The Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld application of a Class 1 categorical exemption for a restated facilities lease in the case San Diegans for Open Government v. City of San Diego (2018) 31 Cal.App.5th 349. The case also addressed whether the lease violated city-specific requirements and found that it did not.

The lease at issue involved the Belmont Park in San Diego and operation of the amusement facilities at the park. The City originally entered a 50-year lease in 1987 to revitalize and renovate the park. In 2015, the City and current lessee entered into a restated lease, which noted that the applicant had already spent more than $18 million on improvements and upgrades. The City council adopted a resolution approving the restated lease and determining that the action qualified for the Class 1 existing facility CEQA exemption. An opposition group, San Diegans for Open Government, challenged the City approval.

Project opponents argued that the Class 1 exemption was inapplicable, because the lease would involve new construction, including a restaurant and bar, food court venues, and an arcade. In other words, this was not a project that involved “negligible or no expansion” of an existing use, according to project opponents. However, the court noted that these improvements had already been completed when the parties entered the restated lease. Thus, these improvements were already existing facilities at the time of City approval for the purpose of applying the Class 1 exemption. While additional refurbishments described in the lease were not yet completed, these improvements would be made to the preexisting amusement facilities, such as the Plunge. Thus, even those these improvements were expected to cost approximately $5.9 million, they fell within the Class 1 exemption.

The Court also rejected arguments by project opponents that unusual circumstances invalidated the exemption. Project opponents attempted to a draw a connection between increased visitors and increased traffic and noise. However, the court found these arguments to be entire speculative and without supporting evidence, and the court upheld the exemption.