horse in stable windowIs the “character” of a community part of the “environment” and therefore subject to analysis under CEQA, or is it instead a subjective state of mind of the people who live there?  An appellate court has now weighed in.

In its decision in Preserve Poway v. City of Poway (March 9, 2016), the Fourth District Court of Appeal has upheld the use of a mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a project to subdivide a property currently occupied by an equestrian boarding and training facility.  In doing so, the Court held that evidence of the project’s social and psychological impacts to the community does not require preparation of an environmental impact report (EIR), as CEQA does not address such impacts.

The property, located in the City of Poway (which calls itself the “City in the Country”), is currently being used as a boarding facility for approximately 100 horses, and it is located across the street from a 12-acre rodeo and polo grounds operated by the Poway Valley Riders Association (PVRA). The project involves the subdivision of the property into twelve residential lots, grading of the property, extension of an existing sewer line, undergrounding of existing utilities, installation of new curb, gutters, and fire hydrants, and flood channel improvements.  No home construction is included in the project – any such construction would be subject to further environmental review and City approval.

PVRA and a number of community residents opposed the project on the grounds that replacing the Stock Farm with a residential subdivision would negatively impact the “country character” and “equestrian lifestyle” of the community.  The City Council approved the tentative tract map and adopted the MND by a vote of four to zero, with one councilmember not voting.  The trial court granted a petition for writ of mandate and overturned the approvals, finding there was substantial evidence creating a fair argument that the project would have a significant effect on the community character of the City, and an EIR was therefore required.

The Fourth District reversed, holding that “community character” – separate and apart from aesthetic impacts – is not cognizable under CEQA.  Prior precedent establishes that CEQA addresses physical changes to the environment, and therefore economic and social changes need not be studied, mitigated, or avoided.  The Court noted that published decisions that have discussed “community character” have been limited to aesthetic impacts, which must be evaluated under CEQA.

Here, the trial court did not invalidate the MND due to aesthetic impacts:  the project was fully consistent with existing zoning and all other land use regulations, and there was “no substantial evidence creating a fair argument that the Project is visually out of character with the surrounding community,” which includes single-family homes to the immediate north, east, and northwest.  The Court found that the impacts described by project opponents were not aesthetic, “rather, they are impacts to the collective psyche of Poway’s residents related to living in the ‘City in the Country’ and social impacts caused by the loss of the Stock Farm.”  However, “CEQA does not require an analysis of subjective psychological feelings or social impacts,” as these are not environmental impacts.  As such, the trial court erred in determining that an EIR was required to study these impacts of the project.

This decision is consistent with prior CEQA case law and helps to maintain an important wall between impacts that must be analyzed in an MND or EIR (i.e., tangible, physical changes to the environment) and impacts that – however important from a social, economic, or psychological perspective – are simply beyond the purview of this statutory scheme.