City Properly Balanced Benefits Of Hospital Project Against Its Adverse Impacts On Neighboring Residents

September 7, 2011 | Bulletin No. 977883.1

In Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment v. City of Santa Clarita (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 2 Dist., June 30, 2011), a court of appeal considered whether (1) a city’s conclusion on the infeasibility of complete mitigation of a hospital project’s impact on climate change was supported by substantial evidence and adequate analysis; and (2) the city failed to proceed in a manner required by law when it made a finding on the adverse effects of the project on adjacent residents and neighborhood by balancing the harm that would be caused by the hospital project against the overall benefit of the project to the city.

The court of appeal held the city’s conclusion on the infeasibility of mitigation measures was supported by substantial evidence and adequate analysis and the city’s action in weighing the benefits of the project to the community against its adverse impacts on neighboring residents was not contrary to law.

Facts

After serving the Santa Clarita Valley for almost 40 years, the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital ("Hospital") created a long-range plan to expand its campus. The Hospital sought to add 120 inpatient beds, 18 intensive care beds, nine beds in a nursing pavilion, 200,000 gross square feet of medical space, and 1,263 parking spaces. The project proposal called for nine new structures within a 15-year period. Hospital's CEO told the Santa Clarita City Council that maintaining the current capacity of the Hospital would eventually necessitate that the citizens of Santa Clarita would have to seek medical care outside the valley.

Although the project site is zoned for residential use, the zone permitted hospitals with a conditional use permit ("CUP") or approval in a Master Plan. The Hospital filed an application for a CUP in 2004 and the City of Santa Clarita ("City") circulated notice that an environmental impact report ("EIR") would be prepared. However, in 2005, City updated its Unified Development Code ("UDC") and the update required Hospital to obtain a Master Plan. Hospital modified its application to seek a Master Plan and then sought a development agreement.

City released a draft EIR in November 2005, a revised draft EIR in September 2006, and another revised draft in June 2008, which included an analysis of the greenhouse gas emissions ("GHG") related to the project. In November 2008, the City Council held a public hearing, passed a resolution to adopt a Statement of Overriding Considerations, and certified a final EIR ("FEIR"). City approved Ordinance No. 08-17 in December 2008. As part of the ordinance, City "found that the development agreement will not '[a]dversely affect the health, peace, comfort or welfare of persons residing or working in the surrounding area." City also passed Resolution No. 08-102, which contained a similar finding and adopted the Master Plan. The City Council stated "that the Master Plan would create a medical campus that 'balances the needs for medical service expansion with the need to preserve the character of the Valencia Master Plan neighborhoods that surround this regional services institution.'"

A technical advisory issued by the Governor's Office of Planning and Research instructed lead agencies to "make a good-faith effort" to calculate or estimate the amount of GHG emissions a project would generate and then determine whether those emissions would have a significant environmental impact. The City calculated the GHG emissions for Hospital's project and determined the emissions from sources directly owned or controlled by the project, such as boilers and furnaces, and the emissions from energy purchased or used in the project would be less than significant. However, City determined that indirect emissions that would arise from "activities of the project [that] are not owned or controlled by the project, including GHG emissions from transportation sources," would remain significant and is "unavoidable."

The Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment ("SCOPE") "is a nonprofit organization that is concerned with protection of the environment." SCOPE filed a petition for writ of mandate in which it sought to set aside City's approval of the Master Plan. SCOPE asserted City was not allowed to weigh the impact of the project on the residents affected by the project against the overall benefit of the project to the community. The trial court denied SCOPE's writ of mandate finding that City's balancing of the benefits and detriments of the project was not improper.

Decision

SCOPE asserts on appeal that (1) “[C]ity’s conclusion that complete mitigation of the project’s impact on climate change is infeasible is not supported by substantial evidence or adequate analysis in the record;” and (2) “[C]ity failed to proceed in a manner required by law when it concluded that the project will not adversely affect adjacent residents and the character of the neighborhood.” The court of appeal rejected both of these assertions and found the trial court did not err in denying SCOPE’s petition for writ of mandate.

A. City’s Analysis Was Adequate And Supported By Substantial Evidence

The court held SCOPE failed to show City’s analysis of mitigation of climate change or GHG emissions was inadequate. Pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), an agency must “mitigate or avoid the significant effects on the environment of projects that it carries out or approves whenever it is feasible to do so.” An agency may not “proceed with a project that will have significant, unmitigated effects on the environment, based simply on a weighing of those effects against the project’s benefits, unless the measures necessary to mitigate those effects are truly infeasible.” The Code of Regulations defines the term “feasible” as “capable of being accomplished in a successful manner within a reasonable period of time, taking into account economic, environmental, legal, social, and technological factors.”

City found the project would contribute to cumulative GHG emissions from vehicle exhaust and would “result in a significant and unavoidable cumulative impact in regards to global climate change.” City indicated “that the significant effects of the proposed project have been reduced or avoided to the extent feasible,” but noted that “despite these mitigation measures, ‘certain significant impacts on global climate change remain, and are thus, unavoidable.’” SCOPE asserts City’s findings regarding mitigation measures were insufficient because (1) City failed to adequately explain its conclusion that mitigation is infeasible, and (2) City’s conclusion is not supported by substantial evidence.

1. City Adequately Explained Its Conclusion That Mitigation Is Infeasible

An exhibit to Resolution No. 08-102 explains City’s finding that the impact on climate change is unavoidable. The exhibit recites numerous air quality and traffic mitigation measures that City contends will reduce the impact of the project on climate change. SCOPE asserts that “City’s finding does not assert that the City ever considered or analyzed any other mitigation measures that could potentially reduce the project’s GHG emissions or otherwise mitigate the Project’s cumulative impacts.”

SCOPE argues the FEIR violated CEQA because it did not consider and discuss any of the mitigation measures listed in a letter from SCOPE that contained a list of mitigation measures developed by the Office of the Attorney General. The court found City had in fact considered and implemented several recommendations that were consistent with those suggested by the Attorney General. Furthermore, the letter contained more than 50 general suggestions. The court found SCOPE was asking City to do more than is legally required and that it would be unreasonable to impose on City “an obligation to explore each and every” suggestion made by the Attorney General. Therefore, the court concluded City adequately explained its conclusion that adequate mitigation of the impact on climate change is infeasible.

2. There Is Substantial Evidence To Support City’s Finding That Adequate Mitigation Is Infeasible

SCOPE asserts there was not substantial evidence to support “the City’s finding that the Project’s significant cumulative impact on climate change is unavoidable.” In support of its assertion, SCOPE points to City’s failure to consider the mitigation measures contained in the Attorney General comment letter. However, SCOPE failed to ask City to consider any specific mitigation measure. Furthermore, City was not required to explain why additional mitigation measures were infeasible.

The court further found that there was substantial evidence in the record to support City’s finding that adequate mitigation is infeasible. The global climate change analysis was prepared in accordance with a technical advisory prepared by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. City found Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions were insignificant and SCOPE did not challenge this finding. GHG impacts were only found to be significant as to Scope 3 emissions, which are associated with vehicles and transportation, and are outside the control of the project. City found that even if the project incorporated all feasible mitigation measures, “Scope 3 emissions would cause a significant and unavoidable cumulative impact.” Therefore, City’s finding was supported by substantial evidence.

B. City Proceeded In the Manner Required By Law

SCOPE asserts City’s findings should be set aside because City failed to proceed in the manner required by law when it concluded that adjacent residents and the character of the neighborhood would not be affected by the Project. Specifically, SCOPE claims the City Council abused its discretion when it found “that the project will not detrimentally affect the health and welfare of neighboring residents” because in reaching this conclusion City “impermissibly engaged in a balancing of the project’s perceived benefits against its adverse impacts on neighboring residents.” The court rejected this argument finding that such balancing was not foreclosed by City’s ordinances.

City’s UDC requires City to “find that a proposed development will not ‘[a]dversely affect the health, peace, comfort, or welfare of persons residing or working in the surrounding area.’” The UDC further requires City “to make a finding that ‘the location, size, design, and operating characteristics of the proposed use will be compatible with and will not adversely affect or be materially detrimental to adjacent uses, residents, buildings, structures, or natural resources.’” Here, Ordinance No. 08-17 (1) “specified that the development agreement between real parties and the city will not adversely affect the health, peace, comfort, or welfare of persons residing or working in the surrounding area;” (2) referred to more specific findings in the EIR on this issue; and (3) concluded the design of the plan “balances the needs for medical service expansion with the need to preserve the character of the . . . neighborhoods that surround this regional services institution.”

The court found City’s UDC does not foreclose the type of balancing engaged in by City. The UDC requires an analysis of whether a proposed development agreement will: (1) “[a]dversely affect the health, peace, comfort, or welfare of persons residing or working in the surrounding area;” (2) “[b]e materially detrimental to the use, enjoyment, or valuation of property of other persons located in the vicinity of the site;” or (3) “[j]eopardize, endanger or otherwise constitute a menace to the public health, safety or general welfare.” This provision of the UDC “does not limit the factors that may be considered in making the finding at issue.” The court found that, in fact, “it seems logical that a decision as to whether a project will adversely affect a community must necessarily include consideration of the project’s benefits to that community.”

The court concluded that City’s decision to weigh the benefits of the project against the detriments was neither clearly erroneous nor specifically unauthorized. Because City acted consistently with the UDC, the appellate court declined to find error in City’s decision to engage in a balancing of the benefits against the harms of the project in deciding whether to approve the Hospital’s application. Accordingly, the court held that SCOPE failed to show that City failed to proceed in the manner required by law.

Questions

If you have any questions concerning the content of this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.

Jeffrey L. Massey or Daniel J. O'Hanlon | 916.321.4500

Jon E. Goetz | 805.786.4302