Court of Appeal Sides with OHSH in a Challenge to the Malibu High School Athletic Field Lights

Ending nearly four years of litigation, the Court of Appeal sided with Orbach Huff Suarez and Henderson LLP (OHSH) representing Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, and denied a Malibu citizens group’s challenge to the coastal development permit for the Malibu High School athletic field lights, in its decision rendered on April 27, 2016. As a result, Malibu High School’s football, soccer, and lacrosse teams may continue to hold evening practices and games under the field lights. “We are extremely pleased with this decision that once and for all provides our athletic teams with much-needed lighting for practice and competitive play,” Jan Maez, associate superintendent of business services, said.

The three-member panel’s unanimous decision validated the District’s actions in developing the field lights project separately from the campus project and acknowledged the District’s extensive environmental review, transparency with the public, and sound reasoning in both the mitigated negative declaration for the field lights and environmental impact report on the campus project. OHSH counseled and assisted the District through the entire project permitting process that began in 2008.

Land use partner, Stan Barankiewicz, briefed and argued the District’s contentions before the trial court and the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal unequivocally adopted OHSH’s contentions by holding that no further environmental review was required before the City of Malibu, because there were no changed conditions in the two projects that would require they be analyzed together. Appellants’ claim that the two projects must be considered together “was not a new issue or circumstance that arose only after the District sought the City’s approval of those two projects.” The Court of Appeal cited to numerous objections to the separation of the projects beginning in 2009 with the District’s first approval of the field lights and that the District provided meaningful responses to those comments before approving the field lights projects and the campus project. It further held that if the appellants believed the District’s approvals did not adequately address the combined impacts of the projects, “their remedy was to challenge the District’s approval of the field lighting project within 30 days after the District issued its notice of determination. [] Having failed to do so, [appellants] are now barred from [pursuing] what amounts to a collateral attack on the District’s environmental review under the guise of ‘changed circumstances.’ ”

The District’s transparency to the public is best exemplified by the Court of Appeal’s statement, “In sum, throughout the three-year environmental review process, the District made it clear that it was treating the proposed field lighting and proposed renovation to the [Malibu Middle and High School] campus as separate projects for the purposes of its CEQA review.”

Given that the Court of Appeal’s decision affirmed Superior Court Judge Richard L. Fruin Jr.’s judgment and endorsed Superior Court Judge James Chalfant’s earlier holding that appellants had no probability of success, speaks volumes on both the District’s proper handling of these projects. OHSH is honored and proud to have served the District to reach this important outcome.