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In an unpublished decision in Save Our Heritage Organisation v. County of San Diego, (2014) Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5121, the Court of Appeal for the Fourth District reversed the trial court and ordered the trial court to deny a writ of mandate challenging the adequacy of the environmental impact report (EIR) for a mixed-use development in downtown San Diego (project).

The project site contains a parking lot, warehouse, and an office building built in 1911 that the City of San Diego had previously designated as an historical structure.  The first phase of the project included demolition of the warehouse and office building and construction of a parking structure.  In the next phase, San Diego County (the County) would partner with a private developer to build a five-story office and retail building and a 19-story residential building on the remaining portions of the parcel.

While acknowledging the significant unmitigable environmental impacts of the project, the County adopted a statement of overriding considerations and approved the proposed development.  The County balanced four objectives of the project in the EIR, which included maximizing revenue, providing parking, establishing a public-private partnership, and obtaining a LEED certification.

The court first reversed the trial court’s ruling that maximizing revenue was an improper objective under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) contended that maximizing revenue was too narrow of an objective because it would preclude meaningful analysis of project alternatives.  However, neither CEQA nor the CEQA Guidelines impose limits on the project objectives in an EIR and courts do not have the authority to impose a limitation such as prohibiting a certain project objective in an EIR.  Additionally, maximizing revenue was one of four objectives and not the only factor the County considered.  As a result, the court held that considering maximizing revenue as a project objective did not by itself constitute an abuse of discretion by the County.

Next, the court held that the EIR contained an adequate range of alternatives and that the evidence was sufficient to support the County’s finding that the alternatives were infeasible.  Citing Federation of Hillside & Canyon Associations v. City of Los Angeles (2000) 83 Cal.App.4th 1252, the court stated that the County’s selection of alternatives would be upheld unless they were “manifestly unreasonable.”  In this case, the County considered a no project alternative, an alternative that left the historic structure intact with buildings around it, and an alternative that incorporated the historic structure into one of the buildings.  Emphasizing that under CEQA courts should be highly deferential to an agency’s decision, the court found these alternatives were not manifestly unreasonable.

In looking at whether substantial evidence supported the County’s decision, the court stated that the feasibility of the project alternatives must be evaluated in the context of the project.  An expert analysis of the anticipated revenue from the project expected over 79 million dollars from the proposed project compared to 27 million and 29.6 million for the alternatives.  Based on this evidence, the court held that SOHO had failed to meet its burden of proving there was not substantial evidence to support the County’s decision.

Finally, the court reversed the trial court’s ruling that the County’s responses to three public comment letters were inadequate.  The three public comment letters at issue included modifications of the project alternatives. However, as the court pointed out, CEQA does not require an analysis of every possible alternative. The County explained why each suggestion was infeasible in reference to the alternatives analyzed in the EIR and, as a result, SOHO failed to meets its burden of showing the County’s responses were inadequate.

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