Poway, California, touts itself as the “City in the Country.” For 20 years, Harry Rogers operated a horse boarding facility in Poway known as the Stock Farm. Rogers decided to close down the Stock Farm and build twelve homes in its place, most of which would be on one-acre lots, with enough room for horses, a permissible use under existing zoning. Over objections from some members of the community, the city council unanimously approved the proposed development based on a mitigated negative declaration. Preserve Poway v. City of Poway (D066635) 4th Dist., March 9, 2016.
Opponents of the development filed suit to challenge the city council’s actions, claiming that an EIR was required because the loss of the Stock Farm would have a significant impact on Poway’s horse-friendly “community character:” Children would not be able to continue riding horses and will spend their free time “sitting in front of a computer or video game, or getting into trouble;” riding horses at the Stock Farm taught children valuable life lessons, and brought families together; and Poway would lose its “City in the Country” feel. The trial court agreed with these arguments, and ruled against the city.
The city appealed, and the court of appeal upheld the city’s actions, holding that the impact of closing the Stock Farm on the character of the community is outside of CEQA’s scope.
The court observed that to the extent community character has been discussed in CEQA cases, it has been limited to aesthetic impacts. However, the court explained, “The community character issue here is not a matter of what is pleasing to the eye; it is a matter of what is pleasing to the psyche.” The opponents’ claims went beyond aesthetic concerns to include “psychological and social factors giving residents a sense of place and identity, what makes them feel good and at home in Poway.”
The court explained that CEQA does not require an analysis of subjective psychological feelings or social impacts, and that the fact that there was a heated public debate about community character does not by itself put the project within CEQA’s reach. As the court stated, “CEQA’s overriding and primary goal is to protect the physical environment;” the “environment” for purposes of CEQA is the physical conditions within the area that will be affected by a proposed project.
The CEQA Guidelines and case law make it clear that a project’s social and psychological effects are not to be treated as effects on the environment. Cases decided under NEPA, the court noted, have also rejected claims that a project’s social and psychological effects should be treated as environmental impacts. Thus, the opponents’ repeated assertions that the Stock Farm was integral to Poway’s community character as the “City in the Country” did not sway the court, because it saw the project’s claimed impacts on community character as psychological and social effects.
The court concluded that CEQA did not require the city to study psychological and social impacts upon its community character; if the Legislature had wanted to define the “environment” to include psychological, social or economic impacts on community character, it could have done so, but it did not.