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In its AdobeStock_88090393-300x200recent draft assessment of “California’s Housing Future,” the State’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) made these observations, among many others:

  • California needs 180,000 new homes each year.
  • Over the last ten years, annual production has averaged less than 80,000 homes.
  • Californians overpay for housing, commute too far, and are overcrowded.
  • The existing system of land use regulation creates barriers to development.
  • The housing crisis makes it difficult for California businesses to attract and retain employees.
  • A smaller percentage of Californians own their homes than at any time since the 1940s.
  • The housing shortage disproportionately impacts California’s younger residents and the economically and physically disadvantaged.
  • California is home to 12% of the nation’s population and 22% of the nation’s homeless.
  • Funding for affordable housing is unstable.
  • High housing costs increase health care costs and decrease educational outcomes.
  • California’s population will grow from today’s 39 million to 50 million by 2050.

While this report is candid and open, its findings mean little if California’s elected officials at every level do nothing meaningful to counter these growing and disturbing – but hardly surprising – realities. The Legislature cannot continue to avoid reconciling legitimate environmental concerns, the challenges of climate change, the need for greater housing affordability, and the increasing demand for housing of all types by avoiding true CEQA reform and adopting ever increasing restrictions on new housing development. Nor can it simply decree that more affordable housing be built, ignoring the reality that those who build homes will not do so unless it makes sound business sense. At the local level, residents understandably want to avoid traffic jams and overcrowding and would like to define their own visions of their communities. Those who own their homes are thrilled by the increases in home prices resulting from the housing shortage. But when every community says “We don’t oppose more housing, just do it somewhere else,” there ultimately is nowhere else in California to go. Combine these factors with environmental solutions that, intended or not, produce elitist housing outcomes, and we have a housing crisis which no one denies, but the most powerful forces in the state are seemingly helpless to address. The challenges are complex and there’s no easy answer, but looking the other way only increases the cost of housing, makes doing business in California less attractive, and sends our young adults elsewhere. That, for sure, is not an acceptable outcome.

Public comment on the HCD draft report is open through March 4. Click here for the full draft report or go directly to the HCD website.

This post was previously published by Tim Paone in LinkedIn.

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Do Parking Formulas Deprive Cities of Revenue Opportunities?

When a city planning department proposes a change in the city’s development standards to address a specific planning concern, it often is asked by its city council “What are other cities doing?” This question is particularly likely when the proposed change, on its face, suggests that local residents might be inconvenienced. But in the face of increasing economic challenges, some California city councils are willing to pioneer creative planning approaches to stimulate economic activity in their cities, rather than let that activity land elsewhere.

One example is the adoption in late 2016 by the Lancaster City Council of an ordinance which eliminates specific off-street parking requirements (e.g., the number of spaces which must be provided based upon the square footage of the proposed development) for development in commercial zones. Instead of the arbitrary “one size fits all” approach for particular uses, Lancaster’s ordinance requires developers with projects in commercial zones to demonstrate that they are providing adequate parking for their proposed use without being tied to a formula which may or may not be a good measure of the demands of that use. One of the stated purposes of the ordinance is to maximize the City’s economic return from commercial development. In its report on the ordinance to the City Council, Lancaster’s planning staff expressed its belief that “the City’s minimum parking requirements were rooted primarily in a perception of convenience, and not in economic return.” The staff report recommending approval of the ordinance recognized that removing the “regulatory barrier” of formulaic minimum parking requirements in favor of requirements based on actual demand would give developers “the ability to maximize land use potential and value generation, with resulting long-term benefits to the City.” In other words, common sense planning can be a win-win.

From the perspective of the commercial developer, the adoption of Lancaster’s flexible approach to parking requirements is both enlightened and welcome. Most significantly, it reflects an acknowledgement of the many unintended consequences of the typical cookie-cutter approach to parking requirements. Perhaps most impressive is the recognition that rigid parking requirements dictate the design of buildings in ways that, ultimately, may contribute to vacancy and lost economic productivity for the city. Rather than an abstract, formulaic, or “this is how we’ve always done it” approach to planning, Lancaster’s approach reflects the uncommon understanding that what makes a project work for the developer also is likely to be what makes the project work for the city.

The City of Lancaster is located in northern Los Angeles County, relatively far from the hustle and bustle of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. While the remote location of Lancaster undoubtedly influenced its desire to take steps to enhance economic activity within its community, the logic of its new parking ordinance makes sense for any city competing for new economic activity. Beyond parking, this approach could open the door to merging planning and economic development considerations in other types of development. For example, the affordability of nearby housing for employees is a factor which impacts the decisions of businesses to locate within a particular community. For retail development in particular, more houses also means more customers which, in turn, generates greater economic activity for the city. Perhaps one day, California communities will see the wisdom of easing development standards and other regulations for housing to facilitate the production of desirable and affordable residential communities that will benefit home purchasers, tenants, the broader community, and even the city’s coffers.  Stay tuned.

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Anyone who is considering developing, remodeling, or demolishing hotels, motels, or other visitor-serving lodging in the California coastal zone needs to be aware that these projects are likely to be receiving much greater scrutiny at the Coastal Commission.

California’s Coastal Act requires the Commission to protect, encourage, and, where feasible, provide “lower cost visitor and recreational facilities,” which includes lodging. However, under the Coastal Act the Commission cannot fix private overnight room rental rates or set income eligibility standards for overnight room rentals.

The Commission has been discussing ways to provide low-cost overnight accommodations in light of these limitations. The Commission is now approaching the issue with renewed emphasis due to the recent enactment of AB 2616. AB 2616 allows the Commission to consider environmental justice and “the equitable distribution of environmental benefits throughout the state when acting on a coastal development permit.” The new law defines “environmental justice” as “the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

Although AB 2616 takes effect on January 1, 2017, the Commission already is applying environmental justice principles with respect to lodging. At a recent workshop, the Commission’s staff presented preliminary recommendations to address low-cost overnight accommodations. While the Commission has not yet adopted any formal guidance, we expect the Commission will be using the principles discussed at the workshop in evaluating applications in the meantime.

There are some immediate implications that applicants need to plan for now:

First, the Commission is likely to scrutinize renovations and demolitions of existing lower-cost lodging much more closely. The Commission has seen examples of locally approved renovations of affordable accommodations that removed the units from the affordable category. The Commission is now aware of companies investing in that business model. We can expect the Commission to maintain that such upgrades require coastal development permits conditioned to address the anticipated loss of affordability. We also anticipate that the Commission will deny permits to demolish or repurpose affordable accommodations, unless replacement accommodations are first provided.

Second, we can expect that the Commission will require projects that are not affordable to provide onsite low and moderate-cost accommodations (such as camp sites, RV overnight facilities, and similar lower-cost classes of accommodations). We also expect the Commission to  impose higher in-lieu fees on all classes of lodging projects and appreciably higher in-lieu fees on high-cost lodging projects, even where existing affordable accommodations have not been eliminated. The Commission’s data shows that fees collected to date have not been enough to create the affordable accommodations for which they were imposed.

Third, Commission staff’s preliminary recommendations emphasize consideration of a project’s affordability relative to the availability of affordable overnight accommodations in the vicinity of the project. The Commission and the State Coastal Conservancy are developing a database for this analysis. Applicants need to be prepared to address marketplace affordability and project economics before the Commission.

Fortune favors the prepared. That certainly will be the case when it comes to dealing with lodging in the coastal zone in the coming years.

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Environmental justice goals and policies are coming to the general plans of California cities and counties.  So what does that mean for new development projects?

TimingThe new environmental justice requirements are the product of SB 1000, which was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on September 24, 2016. Under SB 1000’s amendments to Government Code Section 65302, a local agency will now be required to address environmental justice issues when, on or after January 1, 2018, it concurrently adopts or revises two or more general plan elements. In those circumstances, the local agency must either adopt an environmental justice general plan element or include environmental justice goals, policies, and objectives in its existing general plan elements.

 The Meaning of Environmental Justice.  To better understand the environmental justice movement and the types of “EJ” provisions local agencies will be pressed to place in their general plans, it is helpful to look at the goals of the California Environmental Justice Alliance, which, along with the Sierra Club and other prominent environmental organizations, is one of the state’s strongest advocates for EJ legislation. The Alliance’s goals include assuring that all families live in healthy neighborhoods, that polluting industries are replaced by green industries, that planning priorities place people above profit, and that lower cost housing is not exposed disproportionately to sources of noise, air, and other pollution.

Disadvantaged Communities.  Under the new law, all general plans must identify “disadvantaged communities” within their boundaries. These may be areas already identified under existing law in Cal EPA’s list of disadvantaged communities. Areas on that list are specifically targeted for the investment of funds generated by the California Air Resources Board’s cap-and-trade program for reducing greenhouse gases.

Alternatively, a “disadvantaged community” may be identified as a “low-income area” that the local agency has determined to be “disproportionately affected by environmental pollution and other hazards that can lead to negative health effects, exposure, or environmental degradation.” A “low-income area,” in turn, is an area with household incomes at or below 80% of the statewide median income or with household incomes at or below the low income threshold designated by the Department of Housing and Community Development.

SB 1000 appears to provide local agencies with considerable discretion in interpreting the boundaries of “disadvantaged communities,” which is likely to lead to different approaches to defining those boundaries throughout the state.

General Plan Requirements.  So, what are the required policy considerations that these environmental justice general plan amendments must address? Pursuant to SB 1000, they must spell out objectives and policies that:

  • Reduce the unique or compounded health risks in disadvantaged communities by means that include . . . the reduction of pollution exposure, including the improvement of air quality, and the promotion of public facilities, food access, safe and sanitary homes, and physical activity.
  • Promote civil engagement in the public decisionmaking process.
  • Prioritize improvements and programs that address the needs of disadvantaged communities.

As with the definition of “disadvantaged communities,” the interpretation of these broad policy statements is likely to lead to the implementation of the new law in vastly different ways.

Prudent Practices. Keeping in mind that all new development must be consistent with the provisions of the local general plan, landowners and developers should keep close tabs on general plan amendments implementing the new law so that their concerns are considered before the new general plan provisions are firmly in place.

In addition, developers should know exactly where their local agency stands in the process of making the required amendments. If a local agency has not timely made the required amendments, legal challenges are likely to confront projects approved when the local agency is not yet in compliance. Buyer beware: this should be a due diligence consideration when acquiring land, not merely something to address at the tail end of the entitlement process.

What the Future Holds.  In the end, environmental justice issues are likely to play an increasingly significant role in all new development in California. Each local agency will approach its own EJ considerations in the context of its own political environment, its existing state of development, and its anticipated future development patterns. You should expect that some EJ general plan amendments will contain mundane and less impactful requirements, while others will contain more aggressive provisions that easily could jeopardize the viability of a project.

Given the broad, generalized requirements of the new law, and the likelihood that its provisions will be interpreted and applied in varying ways by local jurisdictions throughout the state, rest assured that the courts will play a key role in shaping the scope of environmental justice requirements throughout California. This definitely falls within the category of “Stay Tuned.”

 

 

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No matter your politics or perspective on development in the state, one thing is beyond debate – California is facing a serious housing shortage crisis. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times warns that this shortage will have significant adverse effects on the state’s economy. Making matters worse is a dearth of affordable housing. Efforts by policymakers to deal with these shortfalls have resulted in mixed success. Most recently, Governor Brown’s proposal to streamline the approval of “as of right” housing projects that include some affordable units stalled last August.

The California Legislature, however, has come up with new tools to either incentivize or require a developer to intensify development and create affordable housing opportunities. An issue that sometimes comes up is how these tools of local government square with existing state statutes or regulations governing conservation or protection of sensitive lands, such as those regulated by the California Coastal Commission.

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No Density Bonus for this Coastal Project

In Kalnel Gardens, LLC v. City of Los Angeles, the court of appeal tackled this issue in the context of a relatively small project in the Venice area of Los Angeles. The developer applied to the City to tear down a two-story, three-unit apartment building and replace it with five duplexes and five single-family homes for a total of 15 residential units. The project was granted additional density and height limits beyond what was allowed on the site because two of the units would have been designated as affordable units.

The City’s Zoning Administrator granted these development incentives based on the following statutes:

  • Housing Accountability Act. This act is sometimes referred to as the state’s “anti-NIMBY law.” The Housing Accountability Act limits the ability of local governments to reject or make infeasible housing development projects based on their density without a thorough analysis of the “economic, social, and environmental effects of the action,” including the adoption of express findings required by the statute.
  • Density Bonus Act. This act addresses the shortage of affordable housing in California by requiring local governments to award a developer certain development concessions and a density bonus that allows an increase in density above what the zoning ordinance allows if the developer agrees to set aside a certain percentage of the units in a housing development for low or very low income residents.
  • Mello Act. This act establishes minimum requirements for affordable housing within the coastal zone by requiring, first, the construction of replacement low income housing when existing affordable housing is demolished and, second, new affordable housing units as part of new developments, either at the site of the new development or somewhere else.

A group of neighbors administratively appealed the project, alleging that it violated the Coastal Act because the project’s height, density, setbacks, and other visual and physical characteristics were inconsistent with the existing neighborhood. The West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission found that the project did not conform to the Coastal Act on that basis, and on appeal to the City Council by the developer, the City Council agreed with the Commission.

The developer sued the City, arguing that the City had violated the housing density statutes identified above by reducing the size of the Project and denying the incentives sought under the Density Bonus Act. The question for the court, then, was whether the Coastal Act takes precedence over the “density bonus” allowances sought by the developer.

The court’s answer? The Coastal Act does supersede a local government’s obligations under these housing density laws. The court reached this conclusion by assuming that it must apply the law in a manner that is “most protective of coastal resources,” essentially putting the housing density statutes in the backseat. In sum, in a clash between the Coastal Act and the state’s housing density statutes, the Coastal Act will win.

Although the court here looked to specific language in the Coastal Act and the housing density laws to reach this conclusion, this decision suggests that other statutes similarly protective of sensitive lands may be viewed as superseding other state law mandates that local government incentivize affordable housing projects in order to meet the state’s housing crunch. Bottom line: if you face that balancing act as a developer, beware.

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From timber country to the urban core, California is struggling to get its brownfield sites – land contaminated or believed to be contaminated by hazardous chemicals – back into productive use. The elimination of California redevelopment agencies in 2011-2012 set the process back dramatically, and the state’s best tool apart from redevelopment was set to expire at the end of 2016. Fortunately, a campaign spearheaded by the California Association for Local Economic Development (CALED) and Senator Bob Hertzberg secured passage of SB 820, saving California’s Land Reuse and Revitalization Act (CLRRA) from extinction.

CLRRA is Chapter 6.82 of the California Health and Safety Code. It was enacted in 2004 to help restore sites burdened by historically common, and unfortunately lax, chemical handling and disposal practices. All too often these sites sit unused, or badly underutilized, because the legal and regulatory challenges associated with them drive developers and local jurisdictions to focus on sites without such chemical problems – so-called greenfields.

The “greenfields before brownfields” cycle often reinforces downward socio-economic spiral in areas most needing economic renewal and investment, and it broadly undermines land use and environmental policies tied to reducing sprawl. Brownfield stagnation also frustrates the state’s efforts to build housing, both affordable and market-rate, in urban core areas. Many sites well suited to the production of urban housing were historically used for commercial and industrial activities that involved lax chemical handling.

CLRRA addresses these brownfield challenges by clarifying and simplifying the liability and regulatory framework applicable to brownfield sites. The fear of potentially joint and several liability for cleanup costs disproportionate to the anticipated redeveloped value of a site typically poses the first and biggest legal hurdle for brownfield redevelopers, whether private or public sector (or the public-private partnerships that have taken on the state’s most ambitious brownfield projects in places like Emeryville, downtown San Diego, and Carson and other formerly industrial areas in greater Los Angeles).

CLRRA addresses this challenge in multiple ways, most notably by conferring on “bona fide purchasers” a statutory immunity for cleanup work beyond the “response plan” needed to make the site suitable for a proposed redevelopment. As a practical matter, this enables brownfield redevelopers to understand ahead of time what their cleanup obligations will be. Clarity on this point allows a redeveloper to confirm that the cleanup obligations fit within a pro forma financial model that is viable to capital sources, both debt and equity. CLRRA also strengthens cost recovery leverage, another aspect of the liability framework that can be critical to the financial pro forma for complex brownfield sites.

Fear of a byzantine, even Kafka-esque, regulatory process that will swallow time, resources and sanity itself is the second legal hurdle that must be overcome at many brownfield sites. CLRRA addresses this challenge by laying out a procedural path that balances interests with inherent tensions – development efficiency, scientific certainty, and public input.

In general, the CLRRA process starts with a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment and an agreement to pay the oversight costs incurred by the Department of Toxic Substances Control or a Regional Water Quality Control Board. The statutory immunities trigger at this early juncture. Thereafter, the applicant works through four “streamlined” steps: site assessment, cleanup planning, public comment, and implementation/completion certification. The objective is to make the site safe for its intended use(s) as defined in local planning and zoning documents, not to evaluate and cure every conceivable issue associated with the historic chemical impacts.

Needless to say, the statute has technical intricacies. This brief survey should be taken as encouragement to work with experienced practitioners (both legal and technical) when pursuing a CLRRA site. It must also be noted that the legislative effort to enact the original CLRRA statute involved a good amount of awkward sausage making. Certain sites are ineligible for CLRRA treatment for reasons that defy logic and sound public policy. The statute clearly can be improved, hopefully in the upcoming legislative session now that SB 820 has resolved the looming sunset issue.

Nonetheless, CLRRA’s enactment and SB 820 represent huge steps forward for California’s ongoing efforts to revitalize urban areas, build affordable housing, and pursue smart growth management.

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Yesterday, California voters approved Proposition 51, a $9 billion bond to replenish the State’s school construction fund. Proposition 51 was passed just in the nick of time because, according to the California State Allocation Board (SAB), the State has run out of money for new school construction.

Just last week, despite the outstanding legal efforts of the California Building Industry Association (CBIA) to forestall it, SAB published a notice to initiate significant “Level 3” school fee increases throughout California. The passage of Proposition 51 (for which we can thank CBIA leadership, among others) will replenish the State’s coffers and should provide a defense against the imposition of Level 3 fees. Politics being what they are, however, it remains to be seen whether Proposition 51 will actually induce cash-strapped school districts to drop their guard.

Given the uncertainty surrounding school construction in California, builders are looking for creative alternatives. Just this year, Cox Castle lawyers negotiated two widely-touted developer-built-school deals with districts in the Bay Area (Fremont and Foster City-San Mateo). These highly-specialized transactions can provide great benefits to builders, including assurance of timely delivery of new schools to serve their neighborhoods and the potential for reduced costs in light of the significant upward pressure on statutory school fees. These deals also provide benefits to school districts in the form of state reimbursement of funds from Proposition 51.

These transactions are complex and take time to negotiate. If you or your building or development company are looking for ways to navigate this uncertain regulatory environment, it may be worth your while to consider building a school.

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Forty years after the California Supreme Court addressed vested rights in its oft-quoted “Avco” decision, a simple two-part question often is asked to determine whether, in the face of changes to land use regulations, the right to complete a project has vested: “Has a building permit been issued and has a foundation been poured?” Sometimes, the question is framed “Are there sticks in the air?” There are, however, circumstances where vesting may occur without sticks in the air, the pouring of a foundation, or even the issuance of a building permit. One of those arises under what Avco Community Developers v. South Coast Regional Commission called “rare situations.” Another is where a local ordinance provides its own vesting standards.

Avco Grading-CaptionThe Decision. Avco arose from the 1972 adoption by California’s voters of the Coastal Zone Conservation Act (the “Act”), the precursor to California’s Coastal Act. The County of Orange had approved a final tract map and issued a grading permit for a planned community. The developer began grading, installed subdivision improvements, and incurred substantial liabilities in reliance on the County approvals – all before the effective date of the Act. In the end, the Court concluded that the developer needed a permit from the newly-created Coastal Zone Conservation Commission because building permits for individual structures had not been issued before the Act became effective. This has led to a common, though incorrect, perception that Avco held that in all cases a building permit – and more – is needed to vest a project against changing land use regulations.

The words most often associated with Avco are “if a  property owner has performed substantial work and incurred substantial liabilities in good faith reliance upon a permit issued by the government, he acquires a vested right to complete construction in accordance with the terms of the permit.” Those words, however, did not foreclose a less rigid vesting analysis. The Court also stated that its decision was “not founded upon an obdurate adherence to archaic concepts inappropriate in the context of modern development practices or upon a blind insistence on an instrument entitled ‘building permit’.” The Court even commended the Commission for conceding that a building permit is not “an absolute requirement under all circumstances for acquisition of a vested right”  before noting that there may be “rare situations” where vesting is based upon a different type of approval, one that provides “substantially the same specificity and definition to a project as a building permit.” This crack in the Avco door can lead to an alternative path for acquiring vested rights to shield an approved project from new regulations.

The “Rare Situation.” Not long after Avco, a “rare situation” emerged from the application of changed land use regulations to another Orange County planned development. In San Clemente Estates v. City of San Clemente, a federal bankruptcy judge addressed the vesting of a development for which grading permits had not been issued and building permits applications had not been filed at the time the new laws were adopted. The court concurred with the holding in Avco, but seized upon Avco’s “rare situations” discussion. The court found that the City Council was “intimately familiar with the project,” including details regarding the location, elevation, and appearance of each lot, the type of single family home to be built on each lot, and the specific locations of condominiums, a club house, and an equestrian center. As a result, the court concluded that the City Council knew “exactly what it was approving” and found that the project was insulated from the City’s newly-adopted land use regulations.

Local Ordinances.  The Avco Court also noted that Orange County’s Building Code prohibited issuance of a building permit unless it conforms to “other pertinent laws and ordinances.” The Court saw that language as reflecting “the general rule that a builder must comply with the laws which are in effect at the time a building permit is issued, including the laws which were enacted after application for the permit.”

DP 9.61.040(f)-SnipBut what if local ordinances, as sometimes is the case, expressly counter that “general rule” by providing that a developer has the right to complete a project pursuant to planning and zoning regulations in effect when an application is deemed complete? It is difficult to foresee any situation in which Avco would override the express vesting provisions of local ordinances, such as the example to the right from the City of Dana Point. Therefore, rather than meekly conceding to a rigid application of Avco, it is necessary to evaluate vested rights in the context of sometimes obscure local ordinances which might operate in the developer’s favor.

Without a doubt, Avco is alive and well at age forty. It continues to strongly suppress the vesting of development rights in California. Indeed, there have been harsh applications of Avco which have denied vesting to projects that arguably could have been “rare situation” exceptions. While, in virtually all cases, development agreements will remain the best protection against new land use regulations, developers should be aware that “rare situations” and local ordinances do exist which may present project-saving opportunities. Those opportunities should not be overlooked simply because foundations have not been poured and sticks are not in the air.

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. . . there’s something new on “Reverse CEQA.”  We discussed in a prior “Lay of the Land” post the Court of Appeal’s decision that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District cannot require an EIR simply because existing air contaminants may impact a project’s future users or residents. The Air District asked the Court of Appeal to reconsider its decision, arguing that it was improper to order the Air District to revise its thresholds to comply with the Supreme Court’s earlier holding that CEQA is ordinarily concerned with a project’s impact on the environment, and not the environment’s impact on the project.

On September 9, the Court of Appeal modified its published opinion to explain further why it rejected the Air District’s arguments. The Court held that the Air District’s thresholds of significance, which suggested a “routine analysis of whether new receptors will be exposed to specific amounts of toxic air contaminants,” needed to be revised “given the clarity of the Supreme Court’s decision that such an analysis oversteps the bounds of CEQA except in specified circumstances.”

The case will now return to the trial court for the issuance of a writ of mandate compelling revision of the thresholds.

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In a decision that should provide more certainty for the development of residential infill and transit-oriented projects, the Court of Appeal recently held that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) “cannot be used by a lead agency to require a developer or other agency to obtain an EIR or implement mitigation measures solely because the occupants or users of a new project would be subjected to” contaminant levels above an air district’s thresholds of significance. Because residential infill and transit-oriented projects are often located near existing sources of air quality impacts (freeways, for example), this decision should help ensure that these much-needed housing projects don’t get mired unnecessarily in costly and time-consuming environmental review processes.

The California Supreme Court held last year in CBIA v BAAQMD that CEQA generally applies to a project’s impact on the environment, not the environment’s impact on the project.  While acknowledging that CEQA is concerned with human health, the Court agreed with the California Building Industry Association (CBIA) that CEQA’s relevant provisions “are best read to focus almost entirely on how projects affect the environment.” Stretching the definition of “environment” to include the future users of a project would allow CEQA to cover “nearly any effect a project has on a resident or user.” This led the Court to conclude that, generally, any requirement to analyze the “environment’s effects on a project” is invalid.

At the center of the litigation was the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s “Receptor Thresholds” which sought to measure whether existing air quality issues would impact the future residents of new housing projects. CBIA and affordable housing advocates argued that the Receptor Thresholds discouraged infill housing close to transit because these projects are, by definition, located in urbanized areas where the air quality has already been impacted by existing development. Requiring projects to analyze and mitigate for existing impacts to which those projects did not contribute threatened to prevent much-needed infill development. After resolving the foundational question regarding the purpose of CEQA analysis, the Supreme Court remanded to the Court of Appeal the question of whether the Receptor Thresholds violated the general rule described in its opinion.

On August 12, 2016, the Court of Appeal determined that the Air District’s thresholds were “misleading to the extent they contemplate an application of the Receptor Thresholds to evaluate the effect of the existing environment on all new receptors as a matter of course. . . .”

Though the Court of Appeal identified specific circumstances where the Receptor Thresholds could be validly applied (e.g., in school siting decisions), the Court of Appeal warned that “any effort by an agency to require an EIR, mitigating measures, or other CEQA review under the Receptor Thresholds when one is not authorized would be subject to a strong legal challenge.”  To that end, the Court of Appeal held that the Receptor Thresholds cannot be used by a lead agency to require an EIR or to impose mitigation measures solely because the occupants or users of a new project would be subjected to contaminant levels above the Air District’s thresholds.

Existing air quality concerns can, of course, be addressed outside of CEQA. CBIA argued during the litigation that these sorts of concerns can be addressed through substantive rules and regulations. The Air District has recently gotten on board with this approach. The Air District finalized its “Planning Healthy Places” guidance document which recommends that local governments address existing air quality concerns through the Planning and Zoning Law. Planning Healthy Places provides an interactive map of where the Air District recommends projects implement best practices (e.g., air filters) and where, due to complex emissions sources, further air quality studies should be conducted. The Court of Appeal’s decision should result in cities and counties taking a more proactive, plan-level approach to addressing air quality concerns rather than the ad hoc approach previously recommended through the Air District’s Receptor Thresholds.