Court halts California Capitol Annex project over - what else? - CEQA challenge

San Francisco Chronicle
By Bob Egelko

A state appeals court has blocked California's $1 billion plan to demolish and replace the 50-year-old building that has offices for the governor and legislators alongside the Capitol, saying planners failed to consider options that would be less disruptive to the site's appearance and public access.

Tuesday’s ruling by the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento was based on the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, the 1970 law that requires state and local agencies to examine the environmental effect of proposed projects, seek public comments and consider alternatives with lesser impact.

The law has had wide-ranging effects. Last year an Alameda County judge cited CEQA in ordering a limit on enrollment at UC Berkeley, agreeing with a neighborhood group that the university had failed to consider the impact of increasing student population on local housing, traffic, police and fire services, noise and other community concerns. The Legislature quickly overturned the enrollment limit, but the ruling, now on appeal, could still require UC Berkeley to deal with the off-campus effects of admitting more students.

In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, exempting University of California, California State University and community colleges from CEQA review of student and faculty housing projects, one of a series of measures aimed at speeding up residential construction across the state. Wiener and other legislators have been working to limit the scope of the environmental law, saying it has been abused to block badly needed housing in California.

But the law authorizing the construction project alongside the Capitol expressly requires compliance with CEQA.

The 2016 statute called for removal and rebuilding of the structure known as the Capitol Annex, which opened in 1972 as an addition to the century-old Capitol. The new building is intended to be safer and more modern, would provide larger offices and would also include an underground visitors’ center, on the west side of the Capitol, and a parking garage. Unlike the current concrete structure, the new annex would have a glass exterior.

Some community groups objected to the changes, including the placement of the visitors’ center, which would limit public access to the Capitol’s West Lawn, a site of ceremonial events and festivities as well as political demonstrations. A conservation group also objected to the planned removal of about 100 trees from Capitol Park. On Tuesday, the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento said the state’s environmental impact report, which approved the plan, had failed to discuss alternatives or give the public an adequate opportunity to comment.

State officials did not offer “a reasonable range of alternatives that fostered informed public participation and decision-making,” Justice Harry Hull wrote in a mostly unanimous ruling for a three-judge panel. “Decision-makers and the public were never given an alternative to the project as DGS (the Department of General Services) had defined it.”

For one thing, Hull said, planners failed to discuss an option offered by objectors to move the visitors’ center to the south side of the Capitol, a change that would “substantially lessen significant impacts to the Capitol’s historic west façade and the West Lawn.” He said the state also failed to mention the proposed glass exterior, a late addition to the plan, in its description of the new building when it invited public comments.

“An obvious and key requirement for determining a project’s impact on a historical resource is the project’s appearance.” Hull wrote. “The public was foreclosed from commenting meaningfully on the glass exterior’s impact on the Capitol.... Nowhere does DGS explain how it or any member of the public could meaningfully analyze the new Annex’s impact on the Historic Capitol as a historic resource without knowing what the Annex would look like.”

The court ordered state officials to conduct a new environmental review, analyzing alternative proposals and inviting another round of public comments. Justice Stacy Boulware Eurie joined Hull’s opinion. Justice Louis Mauro said he would not require the new report to include an illustration of the planned building because he thought the state had adequately described its proposed changes, but he endorsed the rest of the ruling.

There was no immediate comment from the Department of General Services, which could ask the state Supreme Court to review the ruling. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature have moved to temporary offices in a nearby building during early stages of the construction that were not challenged in court.

“The court sided with the people of California today,” said Stephen Cook, lawyer for a group called Save Our Capitol, which filed one of two lawsuits against the plan. He said he hopes state officials “will properly consider alternatives to the project which do not involve decimating these irreplaceable historical resources.”

The ruling requires state planners “to do what they should have from the project’s start: fully evaluate the environmental impact of the Capitol Annex Project and consider and adopt feasible project mitigations and alternatives,” said Dick Cowan, representing the other group of objectors, Save the Capitol, Save the Trees. “When that happens, we now expect to see the project substantially change and improve.”

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