In Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach 2015 Cal. App. LEXIS 436, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld an approval by the City of Newport Beach (City) of a development project on 400 acres of undeveloped coastal property with active oilfield operations (Project). The Project consisted of developing one-fourth of the area for residential and commercial purposes, while preserving the remaining land for open space and parks, as well as removing and remediating the oil production facilities.
Petitioners fought the City’s approval, arguing the City violated its own general plan by not coordinating with the Coastal Commission before approving the Project, and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by failing to designate “environmentally sensitive habitat areas” (ESHAs).
The trial court agreed in part, finding the City failed to comply with its General Plan, but disagreed in part, holding the City had complied with CEQA. Both parties appealed.
The case in the Court of Appeal turned on two main issues: (1) what actions was the City required to engage in with the Coastal Commission prior to Project approval, and (2) must the City designate ESHAs in its EIR?
The first question presented an issue of general plan consistency. Petitioners interpreted the City’s General Plan Land Use Policy 6.5.6 (“Coordination with State and Federal Agencies”) as requiring the City to work with the Coastal Commission on identifying wetlands and other habitats to restore and preserve before Project approval. Conversely, the City read the same policy as loosely requiring the City to “work with” the Coastal Commission but not designating when or exactly how it must do so. The court deferred to the City’s interpretation, finding the policy was too vague on its face to impose such a mandatory requirement as the Petitioners allege. Additionally, the City presented evidence of its interactions with federal and state agencies, including the Coastal Commission. The Court characterized this evidence as compliance with the land use policy in question
Addressing the second issue, the court held the City’s EIR was adequate under CEQA. Petitioners believed the City avoided identifying ESHAs because that would have required a reworking of the Project. However, the City explained that it did not identify ESHAs because that is legal determination that must be left to the Coastal Commission. The EIR noted that the Project was not included in the City’s coastal land use plan, but was rather in a “Deferred Certification Area” over which the Coastal Commission still retained permit jurisdiction. The EIR also explained that the Project cannot move forward without a coastal development permit from the Coastal Commission. The court thus upheld the City’s EIR, finding the EIR contained the necessary information, and stating that CEQA does not require the City to speculate as to the likelihood of the presence of ESHAs or coastal development permit approvals; those are decisions better left to the Coastal Commission.
The court will defer to an agency’s determination of consistency with its own general plan, especially if a policy is vague enough to allow for more than one reasonable interpretation. Additionally, when a project is excluded from the coastal land use plan, as is the case with Banning Ranch, an agency can properly defer identification of ESHAs to the Coastal Commission.