Dude, Where’s My Parking Spot? The Courts Drag Parking Back Into the CEQA Arena

By Sarah E. Owsowitz and Stephanie R. Straka : publicceo.com – excerpt

…In Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending v San Diego Unified School District, a state appellate court considered the environmental review conducted by a school district for the installation of stadium lighting at a high school athletic field, lights which would allow for the playing of night football games. Neighbors complained that the high school’s parking was inadequate and that attendees to night games might park in their neighborhood, thus keeping residents from finding parking when they came home from work. On this basis, the neighbors argued, the school district should have prepared a lengthy environmental impact report, rather than the shorter, faster environmental review document known as a “negative declaration.” The Fourth District Court of Appeal, in its ruling issued this past March, sided with the neighbors, finding that the potential lack of available parking spaces during night games, by itself, could be a significant impact on the environment. It rejected the reasoning in San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan and held that CEQA requires environmental review not just of the potential secondary effects associated with searching for parking, such as increased exhaust emissions from idling cars, but also of the “direct effects” of being unable to find a space in a parking lot, namely, parking somewhere else. The court stated: “cars and other vehicles are physical objects that occupy space when driven and when parked” and thus “naturally must have some impact on the physical environment,” even if the impact is only “temporary (e.g. only so long as the vehicle remains parked).” The court did not suggest what this temporary direct impact to the environment might be, but concluded that the neighbors’ concerns about finding a parking space when they came home from work constituted evidence that “the Project may have a significant impact on parking and thus the environment.”…

Where does this new ruling leave cities, counties and other public agencies? The conservative approach will be to go back to the days when every CEQA document considered whether there were sufficient parking spaces to serve a proposed project. (Although what does sufficient parking even mean in dense areas where the existing zoning may not call for new developments to provide parking at all?) Arguably public agencies will be forced to call a lack of sufficient parking a significant impact to the environment. This impact, it would seem, can only be addressed (“mitigated” to use CEQA lingo) by providing more parking or making the project in question smaller. Does this mean that adding parking is now some sort of benefit to the environment? What about so-called “infill projects,” those projects most likely to be located on small parcels of land in dense urban areas where parking is already hard to find? Will they have to reduce the square footage of retail or office spaces or the number of housing units they propose in order to add parking spaces? And, if they cannot provide sufficient parking, will public agencies be forced to prepare otherwise unnecessary environmental impact reports (the only type of environmental review document that can be prepared for projects with unmitigated impacts)?… (more)

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