An appellate court has invalidated amendments to the San Bernardino County general plan that gave the county greater authority over development within cities' spheres of influences. The Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that the county's failure to prepare an environmental impact report on the amendments violated the California Environmental Quality Act.
The court ruled that the county's project description improperly downplayed the significance of the amendments, and that the cities of Redlands and Rancho Cucamonga presented "substantial evidence of a fair argument that the amendments may have a significant effect on the environment" — one of the standard tests for when to prepare an EIR.
The decision is a victory for advocates of coordinated planning, said Redlands City Attorney Daniel McHugh. The county's previous general plan called for the county to work with cities on land use planning for unincorporated territory within cities' spheres of influence. Redlands backed that plan. But, said McHugh, "The new standards do not bear any relationship with the city's standards."
The county has asked the state Supreme Court to review the case or to depublish the decision. A county attorney did not return a request for comment.
In 1999, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors adopted a general plan amendment "to clarify the county's land use planning authority and development approval discretion in sphere of influence areas." Cities objected to the amendment (see CP&DR Local Watch, August 1999), and Rancho Cucamonga and Redlands filed lawsuits challenging the county's environmental review.
San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge James Edwards ruled for the cities, finding that the county had substantially changed its land use policies without properly describing the project or gathering facts needed for an adequate environmental analysis. Judge Edwards also ruled that the cities presented enough evidence that the county should have prepared an EIR. The county appealed the decision, but a unanimous three-judge panel of the Fourth District, Division Two, upheld the decision.
In its appeal, the county — which adopted a negative declaration for the general plan amendment — argued that Judge Edwards wrongly decided that the project description was lacking. The county contended that the amendment only clarified the county's authority.
But the Fourth District said Edwards was correct. The amendment replaced a policy that required the county to incorporate cities' land use policies with discretionary language that called for the county only to "consider" cities' policies. The county also eliminated a requirement that all projects inside cities' spheres other than single-family residences get a use permit from the county.
"As argued by the cities," Justice Barton Gaut wrote, "the amendments were more than mere clarifications of existing general plan provisions. By adopting the amendments, the Board [of Supervisors] made substantive changes to the County's policies and procedures in making land use and development decisions involving unincorporated territory within a city's sphere of influence. In essence the amendments eliminated the requirement that the County give substantial weight to and even implement the standards provided in an affected city's general plan.
"In fact," Gaut continued, "the Board adopted the amendments in response to Redlands's successful litigation against the county involving a conflict between the County's general plan and Redlands's growth control measures and development standards. Under the new amendments, where a conflict between city and county standards exist, the County has granted itself discretion to override city standards in making decisions concerning land within that city's sphere of influence. It appears that what the County failed to do in court, it attempted to accomplish through quasi-legislative proceedings."
The court held that the county ignored the potential impact of future development that would result from the general plan amendment and that the county provided no evidence of how such a policy change would not affect the environment.
The court also rejected the county's argument that the cities did not provide substantial evidence to make a fair argument for an EIR. The county characterized the cities' evidence as argument, speculation and nonexpert opinion. But the court found that the cities "provided lengthy evaluations of the potential effects of the amendments." Rancho Cucamonga, for example, noted that the county's regulations for grading on hillsides were looser than its own, and that the county did not require as much parkland as the city for new development.
"Ironically, the County complains concerned the cities' lack of evidence, when it initially set the stage by failing to gather facts and evidence in conducting its initial study of amendments' potential environmental effects," Gaut wrote. "The County's conclusory evaluation of the amendments fails to support its decision to adopt a negative declaration."
Finally, the court rejected the county's argument that Judge Edward's injunction against the county to prohibit adoption of the general plan amendment or similar amendments was overly broad. The order simply ensured that the county does not circumvent CEQA again, the appellate court ruled.
City of Redlands v. County of San Bernardino; City of Rancho Cucamonga v. County of San Bernardino, No. E028515, 02 C.D.O.S. 1691, 2002 DJDAR 2073. Filed January 29, 2002. Ordered published February 22, 2002.
For Redlands: Daniel McHugh, city attorney, (909) 798-7595.
For Rancho Cucamonga: James Markman, Richards, Watson & Gershon, (714) 990-0901.
For the county: Robin Cochran, deputy county counsel, (909) 387-5455.