Wednesday, August 17, 2016
C.A. Says Public Interest Group Can Sue to Block Covina Car Dealership
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A citizen’s group has standing to sue, as a representative of the public interest, to block an automobile dealership from operating at a Covina site without a full environmental review, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
The ruling reinstates a mandate proceeding brought by the Inland Oversight Committee. The group, which describes itself as a “non-profit, social-advocacy organization formed and operating under the laws of the State of California,’ has standing under the public interest litigation exception to the personal interest requirement, Presiding Justice Norman Epstein wrote in an unpublished opinion for Div. Four.
The group is plaintiff in a number of cases asserting public rights under the California Public Records Act, California Environmental Quality Act, Ralph M. Brown Act, and the state and federal constitutions. Litigating mostly in San Bernardino County, it fought a long, and ultimately unsuccessful, battle to invalidate the controversial settlement of litigation between a developer and that county, on the ground that supervisors who approved the deal had a conflict of interest because they had been bribed by the developer.
In the Covina case, the committee sued to block the renovation of a former Enterprise Rent-a-Car site on Citrus Avenue to house Sage Covina Chevrolet. Sage Automotive Group requested city financial assistance for the project in 2014, and the city approved a mitigated negative declaration, finding that potential impacts—including those involving hazardous materials and noise—could be held to less-than-significant levels.
The Inland Oversight Committee filed a petition for writ of mandate and complaint for declaratory relief arguing that an environmental impact report was necessary under CEQA because there was a “fair argument” that the environmental impacts would be significant and the planned mitigation inadequate.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Fruin sustained demurrers by Sage and the city, concluding that the committee lacked standing because it did not have a “beneficial interest that is clear, direct, substantial, and over and above an interest held in common by the public in general,” and because the pleading failed to allege a geographical nexus between any member of the group and the project.
The judge denied leave to amend.
Epstein, however, noted that the beneficial-interest requirement “is greatly relaxed” in environmental and other public-interest cases.
“[P]laintiff may not be denied standing simply because the injuries suffered by its members are identical to the injuries suffered by the public at large,” the jurist wrote. “The correct analysis is whether plaintiff has sufficiently alleged that the project will result in long-term environmental impacts on its members, regardless whether they live in or near the city, and that City, contrary to CEQA’s requirements, has yet to consider those impacts.”
“According to the allegations of the complaint, the project—which is located on a major throughway that intersects with two freeways and contains a Metrolink stop—will create ‘significant traffic impacts’ that will affect all ‘Covina residents, including members of Petitioner, at least one of whom resides in the City’; and the ‘Project’s significant direct, indirect, or cumulative adverse impacts on the environment give rise to Respondent’s legal obligation to prepare an environmental impact report.’ We conclude that…the complaint has sufficiently alleged plaintiff’s right to proceed under the public interest litigation exception to the personal interest requirement.”
The case is Inland Oversight Committee v. City of Covina (Sage Automotive Group), B268735.
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