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CEQA Updates

Keeping You Up-to-Date on the California Environmental Quality Act

Posts from March, 2018


First District Court of Appeal Finds Project Description, Downstream GHG Emissions Analysis, and Existing Train Hazards Analysis Sufficient, Upholds Oil Recovery Project RFEIR

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

In Rodeo Citizens Association v. County of Contra Costa (2018) 22 Cal.App.5th 214, the First District Court of Appeal held the project description, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions analysis, and hazard impact analyses for upgrades to an oil refinery project were sufficient under CEQA therefore, Contra Costa County (County) properly approved the project. Despite this, the trial court writ of mandate setting aside the project remained intact until certain air quality analyses were complete.

Phillips 66 Company (Phillips) applied for a permit to upgrade the facility and operations at an existing oil refinery propane recovery plant (Project). Specifically, the Project would add to and modify existing facilities to enable Phillips to recover butane and propane from its refinery and ship it by rail. After circulating the draft EIR and responding to comments, the County approved a recirculated final EIR (RFEIR).

Rodeo Citizens Association (Petitioners) challenged the approval on the grounds that the project description was inaccurate for failing to address future projects and imports, the analysis of cumulative impacts, air quality and GHG impacts were insufficient, and the RFEIR overlooked the increased risk of accidents from train derailments or explosions at project completion.

Relying on San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center v. County of Merced (2007) 149 Cal.App.4th 645, Petitioners alleged the project approval was improper because the project description was not “accurate, stable, and finite” where Phillips executives had made public comments about future projects whose impacts would run seemingly contrary to the RFEIR. The Appellate Court held even if a project applicant’s statements indicate an anticipated or potential future change to a site, petitioners must also present evidence showing a connection between the project and any intended change. None of the statements established the future projects were dependent on a change or intended change in the proposed Project.

Petitioners also claimed that the project description and RFEIR were insufficient for failing to detail the Project’s environmental impacts from purported changes to the crude oil feedstock, specifically the refining of heavier oils. The Court found that the RFEIR laid out that the Project is not dependent on a change in feedstocks and the Project only plans to utilize existing steam without any additional imports or modifications to the refinery. Thus, substantial evidence in the record supported the conclusion that the Project was independent of any purported change in the crude oil feedstock used at the refinery and would not increase its present capacity to refine heavier oils.

The Court upheld the lead agency’s description of the Project and concluded that Petitioners failed to provide evidence that the lead agency’s approval of the Project inappropriately approved any potential future changes not included in the Project description.

Next, the Court found the GHG considerations detailed in the RFEIR were “reasonable” under the circumstances; environmental review documents may find a project’s contribution to GHG emissions will be less than cumulatively considerable if there is sufficient showing that the Project is part of the State’s solution to climate change. While Petitioners claimed that the RFEIR failed to consider GHG emissions resulting from the combustion of project-captured propane and butane sold to downstream users, such a claim misconstrued the situation. Phillips considered downstream users in the RFEIR but was unable to definitively pinpoint the buyers’ uses. Indeed, the Court highlighted, propane and butane are low-GHG emitting gasolines mostly used in place of high-GHG emitting gasolines therefore reducing overall GHG emissions. An agency’s inability to quantify all down-stream emissions from project-related activities does not compel the agency to conclude that the project creates a significant and detrimental contribution to GHG impacts. Any possible negative environmental impacts were too speculative for evaluation; investigating these possibilities were beyond the County and Phillips’ responsibilities.

Finally, the Court rejected Petitioners’ allegations that the RFEIR overlooked the increased risk of accidents from train derailments or explosions as a result of the Project. In the RFEIR, Phillips properly addressed significance of the Project’s impacts without reference to existing risks posed by operation of the refinery, reasonably determined that the potential impacts were less than significant, and underscored that comparative worst case scenario analyses may reasonably consider only those impacts that have moderate or high consequence of occurrence.

The Court affirmed the trial court holding on each of these issues.

Key Point:

Project descriptions are sufficient where not misleading or inaccurate. Greenhouse gas emission considerations under CEQA may be sufficient where the project emissions are downstream and evidence supports the project aligns with statewide solutions to climate change.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Finds Minor Telecommunications Facility on Dedicated Park Land Is Not An “Unusual Circumstance” Exception to CEQA Small Facility Exemption

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

In Don’t Cell Our Parks v. City of San Diego (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 338, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found that the San Diego City Charter (Charter 55) did not prohibit the City of San Diego (City) from approving a telecommunications project within real property held in perpetuity by the City for “park purposes.” The project did not create a “change in use or purpose” of the property, which would require a vote of two-thirds of City voters. Further, a dedicated park is not a “sensitive and protected resource area” for the purposes of CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2(a) unless explicitly designated as such.

Rancho Peñasquitos is an 8.5-acre park dedicated to the City in perpetuity for recreational purposes in accordance with Charter 55. Verizon filed a project application to build a wireless telecommunications facility in a corner of the park (Project), including a 35-foot tall cell tower disguised as a faux eucalyptus tree and a 250-square-foot landscaped equipment enclosure with a trellis roof. The San Diego Planning Board determined the Project was exempt from CEQA as being a small structure (CEQA Guidelines, § 15303) and approved the Project. Don’t Cell Our Parks (DCOP) filed suit against the City.

DCOP alleged that placing the facility within the park was not a permissible “park or recreational purpose” under the plain language of Charter 55. The trial court disagreed and held the Project was properly approved, exempt from CEQA as a small facility, and no unusual circumstances established an exception to the CEQA exemption. DCOP timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first turned to the language and context of Charter 55 wherein real property dedicated to the City without an ordinance or statute explicitly guiding its management may be used for any public purpose deemed necessary by the City. Voter approval is only required where a project would “change the use or purpose” of a dedicated park. After reviewing the record, the Court held the Project did not change the use or nature of the park –the facility’s faux-tree would be installed in an existing stand of trees and the structure would be shrouded by native plants. The Court also found that the construction of the wireless facility would “clearly benefit park visitors” by providing greater access to 911 services. In sum, the Court deferred to the City’s interpretation of its Charter.

The Court rejected all of DCOP’s arguments that the project was erroneously approved as a Class 3 categorical exemption from CEQA.

The Court found that the Project qualified for the Class 3 exemption (CEQA Guidelines, § 15303), rejecting Petitioners’ claims that telecommunications are not explicitly listed in the statute. The Court noted that exemption categories are not exclusive and that the exemption is meant to apply to multiple types of small facilities. Here, the Project is roughly 523 square feet, most of which are faux tree branches. Substantial evidence supported the City’s conclusion that the Project was smaller than the examples listed in Section 15303 such as a store, motel, or family residence. Thus, the Project was properly a Class 3 exemption.

Second, the Court addressed DCOP’s claim that an unusual circumstances exception applied per CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2(c). The two-pronged test in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley, (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, provided that determining an unusual circumstance exists is a factual inquiry and the Court reviews this claim under the deferential substantial evidence standard of review. If there is evidence of an unusual circumstance, and no substantial evidence to the contrary, then the Court examines the record for evidence whether the unusual circumstance results in a potentially significant impact to the environment. In this second part of the Court’s review, the Court applies the fair argument standard of review. Here, DCOP failed to satisfy either of these standards.

The Court held that the Project’s location in a dedicated park was not an unusual circumstance as 37 other similar facilities existed in other dedicated parks in the City. In the State, many similar cell towers and reception boxes have been unsuccessfully challenged for being placed in parks and subsequently permitted. The record included sufficient evidence to show that the Project location was not an unusual circumstance.

Next, the Court rejected DCOP’s claim that the park was environmentally sensitive land. An exception exists where a project “may impact [] an environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern where designated, precisely mapped, and officially adopted pursuant to law by federal, state, or local agencies.” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2(a).) DCOP presented no evidence that the park was “designated” as an “environmental resource of hazardous or critical concern” by any federal, state, or local agency. The City’s general plan designation and zoning of the Project site as a park was insufficient to support such a finding. In fact, the record included a biological resource report created by the City for the project approval, which showed that the area where the Project was proposed for construction was mostly disturbed habitat.

The Court affirmed the trial court judgement.

Key Point:

The list of project types set forth in the Class 3 exemption is not exhaustive.  In evaluating whether a project is covered by the exemption, a court may consider whether the project is similar in size or scope to other project types listed in the exemption.