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In Anderson v. County of Santa Barbara (2023) 94 Cal.App.5th 554 (Anderson), the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s grant of a preliminary injunction that barred Santa Barbara County from removing unpermitted encroachments from a public right-of-way. In reversing the preliminary injunction, the Court held that the petitioners would not be irreparably harmed by the removal order because “a party suffers no grave or irreparable harm by being prohibited from violating the law,” and that any such harm was outweighed by the County’s interest in enforcing the law. Addressing the merits of the underlying CEQA claim, the Court upheld the County’s finding that the removal was exempt from CEQA and rejected the trial court’s determinations that the County had improperly “piecemealed” the project and that the case presented “unusual circumstances.”


This ongoing dispute centers around the Hot Springs Trail, a popular hiking trail in Montecito. To prevent users of the trail from parking in front of their homes, in violation of state and local law, residents installed landscaping, boulders, rocks, trees, bushes, and signs in the public right-of-way on East Mountain Drive, effectively narrowing the road and creating a safety hazard.

The County sent notices to three property owners on East Mountain Drive requiring that they remove unpermitted encroachments from the public right of way within 60 days. The Department found the issuance of the notices to be exempt from CEQA under Guidelines § 15301(c), the Class 1 exemption for minor alterations to existing facilities, as well as the  exemption for “enforcement of a law, general rule, standard, or objective, administered or adopted by the regulatory agency.” (Guidelines, § 15321.) Around the same time, the County’s Public Works Department (Department) received funding to research, plan, and implement a plan for public parking near Hot Springs Trail.

The residents filed a petition for writ of mandate, alleging that the County failed to comply with CEQA in two respects. First, they alleged that the County engaged in improper segmentation or “piecemealing” by addressing the removal order only without conducting CEQA review of the larger parking program. Second, they alleged that the order was not exempt from CEQA, in part because removal of the encroachments would have a significant impact on the environment because it would create additional parking spaces, which would lead to more hikers using the trail and would make it more difficult to evacuate the neighborhood in the event of a wildfire.

The County immediately appealed the preliminary injunction. During the pendency of that appeal, the trial court issued a peremptory writ. Although this did not constitute a final judgment in the action, the Court of Appeal determined it could still hear the case and issue effective relief, and elected to exercise its discretion to hear the appeal because the “case involves issues of public interest relating to local governments’ enforcement of encroachment laws and their obligations under CEQA.”

Court of Appeal’s Analysis

The Court addressed both prongs of the preliminary injunction test: (1) the likelihood that the petitioners would succeed on the merits, and (2) the “relative balance of harms that is likely to result from the granting or denial of interim injunctive relief.”

Addressing the merits of the CEQA claim, the Court found in favor of the County, pointing out that “CEQA does not limit its authority to enforce encroachment laws.” The Court rejected the petitioners’ piecemealing argument because it found “no substantial evidence of a larger project” and that “the current project is properly considered a stand-alone project because it has independent utility.” The Court also upheld that County’s exemption finding, stating that “the right of way restoration project is categorically exempt from CEQA because it involves the maintenance or repair of an existing road and the enforcement of statutes and ordinances prohibiting unpermitted encroachments in the public right of way. In addition, there is no substantial evidence that the project presents unusual circumstances.”

The Court also relied upon the principle that “in general, a trial court may not grant an injunction ‘[t]o prevent the execution of a public statute by officers of the law for the public benefit.’ (citations omitted.) The Court rejected petitioners’ argument that this case involved an exception to this rule where “the public official’s action exceeds his or her authority,” finding that the County had not exceeded its authority in enforcing the encroachment laws.

Weighing the respective harms, the Court rejected the trial court’s conclusion that the petitioners had demonstrated irreparable harm would occur if the order were enforced, finding that the landscaping and other materials in the right-of-way could simply be moved. The Court found that the trial court had erred by not acknowledging the County’s legitimate interest in enforcing the laws at issue. On balance, the court found that the County’s interests in enforcing the laws to ensure public safety far outweighed the petitioners’ interests in maintaining encroachment. 


The trial court’s holding that CEQA could prevent a public agency from enforcing important public safety statutes was extreme and untenable; the Court of Appeal’s strong condemnation of that holding is reassuring in a time when CEQA’s reach seems almost limitless. In addition, this case contains a helpful summary of the state of the law on piecemealing, exemptions, and how courts should evaluate motions for injunctive relief.