On August 19, 2021, in Save Our Access – San Gabriel Mountains vs. Watershed Conservation Authority, the Second District Court of Appeal, in reversing the lower court’s judgement, upheld an Environmental Impact Report’s (EIR’s) finding of less than significant impact under CEQA for an intentional reduction in parking meant to protect and restore the environment. The court found that a reduction in parking is usually a social and not an environmental impact. Because the petitioner failed to identify any secondary adverse physical effects on the environment resulting from the project’s impact on available parking, there was no CEQA impact here.

Save Our Access involved a proposed recreation improvements and ecological restoration project in the Angeles National Forest. The project area was highly trafficked for recreational uses, especially on the weekends. There was a limited number of designated parking spaces, and visitors historically parked in mostly undesignated areas. The popularity of the area, combined with a lack of facilities, caused environmental degradation in the form of damage to vegetation, soil compaction and erosion, stream alteration, high levels of litter deposition, and water quality impairment due to excessive trash. To address these environmental degradation concerns, the proposed project included improvements to facilities like picnic areas, restrooms, and pedestrian trails and created significantly more designated parking spaces. However, the proposal reduced the overall parking capacity by preventing parking in undesignated areas.

The draft EIR found that the impact of the project’s reduced parking capacity was less than significant. In response to public comments regarding the overall parking reduction, the FEIR acknowledged the reduction in overall parking availability but emphasized that the project proposal included over five times more designated spaces. Additionally, the proposal included other accessibility improvements such as a shuttle service, as well as additional public safety and environmental improvements. Save Our Access – San Gabriel Mountains challenged the certification of the EIR on multiple grounds, including the project’s adverse impacts on parking.

The trial court issued a writ of mandate on a single issue – the project’s impacts on available parking (designated and illegal). It required that defendant “articulate and substantiate an adequate baseline for the project, and to reassess the significance of the impacts resulting from the project’s parking reduction.” However, the trial court upheld the EIR’s single “no project” alternative analysis and found the project to be consistent with relevant land management plans. The trial court decision was appealed by both parties. The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s ruling regarding the EIR’s alternative analysis and the project’s consistency with relevant land management plans, but held the trial court erred in its analysis of the parking issue and reversed the writ.

Reviewing the two leading cases dealing with parking impacts under CEQA, the Court of Appeal emphasized that whether parking deficits have a significant adverse impact on the environment depends on the circumstances. In San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. City & County of San Francisco (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 656, the appellate court held that generally “the social inconvenience of having to hunt for scarce parking spaces is not an environmental impact; the secondary effect of scarce parking on traffic and air quality is.” In San Franciscans, the proposed project would attract crowds to an urban downtown without providing parking, but the parking deficit would have the environmentally desirable effect of increasing reliance on mass transit. However, in Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending v. San Diego Unified School Dist. (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 1013, the court found that under certain circumstances a parking deficit may constitute a primary effect on the environment. Taxpayers involved a project that would attract out-of-area evening crowds to a suburban neighborhood with narrow streets where residents would have a hard time finding parking when they returned home at the end of the day. Such a parking deficit would, in turn, increase the risk of roadway hazards. In reconciling these earlier cases, the Court of Appeal here found that each turned on its context, and that such context is determinative as to whether a project’s parking deficit constitutes a CEQA impact.

In Save Our Access, the Court of Appeal concluded that the principle articulated in San Franciscans applied equally to the wilderness context here: “Parking deficits are always inconvenient for drivers, but they do not always cause a significant adverse impact on the environment.” The project’s reduction in overall parking capacity might have an adverse social impact for those who must recreate elsewhere, but that the project would prevent further adverse physical impacts on the environment by better managing the heavy recreational use. The court found it odd that plaintiffs were attacking the EIR for “not converting more wilderness open space to parking or, alternatively, for not continuing to permit parking in fragile natural areas that have become degraded by erosion, trash, and habitat trampling.” “[P]lainly, reducing and formalizing parking spaces in the San Gabriel River and adjacent canyon recreation areas will protect and restore the environment.” Additionally, the court found that plaintiff failed to provide evidence of any secondary adverse environmental effects, such as effects related to traffic or air quality.

Save Our Access confirmed that CEQA generally does not consider the adequacy of a project’s parking or its “impacts on parking” unless it will result in significant secondary effects on the physical environment.  In considering a project’s parking impacts on the physical environment, understanding context is key. The Legislature also recognized that context is pivotal in assessing parking impacts when it exempted certain infill projects in transit priority areas. (See Pub. Resources Code, § 21099(d)(1)). In the context of infill development near transit, the Legislature confirmed that parking impacts are not significant impacts on the physical environment.

The holding in Save Our Access underscores that context is determinative when analyzing parking impacts under CEQA.