Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Preserve Poway v. City of Poway (Cal. Ct. App. - March 9, 2016)

I think this case is closer than the Court of Appeal's opinion makes it out to be.

Not that the Court of Appeal necessarily gets it wrong.  Indeed, I have a lot of sympathy for where the Court of Appeal comes out.

But it's a decently close case.

A landowner currently operates a horse stable in the City of Poway, which likes to think of itself as a funky little country town in the middle of a city.  Now, having been to Poway many times, that's not really how I think of the place.  But be that as it may, some residents of Poway have this belief about its character, and the presence of a big horse stable in the City is consistent with that characterization.

But the landowner wants to sell off the stables and build a dozen houses on the property.  Those lots would be a bit bigger than normal, and would allow horses on 'em.  But that would nonetheless make the City look a bit less "country" than it is presently.  So some neighbors sue, claiming that there's a need under CEQA for an environmental impact report.  The trial court agreed.

But the Court of Appeal reverses.  Yeah, Justice Nares says, there may well be an impact on the city if the project goes forward.  But it's only a "psychological and social" one -- the loss of a nice place to board and ride horses -- and those types of impacts are categorically exempt from CEQA.  So there's no need for an EIR.  Reversed.  Justice Nares rejects the proposition that, as he puts it, "because Rogers, a private property owner, obtained a conditional use permit to operate horse stables they have enjoyed using for 20 years, the public has a right under CEQA to prevent Rogers from making some other lawful use of his land."

There's a lot to be said for the validity of the Court of Appeal's holding.

But there's a fair piece to be said on the other side, too.

My own view is that there's an incredibly fuzzy line between "psychological and social" impacts, which are admittedly not cognizable under CEQA, and impacts that are indeed cognizable.  For example, Justice Nares admits that "community character" impacts may require an EIR, and that those may validly include aesthetic impacts.  Well, at issue in this case is whether the City will lose a horse stables, and its associated expansive pastures, and have 'em replaced with twelve homes.  That change definitely affects the "look" of the City.  I could easily see someone thinking that a nice little horse stables with its broad pastures is a ton more attractive than twelve homes plopped on the same piece of property.  If that's the case, then there's a potential need for an EIR under CEQA.

Now, it's true that, here, the alleged "social" impacts of getting rid of the stables are broader than just not having something pretty to look at:  no more ability to board horses, to have your kids learn how to ride, etc.  But that some of the impacts are social doesn't mean that others aren't validly aesthetic.

In the end, really, I think that all of the aesthetic impacts of a development -- which can be considered -- are also "psychological and social" ones that can't.  Something's pretty.  The loss of that thing will potentially make people less happy.  That's a psychological and social impact, to be sure.  But it's still one that can be considered.

Now, I'm somewhat sympathetic with the view that someone can't be compelled to keep a pretty piece of property the same just because it's pretty.  At least when there are other properties in the area that are of the same un-pretty type that the landowner wants to create.  Which is indeed the case here, since there are other single-family homes in the area.

But as for an alleged sharp dividing line between the "psychological and social" impacts here, on the one hand, and "aesthetic" impacts on the other, well, that's less persuasive to me.

I have little doubt that Poway will be a tiny bit less aesthetically pleasing after the horse stables get replaced by single family homes.  So I'm not sure that this impact can be categorically shrugged off as merely a "psychological and social" impact of the project and hence noncognizable under CEQA.