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Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento (2019) 37 Cal.App.5th 698, 704.

The Yamanee project, a 10-story mixed-use condominium development in Midtown Sacramento, (Project) exceeded both the density and height limits of its parcel’s zone. A Sacramento General Plan provision allows the City Council to authorize projects at densities higher than the applicable zoning if they are found to provide a significant community benefit. The City found that the Project would create a number of such benefits, including a reduction of residents’ dependence on personal vehicles and the furtherance of the City’s goal to construct 10,000 new residential units in the downtown area. Sacramentans for Fair Planning filed a writ of mandate in the superior court, alleging the City violated zoning law and CEQA by approving the Project. The court denied the petition and Sacramentans appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal.

On appeal, the Court found that under SB 375, if a project is statutorily defined as a transit priority project, a lead agency may utilize a streamlined sustainable communities environmental assessment instead of typical CEQA review methods (an EIR or negative declaration). For a project to qualify as a transit priority project, it must, in part, be consistent with the use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies specified for the project area in the regional sustainable communities strategy (SCS).

Sacramentans challenged the City’s use of a Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment (SCEA) to approve the Project on the basis that SCS development policies in the area were too vague. For instance, the SCS did not identify specific residential densities or building densities for the area. Sacramentans argued that the lack of specificity rendered the SCS unusable as a basis for justifying streamlined CEQA review with an SCEA.

The SCS forecasts a preferred growth scenario for the region which, if followed, would lead to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. To that end, the SCS divides the region into areas and subareas, each forecasted to receive specified amounts and types of development. The SCS designated the Project site as within the central city subarea of the Center and Corridor Community area. This designation allows for relatively dense mixed-use development. As the Court noted, the SCS forecast for the Project area includes a unique capacity for new office, residential, and mixed-use buildings exceeding 3-4 stories, with the potential to more than double the number of housing units in the subarea.

The Court found that Sacramentans misunderstood the role of SCS in their argument when alleging that it was too vague. “The strategy’s purpose is to establish a regional pattern of development, not a site-specific zoning ordinance.” The Court clarified that nothing in SB 375 requires building intensity standards in the SCS more specific than what it contained.

With respect to Sacramentans’ allegation that the lack of specificity rendered streamlining improper, the Court clarified such concerns should be directed to the Legislature, not the Court. The Court stated there was no dispute that the City’s determination of project consistency with the SCS was supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the Court held that the City was entitled to rely on its consistency determination when using the SCEA.

Sacramentans also asserted that the City erred by relying on EIRs prepared for the General Plan and SCS to avoid analyzing the Project’s cumulative impacts. Sacramentans claimed streamlined review was inappropriate because no prior environmental analysis “has ever considered the cumulative impacts of high-rise development in Midtown approved pursuant to the General Plan.” The Court rejected this argument, and found that CEQA authorized the City to rely on the prior reports as part of its streamlined review of the Project. CEQA required the City, before drafting its SCEA, to prepare an initial study identifying significant or potentially significant impacts, including cumulative impacts. The initial study had to identify any cumulative effects that had been adequately addressed and mitigated in prior applicable environmental impact reports. The Court held that the City’s initial study on the Project, included as part of the SCEA, properly complied with these requirements.

The Court denied the petition, and affirmed the decision of the superior court.