A state appellate court has thrown out a “general plan” for a beach park in Santa Cruz because the initial study of environmental impacts did not address the effects of unleashed dogs at the park. However, the court also ruled that there was not enough evidence to force preparation of an environmental impact report for the park plan.

Instead of demanding an EIR, the court ruled, “Once the informational requirements of a complete initial study have been met, the city as lead agency may again determine whether a negative declaration, a mitigated negative declaration or an EIR is appropriate.”

The decision came in a case regarding the City of Santa Cruz’s planning for Lighthouse Field State Beach, which the city operates under agreement with the state. The park contains a field area and small beach known as “Its Beach.”

The primary controversy at Lighthouse Field and Its Beach concerns dogs. The 1984 Lighthouse Field State Beach general plan required that pets be restricted to leashes. However, the city in 1993 began permitting off-leash dog use at the field and beach during certain times of day. When the city began updating the general plan in 2001, the city received numerous comments regarding the deleterious effects of unleashed dogs on wildlife, native plants, water quality, public health and visitors’ enjoyment of the park.

In early 2003, the state Department of Parks and Recreation recommended that the city eliminate all references to unleashed dogs in the general plan update and that the city address the issue separately in the future. In April 2003, the City Council adopted the general plan update and negative declaration. The new plan prohibited all dogs in environmentally sensitive areas but did not address the issue of unleashed dogs.

A group called Lighthouse Field Beach Rescue sued, arguing that the initial study was inadequate, that the city’s approval of the plan and negative declaration violated the California Environmental Quality Act, and that deferring the issue of unleashed dogs was an improper piecemealing of the project. Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Robert Atack ruled for the county. A unanimous three-judge panel of the Sixth District Court of Appeal then reversed the lower court.

Lighthouse Field Beach Rescue argued that the initial study — one of the first steps in the CEQA process — was inadequate because it did not fully describe the baseline conditions, specifically the conditions created by off-leash dogs. The group also contended the initial study failed to analyze the impact of unleashed dogs.

The Sixth District ruled that the initial study’s treatment of the baseline was acceptable. But the court ruled that the study should have better addressed the issue of unleashed dogs.

Santa Cruz and the state argued that the updated plan did not alter the park’s leash policy, and that new restrictions on where dogs may go would result in a net decrease in environmental impacts. The court was not convinced.

“The revised dog guidelines unquestionably alter the management direction for the state beach regarding off-leash dog use, which was previously set by the original plan,” Justice Franklin Elia wrote for the court. “The fact that the city disregarded or failed to enforce the original leash guideline in the past does not change the scope of CEQA review in the present since the city is supposed to take its ongoing management direction from the general plan. … In habitat areas not identified as environmentally sensitive and accessible to dogs under the revised plan, the new open-ended dog guidelines provide no parameters regarding unleashed dog use and seemingly allow for unchecked increases in unleashed dog use.”

The court also concluded that the initial study should have reflected the city’s consideration of policy changes regarding leashes, and the court rejected the city’s argument regarding “net” environmental improvements.

The court then considered whether plan opponents could make a fair argument that adoption of the new park plan may have a significant effect on the environment — the standard for determining whether an EIR is required. The beach rescue group cited environmental issues such as noise, dog waste, interference with birds and nursery sites, and water quality. But the court found that the impacts already exist, and that the new plan would diminish them.

“Visitors with both leashed and unleashed dogs have already been using the state beach extensively,” Elia wrote. “In addition, appellant’s analysis overlooks the fact that the original plan permitted dogs in all parts of LF [Lighthouse Field] State Beach. The original plan’s guidelines did not specify that visitors pick up after their dogs’ waste or otherwise control their dogs’ behavior beyond having them on leash. The revised general plan is more protective than the original plan insofar as it restricts dogs from certain environmentally sensitive areas and seeks to educate the public regarding protecting these areas from human and dog disturbance.”

“[T]he record suggests that the revisions affecting dog use will be more protective of vulnerable habitat areas than the original plan,” Elia wrote.

The court ordered the city to set aside its adoption of the negative declaration and the new park plan.

The Case:
Lighthouse Field Beach Rescue v. City of Santa Cruz, No. H027491, 05 C.D.O.S. 7063, 2005 DJDAR 9711. Filed August 10, 2005.

The Lawyers:
For Lighthouse Field Beach Rescue: Susan Brandt-Hawley, (707) 938-3908.
For the city: John Barisone, Atchison, Barisone, Condotti & Kovacevich, (831) 423-8383.
For California Department of Parks and Recreation: John Davidson, attorney general’s office, (415) 703-5500.