On December 22, 2017, the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles Conservancy v. City of West Hollywood (2017) ____ Cal.Rptr.3d ____, denied a challenge brought under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) stating that “[a]bsolute perfection in the analysis of alternatives is not required.”
In 2014, the City of West Hollywood prepared an Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) for a large mixed-use project at the intersections of Santa Monica Boulevard, Melrose Avenue, and Doheny Drive, referred to as the “Melrose Triangle” project. The project was envisioned as an iconic gateway to the City of West Hollywood. A building that was potentially eligible for listing on the California Register of Historical Resources, referred to as the “9080 Building,” was located on a portion of the project site.
The EIR stated that the demolition of the 9080 Building was a “significant and unavoidable” adverse impact of the project. As a project alternative, the EIR proposed to “preserve the 9080 Building by reducing and redesigning the project”. (Alternative 3).
The EIR stated that Alterative 3 was the environmentally superior alterative because it would not require demolition of the 9080 Building and would have fewer traffic impacts. However, the EIR concluded that Alternative 3 would not maximize use of the project site due to reductions in office and retail use, and would not achieve the development potential for the site. The EIR further concluded that Alternative 3 would not result in a “cohesive site design” and would not accomplish the desired unified gateway design sought by the City. The EIR also stated that Alternative 3 would result in reduced pedestrian accessibility on the site.
The Los Angeles Conservancy sued under CEQA, alleging the EIR was inadequate. The trial court denied the Conservancy’s petition for writ of mandate and the Conservancy appealed.
In the appeal, the Conservancy made three primary arguments: the EIR’s analysis of alternatives was inadequate, the City failed to properly respond to public comments on the EIR, and there was insufficient evidence to support the finding of infeasibility of Alterative 3.
Analysis of Alternatives
The Conservancy argued that the EIR analysis was inadequate because it failed to provide a conceptual design of Alternative 3. However, the Court of Appeal found that there was no legal authority that would require the City to provide architectural drawings of an alternative plan, and the Court declined to make such a requirement. The Conservancy also argued that the EIR analysis was inadequate because it did not provide sufficient analysis to support the statement that retaining the 9080 Building would “preclude construction of the Gateway Building and portion of the Avenue Building.” The Court rejected that argument and stated that no further explanation was needed as it was clear that the 9080 Building was located where new buildings were proposed to be constructed in the plans. The Court noted that “[w]hile some conclusions may require extended analysis to justify them, others are so simple they are almost self-explanatory.”
City’s Responses to EIR Comments
Next, the Conservancy challenged the City’s responses to EIR comments, arguing that the City failed to adequately respond to public comments in opposition to the project. In particular, two comments stated that the 9080 Building could be restored and adaptively reused as part of the project, and that a thoughtful design of the project could result in a superior site design.
Under CEQA, the lead agency must evaluate and respond to timely submitted comments. In this case, the Conservancy argued that the City’s response, which included a reference to the Alternative 3 discussion in the EIR, was inadequate. The Court disagreed, stating that general comments may be met with general responses, and that the subject comments were general objections and expressions of support for Alternative 3, which were properly met by the general discussion in the EIR regarding Alternative 3.
Sufficiency of Evidence to Support Finding of Infeasibility
Finally, the Conservancy argued that the City has insufficient evidence to support its finding of infeasibility regarding Alternative 3. In general, a city may approve a project that will have a significant effect on the environment if the city finds that “(1) specific economic, legal, social, technological , or other consideration . . . make infeasible the mitigation measures or alternatives identified in the [EIR]; and (2) the significant effects on the environment are outweighed by “specific overriding economic, legal, social, technological, or other benefits of the project.” (Pub. Resources Code § 21081, subds. (a)(3) & (b).) An agency’s finding of infeasibility is entitled to deference by courts as long as there is substantial evidence in the record to support its decision that fair argument can be made to support the agency’s conclusion.
In this case, the Court found that the development plans and photographs in the EIR showed that the 9080 Building was “strikingly dissimilar in appearance compared to the other buildings planned for the site.” In addition, the fact that retention of the 9080 Building would prevent the installation of planned pedestrian walkways, was fair argument that the project would not meet pedestrian connectivity objectives of the project. The Court found substantial evidence in support of the City’s other findings in the record. As noted by the Court, “[i]n the context of project approval, a public agency may find that an alternative is ‘infeasible’ if it determined, based upon the balancing of the statutory facts, that an alternative cannot meet project objectives or ‘is impractical or undesirable from a policy standpoint.'”
What This Means To You
This case is a reminder to lead agencies to as long as analysis and decisions relating to the approval of an EIR are supported by substantial evidence in the record, courts will defer to the agency’s determination and not require perfect or exhaustive explanations.
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