The City of San Diego could legally determine that a road was no longer necessary and close the road, even though thousands of motorists would drive on the road if it were open, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.

In an admittedly “highly deferential” decision, the court found that the city had made the findings required by the Streets & Highways Code and Vehicle Code for the closure of the road. “[T[he fact that a substantial portion of the public would like to have a road reopened or would use the road does not mean the legislature is legally precluded from finding the road is not necessary because another road provides equivalent benefits,” the court ruled.

In late 1995, Caltrans closed a one-mile segment of Sorrento Valley Road, which runs parallel to and west of Interstate 5 in the northwest corner of San Diego. Caltrans closed the road to permit construction of Highway 56 nearby. When Highway 56 was completed two years later, people asked the city to reopen Sorrento Valley Road. When the city failed to act, a group called Citizens for Improved Sorrento Access (CISA) sued the city.

While the lawsuit was pending, the city prepared plans to reopen the road. However, the Coastal Commission determined that the city would need a coastal development permit, and the city concluded an Environmental Impact Report was required because of the road’s proximity to the sensitive Los Penasquitos Lagoon.

The city prepared an EIR that identified numerous significant impacts to water, drainage, biological resources, noise levels and landform. While the impacts were mitigable, they would “irreversibly change the character of the environment,” the EIR found. The City Council declined to certify the EIR. Instead, the council directed its staff to study redeveloping the road for only pedestrian and bicycle access.

A new EIR found that the proposed pedestrian and bicycle trail would result in fewer environmental impacts. In February 2003, the City Council certified the new EIR, approved closing Sorrento Valley Road to motorized vehicles, and amended local land use plans to delete the road from the traffic circulation system.

The same group, CISA, filed a new lawsuit. San Diego County Superior Court judges ruled for the city in both suits. The group appealed, and a unanimous three-judge panel of the Fourth District, Division One, upheld the lower court.

CISA made numerous arguments against the closure. The group pointed to the fact that an average of 14,000 cars used Sorrento Valley Road every day before it was closed, and to estimates that 16,000 to 17,000 would use the road if reopened. But the court held that state law gave the city a great deal of discretion, and the court could overrule the City Council only if the council acted arbitrarily or capriciously.

“The evidence showed Sorrento Valley Road had been used primarily as an alternative to the I-5, but that during the time the road was closed the I-5 had been improved and this freeway is being widened with 10 additional lanes, for a total of 24 lanes,” Justice Judith Haller wrote. “The record additionally showed there were plans to construct the nearby Carmel Mountain Road interchange at the I-5 during 2004 through 2007 and a parallel road on the east side of I-5 had been built, making it unnecessary to continue to provide a parallel road on the west side of I-5. The City Council further found that the ‘five-year, $5 million Transportation Demand Management Program’ in Sorrento Valley will reduce the demand for highways and streets in the area.”

“Reviewing the record as a whole, we cannot say the city acted in an arbitrary or capricious manner,” Haller continued.

CISA cited a line of cases in which the courts have limited cities’ abilities to partially close roads. City of Lafayette v. Contra Costa County, (1979) 91 Cal.App.3d 749,Rumford v. City of Berkeley, (1982) 31 Cal.3d 545, Citizens Against Gated Enclaves v. Whitley Heights Civic Assn., (1994) 23 Cal.App.4th 812. (See CP&DR Legal Digest, May 1994.) CISA argued that if partial street closures were improper, then full closure of a street that many people want to use must also be improper.

But the Fourth District said the three previous cases were different from the current controversy because the earlier cases involved attempts to prevent people who did not live in a certain neighborhood from using public streets. “The Rumford-Lafayette-Citizens line of decisions concerned a local entity’s authority to decide which members of the public could use a particular public street, and not the issue here involving a legislative judgment that a road has become unnecessary for the entire public,” Justice Haller wrote.

In an unpublished portion of its decision, the court rejected CISA arguments that the city had violated the California Environmental Quality Act, including the contention that the city should not have used the closed road as the “baseline” for environmental evaluation. The court said CISA did not explain how a different baseline would change the results of the EIR.

The Case:
Citizens for Improved Sorrento Access v. City of San Diego, No. D043024, 04 C.D.O.S. 4149, 2004 DJDAR 5780. Filed May 14, 2004.
The Lawyers:
For CISA: Richard A. Schulman, Hecht, Solberg, Robinson, Goldberg & Bagley, (619) 239-3444.
For the city: William Donnell, deputy city attorney, (619) 533-5800.