In a published opinion filed August 19, 2021, the Second District Court of Appeal reversed a judgment of the Los Angeles County Superior Court that found fault with the EIR for an improvement project within the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument portion of the Angeles National Forest. Save Our Access – San Gabriel Mountains v. Watershed Conservation Authority (2021) ___ Cal.App.5th ___. The trial court had rejected plaintiff’s claims that CEQA required the EIR to analyze alternatives beyond the “no project” alternative, and that the project was inconsistent with applicable land use and management plans, but issued a writ requiring additional analysis of the project’s parking reduction “impacts.” In resolving the ensuing appeals of both parties, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment on the parking issue, finding that reduction in parking is a social not environmental, impact and that plaintiff had failed to identify any secondary adverse physical effects on the environment resulting from the reduction. It affirmed the remainder of the judgment denying plaintiff’s other claims, and reversed the trial court’s fee award to plaintiff as compelled by its disposition of the merits.
Relevant Project Background
Defendant Watershed Conservation Authority, a joint powers agency of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers Mountain Conservancy and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, is the lead agency for CEQA purposes. The Angeles National Forest is responsible for preparing an EIS under NEPA, and both lead agencies prepared a joint statement to satisfy the two acts’ respective requirements. The project, called the “San Gabriel River Confluence with Cattle Canyon Improvements Project,” is located within the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and consists of 198 acres along a 2.5-mile stretch of the San Gabriel River’s East Fork which encompasses the riverbed, public roads and recreational facilities. The project area is a heavily used recreational area on weekends, which has contributed to its environmental degradation in the form of vegetation damage, soil compaction and erosion, stream alteration and water quality impairment from excessive litter and trash. The lead agencies collaborated over several years to develop the project, which is intended to provide recreational improvements and ecological restoration to address resource management challenges and reduce impacts along the river’s most heavily used section. Project enhancements include new picnic areas, pedestrian trails, river access points and upgrades to existing facilities; paved and unpaved roadway and parking improvements; restroom and refuse disposal and improvements; restoration of riparian and upland vegetation communities; and a prohibition on overnight camping.
The Parking Problem And CEQA Review
The DEIR described the existing limited number of designated parking spaces in the project and the widespread practice of recreating visitors parking in undesignated areas. At the Oaks Picnic Area and East Fork Day Use Parking trailhead, there are a total of 48 designated parking spaces (with paved area and delineations), while the remaining parking occurs in undesignated areas and road shoulders. The DEIR roughly estimated (based on aerial photography not included in the record) that there are 417 total parking spaces (designated and undesignated) available in the project area, not including “parking” prohibited by current signage. Parking capacity fluctuates based on how visitors park and the types of vehicles they arrive in, and on major summer holiday weekends parking capacity is reached early in the day.
The DEIR proposed to formalize parking spaces by pavement, stripes and signage, and to block undesignated parking areas through boulders and “no parking” signage, such that once the project is implemented, parking will be reduced to 270 car spaces and 3 bus spaces. It disclosed that the parking reduction would impact the number of visitors able to park in the project site, and that displaced visitors would likely be “dispersed” across the region leading to increased use at other similar recreational areas within the region. While designated spaces in the project area would increase from 48 to 270 with implementation of the project, overall parking capacity (counting the undesignated spaces that would no longer be available) would substantially decrease.
The DEIR found that during peak use hours, visitors unable to find a parking space would likely find a substitute activity or location. It found the project’s impact on recreation as a result of the parking reduction would be less than significant in that it would not increase use of the alternate recreational facilities in the region to the extent that deterioration would occur or increase from the dispersed users.
The DEIR considered only the project and the “no project” alternative and found the project to be the environmentally superior alternative as it would reduce harmful human impacts to the environment, and improve the access and safety of recreational users, while managing sustainable recreation. In the FEIR’s responses to comments, the defendant acknowledged (as was obvious from the DEIR) that there was a reduction in parking availability compared to the existing condition with use of undesignated spaces, but emphasized the project’s provision of over five times more designated spaces, its design to accommodate shuttle service, and its public safety and environmental benefits.
The Litigation and Trial Court Judgment
After defendant’s board held a hearing, certified the EIR, and approved the project, plaintiff filed its CEQA action. Agreeing in part with plaintiff’s petition, the trial court found the project creates or exacerbates a parking shortage without adequate analysis of its impacts. It found evidentiary deficiencies in the DEIR’s “parking baseline determinations” because the defendant’s consultant’s 417 total spaces estimate was based on aerial photography not in the record, and it found this error was prejudicial even though plaintiff likewise could not substantiate its 473 space estimate (as the report it relied on was also missing from the record).
The trial court found it “alarming” that defendant did not separately disclose the maximum number of spaces in distinct parts of the project site, which it considered “vital baseline information” to determine whether “a significant impact on parking” in such areas would occur. It found a 2014 consultant study estimating average summer weekend vehicle use at 273 vehicles per survey day failed to support the project’s proposed 270 spaces because the surveys occurred in afternoon rather than peak demand morning hours. The trial court concluded that while it disclosed the parking reduction, the EIR failed as an informational document because it relied on inaccurate or unreliable “parking baseline determinations” to assess “the Project’s impacts on parking.” It issued a writ on that basis, rejected plaintiff’s other contentions, and awarded Plaintiff $154,000 in attorneys’ fees.
The Court of Appeal’s Opinion
The Court of Appeal saw the parking issue quite differently, rejecting as “absurd” plaintiff’s contentions that the project’s “centerpiece” was an “intentional reduction in parking” to constrain public access, and that the DEIR “glossed over” this alleged plan and misled the public into believing existing parking would increase rather than decrease. It found the DEIR clearly informed the decisionmaker and public that parking would be reduced to a total of 270 designated spots, and stated it “consider[ed] unimportant the discrepancy between [the] 417 [“baseline” spots found by the DEIR] versus 473 spots [claimed by plaintiff] in the context of this case.” Per the Court: “Defendant disclosed the reduction in parking, and properly found the proposed project ‘would have less than significant impacts on recreation.’ That is all it was required to do [under CEQA].”
In a passage of its opinion emphatically underscoring that impacts on “parking” are not in and of themselves environmental impacts under CEQA, the Court stated:
“We find it strange that plaintiff attacks the EIR for not converting more wilderness open space to parking or, alternatively, for not continuing to permit parking in fragile natural areas that have become degraded by erosion, trash, and habitat trampling. Since when was environmental protection focused on promoting and expanding parking in protected wilderness monuments? Plainly, reducing and formalizing parking spaces in the San Gabriel River and adjacent canyon recreation areas will protect and restore the environment. Plaintiff has identified no adverse physical impact on the environment that results from the reduction in parking, much less a “potentially substantial, adverse change in any of the physical conditions within the area affected by the project.” (Guidelines, § 15382.) Nor has plaintiff proffered evidence of any secondary adverse environmental effects of reduced parking, such as on traffic or air quality at the project site.’
The Court cited San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. City & County of San Francisco (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 656 for the principle that the “social inconvenience of having to hunt for scarce parking spaces is not an environmental impact” although resulting secondary physical impacts on traffic and air quality would be cognizable CEQA impacts. While San Franciscans addressed parking deficits in an urban setting, the Court found its principle equally applicable in the wilderness setting before it: “Parking deficits are always inconvenient for drivers, but they do not always cause a significant adverse physical impact on the environment.”
The Court also discussed at length the decision in Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending v. San Diego Unified School Dist. (2012) 215 Cal.App.4th 1013, which was relied on by the plaintiff and trial court. (My June 25, 2013 blog post on that case (“Is “Parking” Really A CEQA Impact? Same As It Ever Was”) can be found here.) Taxpayers found that a project’s impact on “parking” could constitute a significant primary physical impact on the environment in the circumstances presented there – a high school stadium lighting project that would attract evening visitors to a bedroom community with narrow streets and landlocked by canyons, with already scarce parking resulting in illegal parking blocking driveways, crosswalks, etc. The Court of Appeal found that San Franciscans and Taxpayers both taught that the circumstances of the particular case are determinative when it comes to environmental impacts potentially resulting from a project’s parking deficits or reductions. Based on the nature of the wilderness area improvement project before it, the Court held “the parking reduction here may have an adverse social impact for those who must recreate elsewhere, but it will prevent further adverse physical impacts on the environment.”
The Court found further support for its conclusion in the California Natural Resources Agency’s deletion, circa 2009, of “parking availability” from the CEQA Guidelines Appendix G checklist, and in that factor’s continued absence from the list ever since. The Agency’s rationale was that it agreed with the San Franciscans case and knew of “no authority requiring an analysis of parking adequacy as part of a project’s environmental review.”
The Court proceeded to dispatch plaintiff’s other “parking” arguments, all of which “are colored by plaintiff’s repeated formulation of the issue as “impacts on parking” rather than impacts of reduced parking on the environment.” The EIR properly disclosed, and did not conceal, the parking reduction. The evidentiary issues surrounding the baseline parking estimates were irrelevant, and the difference between 417 or 473 spaces immaterial, because the difference was small and it would be irrational to conclude it would have any environmental effect in terms of significant deterioration of other facilities. Plaintiff’s claim of “herd behavior” of circling and idling vehicles at the site searching for a spot rather than dispersing elsewhere was unsubstantiated speculation, and defendant’s contrary conclusion was rational.
Under the “rule of reason,” an EIR need only “set forth those alternatives necessary to permit a reasoned choice” and “examine in detail” only those “the lead agency determines could feasibly attain most of the [project’s] basic objectives[,]” and there is “no ironclad rule governing the nature or scope of the alternatives to be discussed[.]” (In re Bay-Delta, etc. (2008) 43 Cal.4th 1143, 1163, citing CEQA Guidelines, §§ 15126.6(a), (f).) The DEIR here fully analyzed only two alternatives – the project and “no project” – and it thoroughly explained the extensive processes and screening criteria undertaken to arrive at that range, as well as the reasons for eliminating a “forest closure alternative” (suggested by CDFW) from consideration.
The Court rejected plaintiff’s argument that CEQA requires analysis of more than the “no project” alternative as a matter of law. While each case must be evaluated on its own facts, two other published decisions have squarely rejected plaintiff’s argument in this regard. (Citing San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods v. City and County of San Francisco (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 596, 633; Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center v. County of Siskiyou (2012) 210 Cal.App.4th 184, 199.) Rejecting Plaintiff’s footnote treatment of San Franciscans and its dismissal of Mount Shasta as an “outlier,” the Court stated: “[T]here are no precedents that disagree with the principle stated in those cases, and we agree with both of them.”
Nor was the defendant compelled to analyze another alternative in its DEIR based on the comments of Mr. Jones, a bungee jump business owner hoping to increase parking for his customers and his own business, who suggested 5 one-sentence alternatives that would benefit his business. Plaintiff offered no evidence that those alternatives could attain most of the basic objectives of the project, or that they would mitigate one or more of its significant impacts – and, indeed, the project was found to have no significant unmitigated impacts. Courts defer to an agency’s selection of alternatives unless a petitioner shows they are manifestly unreasonable, and that a rejected alternative was feasible and adequate and capable of attaining most of the project’s basic objectives. Plaintiff failed to carry its burden to demonstrate the inadequacy of the EIR’s alternatives analysis.
Land Use Plan Consistency
The Court quickly dispatched Plaintiff’s land use plan inconsistency arguments, finding (as did the trial court) that the Project was consistent with both President Obama’s proclamation 9194 designating the national monument and with the Angeles National Forest Land Management Plan. The President’s proclamation recognized the area’s value as important habitat for iconic and endangered species, and called for preservation and protection of objects of scientific and historic interest in it as well as “continued public access to those objects,” but “consistent with their protection”; the Angeles National Forest LMP also contained policies protecting visitor access. The Project was consistent with both plans because it restored and protected natural areas and upgraded facilities for public enjoyment and access to the wilderness areas; rather than restricting public access or eliminating recreational use, the project protected and restored multi-use areas for public enjoyment through sustainability actions. Plaintiff’s elevation of public access above all other plan policies and objectives did not show any inconsistency.
Conclusion and Implications
CEQA generally doesn’t care about the adequacy of a project’s parking or its “impacts on parking” unless they will result in significant secondary effects on the physical environment – impacts the Court of Appeal found the plaintiff here failed to show through any evidence beyond its own speculation. Nor does CEQA require an EIR’s alternatives analysis to analyze more than the “no project” alternative as a matter of law; under the rule of reason, the range of reasonable alternatives required depends on what is necessary to permit a reasoned choice given the particular circumstances and objectives of the project at issue. Finally, a plaintiff cannot demonstrate land use inconsistency simply by “cherry-picking” a few policies with which project is allegedly inconsistent out of a comprehensive plan that by its nature seeks to further and balance many – often competing – policies and goals.