Tuesday, May 9, 2017
Court of Appeal Orders Review of Plans to Demolish College Buildings
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The First District Court of Appeal has again ordered officials of a Northern California community college to conduct a new environmental review of modernization plans that include demolishing a building complex and surrounding gardens.
Div. One Friday ruled for a second time in favor of Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens, which is seeking an environmental impact report for the college’s modernization plan. The first ruling was overturned last year by the state Supreme Court, which said the Court of Appeal had used the wrong standard, but the panel Friday reached the same result under the high court’s approach.
The litigation arose from changes in the district’s 10-year-old plan to modernize the campus by spending nearly $1 billion to renovate some existing buildings while constructing new ones. The district determined that the environmental impacts of the original plan could be mitigated to insignificance, and adopted a declaration to that effect,
Part of the original plan was to renovate a classroom, lab, greenhouse and surrounding space, collectively known as Building 20. But because of funding issues, that aspect was reevaluated, and the district decided to demolish Building 20 and put in a parking lot. It also decided to renovate two other buildings it initially planned to demolish.
The district concluded that the changes would have no greater environmental impact than the original plan. Over public opposition, particularly over the intended destruction of the gardens associated with Building 20, the district approved an addendum to the original declaration.
The Friends group petitioned the San Mateo Superior Court for a writ of mandate, arguing the demolition project violated CEQA and seeking to compel the district to prepare an EIR for what it characterized as a “new project.”
Judge Clifford Cretan granted the writ, finding that the changes were inconsistent with the original plan and had impacts not discussed in the original mitigated negative declaration. The Court of Appeal affirmed, but the high court unanimously reversed in an opinion by Justice Leondra R. Kruger.
Kruger said the Court of Appeal erred in treating the inquiry into whether the revision created a “new” project as primarily one of law rather than fact. The central question, she said, is whether the changes will cause previously unstudied environmental impacts.
Presiding Justice James Humes, writing for the Court of Appeal Friday, said the changes “amounted to a modified project” under the high court decision, and that the use of an addendum to the original mitigated declaration violated CEQA.
Humes said it was clear from the administrative record “that the Building 20 demolition project might have a significant environmental effect due to its aesthetic impacts,” and said in a footnote that the court was not foreclosing the possibility of other significant effects.
But he rejected the Friends group’s requested remedy, which was an order directing preparation of an EIR.
The district, he said, may prepare a subsequent mitigated negative declaration, rather than an EIR, “if it determines that the possibly significant environmental effects will be ‘reduced to insignificance’ through the implementation of mitigation measures.”
The case is Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District, 17 S.O.S. 2390.
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