Port adopted resolutions certifying the final EIR, approving the Amendment, and directing filing with the Coastal Commission for certification.

Port staff then communicated with Commission staff and revised the Amendment based on their input. In late 2013, the Commission held a hearing on the Amendment and, after the Port agreed to additional changes, unanimously certified it as consistent with the Coastal Act. In February 2014, the Commission adopted revised findings supporting its October 2013 approval. The Port adopted the certified Amendment, and the Commission then accepted the Port’s adoption in mid-2015. As certified by the Commission, the Amendment provided for issuance of coastal development permits for the Convention Center and hotel expansions.

In November 2013, petitioner San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition (Navy Broadway) filed its petition for writ of mandate against the Commission, the Port, and “Doe” defendants. It then filed a first amended petition, alleging that the Commission’s approval of the Amendment violated the Coastal Act by, among other things, certifying it as consistent with the Coastal Act and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In 2014, Navy Broadway filed another petition, contesting the Commission’s adoption of revised findings, which was consolidated with the first lawsuit. Navy Broadway later filed a third action after the Commission accepted the Port’s approval of the certified Amendment, which was not consolidated with the first two cases.

In 2015, the City and One Park intervened, and Navy Broadway amended its petition to add them as defendants. Defendants then contended that the City and One Park were indispensable parties, and Navy Broadway had failed to timely sue them. The trial court agreed they were indispensable, but found after a bench trial that Navy Broadway had been genuinely ignorant of them. It therefore determined that the amendment related back and that equitable tolling also applied.

After a hearing in late 2016, the trial court denied the petition, finding that: 1) the Amendment was not improperly modified after submission; 2) the Commission did not err in finding the Convention Center expansion was not an appealable development under the Coastal Act; 3) substantial evidence supported the Commission’s findings under the Coastal Act; and 4) the Commission did not err in making its CEQA findings. After an unsuccessful motion for new trial and to vacate the judgment, Navy Broadway appealed. Defendants cross-appealed based on the statute of limitations ruling.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Decision

Statute of Limitations

The Court of Appeal first addressed the City and One Park’s argument that the trial court erred in concluding the action was not time-barred based on a finding that Navy Broadway was genuinely ignorant of these parties. After reviewing the record, the Court of Appeal found that no reasonable trier of fact could find Navy Broadway was genuinely ignorant of the City and One Park and their roles in the project. During the Amendment adoption and certification process, for example, multiple documents identified the City and One Park as project applicants. Even if the Commission could be viewed as “admitting” the Port was the only proponent, as the trial court had concluded, the Court of Appeal found that such fact would not establish that Navy Broadway was genuinely ignorant of the City and One Park. For this same reason, the Court of Appeal also reversed the trial court’s conclusion that Navy Broadway’s claim had been equitably tolled.

Changes to the Amendment

Although it found that Navy Broadway’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations, the Court of Appeal proceeded to address the merits of the appeal. It first addressed Navy Broadway’s claim that the Commission violated Public Resources Code § 30714’s bar on conditional approval by negotiating changes to the Amendment after the Amendment had been submitted. The Court of Appeal rejected this claim, finding that the Commission and the Port communicated about changes, and the Port then modified the Amendment prior to the certification vote. As such, the Commission did not conditionally certify the Amendment, and therefore it did not violate § 30714. The Court of Appeal further found that the Commission’s regulations did not conflict with section 30714.

Appealability of the Convention Center Expansion

The Court of Appeal next addressed Navy Broadway’s argument that the Commission erred by concluding that the Convention Center expansion was not appealable, and not subject to Chapter 3 of the Coastal Act. Appealability is governed by Public Resources Code § 30715, which, after a port master plan or amendment is certified, delegates permit authority over new development to the port governing body. One exception to this rule, however, is for “hotels, motels, and shopping facilities not principally devoted to the administration of activities within the port.” Navy Broadway contended that the Convention Center would include at least some retail “shopping facilities,” and thus should be subject to appeal.

The Court of Appeal rejected this claim, finding that the Commission’s interpretation is consistent with § 30715 and warrants deference. Section 30715 addresses developments that fall into particular categories, not portions of such developments. The Commission, therefore, could reasonably determine that the development consisting of the Convention Center expansion was not appealable, notwithstanding its incorporation of ancillary retail facilities that might be appealable in isolation.

Findings Under the Coastal Act

The Court of Appeal next addressed Navy Broadway’s attacks on the Commission’s various findings of consistency with the Coastal Act, including findings related to proximity to existing development, public access, recreation, parking, and views, as well as findings required under Chapter 8 of the Coastal Act. At the outset, the Court of Appeal noted that the Commission was not required to provide an explicit written finding on each statutory section. Instead, the findings only were required to—and did—“bridge the analytic gap between the raw evidence and ultimate decision or order.” With respect to all of the required findings, the Court of Appeal found that the Commission adequately addressed the respective issues, and the record supported each of its findings.

Findings Under CEQA

Finally, the Court of Appeal addressed Navy Broadway’s claim that the Commission’s certification violated CEQA because it made insufficient findings on mitigation and no substantial evidence supported its findings that a new pedestrian bridge was infeasible. Broadly, the Coastal Act required the Commission to “make any findings required pursuant” to CEQA in approving the Amendment. The Court of Appeal found that the Commission’s findings were sufficient for purposes of CEQA § 21081, and thus for its own regulations. With respect to the pedestrian bridge, the Court of Appeal found that a specific infeasibility finding was not required where the Commission found other measures effective, and in any event the record supported a conclusion that the proposed bridge was both economically and jurisdictionally infeasible.

Conclusion and Implications

The case is significant because it provides a detailed analysis of issues pertaining to statutes of limitation in writ proceedings, as well as a robust discussion of various Coastal Act provisions. The decision is available online at: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/D072568.PDF