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July 29, 2011

City’s Approval of a Hospital Expansion Project Did Not Violate CEQA or Local Ordinances.

City’s Approval of a Hospital Expansion Project Did Not Violate CEQA or Local Ordinances.

Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment v. City of Santa Clarita (2nd District, No. B224242, Filed 6/30/11; Certified for Publication 7/26/11)

 

By Andrea A. Matarazzo

The Second District Court of Appeal recently upheld approval of expansion plans for the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital.  The City of Santa Clarita (“City”) approved a Master Plan to expand the hospital and medical office building facilities on the existing hospital campus.  Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment (“SCOPE”) challenged the City’s actions, arguing that (1) the City failed to support its conclusions regarding the lack of feasible measures to mitigate the project’s impact on climate change; and (2) the City failed to support its findings as to adverse effects on adjacent residents and neighborhood character.

SCOPE argued that “[n]either the record nor the EIR contain a scintilla of evidence or analysis to support the conclusion that more could not be done to reduce or mitigate the Project’s contribution to global warming.”  SCOPE had submitted “a list of potential mitigation measures developed by the Office of Attorney General,” and the group argued that the City’s response to these suggested mitigation measures was “inadequate.”  SCOPE also challenged the City’s finding that the Master Plan did not adversely affect the health and welfare of neighboring residents.  According to SCOPE, the finding was “dishonest” because the City improperly “weigh[ed] the impact to the residents against the alleged overall benefit to the community.”

The trial court rejected SCOPE’s arguments and the Court of Appeal affirmed.  The appellate court first considered an argument by real parties in interest that SCOPE failed to exhaust administrative remedies regarding its mitigation claims.  SCOPE countered that less specificity is required to preserve an issue for appeal in an administrative proceeding than in a judicial proceeding, because parties in administrative proceedings generally are not represented by counsel.  The courts have held that to require such parties to have knowledge of the technical rules of evidence and to hold them to the penalty of waiver for failure to make a timely and specific objection would be unfair.  The Court of Appeal questioned whether a rule protecting individuals who are not well versed in the technicalities of administrative proceedings applied to SCOPE.  As SCOPE itself noted, it “has been an active participant in the City of Santa Clarita . . . land use and environmental review process, and has in the past successfully challenged the City’s land-decisions.”  Even so, the court gave SCOPE the benefit of the less stringent exhaustion standard, and concluded the group had sufficiently apprised the City of its concerns regarding mitigation measures by stating, “[w]e have attached the list of mitigation measures developed by the Office of the Attorney General to our comments.  We request that the City incorporate these measures into any project approval that might be granted for this project.”

In considering the merits of SCOPE’s mitigation arguments, however, the court found that the City’s analysis was adequate, and that substantial evidence supported the City’s findings.  SCOPE had submitted a letter containing more than 50 general suggestions.  SCOPE did not single out any specific suggestions from this list, but instead articulated a broad request that the city “incorporate these measures into any project approval that might be granted for this project.”  The letter itself indicated “the measures cited may not be appropriate for every project.”

Considering the large number of possible mitigation measures set forth in the letter, as well as the letter’s indication that not all measures would be appropriate for every project, the court found that it would be unreasonable to impose an obligation on the City to explore each and every one.  As SCOPE conceded, the City did incorporate some of them, and the City’s pointed out that some of the already imposed mitigation measures “are consistent with the measures suggested by the Attorney General.”  The court found the City’s approach to be legally sufficient.

With respect climate change, the EIR pointed out that “[t]he emissions from vehicle exhaust are controlled by the State and Federal governments and are outside the control of this project.”  The EIR noted that no thresholds of significance had been established by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), the California Air Resources Board, or the Southern California Air Quality Management District.  The EIR concluded, however, that “it is likely that if a significance threshold were adopted, project-related Scope 3 GHG emissions would exceed the proposed emissions threshold due to the scale of the proposed project.”  The EIR pointed out that transportation sources represent over 40 percent of the state’s emissions and the project would contribute significantly to this sector.  Therefore, the EIR concluded, even with all feasible mitigation measures incorporated, the project’s Scope 3 emissions would cause a significant and unavoidable cumulative impact.

The EIR set forth a detailed description of the existing roadway system, existing traffic volumes, and maps of the primary affected intersections, and identified mitigation measures identified traffic mitigation measures designed to minimize the project’s impact on the flow of traffic.  “By improving the flow of traffic,” the EIR explained, “fewer greenhouse gases would be emitted from vehicles, thus further reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”  Two proposed bus stops would allow the public to access the hospital through public transportation.

In addition to these traffic mitigation measures, the project was required to comply with the City’s sustainable community policies as well as its transportation demand management (TDM) program designed to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT).  In particular, the project was consistent with the City’s requirements for the construction of bus turnouts, efficient site design for both motorists and pedestrians, appropriate parking for vehicles and bicycles, and other conditions that promote a reduction in VMT.  Furthermore, by locating the medical office buildings at the hospital campus, the project reduced the amount of vehicle trips by 20 percent over the baseline.  The court found that the City’s reliance on existing standards was sufficient under CEQA, citingTracy First v. City of Tracy (2009) 177 Cal.App.4th 912, 933-934.  Substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that the project’s cumulative impact on climate change had been mitigated to the extent feasible.

SCOPE next argued that the City impermissibly engaged in a balancing of the project’s perceived benefits against its adverse impacts on neighboring residents.  The court noted, however, that the local ordinance creating the requirement for such a finding did not limit the factors that may be considered in making it.  It was logical, the court reasoned, that a decision as to whether a project will adversely affect a community must necessarily include consideration of the project’s benefits to that community.  In addition, an agency’s view of the meaning and scope of its own ordinance is entitled to great weight unless it is clearly erroneous or unauthorized.  In this case, the City’s decision to weigh the benefits of the project in reaching its decision regarding the adverse effects of the project was not clearly erroneous, nor was it specifically unauthorized.  As such, the court upheld the City’s finding.

 

By Andrea Matarazzo

 

Andrea advises and advocates for private and public clients in all aspects of project permitting and entitlements, environmental compliance, and litigation, particularly regarding environmental review under CEQA and NEPA, land use and zoning issues, air quality regulation, climate change law and policy, water supply and water quality mandates, state and federal endangered species laws, wetlands permitting, and other regulatory requirements.

 

(916) 496-8500

(916) 737-5838 (Direct)

andrea@pioneerlawgroup.net

 

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