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In Old E. Davis Neighborhood Assn v. City of Davis (Dec. 20, 2021, C090117) ___Cal.App.5th___ [2021 Cal. App. LEXIS 1114], the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the City of Davis’s (City) determination that a proposed mixed-use development project (Project) was consistent with the City’s General Plan (GP). The Court held that the City’s approval of the Project was supported by substantial evidence and found that challenges to the Project’s Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment/Initial Study (SCEA), along with other CEQA claims, lacked merit, reversing the trial court.

The Project at issue proposed to build a four-story, mixed-use building with retail spaces on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors. The Project was within a “transition area” between the City’s Downtown Core and the Old East Davis residential neighborhood. The site was at the “nexus of many different land uses and zoning: railroad, rock yard, commercial and traditional neighborhood,” and fell within the purview of a number of planning documents. Staff prepared a report, which found the Project to be substantially consistent with design guidelines and in compliance with design features called for in the planning documents. The City Council approved the Project and adopted an SCEA, a relatively new form of streamlined CEQA review available to transit priority projects, that may be used if all environmental impacts are either avoided or mitigated to a level of insignificance. The SCEA found the Project to be consistent with the GP and applicable design guidelines.

Old East Davis Neighborhood Association (Petitioners) challenged the City’s approval on the grounds that the Project was inconsistent with the GP and failed to meet the statutory requirements applicable to an SCEA. The trial court found that the City did not adequately support its conclusion that the project complied with a GP policy requiring it to be a “transition” from downtown to the neighboring area, and that even though the Project could qualify for SCEA review as a Transit Priority Project, the inconsistency with the GP rendered the SCEA inadequate. The court’s tentative decision did not address the Association’s CEQA claims and the Association did not challenge that portion of the tentative. Instead, the Association encouraged the trial court to adopt its tentative. The City and Project proponent appealed.

On appeal, the City argued that the trial court exceeded its authority in failing to defer to the City’s consistency findings, maintaining that the Project was consistent with the applicable planning policies and guidelines. The Court agreed noting that the City Council’s consistency determination carried “a strong presumption of regularity.” As such, the GP consistency determination could only be reversed if Petitioners satisfied their burden to show that “a reasonable person could not have reached the same conclusion” based on evidence before the City. Here, the Court found the transition provision to be somewhat amorphous, referring to a number of factors such as step-backs, mass shifting, and alley size to create an appropriate scale. The Court interpreted the dispute as a question of conflicting evidence over these factors, and disagreed with the trial court’s “formalistic” approach, which had concluded that the building could not be higher than a mixed-use building inside the downtown core and still be considered a transition. As such, the Court upheld the City’s analysis and conclusion.

Petitioners cross-appealed, arguing that the trial court failed to rule on a number of issues it raised regarding the City’s failure to comply with CEQA. But the Court held that Petitioners had forfeited a number of these arguments by failing to object to the trial court’s tentative decision declining to reach these issues. The Court additionally found the contentions to be meritless. The Court noted that Petitioners offered no evidence that the Project would have historical impacts. It also found that the SCEA adequately addressed the possibility that the project could lose its lease to railroad land, which would affect its floor-to-area ratio. The Court further held that the SCEA had adequately addressed potential human exposure to hazardous substances spilled from the adjacent railroad that soil excavation might mobilize. The Court also found that the design guidelines, which Petitioners alleged the Project violated, were relevant but not mandatory. Further, even if they were considered to be mandatory, the City’s conclusion that the project substantially complied with them was adequately supported.

Finally, Petitioners argued that the SCEA failed to meet Public Resources Code section 21155.1’s requirements that the project not have a significant impact on historical resources. The Court observed, however, that section 21155.1’s requirements pertain to a complete exemption from CEQA – not to the streamlined SCEA process used by the City under section 21155.2. Petitioners further sought a determination as to whether the SCEA was supported by substantial evidence under Public Resources Code section 21155.2. But Petitioners failed to identify how the SCEA was noncompliant with the section or how the trial court ruling on this matter was erroneous. Thus, this argument was waived, and the Court found for the City on all matters in the appeal.

Key Points:

  • The party challenging a city’s general plan consistency determination carries the burden of showing that city abused its discretion, and a determination of consistency will only be reversed if a reasonable person could not have reached the same conclusion based on the evidence before the local governing body.
  • Failure to object to a trial court’s tentative decisions, including decisions not to reach certain issues, likely forfeit review of these issues on appeal.
  • The requirements of Public Resources Code section 21155.1 pertain to a CEQA exemption and do not apply to the use of the streamlined SCEA process under 21155.2.