Santa Barbara County officials can enforce misdemeanor encroachment laws without conducting an analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act.

“Any claimed ‘failure’ to follow the California Environmental Quality Act is not a defense to the commission of a crime,” wrote Second District Court of Appeal Justice Kenneth Yegan for a unanimous three-judge panel.

That was the conclusion an appellate court came to, overturning a Superior Court judge’s ruling in a dispute between the county and Montecito residents who illegally placed rocks, plants, and other obstructions in the public right-of-way to discourage other people from parking near their houses while using a popular hiking trail.

The residents had argued – successfully in Superior Court – that enforcing the encroachment law was really part of a larger “project” to be undertaken by Santa Barbara County that would result in more parking spaces in order to allow more hikers to use the trail. A Superior Court judge in Santa Barbara issued an injunction blocking the county from enforcing the law, saying the neighbors were likely to win on appeal and would suffer irreparable harm because their plants would be permanently damaged.

But the Second District Court of Appeal, Division Six, in Ventura disagreed. Whether or not enforcing the law was part of a larger project, Yegan wrote, the county acted properly in declaring the enforcement action as exempt from CEQA.

The county began the enforcement action against Montecito residents who live close to the popular Hot Springs Canyon hiking trail on East Mountain Drive after the number of hikers increased dramatically during the COVID pandemic. There are approximately 10 offstreet parking spaces for the trail but during COVID hundreds of hikers began using the trail. The barriers apparently did not discourage hikers from parking on the road but, rather, caused them to park their cars in a manner that blocked the road, reducing it from a two-lane road to a one-lane road.

Neighboring residents sued, and in May 2022 Superior Court Judge Donna Geck issued a preliminary injunction against the county. Subsequently, however, the county sent letters to 11 homeowners demanding that they remove the obstructions. In June 2022, Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle ruled that the county had violated the preliminary injunction and ordered that the letters be withdrawn. (Local news reports on the underlying situation can be found here and here. The county then appealed.

The appellate ruling revolved around the question of whether the enforcement action was a separate “project” (and therefore exempt from CEQA) or whether it was part of a larger plan by the city to expand the overall amount of parking at Hot Springs Canyon in order to alleviate the parking problem. “Respondents and the trial court inferred that these notices were the first step of a ‘larger project,’ which involves encouraging many more hikers to use the Hot Springs trail by making it easier for them to park near the trailhead,” Yegan wrote.

But he and his colleagues were not persuaded. “Removing the encroachments does not “increase” or add new parking; it restores access to parking spaces that have always existed,” he wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.

Yegan also said the lower-court judge had not balanced the potential harm to the neighbors of removing the barriers against the potential harm to hikes of leaving the barriers in place. Judge Anderle had argued that the homeowners would suffer real harm because “many of the longstanding encroachments consist of mature landscaping which, once removed, will likely be gone forever.” The county’s arguments for harm, he concluded, “relate more to its perceptions of the benefits of proceeding with the project, than they do to any legitimate harm which it or the public would suffer if the status quo were preserved.”

Yegan shot that argument down forcefully.

First, he said, the neighbors won’t suffer any real harm. “The plants and other objects they have installed in the public right of way can presumably be moved off public property and onto respondents’ private property. In any event, respondents have an obligation to obey the law, including the encroachment laws,” he wrote.

And he said the current situation could cause real harm to the public. “The record includes substantial evidence that encroachments in the public right of way present both fire safety risks and public safety risks to motorists, pedestrians and cyclists,” he wrote. “Even without that evidence, the encroachment statutes and ordinances themselves represent a legislative determination that the public interest is served by prohibiting and authorizing the removal of unpermitted encroachments in the public right of way.

The Case:

Anderson v. County of Santa Barbara, No. B322465 (filed July 19, 2023; published August 16, 2023).

The Lawyers:

For Christopher Anderson and other neighbors: A. Barry Cappello, Cappello & Noël.

For Santa Barbara County: Lina Somait, Senior Deputy County Counsel,