Article: California Supremes on Land and Water – CRLS Versus The City of Fresno

This article is also available with graphics as a PDF.

Article Series Introduction

I’ve written more than once about how important it is for land surveyors to stay current with changes and clarifications in real property law. This is important because these changes impact how they practice land surveying and the advice they give to their clients.

Understanding the law isn’t always easy. Legal matters can be complicated to begin with, while judges and lawyers don’t always write clearly and succinctly. In addition, court decisions often blend arguments about legal procedures and jurisdiction with the arguments about land and water. That can make it difficult for a land surveyor to isolate the parts of a court decision that they are really interested in. However, this difficulty in understanding the law doesn’t excuse the land surveyor from his responsibility to know and understand the law as it relates to the land he surveys.

This is new article series on California Supreme Court decisions. It’s goal is to comprehensively review California Supreme Court decisions related to land and water. In this series we will review one court decision in each article, starting with the most recent decisions and working our way back in time. We’ll review the decisions from the perspective of the boundary surveyor, and will try to isolate the legal arguments and principles that are most important to land surveyors from the other legal arguments in the decision.

The decisions we are going to review won’t only be related to boundary surveying. We look at all cases related to land development, land use planning, property taxes, land title and water rights. Why? For far too long the focus of most boundary surveyors has been on only the boundary survey. Our clients (and the public) need us to be more broadly focused on all other areas of the real property system in our state. No other land professional is more qualified to serve as an expert consultant on these other areas. As we will see from these cases (including the first case reviewed in this article) these other areas of law greatly impact the land surveyor and his clients.

I’m releasing all articles in this series under the Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. That means you can copy, modify, combine, publish, and distribute the articles for non-commercial purposes. I hope this will eventually result in the articles being used in the future to train land surveyors and land professionals. I will also be posting the articles to the following web page after they are published in the CLSA Orange County Chapter Newsletter:

Article Introduction

In this first article we are going to review the case Citizens for the Restoration of L Street (CRLS) Versus the City of Fresno. This case considers the requirements of CEQA for a redevelopment project in a historic downtown of the California Central Valley. Before we identify the key legal questions raised by the case that we want to consider, let’s look at the important facts and timeline for the case.

Important Facts

  1. Granville Homes proposed an urban infill project in Downtown Fresno in the L Street Neighborhood. As part of the project 28 townhouses would be built as part of 14 duplex structures on a 1.29 acre parcel of land.
  2. Two historic homes existed on the 1.29 acre parcel before construction began on the project. The first was known as the “Crichton Home”. The second was known as the “Sayre Home”.
  3. In 2011 the Crichton Home had been vacant for 5 years and was in a state of disrepair. In 2011 the Sayre Home was used as an office by a non-profit, but was also in a state of disrepair. In addition, a number of alterations had reduced the historic character of the Sayre Home.
  4. The City of Fresno failed to form a historic district for the L Street area even though survey and proposals for such a district were made on at least 3 separate occassions.


1906: Judge William Crichton builds his home on the project site.

1910: The Julia Sayre Home is built on the project site.

1980: The first survey and proposal for a historic district in the L Street area is made.

1994: The second survey of of downtown historic resources occurs. The Crichton and Sayre Homes are noted as historical contributors to a potential historic district.

2006: The Fresno Preservation Committee designates the Crichton Home as a “Heritage Site”.

2007: The third survey of a downtown historic district is conducted.

8/2010: The Fresno Housing Authority and Granville Homes enter an agreement for the sale of the parcel for the project. The sale was conditioned on the issuance of a demolition permit for the two (2) homes and approval of a conditional use permit for the project.

1/2011: Granville Homes submits a conditional user permit application and a vesting tentative tract map for the project.

4/2011: The Fresno Housing Authority submitted applications for demolition permits on the Crichton Home and Sayre Home as part of the project.

6/2011: An initial CEQA study and mitigated negative declaration is completed for the project. It finds the project will have no significant environmental impacts.

6/7/2011: The City of Fresno issues a notice-of-intent to adopt a negative declaration for the project. The notice lacked key elements required by law.

6/27/2011: The Fresno Historic Preservation Committee votes 4-to-1to approve the CEQA review and mitigated negative declaration for the project.

6/30/2011: The City files a final notice-of-determination on the environmental review for the project.

8/1/2011: CRLS sends the City of Fresno a letter appealing the decision on the environmental review for the project.

11/3/2011: The City Council denies the CRLS appeal.

12/5/2011: CRLS files a petition claiming an environmental impact report (EIR) and not a negative declaration was required for the project.

12/9/2011: The City issues a demolition permit for the project. The homes are destroyed as part of demolition in preparation for construction on the site.

2/2012: The City of Fresno seeks a dismissal of the CRLS petition because the homes have already been destroyed. The trial court denies the City of Fresno request.

4/2012: A 4,416 page administrative record related to the dispute is submitted to the court for review.

1/2013: CRLS files a challenge to the trial court decision that an EIR was not required for the project.

Key Legal Issues

There are two (2) key legal issues in this case that interest us:

  1. Did the City property delegate authority to review and approve the environmental review to the Historic Preservation Committee?
  2. Was a proper analysis of the historical resources impacted by the project made by the City?

The Court’s Decision

Issue #1: The court determines that although the Historic Preservation Committee had the authority to approve the demolition permit for the two (2) homes, it did not have the authority to approve the overall environmental review for the project. The City of Fresno argued this authority was granted to the commission by implication because of statements in the municipal code. The supreme court rejected this argument. It wanted to see a clear grant of this authority for enviromental review to the Historic Preservation Committee in the municipal code…which it didn’t find.

The court also indicated that a later review and approval by the City Council of the decision by the commission wasn’t sufficient to meet the requirements of the law. That is because council members didn’t make a real independent review of the project’s environmental impacts. Instead, they merely approved the decision of the commission.

Issue #2: In order to determine if there was a proper analysis of historical resources impacted by the project, the supreme court needed to answer two (2) questions:

  1. Were the two (2) houses part of the “environment” protected by CEQA?
  2. Were the buildings a historical resource?

The law and regulation related to CEQA as it concerns the determination of buildings as historical resources is ambiguous and lacks clarity. Therefore, the supreme court relies on the legislative history for CEQA to determine how this decision needs to be made by a lead agency. The court determines, based on the legislative history, that lead agencies are given a good deal of discretion when it comes to identifying buildings as part of the historical resources protected by CEQA. This identification involves two (2) steps taken by the agency:

  1. Determine if the buildings are part of the protected environment.
  2. If the buildings are protected by CEQA, determine what the impacts of the project would be.

The court makes it clear that the standard of review for the second step is higher than the standard for the first step. In other words, the court has less room to question an agency’s decision to not identify a building as historic than it does to questions an agency’s steps to protect a building that was already identified as protected under CEQA.

In this instance, the supreme court decides that the review conducted by the City of the buildings historical value was sufficient. It said that the additional cost of an EIR wasn’t necessary. The supreme court noted in its decision that the City had failed on at least 3 occassions to set-up a historic district that included the two (2) homes and that it required the new townhouses to maintain the look and feel of the neighborhood in their architecture.

Unanswered Questions

After reading this case I had a number of unanswered questions:

  1. When did the City and developer realize there would be neighborhood opposition to the demolition of the two (2) homes? Was this early in the project?
  2. Did the City and developer work to identify neighborhood concerns? Did they consider restoring the homes as part of the redevelopment project? Were other mitigation measures considered?
  3. Why had the City failed to act on the previous efforts to set-up a downtown historic district? Was this because of community or landowner opposition? Or was it because of another reason? Do the citizens of Fresno see a real need to preserve historic places in their downtown, or are they more concerned about urban redevelopment and renewal?
  4. When did CRLS become concerned about the preservation of these two (2) homes? Did they make any effort to protect and restore the homes before the redevelopment project was proposed? Or did they only become active after the project became public? Where they involved in previous efforts to establish a historic district in this part of Fresno?
  5. Why did the City of Fresno fail to property provide notice about the demolition of the buildings? Why did they delegate approval of the environmental review to a body that wasn’t authorized? Was this because of ignorance about the law or was it part of an intentional effort by some within city government to speed the project through the approval process?
  6. How were the preservation and identification of historical resources handled in the tentative map conditions of approval for this project, if at all?


There are lessons in this case for land professionals at public agencies, for land professionals working with developers, and for citizens interested in historical preservation.

Public Agencies:
If you are going to work with a land developer on an urban infill project, be aware of the historical preservation issues that can impact your project. Work with community groups and members of the neighborhood to identify concerns early on in the project planning process. (This will allow your developer to adapt his project to address community concerns.) CEQA can be used to challenge an urban infill project later on. Even if your agency wins this CEQA project, it will cost time and money and will deter development of other infill projects.

Take good documentation on your agency’s steps to identify and catalog the condition of historical resources in a project area. This documentation could be key to proving your agency met the requirements of CEQA.

Make sure you follow the requirements of CEQA law and regulation. That includes taking the proper steps for CEQA notification to the public and making sure the CEQA review process is conducted properly. Understand who in your agency has the authority to perform and approve CEQA reviews. If the authorized body (like the City Council) is approving a review done by others in the agency, make sure its review is sufficiently independent, and document this.

Land Developers:
Urban infill development has plenty of challenges. Don’t let a CEQA quagmire be one of them. Work with the public agency, community groups, and neighborhood early in the project planning process to identify historic resources in the area of your project. Determine how you can work to protect and restore those resources. Successful community outreach will result in a successful project (without CEQA challenges) and a good reputation for your company. It will make your next urban infill project easier.

Citizens for Historic Preservation:
Don’t wait for a project approval to protect historic resources. Be proactive. Work with your local agency, other community groups, and members of the neighborhood to identify, protect, and restore historic resources. If the two (2) homes in this case had been in better condition at the time of the project, or had already been in a historic district, the result of the court’s decision may have been very different.