In Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, California Supreme Court held that the “unusual circumstances” exception to CEQA’s categorical exemptions literally requires unusual circumstances, and that agency decisions as to whether or not unusual circumstances exist are reviewed under the deferential substantial evidence standard.
In this case, the City of Berkeley approved a project to construct a 6,458 square foot house with an attached 3,394 square foot, 10-car garage on a wooded, steep slope in a residential neighborhood without an environmental impact report or negative declaration. In so doing, the City found that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA under the “new, small structures” exemption and the “in-fill development” exemption. The trial court affirmed the City’s approval. The court of appeal then reversed the trial court and invalidated the City’s approval, relying on the “usual circumstances” exception, which provides: