On April 25, 2017, California's Sixth District Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Aptos Council v. County of Santa Cruz, holding that the County did not violate California law when it separately considered the environmental impact of three ordinances in its effort to modernize zoning regulations.
In 2013, the County passed a series of ordinances recommended by its planning department to facilitate economic development. Ordinance No. 5181 expanded the scope of minor exceptions to zoning site standards available through administrative approval. Ordinance No. 5171 relaxed hotel regulations regarding height, density, and parking accommodations. Ordinance No. 5172 established an administrative process for approving minor exceptions to the County's sign ordinance. To comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the County's board of supervisors accepted separate negative declarations for Ordinances No. 5181 and No. 5171, and determined that Ordinance No. 5172 was exempt from CEQA review.
Aptos Council filed suit, arguing that the County did not satisfy CEQA when it considered each ordinance separately. Under CEQA, a public agency is required to prepare an environmental impact report (EIR) whenever it proposes to approve or carry out a "project" that may have significant impacts on the environment. CEQA forbids "piecemeal" review of the significant environmental impacts of a project; if the law allowed for a large project with hefty environmental consequences to be approved by breaking review up into several little components, each with a minimal impact, the purpose of the law would be subverted. Aptos Council alleged that the three ordinances constituted a single project under CEQA, and thus their environmental impacts were required to be considered together.
The court rejected Aptos Council's argument, and instead concluded that the three ordinances did not constitute a single project for the purposes of CEQA. The court acknowledges circumstances where multiple projects were proscribed from separate consideration. The court cited Laurel Heights Improvement v. Regents of University of California, where the court laid out its criteria to determine whether projects could be considered in isolation. The first consideration is whether future expansion and action was a "reasonably foreseeable consequence" of the project. The second is whether the future expansion or action will be significant in that it will "likely change the scope or nature of the initial project or its environmental effects."
The court determined that in this case, the first consideration was not met. The court determined that the effects of one ordinance, such as changing density or height requirements for hotels, were not the reasonably foreseeable consequence of the regulatory reforms contained in the other ordinances. The court concluded that the regulatory reforms operated independently of each other and could be implemented separately, and so the environmental impacts of each reform were also allowed to be considered separately.
The court also rejected Aptos Council's characterization of the County's ordinances as one cohesive objective, requiring a single EIR. The "objective" of modernizing the County code was too vague and intangible to be considered the basis of a single CEQA project. The precedent that the Council cited were instances where specific developments were at issue, not the adoption of various unrelated reforms for updating the County's regulations.
Guidance for Public Agencies
With this decision, lead agencies have a more concrete idea of whether the environmental analysis conducted for projects need to consider other developments. The court announced that analyzing environmental impacts must include the reasonably foreseeable consequences of that project. If other projects do not have a consequential relationship to the project at hand, they need not be considered in one, integrated environmental document. In addition, lead agencies can pursue broad policy objectives through diverse initiatives without concern that they will be construed as one CEQA project.
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