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Second District Court Finds Infill Development Project’s Parking Impacts Were Exempt From Environmental Review

The Second District Court of Appeal affirmed a decision of the trial court upholding the City of Covina’s approval of a mixed-use, infill project near a commuter rail station, finding that Public Resources Code § 21099, subdivision (d)(1) exempted the project’s parking impacts from review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review. The court also found that the city had complied with the Subdivision Map Act. [Covina Residents for Responsible Development v. City of Covina, ___Cal.App.5th___, Case No. B279590 (2nd Dist. Feb. 28, 2018; Pub.Mar. 22, 2018).]

 

 Factual and Procedural Background

In 2012, City Ventures, Inc. and City Ventures LCC (City Ventures) submitted an application to build a mixed-use development project containing residential townhome and loft units, live/work units, 8,000 square feet of retail uses, and a 4,800 square-foot gallery. This created a need for 238 parking spaces, but the project only proposed 177 (including 23 off-site “street parking” spaces). The 3.4-acre project site is comprised of 27 parcels in the City’s Town Center Specific Plan (TCSP) area. The site is entirely paved, surrounded by developed residential and commercial uses, and contains 25,000 square feet of existing, vacant, single-story buildings, and was described by city staff as “deteriorating and underutilized.”

The project was redesigned several times to address the parking deficit by reducing the retail and gallery space, reducing the total number of residential units, and adding on-site parking spaces. With these changes incorporated, city staff recommended approval of the project, including adoption of a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND). After approving the project, the city filed a notice of determination, as well as a notice of categorical exemption for a “Class 32” infill project under to CEQA Guidelines § 15332.

Covina Residents for Responsible Development (CRRD) filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking to overturn the city’s approval based on three causes of action. First, a CEQA claim alleging that an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was required and that the city improperly tiered from the TCSP EIR. Second, a Subdivision Map Act claim alleging that the city failed to make necessary findings, or that the city’s findings were not supported by substantial evidence. Third, a due process claim that was abandoned on appeal. CRRD’s CEQA claims focused on the project’s analysis of parking impacts, which CRRD alleged was legally inadequate. The trial court denied the petition. CRRD appealed.

 

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

 

 Parking Impacts Were Statutorily Exempt From Environmental Review

CRRD’s primary argument on appeal was that the city was required to prepare an EIR due the project’s significant impacts on parking. The court disagreed, finding that even if a parking shortfall constituted a significant impact under CEQA, the project’s parking impacts were statutorily exempt under Public Resources Code § 21099.

Enacted in 2013 and effective on January 1, 2014, § 21099, subdivision (d)(1), provides:

 

  • Aesthetic and parking impacts of a residential, mixed-use residential, or employment center project on an infill site within a transit priority area shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment.

Because § 21099 took effect after the city had completed its initial study and circulated the proposed MND, the city did not rely on this statute when it adopted the MND and approved the project. Nonetheless, the court concluded that § 21099 applied and exempted the project’s parking impacts.

The court determined that the project met all of the statutes requirements, and rejected CRRD’s arguments that were based on case law predating § 21099, which suggested that a parking shortage was necessarily a physical impact on the environment for purposes of CEQA. The court held that, in enacting § 21099, the California Legislature had endorsed the approach to parking impact analysis in San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. City and County of San Francisco,102 Cal.App.4th 656 (2002), for infill projects near transit hubs, like the project in this case. That is, only the secondary impacts associated with parking issues need to be analyzed under CEQA. The court noted that the redesigned project met the city’s parking requirements in any event, and CRRD failed to provide any evidence of possible secondary effects.

 

The MND Was Properly Tiered From the Town Center Specific Plan EIR

Next the court addressed CRRD’s challenge to the city’s decision to tier from the TCSP EIR for the project’s MND regarding impacts related to traffic. Specifically, CCRD alleged that the MND failed to consider additional traffic impacts caused by the parking shortfall that were not contemplated in the previous EIR. The court found, however, that tiering was appropriate because the project’s parking impacts were exempt from CEQA, the approved project complied with the TCSP parking requirements, and CRRD had provided no evidence of any alleged traffic impacts associated with the project’s parking. Consequently, the court concluded, there was no evidence in the record to support CRRD’s assertion that the project had impacts not contemplated by the TCSP EIR, and the city properly tiered its review from that document.

 

 City Complied with the Subdivision Map Act

Lastly, the court addressed the Subdivision Map Act claim. CRRD alleged that the city’s findings relating to the consistency of the project’s tentative map with the TCSP were not supported by substantial evidence. The court again disagreed.

Government Code § 66474 requires the legislative body of a city or county to deny approval of a tentative or parcel map unless it makes a series of findings related to consistency of the proposed map and design of the project with the general or specific plan (subds. (a) & (b)), the suitability of the site for the type and density of the development (subds. (c) & (d)), the likelihood the proposed map and improvements will cause environmental damage, harm wildlife and habitat or cause serious public health problems (subds. (e) & (f)) and the effect of the map and project on public easements (subd. (g)).

The court held that the city made each of the requisite findings, all of which were supported by substantial evidence. The court noted that, CRRD’s principal complaint about the city’s findings once again concerned parking, but the city adequately addressed those concerns. According to the court, the project’s map was fully consistent with the Town Center Specific Plan.

 

Conclusion and Implications

This case is one of a few published decisions applying the exemption in Public Resources Code § 21099. For qualifying infill projects, § 21099 provides that aesthetic and parking impacts shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment for purposes of CEQA. Notably, the court applied § 21099 to the project even though the city did not rely on the exemption when it approved the project. The decision also highlights the deference generally afforded to agencies when making consistency findings under the Subdivision Map Act. Such finding will be upheld if they are reasonable and supported by the evidence.

The opinion is available at: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B279590.PDF

(Chris Stiles, Nathan George)