On August 19, 2021, the Second District Court of Appeal decided Save Our Access-San Gabriel Mountains v. Watershed Conservation Authority (Aug. 19, 2021, No. B303494), upholding an EIR’s finding of no significant impact under CEQA, where a project’s reduction in parking protected the environment, rather than adversely affected it.

The case involved a project in the Angeles National Forest to “provide recreational improvements and ecological restoration to address resource management challenges with a focus on reducing impacts along the most heavily used section of the [San Gabriel] river.” The area was already heavily used for recreation. Visitors historically parked in the few designated spaces and in numerous undesignated locations along the road, often on vegetation. During peak days, visitor parking was crowded and inadequate.  The proposed project created considerably more designated parking spaces and locations for shuttle access.  However, the parking design prevented parking in undesignated areas. The EIR acknowledged this would cause “a reduction in parking space availability compared to the existing condition when considering the use of undesignated parking spaces. As a result, there would be an impact to the number of visitor vehicles able to safely park on the project site.” The EIR concluded the proposed project “‘would have less than significant impacts on recreation.’”

Save Our Access-San Gabriel Mountains, which appears to be an unincorporated association formed for this case, sued the Authority challenging certification of the EIR on multiple grounds, including the reduction of already limited parking. The trial court granted a writ of mandate on the parking issue, directing the Authority “to articulate and substantiate an adequate parking baseline for the project, and to reassess the significance of the impacts resulting from the project’s parking reduction.”  The trial court also awarded $154,000 in attorney fees under the private attorney general doctrine.

The  Court of appeal reversed both the writ and the fee award.  The Court explained that the “nature of this project, the applicable law, and the information disclosed in the draft EIR support the conclusions that defendant proceeded as required by law, and the EIR is sufficient as an informative document. Defendant disclosed the reduction in parking, and properly found the proposed project ‘would have less than significant impacts on recreation.’ That is all it was required to do.”

In fact, the Court found it “strange that plaintiff attacks the EIR for not converting more wilderness open space to parking or, alternatively, for not continuing to permit parking in fragile natural areas that have become degraded by erosion, trash, and habitat trampling.”  It continued:  “Since when was environmental protection focused on promoting and expanding parking in protected wilderness monuments? Plainly, reducing and formalizing parking spaces in the San Gabriel River and adjacent canyon recreation areas will protect and restore the environment. Plaintiff has identified no adverse physical impact on the environment that results from the reduction in parking, much less a ‘potentially substantial, adverse change in any of the physical conditions within the area affected by the project.’ (Guidelines, § 15382.) Nor has plaintiff proffered evidence of any secondary adverse environmental effects of reduced parking, such as on traffic or air quality at the project site.”  (Original emphasis.)

The Court of Appeal emphasized that, in analyzing parking impacts, “the circumstances of [the] case […] are determinative.” The Court distinguished San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. City & County of San Francisco (2002) and Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending v. San Diego Unified School Dist. (2013) based on the significant difference in how reduced parking impacts the environment in urban versus wilderness settings.

“The project in San Franciscans would attract crowds downtown without providing parking for the people who might prefer to drive, but the parking deficits would have the environmentally desirable effect of increasing reliance on mass transit. In contrast, the project in Taxpayers would attract out-of-area evening crowds to a suburban neighborhood with narrow streets where residents would have a hard time finding parking when they returned home at the end of the day. This project in the Angeles National Forest would better manage the heavy recreational use by designating parking near picnic areas, restrooms and trash bins, and also protect the wilderness from further erosion and other damage caused by vehicles parking throughout the site, and by people leaving behind their trash and polluting the water in areas not designated for parking. The parking reduction here may have an adverse social impact for those who must recreate elsewhere, but it will prevent further adverse physical impacts on the environment. “

The Court also found the EIR to be consistent with land use plans, chiding Save Our Access for taking a position that improperly “elevates public access for recreation above all other objectives” of the project.

While reducing parking can create a significant and negative environmental impact in an urban setting, it can protect wilderness. Save Our Access-San Gabriel Mountains v. Watershed Conservation Authority underscores the importance of context in analyzing environmental impacts of a project under CEQA.