Thomas Law Blog

CEQA Updates

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

Posts from July, 2018


Endangered Species Act Proposed Rules Lighten Required Considerations for Threatened Species, Narrows Agency Responsibilities for Critical Habitats

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Island Foxes, a species no longer listed as endangered, in the Channel Islands National Park in California. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

On Thursday, July 19, 2018 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USDFW) and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released proposed revisions to the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). These proposals amend procedures for species protection by changing requisite considerations and protections afforded “threatened” species, limiting the time scope for such considerations, and streamlining agency consultation.

The Endangered Species Act prohibits federal agencies from authorizing, funding, or carrying out any action that would jeopardize a critical habitat that an endangered or threatened species relies on. Specifically, it is prohibited that any project “take,” or harm, any plants, animals or invertebrates that are listed as threatened or protected. Originally passed in 1973, the Act has been significantly amended in 1978, 1982, and 1988 to meet modern demands.

The proposed rules would extinguish the “blanket rule” under section 4(d) of the ESA, which provides the same level of consideration and protection to threatened species as it does to endangered species. Threatened species are those that are likely to become endangered but are not currently endangered, at risk of extinction. Currently, protections that shield threatened species mirror those for endangered species unless otherwise specified. The proposed rules would permit USDFW to craft specific plans for each threatened species determination that are “necessary and advisable for the conservation of the species,” according to the USDFW press release. While NOAA currently employs a similar practice, it may make it more difficult to shield species.

The proposed rules would shorten the requisite timeline for species endangerment considerations. Currently, “threatened” means “any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” The vagueness of “foreseeable future” has been useful for environmental advocates to promote consideration of how climate change may affect the species. The proposed rules would change this section to mean only so far as can be “reasonably determined” that both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are foreseeable. This means that climate change considerations may not be required.

In the same vein, the proposed rules would repeal the prohibition on considering economic factors when deciding whether or not a species should be protected and the procedure to delist a species will now be the same standard as decisions to list the species.

Section 4 also deals with the procedures for listing, recovery and designating of critical habitats, or areas essential to support the conservation of a species. The proposed rules would revise the procedure for designating critical habitat by incorporating a non-exhaustive list of circumstances where they may find that designation of a critical habitat for a particular species would not be prudent. The agency will first evaluate areas currently occupied by the species before considering unoccupied areas. Additionally, the proposed changes would clarify when they may determine unoccupied areas are essential or not to the conservation of the species.

While none of these changes will be retroactive, they are part of the Trump Administration’s refocusing of federal environmental laws. Last month the administration began the process of overhauling the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, has used industry guidance documents and policy memos to dial back its oversight of air pollution under the Clean Air Act.

Deputy Secretary of the Interior Department described the ESA rule proposals as streamlining and improving the regulatory process. Indeed, per the USDFW press release, the changes are meant to narrow consultation requirements and allow federal agencies to simplify their actions with shorter ESA consideration. Opponents are concerned the changes will vacate protections for threatened species and weaken USDFW and NOAA’s abilities to address climate change.

The public has 60 days to issue comments on the proposed rules before the Interior Department and the Department of Commerce finalizes them.

Fact-Based Residents’ Comments Substantial Evidence Meriting CEQA Review, Special Commission’s Findings Substantial Evidence Meriting CEQA Review

Monday, July 16th, 2018

The Niles Historic District’s distinctive style is clear on the building facades of the District’s downtown area. (Craig Miyamoto)

In Protect Niles v. City of Fremont (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 1129, the First District Court of Appeal held that the Niles Historical Architectural Review Board’s (HARB) factual findings and members’ collective opinions about the compatibility of a project with the Niles Historic Overlay District rose to the level of substantial evidence. Further, fact-based comments in the record by residents, city officials and staff, and professional consultants, notwithstanding a traffic impact study to the contrary, amounted to substantial evidence supporting a fair argument of a significant traffic impact.

Niles Historic Overlay District (HOD) is an officially-designated historic district within the City of Fremont (City) subject to guidelines and regulations to maintain the distinctive look and character of the area. Projects in the HOD area are initially proposed to HARB for review in light of HOD guidelines. HARB then recommends approval or denial of the project to the City Council.

In 2014, Real Parties in Interest Doug Rich and Valley Oak Partners (Valley Oak) submitted an application to build 80-90 residential townhouses on a vacant six-acre lot (Project). HARB recommended that the Project be denied because it “would be incompatible in terms of siting, massing, materials, textures, and colors with existing development in the Niles [HOD].” Amidst critical comments, the City approved the Project with a mitigated negative declaration (MND). Protect Niles, a community action group, filed suit alleging the City improperly relied on the MND.

The trial court found substantial evidence in the record supported a fair argument of significant impacts on community aesthetics and traffic and set aside the Project approval until an EIR was completed. Valley Oak timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first established that, despite Protect Niles’ claims to the contrary, the appeal was not moot. Valley Oak had already submitted a revised Project application and the City had published a draft EIR therefore “voluntarily complied” with CEQA. However, this was not tantamount to Valley Oak withdrawing the original Project or abandoning its claims.

The Court reiterated extensive precedent that CEQA must be interpreted to afford the fullest possible protection to the environment. Further, the Court held that an EIR is required where there is substantial evidence in the record, contradicted or not, supporting a fair argument that a project may have a significant effect.

There were numerous comments within the record that the Project did not fit the aesthetic of the neighborhood. Per the CEQA Guidelines, an aesthetic impact exists where a project has the potential to substantially degrade the existing visual character or quality of the site and its surroundings. Aesthetic impacts are context-specific. Here the record contained opinions of the HARB commissioners and Niles residents that the Project’s height, density, and architectural style were inconsistent with the Niles HOD. These comments “differed sharply as to the Project’s aesthetic compatibility with the historic district.” The comments were not conjecture or speculative but grounded in observations of inconsistencies with the prevailing building heights and architectural styles of the HOD. Thus, the Court found there was substantial evidence of a potential adverse aesthetic impact on the Niles HOD. The City’s reliance on a MND was improper.

The Court also criticized the traffic impact analysis and determined that substantial evidence of a fair argument required preparation of an EIR. The City had conducted a professional traffic study concluding the impacts would fall below the City’s threshold of significance. Despite this, the Court found the study was shortsighted for presuming that drivers follow the speed limit and criticized the City for failing to implement the study’s mitigation measure recommending a left-turn pocket lane. The record contained critical comments by residents, City officials and staff, and professional consultants based on their personal experiences driving in the area. The Court found, notwithstanding the traffic study, these fact-based comments constituted substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the Project will have significant adverse traffic impacts.

The Court affirmed, directing the City to prepare an EIR if it were to go through with the original Project design.

Key Point:

Personal observations on nontechnical issues can constitute substantial evidence of a fair argument of a significant environmental impact. Specifically, residents’ observations of environmental conditions where they live and commute may constitute substantial evidence even if they contradict the conclusions of a professional study.