Rural Landowners Assn. v. City Council

Decision Date16 June 1983
Citation143 Cal.App.3d 1013,192 Cal.Rptr. 325
PartiesRURAL LAND OWNERS ASSOCIATION, Mr. and Mrs. Wilbert Ruhl, Ms. Barbara Lea, Mr. and Mrs. John M. Blodgett III, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Wilson, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Sabo, and Mr. and Mrs. Richard Neuharth, Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. LODI CITY COUNCIL and Lodi City Planning Commission, Defendants and Respondents, GENIE DEVELOPMENT, INCORPORATED, Real Party in Interest and Respondent. Civ. 20471.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Michael H. Remy and Tina A. Thomas, Sacramento, for plaintiffs and appellants.

Ronald M. Stein, City Atty., for defendants and respondents.

C.M. Sullivan, Jr., Lodi, for real party in interest and respondent.

CARR, Acting Presiding Justice.

The Rural Land Owners Association (petitioners) appeal from a judgment denying their petition for mandate and injunctive relief. Petitioners sought mandate to compel respondents Lodi City Council and Lodi City Planning Commission (hereafter collectively the "City") to vacate their decisions approving a Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the annexation and development of certain agricultural lands, as well as the general plan amendment, rezoning and tentative map approval for the development. A central issue on appeal is the standard of review to be applied by the trial court under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) (Pub.Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.), when examining clear errors in the environmental review process, which errors in turn lead to deficiencies in the EIR. We agree with petitioners that the trial court improperly substituted its independent judgment on the evidence for that of the City and accordingly shall reverse the judgment with directions to issue the writ.


The properties at issue are known as the Johnson Ranch and the Tandy Ranch. The ranches are situated southeast of the City of Lodi and comprise some 58 acres of prime agricultural land. In September and October 1979, the property owners and the developer (real party in interest, Genie Development) applied to the City for the annexation and prezoning of the property. The City, on behalf of the developer, referred the annexation question to the San Joaquin County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) for review. 2 Concurrent with the LAFCO review of annexation, the City conducted a review of the general plan amendment, prezoning and tentative map approval necessary for development of the Johnson and Tandy Ranches.

In December the City prepared and circulated the "South East Lodi Draft EIR." The draft EIR discussed the Johnson Ranch general plan amendment and rezoning as part of an area-wide report (244 acres), but did not consider either the Tandy Ranch proposal or the issue of annexation. The City planning commission considered the Johnson and Tandy Ranch development in late January 1980 and took the following actions: (1) approved the general plan amendments and residential prezoning for both parcels; (2) denied the developer's request for commercial prezoning for part of the Johnson Ranch; and (3) approved the southeast Lodi final EIR as adequate. Both petitioners and the developers appealed these actions to the city council.

During this same period the LAFCO proceedings on annexation were moving forward, eventually resulting in the approval of both annexations with negative declarations, rather than EIRs. The City then ordered the annexation of both ranches without election. In early March the annexation was essentially complete except for an agreement between the City and county on a division of taxes.

On March 11, 1980, the city council met to hear the appeals on the Johnson-Tandy project and took the following actions: (1) certified the final EIR as complete and adequate; (2) denied petitioner's appeal and approved the general plan amendment and prezoning for both parcels; and (3) granted the developer's appeal, approving the commercial prezoning for the Johnson Ranch. Several days later, the City delivered the final EIR to the Governor's Office of Planning Research (OPR) State Clearinghouse for review and comment. 3

On May 12, the planning commission met to consider the tentative map for the Johnson-Tandy development. It considered an addendum to the final EIR containing the comments from OPR on the draft EIR. The commission approved the addendum as adequate and approved the Johnson-Tandy tentative map. On May 15, the City filed its notice of determination to carry out the project. The petition which is the subject of this appeal was then filed.


Judicial review of a local agency's decision under CEQA and its accompanying guidelines (see Cal.Admin.Code, tit. 14, § 15000 et seq), where the agency is required by law to hold hearings and take evidence, 4 is governed by section 21168 of the Public Resources Code. 5 (Dehne v. County of Santa Clara (1981) 115 Cal.App.3d 827, 835, 171 Cal.Rptr. 753.) Because section 21168 incorporates the provisions of section 1094.5 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 6 the focus of judicial review is on "(1) whether there is any substantial evidence in light of the whole record to support the decision; and (2) whether the agency making the decision abused its discretion by failing to proceed in the manner required by law." (Ibid.)

When the trial court in the present case considered the appropriate scope of review, it formulated a dual standard of review: (1) "as to factual determinations made by the City Council and the Planning Commission this Court would support the determination of those agencies unless it is not supported by substantial evidence.... As to matters required to be done by regulations, the Court would apply the standard of requiring (1) a good faith effort at full disclosure and (2) no failure to include information which would cause sufficient prejudice to the public opportunity to present their views that they may be denied due process and might have made a difference to the determination made by the agencies." We are here concerned with the second prong of the trial court's formulated standard of review.

The City conceded it had not proceeded in the manner prescribed by law in that it was required by the guidelines to submit the draft EIR to the state clearinghouse before it approved the project (Guidelines §§ 15161.5, 15161.6) and having failed to do so, it was unable to respond to the comments received from OPR and other state agencies before approving the final EIR. (Guidelines § 15146.) In considering these errors, however, the trial court found that the comments from the state agencies, with two exceptions, had been discussed in the final EIR and the city council meeting. The trial court stated "[s]ince no new ideas were raised by the matters set forth in the Adddendum, and no action was taken by any City Council members to reconsider any action taken in light of the comments by the State, this Court finds that the omission is of no legal significance, and in light of the good faith effort of the City Council to comply with the EIR guidelines, and the fact that this failure to get timely comments from the state agencies did not prejudice the rights of the public to present their case before the City Council and the Planning Commission." In effect, the trial court posited a "harmless error" standard, concluding that even in the absence of these procedural errors the City would have reached the same result. Petitioners contend this standard of review was incorrect and had a proper standard of review been applied a different result would have been reached. We agree that the standard of review employed by the trial court was incorrect.

In formulating its standard of review the trial court adopted the City's position that section 21168 requires a two-step analysis: first, has petitioner shown an abuse of discretion as defined; and second, was this abuse prejudicial? The City relies on the language of Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5 which limits the inquiry to "whether there was any prejudicial abuse of discretion. Abuse of discretion is established if the respondent has not proceeded in the manner required by law, the order or decision is not supported by the findings, or the findings are not supported by the evidence." (Subd. (b); emphasis added.) For a definition of prejudice, the City relies on Code of Civil Procedure section 475, which provides in part: "No ... decision ... shall be reversed or affected by reason of any error ... unless it shall appear ... that by reason of such error ... the said party complaining or appealing sustained and suffered substantial injury, and that a different result would have been probable if such error ... had not occurred or existed." 7 The City thus contends that even conceding it abused its discretion by failing to proceed in the manner required by the guidelines, the trial court properly found this abuse of discretion was not prejudicial to either petitioners or the public because the state's comments and the City's responses would not have altered the City's ultimate decision to proceed with the project. While conceding the City's analysis is generally accurate with regard to the usual mandate proceeding under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5, we conclude it ignores specific provisions in CEQA and, if followed, would seriously undermine the purpose for which CEQA was enacted.

CEQA is essentially an environmental full disclosure statute, and the EIR is the method by which this disclosure is made. "In many respects the EIR is the heart of CEQA." (County of Inyo v. Yorty (1973) 32 Cal.App.3d 795, 810, 108 Cal.Rptr. 377.) The purpose of an EIR "is to provide public agencies and the public in general with detailed information about the effect which a proposed project is likely to have on the environment, ..." (§ 21061; emphasis added.) We have referred to an EIR as "an environmental 'alarm bell' whose purpose it is to alert the public and its...

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