Bright Lights Not a Significant Impact; Lack of Parking May Be

by Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP
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In Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending v. San Diego Unified School District (2013) __ Cal.App.4th __ (Case No. D060999) the Court of Appeal for the 4th District held that the San Diego Unified School District (the “District”) must prepare an environmental impact report (“EIR”) on installation of new stadium field lighting and other improvements at Hoover High School to permit nighttime events because there was a fair argument that impacts on neighborhood parking could be significant. The court specifically declined to follow earlier case law to the contrary. The court also held that the District was prohibited from using proceeds of a school bond other than for the purposes specifically listed.

The court found that the District’s traffic and parking analysis on which the Mitigated Negative Declaration was based was flawed. The court held that whether parking is considered a primary or secondary issue, parked vehicles constitute a man-made condition that may cause a significant impact on the environment. Because the District failed to provide a reasonable estimate of expected attendance at future events, the parking and traffic analysis was speculative. That, together with statements by residents of the community that there was a potential parking shortage in the neighborhood, constituted substantial evidence of a fair argument that the project could have significant adverse impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). The court specifically declined to follow San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. City and County of San Francisco (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 656, which had held, at least in San Francisco, that parking deficits were an inconvenience to drivers, but not a significant physical impact on the environment. On the other hand, the court also concluded that, despite testimony to the contrary from the community, the lighting analysis supported the District’s conclusion that there was no substantial evidence that installation of night lighting would affect a substantial number of residents, and upheld the MND on that issue.

The court also concluded that the District was prohibited from using proceeds of a school bond other than for the purposes specifically listed. In July of 2008, the District’s Board of Education (“Board”) approved a resolution to place on an election ballot a proposition (“Prop S”) to allow the District to sell up to $2.1 billion in general obligation bonds for the construction, rehabilitation or replacement of school facilities “listed or otherwise described in Exhibit A” to the resolution. Prop S contained, among other things, a list of specific projects for Hoover High School (“Hoover”), which list included the renovation of the Hoover football field. Prop S passed and, soon after, the District commenced CEQA review. The District’s description of the renovation of the Hoover football field included new stadium lighting to allow for evening events. Taxpayers argued that new stadium lighting was not listed as a permitted use of the Prop S funds and therefore use of Prop S funds for such purpose constituted waste and misuse of bond proceeds in violation of the California Constitution.

The court reasoned that the same principles that govern the construction of a statute applies when interpreting a voter initiative – if the language is clear and unambiguous, there is no need for construction or analysis of intent. The court noted that the voters pamphlet for the election included a full description of Prop S, which stated that bond proceeds must be spent only for the projects listed in the bond project list. The list contained the renovation of the Hoover football field, and specifically called out the replacement of the bleachers, but it did not, anywhere, include the installation of new stadium lighting. Accordingly, the court held that Prop S did not authorize the use of the bond funds for new stadium lighting and that the trial court erred by concluding otherwise.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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