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Technical Feature: CEQA in Context

Author: Patrick Macpherson

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), signed into law in 1970, requires disclosure of environmental impacts associated with a project, as well as mitigation for significant impacts. These disclosures often take the form of informational CEQA documents that are used to inform the public and decision-makers, including responsible and lead agencies, which provide input on and approve the document respectively. These documents range from Categorical Exemptions for specific types of projects, to Negative Declarations, Mitigated Negative Declarations, and Environmental Impact Reports. These documents must be available for public review for a minimum of 30 days, a timeframe that can be extended as decided by the lead agency. Projects can be litigated for various reasons including insufficient findings in the CEQA document, procedural issues made by the lead agency, and other reasons.

Recently, a major case opinion was published for a CEQA-exempt eldercare facility proposed in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles, which was in litigation for almost six years. The project was proposed to address a documented unmet need for senior housing to serve members of the Pacific Palisades and greater Los Angeles communities who wish to age in place. The site is an undeveloped, dirt lot with no trees and few plants, and considered an infill site with the greater urbanized area. The initial approval from the City’s Zoning Administrator included a 32-page decision that found the project was consistent with the City’s applicable zoning and general plan policies.

Neighbors (Pacific Palisades Residents Association, Inc.) opposed the project for multiple reasons including: being inconsistent with the neighborhood character, lack of nearby medical services for residents, lack of nearby public transit, increased traffic, lack of project landscaping, and approval would violate the Coastal Act. The Pacific Palisades Residents Association  appealed the decision to the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission, California Coastal Commission, and the Planning and Land Use Management Committee of the Los Angeles City Council. These appeals were rejected, and the project was approved. However, the Pacific Palisades Residents Association rejected the decision, and the case was brought to the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. The Court decided that the project site’s C-1 zoning allowed commercial uses, including, specifically, eldercare facilities, and that its combined residential and commercial components were consistent with the community plan. After another appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Superior Court's decision. While the Project has its approval, it is likely a final appeal will be made which will be sent to California’s Supreme Court for review, which is expected to deny review of the case, which would allow for final construction of the Project.

Meaningful and thorough stakeholder outreach, including to nearby residents, special interest groups, and others whose lives may be impacted by a project can help reduce the likelihood of pushback. This outreach expand understanding of stakeholder concerns and give developers the ability to address concerns early on rather than waiting for public comment periods. Discussing concerns with stakeholders can help inform both project design and potential defense strategies in the event of a project being litigated.

As much as outreach is key for helping reduce the chance of litigation over a project, a well-crafted document is also key. Great Ecology is experienced in conducting public outreach, preparing defensible documents, and providing expert testimony. Great Ecology has worked on many sensitive projects including mining projects, restoration of sites associated with Natural Resources Damages, and environmental litigation support.