The California Coastal Commission does not have authority to consider environmental impacts to areas inside the coastal zone caused by development outside the coast zone, the First District Court of Appeal has ruled. The decision is the most definitive to date on the Commission's authority when a project straddles the coastal zone boundary.
"Consideration of environmental impacts originating outside the coastal zone is the responsibility of the local agency with authority over their point of origin — here, the city. It is not the responsibility of the Commission," the appellate court ruled.
The decision came in an environmentalists' lawsuit over the commission's approval of a 114-house subdivision on 44 acres in the Playa del Rey area of the City of Los Angeles. Catellus Residential Group initially proposed a 119-home development. The city adopted an environmental impact report for the project and approved the subdivision. The Sierra Club appealed that decision to the Coastal Commission. In August 1999, the Commission overturned the city's decision, citing concerns about excessive grading, landform alteration and the impact on coastal views.
Catellus revised the project, cutting the number of houses to 114 and changing its plans for grading and slope stability measures. Catellus also agreed to purchase 15 nearby undeveloped lots and retire the development rights. The city prepared a supplemental EIR and, in January 2000, issued new permits. The Sierra Club again appealed, but this time the Commission voted 9-2 in August 2000 to uphold the city's approval. The revised project called for all houses to be built outside the coastal zone; however, a road serving most of the houses would run through the coastal zone. There would also be other grading and buried retaining walls in the coastal zone.
The Sierra Club, the Spirit of the Sage Council, and Ballona Ecosystem Education Project sued the Commission, the city and Catellus, alleging a number of misdeeds. (A separate lawsuit filed by the Spirit of the Sage Council against the city is pending in the Second District Court of Appeal after the city won at the trial court.) The environmental groups sought an injunction to prevent Catellus from grading. The San Francisco Superior Court rejected the request, but the First District, in an unpublished ruling, approved the injunction.
The case then returned to the trial court for a decision on the merits. In July 2002, San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Robertson ruled against the environmental groups on all grounds. The environmentalists appealed, and a unanimous three-judge panel of the First District upheld the lower court.
The environmentalists' most important argument from a legal standpoint concerned the Commission's ability to review impacts originating outside the coastal zone. The environmental groups argued that the Commission failed to consider the impact that development of the houses outside the coastal zone would have on the nearby Ballona wetlands, an environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA) within the coastal zone. The project opponents argued that because development within the coastal zone (the road and grading) would support development outside the zone (the houses) — and because the development outside the coastal zone would impact an ESHA inside the zone — the Commission was obliged to consider those impacts and reject the development within the zone.
Previous court rulings had not resolved this issue, but the First District concluded that the environmental groups were attempting to extend the jurisdiction of the Coastal Commission beyond that allowed in the Coastal Act. The court's decision hinged on its interpretation of two sections of the act — Public Resources Code §§ 30200 and 30604, subdivision (d). Section 30200 requires public agencies carrying out or supporting activities outside the coastal zone to consider the activities' direct impacts within the coastal zone. The environmental groups argued that this statute required the Commission to consider the inside-the-zone impacts from outside-the-zone development.
But the court said the Sierra Club's interpretation did not jibe with § 30604, subdivision (d). In 1978, the Legislature amended that statute to address the Commission's authority when a project straddled the coastal zone boundary.
"The legislative history … confirms that the Legislature intended to reject the notion that Commission jurisdiction over part of a project could be leveraged into jurisdiction over the entire project," Justice Linda Gemello wrote for the court. "If the Commission has no jurisdiction over the portion of a project outside the coastal zone, it follows that the Commission has no jurisdiction to evaluate that portion of the project to determine whether its effects are consistent with Coastal Act policies."
The Sierra Club countered that the court's interpretation of § 30604, subdivision (d), amounted to an improper repeal of § 30200. But the court rejected that argument, ruling that § 30200 still controlled the responsibilities of other agencies, such as the city in this case.
The court also shot down a slew of other arguments from the environmental groups. One of the more novel arguments concerned an ESHA that Catellus proposed to create. Under the Coastal Act, an ESHA is "any area in which plant or animal life or their habitats are either rare or especially valuable because of their special nature or role in an ecosystem and which could be easily disturbed or degraded by human activities and developments." Catellus proposed to revegetate the eroded and disturbed face of a bluff within the coastal zone, thereby creating an ESHA. Project opponents argued that ESHA protections would therefore apply, and the project would be inconsistent with the Coastal Act.
"We conclude that both the language and intent of the Coastal Act dictate the opposite conclusion," Justice Gemello wrote. "ESHA protections do not apply unless an area is currently an ESHA. … If we were to adopt the Sierra Club's interpretation, we would create disincentives for any future developer to engage in habitat restoration as part of a development."
The court also rejected opponents' argument that the Commission's procedure for adopting findings was improper. The Commission adopted findings five months after voting for the project because the findings that staff had prepared at the time of the vote were inconsistent with how the Commission actually voted. Opponents argued this was a "post-hoc rationalization," which the California Environmental Quality Act prohibited.
The court found that the Commission adequately explained its reasoning at the meeting where the vote was conducted. "An agency must reason first, and reach its decision second. Written findings may come before or after, so long as they reflect the reasoning actually engaged in before the decision has been reached," Gemello wrote.
In unpublished portions of the opinion, the court held that substantial evidence supported the Commission's decision that the project was consistent with the Coastal Act's policies for protecting views. And the court held that the Commission's decision not to consider feasible project alternatives complied with CEQA because the proposed project did not have any unmitigated impacts.
Sierra Club v. California Coastal Commission, No. A100194, 03 C.D.O.S. 3143, 2003 DJDAR 3975. Filed April 11, 2003.
For Sierra Club: Frank Angel, (310) 314-6433.
For the Coastal Commission: Hayley Peterson, deputy attorney general, (619) 645-2540.
For Catellus: Robert Crockett, Latham & Watkins, (213) 485-1234.