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Environmental Impact Reports Posts


IN UNPUBLISHED OPINION, COURT OF APPEAL UPHOLDS CEQA REVIEW FOR FRESNO’S FULTON MALL PROJECT

Monday, August 15th, 2016

The City of Fresno’s Fulton Street lies in the heart of its downtown and was once a bustling commerce center lined with numerous retailers. Suburbanization drew those retailers to the periphery of town in the 1950s. In the early 1960s, in an attempt to revive its urban core, the City turned Fulton Street into Fulton Mall, a 6-block pedestrian mall. Fulton Mall featured planting beds with shade trees, shrubs, and flowers; water fountains, pools, and streams; shade pavilions, siting areas, and playgrounds; and sculptures and mosaic artwork. Unfortunately, interest in Fulton Mall declined by the 1970s and it soon became plagued by high crime rates, deteriorating physical conditions, and low lease rates.

In 2011, the City of Fresno released a draft Fulton Corridor Specific Plan that identified three ways of improving Fulton Mall: (1) reintroduce two-way car traffic throughout the Mall; (2) reintroduce two-way car traffic but keep selected original features of the Mall; or (3) keep the Mall as pedestrian only and invest funding in restoring and repairing the original features. Option 2 was established as the City’s preference. Thereafter, the City began applying for (and receiving) various state and federal funds to put toward the Fulton Mall project (Project). In 2013, the City began preparing the environmental impact report (EIR) for the Project in compliance with CEQA. An initial study released with the Notice of Preparation determined that the Project may have significant impacts on aesthetics and historical resources, but would not significantly impact air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, parks, traffic, and utilities.

The City certified the final EIR in early 2014 and selected Option 1 as the preferred alternative due to its “straight street” design and the increased number of on-street parking spaces. The Downtown Fresno Coalition (Coalition) filed a petition for writ of mandate, alleging that the City pre-committed to Option 1 through its federal funding agreements and that the EIR inadequately analyzed certain impacts.  In Downtown Fresno Coalition v. City of Fresno, 2106 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5212, the Fifth District Court of Appeal rejected these claims and found that the City had complied with CEQA.

The Court first held that the Coalition was not collaterally estopped from bringing the CEQA suit even though it had previously brought a suit under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in federal court against the City, the Federal Highway Administration, Caltrans, and the federal Department of Transportation regarding federal funding that was given to the project without a NEPA review. The Court found the issues in the two cases to be distinct, despite the City’s arguments about the similarities between CEQA and NEPA.

Next, the Court addressed the Coalition’s argument that the federal funding had effectively precluded consideration of an alternative that featured full or partial restoration of the Mall. The Court noted that the grant funding was conditional on full compliance with CEQA and found that the City had fully complied by with the Supreme Court’s requirements in Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116 by not precluding consideration of any project alternative or mitigation.

Finally, the Court considered the Coalition’s claim that the EIR did not present a legally adequate analysis of the Project’s effects on certain resources. The City had narrowed the scope of the EIR to focus on the Project’s potentially significant effects on short-term visual character and historical resources. The Court found the analysis sufficient because impacts to air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, parks, traffic and utilities were determined to be less than significant; moreover, the initial study had presented extensive rational for that determination.  The Court concluded that the City had no legal obligation to analyze less than significant impacts in the EIR in the manner urged by Coalition.

FIRST APPELLATE DISTRICT FINDS WAREHOUSE STORE PROJECT EIR FAILED TO SUFFICIENTLY ANALYZE POTENTIAL ENERGY IMPACTS IN PARTIALLY PUBLISHED OPINION

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

On June 21, 2016, the First Appellate District partially published its opinion for Ukiah Citizens for Safety First v. City of Ukiah (Case No. A145581). The case involved a citizen group’s petition for writ of mandate challenging the certification of an environmental impact report (EIR) by the City of Ukiah (City) for the construction of a Costco Wholesale Corporation retail store and gas station (Project).

In the published portion of the opinion, the Court addressed alleged deficiencies in the Project EIR’s energy impacts analysis. Petitioners asserted that the EIR “fails to include adequate information regarding the project’s energy use and does not comply with appendix F of the CEQA Guidelines.” Specifically, Petitioners alleged that the EIR failed to calculate the energy use attributable to vehicle trips generated by the Project and failed to calculate the operational and construction energy use of the project.

In arriving to its decision, the court relied on the standards set forth by the Third Appellate District in California Clean Energy Committee v. City of Woodland (2014) 225 Cal.App.4th 173 (CCEC), a decision that was filed after the EIR was certified and the petition was filed. Consistent with CCEC, the court found that the EIR failed to calculate the energy impacts of trips generated by the Project. The court also found that the EIR improperly relied on compliance with the California Building Code to mitigate operational and construction energy impacts, without further discussion of the CEQA Guidelines Appendix F criteria. Finally, the court found that the City inappropriately relied on mitigation measures designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

While this litigation was pending and recognizing the deficiencies in its EIR based on the principles set forth in the CCEC opinion, the City adopted an addendum to the EIR. The addendum clarified the EIR’s findings on energy impacts, but did not alter the conclusions reached in the EIR. While the trial court considered the addendum over Petitioners’ objections, the appellate court found this to be an inappropriate expansion of the administrative record. The court explained that the administrative record before a reviewing court should generally only consist of evidence that was before the decision-making body when it rendered its decision. Thus, the court did not address whether the language in the addendum cured the EIR’s defects. Moreover, the court found that the City’s subsequent addendum did not cure the prior approval of an inadequate EIR because the preparation of an addendum assumes that the EIR was properly certified. Because the EIR, as certified, inadequately addressed the energy impacts of the project, the court held that recirculation and consideration of public comments concerning the energy analysis will be necessary before the EIR can be recertified.

In the unpublished portion of the opinion, the court rejected Petitioners’ remaining contentions regarding: (1) the EIR’s analysis of transportation and traffic impacts; (3) the EIR’s analysis of noise impacts; and (3) the Project’s consistency with applicable zoning requirements. The court affirmed the trial court’s decision on the remaining contentions because there was sufficient evidence in the record to support the City’s conclusions.

Key Point: Addendums can only be used to clarify, amplify, or make insignificant modifications to an adequate EIR.

FOURTH APPELLATE DISTRICT UPHOLDS MOJAVE DESERT GROUNDWATER EXTRACTION IN TWO PUBLISHED OPINIONS

Friday, June 10th, 2016

A proposal to pump fresh groundwater from an underground aquifer located in the Mojave Desert (“Project”) resulted in six related cases. On May 10, 2016, the Fourth Appellate District upheld the Project in all six cases: Delaware Tetra Technologies, Inc. v. County of San Bernardino, 2016 Cal. App. Lexis 380, 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3434, 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3438, 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3439, and Center for Biological Diversity v. County of San Bernardino, 2016 Cal. App. Lexis 382 and 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3441.

The proposed Project is a public/private partnership designed to prevent water waste caused by brine and evaporation, and to ultimately transport water to customers in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura Counties. Once in operation, the Project would appropriate an average of 50,000 acre feet of groundwater over a period of 50 years. The groundwater extraction would be subject to the County’s 2002 Groundwater Ordinance, which was designed to ensure that groundwater extractions maintain safe yield of affected aquifers.

In March 2011, the Santa Margarita Water District (“Santa Margarita”) posted a notice of preparation of a draft Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) for the Project. Under a June 2011 agreement, Santa Margarita agreed to act as the lead agency and San Bernardino County (“County”) agreed to act as a responsible agency. The Draft EIR was released for public review and comment in December 2012. During the EIR process, Santa Margarita, the County, the landowner, and Fenner Valley executed a memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) in which the parties agreed that a groundwater management, monitoring and mitigation plan would be developed in connection with the finalization of the EIR. The Final EIR was certified in July 2012.

Delaware Tetra Technologies

In the first published case, Delaware Tetra Technologies, Inc. challenged the County’s resolution authorizing the execution of the 2012 MOU, arguing that the County should have completed an environmental review under CEQA prior to approving the MOU.

Applying the de novo standard of review, the Court concluded that environmental review was not required because establishing a groundwater management, monitoring and mitigation plan under the MOU would not cause a direct, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect, physical change in the environment. Moreover, the MOU did not foreclose alternatives or mitigation measures, nor commit the County to a particular course of action that would cause an environmental impact. Rather, the MOU established that the County still retained full discretion.

Center for Biological Diversity

In the second published case, the Center for Biological Diversity, the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and National Parks Conservation Association (collectively, “CBD”) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the approval of the Project under CEQA. The Court concluded that Santa Margarita did not abuse its direction when it approved the Project and certified the EIR.

The court first held that Santa Margarita was properly designated as a lead agency because it was jointly undertaking the Project with the landowner and because it was the agency with the principal authority to approve and supervise the Project. Next, the Court held that the Project description, which characterized the Project as “a means of conserving water,” was not misleading because the Project would conserve water otherwise lost to brine and evaporation.

Finally, the Court rejected CBD’s contentions that the EIR did not provide an accurate duration for pumping by the Project and would result in more water being withdrawn than was contemplated and discussed by the EIR. Although the EIR recognized that the parties may choose to extend pumping for an additional term after the stated completion date of the Project, the Court found that the additional term was not reasonably foreseeable and noted that any additional term would require additional environmental review. The court further noted that the EIR did not permit withdrawal of water in excess of the amounts identified.

Key Points:

In holding that the MOU was not a “project,” the Court reaffirmed the principles of Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116 regarding when an activity constitutes a “project” subject to environmental review. Memoranda of Understanding will not require environmental review under CEQA where they do not commit a lead agency to a particular course of action, foreclose alternatives or mitigation measures, or result in environmental impacts.

In addition, the Court reaffirmed in several different contexts that a court’s role is not to “pass upon the correctness of the EIR’s environmental conclusions, but only upon its sufficiency as an informative document.”  Petitioners bear the burden of describing the lead agency’s supporting evidence and showing how it is lacking.

SECOND APPELLATE DISTRICT UPHOLDS EIR FOR PROPOSED UCLA CONFERENCE CENTER

Monday, January 4th, 2016

In an unpublished opinion, Save Westwood Village v. Regents of the University of California, 2015 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 9281, the Second Appellate District affirmed the trial court’s rulings and rejected several CEQA challenges to the UC Regents’ approval of the Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference and Guest Center on the UCLA campus. As noted by the appellate court, the petitioner’s opening brief could have been rejected due to its failure to provide an adequate statement of facts, its limited and inaccurate citations to the record for most of its factual assertions, and its legal analyses, which was supported by only four citations to legal authority. Despite these inadequacies, the court considered each of petitioner’s four legal argument in turn, finding each to be unpersuasive.

Specifically, the court found that the Regents did not improperly pre-commit to the proposed project when they accepted a $40 million gift from the Luskins. The court found that the Regents’ acceptance of the gift did not preclude the Regents from considering any alternatives or mitigation measures because the gift was conditioned only on the Regents using the donors’ names for the proposed conference center, providing annual reports on the status of the conference center, and using the gift for charitable purposes. Nor did the court find pre-commitment from the Regents’ approval of the project budget prior to the certification of the Final EIR because the Regents approved the project design on the same day they certified the Final EIR and the approval followed lengthy, interactive planning and review process.

The court quickly rejected petitioner’s remaining claims: (1) that there were differing project descriptions regarding the amount of square footage between the EIR and the document authorizing the expenditure of funds; (2) that the project was a legally infeasible alternative because the guest center would be used for “non-academic purposes” 25% of the time; and (3) that the EIR did not consider the impact of lost parking spaces. The court found the record did not support any of these additional claims.

The lawsuit was filed in October 2012; the unfounded and barely articulated challenges entangled the project in CEQA litigation for more than three years.

CITY OF SAN JOSE’S LANDFILL EIR UPHELD BY COURT

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

In an unpublished opinion, City of Milpitas v. City of San Jose, 2015 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 8610, the Sixth Appellate District upheld the City of San Jose’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) prepared for the Newby Island Sanitary Landfill and Recyclery. The programmatic EIR assessed the impacts of: (1) increasing the maximum elevation of the landfill to increase the landfill’s capacity; and (2) rezoning the landfill area and Recyclery to conform to existing and proposed landfill activities.

The Court first determined that the document qualified as a programmatic EIR because it involved a comprehensive rezoning and because specific details about construction and operation were not available for a number of uses proposed as part of the project, requiring further environmental review.

Applying the substantial evidence standard of review, the Court rejected the City of Milpitas’ allegation that the City of San Jose utilized an improper baseline that incorporated changes proposed by the project into its assumptions. One of the three baselines considered in the EIR was the “existing conditions (as they are today on the ground, including proposed changes to existing operations).” The Court found that this baseline was appropriate because the EIR first considered the existing conditions and then analyzed the effects of the proposed rezoning at a “first-tier level of detail.”

The Court next addressed whether the impact analysis was adequate. With regard to the light impact analysis, the Court found that, as a program-level document, the City of San Jose’s analysis was proper. The final EIR expressly called for further environmental review for many uses that would be allowed by the rezoning, including expansion of landfill yard activities and construction of new structures. The structures would presumably comply with the City of San Jose’s lighting policy and design guidelines and any potentially significant project-specific impacts would be identified and mitigated as part of later environmental review.

The Court then turned to the EIR’s noise analysis. The City of Milpitas alleged that the final EIR would allow the relocation of certain landfill activities within an identified California clapper rail buffer and the relocation of such landfill activities was not properly analyzed in the EIR. The Court deferred to the City of San Jose’s interpretation of the buffer and found that the project would have no significant operational noise or vibration impacts. To the extent that the City of Milpitas also challenged the use of existing noise conditions in determining whether new uses would be substantially louder, the Court found that the existing noise levels were appropriately part of the environmental baseline.

On the odor analysis, the Court rejected the City of Milpitas’ argument that the final EIR failed to follow the air district’s significance thresholds for odor. The Court held that because the final EIR effectively treated odor impacts as potentially significant and identified mitigation measures to counteract those impacts, any deficiency in compliance with the air district’s guidelines threshold of significance was harmless. The City of Milpitas’ allegation that the EIR failed to analyze the odor impacts of increased landfill gas emissions was also rejected by the Court; the expert conclusion in the record was not contradicted by other expert evidence. The Court also rejected arguments raised by the City of Milpitas regarding volatile organic compounds and sulfur oxides because they were forfeited for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Even assuming the City of Milpitas had not forfeit those arguments, the Court held that it had not provided any expert evidence to support its assertions on appeal.

Finally, the Court rejected the City of Milpitas’ assertion that the EIR’s project objectives were drawn so narrowly that they precluded effective analysis of alternatives to the project. The Court recognized that CEQA does not forbid site-specific project objectives and found that the site specific nature of the EIR’s project objectives did not preclude effective alternatives analysis. The Court also held that the City Council’s conclusion that none of the alternatives was feasible was supported by substantial evidence.

Second District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Development Along Santa Clara River

Monday, January 26th, 2015

In an unpublished opinion in Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment v. City of Santa Clarita, 2014 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 8998, the California Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court and denied a petition for a writ of mandate challenging a 185-acre development (the Project) along the Santa Clara River near the City of Santa Clarita (the City). The court also rejected SCOPE’s cross appeals, allowing the mixed use development project to move forward.

The City owns a portion of the dry Santa Clara River corridor running through the Project site and the Project provides that the City will sell four of the acres to the developer for installation of buried bank stabilization. The Project also preserves a corridor of the dry riverbed, and results in dedication of all developer-owned river corridor property to the City.

The court reversed the trial court in two respects. First, the court held the City did not improperly incorporate by reference other documents into the environmental impact report (EIR). The court rejected SCOPE’s argument that the description or summary of the incorporated document must appear at the precise point in the EIR where the document was incorporated, and rejected all of SCOPE’s examples of alleged inadequate discussion of the documents incorporated by reference. Additionally, while the EIR may not have included an adequate description or summary for a few documents incorporated by reference, the court held SCOPE failed to show any prejudicial error.

Second, the court held the EIR adequately analyzed the cumulative biological effects of the Project. SCOPE contended the analysis was too broad because the EIR relied upon an analysis of the entire 1,036,571-acre Santa Clara River Watershed, while the Project was only 185 acres. However, the court noted a preference by the EPA for watershed-wide analyses and held the City did not abuse its discretion in considering the watershed-wide analysis of the Project’s cumulative impacts.

As to the cross appeals, the court held the Project was consistent with the City’s general plan. The court found the general plan amendment’s description of the preserved river corridor was not vague and the City did not abuse its discretion in finding the Project was consistent with the General Plan’s goal of promoting preservation of the river as open space.

The court also declined to question the correctness of the EIR’s environmental conclusions and found substantial evidence supported the City’s finding that the Project would not have a significant water quality impact related to chloride in the river.

Finally, the court held the trial court properly sustained the City’s demurrer to SCOPE’s claims regarding the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Act (the Act), focusing primarily on the lack of a private right of enforcement of the Act..

Appellate Court Denies Writ Challenging EIR for Expansion of Marin County Landfill

Monday, January 5th, 2015

In an unpublished opinion in No Wetlands Landfill Expansion v. County of Marin, 2014 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 8866, the California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District denied a petition for a writ of mandate challenging the environmental impact report (EIR) for a proposed landfill expansion in Marin County. The court affirmed in part and reversed in part the trial court decision.

The decision was the court’s second opinion related to the EIR for the 420-acre Redwood Landfill near the Petaluma River. In the previous decision (summary available here: http://www.thomaslaw.com/blog/court-holds-the-integrated-waste-management-act-does-not-vest-a-county-with-any-authority-over-issuance-of-a-solid-waste-facilities-permit-and-therefore-the-county-is-not-the-decisionmaking-body-fo/) the court concluded certification of the EIR was not appealable to the Marin County Board of Supervisors and remanded to the trial court to resolve the challenges to the adequacy of the EIR.

Several environmental and community groups challenged the adequacy of the EIR. First, landfill opponents argued it was improper for Marin County Environmental Health Services (Marin EHS) to consider a nonspecific offsite project alternative. However, the court explained that most of the land in Marin County was unsuitable for an alternative landfill site.  Thus, it was reasonable under the circumstances to include a hypothetical project alternative that demonstrated why an expansion of Redwood Landfill had the least significant environmental impact.

Next, the court concluded the EIR did not improperly defer mitigation measures to address potential sea-level rise and groundwater contamination. As to sea-level rise, the mitigation measure required the landfill developers to prepare a long-term flood-protection plan that took into account the effects of climate change. The court held it was reasonable given the uncertainty of rising sea-levels to not set a specific levee height and instead to re-evaluate the plan every five years.

As to groundwater, one challenged mitigation measure required an analysis of the possibility of leachate contaminating groundwater from the early years of the landfill when operators buried waste in trenches of an unknown depth. The second measure required a plan approved by the Regional Water Quality Control Board if leachates were found. Landfill opponents contended the measures lacked objective criteria. However, the court reasoned the two mitigation measures were part of a larger leachate monitoring system that complied with California Code of Regulations. As a result, the court held the mitigation measures were adequate.

The court next upheld the EIR’s discussion of potential health impacts from air emissions. Landfill opponents contended it was improper for the EIR to jointly consider the larger PM-10 and smaller PM-2.5 particulate matter and to not consider the noncancer health risks from toxic air contaminants. However, despite other authorities requiring alternative methodologies for analysis, this approach was consistent with the CEQA guidelines prepared by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which were in effect at the time the EIR was prepared.

Lastly, the court held the EIR sufficiently analyzed greenhouse gas emissions. The court rejected the landfill opponents’ argument that Marin EHS was required to consider the cumulative effects on greenhouse gas emissions of landfills on a global scale and not just in Marin County. The court explained this was “entirely unrealistic” and declined to impose such a burden.

The court also upheld the use of the “LandGEM” model to predict emissions from the project. The court emphasized it was not the court’s role to substitute its judgment for the reviewing agency and found there was substantial evidence to support the use of the model. The court also held landfill opponents failed to satisfy their burden of showing the proposed onsite power facility fueled by landfill gas would not offset future greenhouse emissions.

Appellate Court Upholds EIR for Treasure Island Development in San Francisco Bay

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

In Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island v. City and County of San Francisco, (2014) Cal. App. LEXIS 595, the Court of Appeal for the First District affirmed the trial court’s denial of a petition for a writ of mandate challenging the City and County of San Francisco’s (the City) approval of an environmental impact report (EIR) for a major development on Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay (the Project).

The Project includes up to 8,000 residential units, 500 hotel rooms, and other developments on the former Naval Station Treasure Island.  The City’s board of supervisors unanimously approved the Project in 2011 after more than a decade of studies and community input.

Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island (CSTI) opposed the Project arguing that the EIR was improperly prepared as a project-level EIR and did not contain sufficient detail. However, the court held that regardless of the EIR label as a project-level or program EIR, CEQA would require supplemental review over the 15- to 20-year buildout for any aspects of the Project where the environmental impacts were not fully examined in the original EIR.  (Pub. Resources Code section 21166.)  As the court stated, the focus for determining the adequacy of an EIR is whether the decision makers have sufficient information to analyze the environmental impacts given the nature of the project, not the label of the EIR.

The court also rejected CSTI’s argument that the EIR was inadequate because the project description was too abstract and only included conceptual descriptions of building and street layouts subject to change.  The court emphasized that the EIR and planning documents did contain concrete information about the main features of the Project, which remained consistent throughout the EIR process, and the EIR “cannot be faulted for not providing detail that, due to the nature of the Project, simply does not now exist.”

Next, the court held that the EIR’s discussion about the presence and remediation of hazardous substances on the former Navy base was sufficient.  CSTI contended that the EIR was inadequate because it did not specify precisely where and to what extent remediation would be required after development began.  Citing the California Supreme Court in Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116, the court stressed that a CEQA analysis may be postponed when project details are not “reasonably foreseeable” at the time that the lead agency approves the project.  In this case, the Navy was in the process of cleaning up the contaminated portions of the project site, and intended to complete the cleanup prior to transferring the land for development.  Thus, the developer could not be expected to know the precise role that it would play in the investigation and clean up of specific portions of the Project.  The EIR identified all of the regulatory standards that would apply should additional remediation be necessary, and as a result, the discussion of hazardous substances on the project site was sufficient.

CSTI also claimed that the EIR had to be recirculated because of new information regarding the Project’s potential interference with the U.S. Coast Guard’s regulation of ship traffic in the San Francisco Bay.  A meeting occurred after the public comment period on the Draft EIR that resulted in several potential solutions preventing any impact on Coast Guard operations.  The court stated that new information is only significant and requires recirculation of the EIR if the adding of the new information deprives the public of a meaningful opportunity to comment on substantial adverse environmental impacts.  In this case though, multiple potential solutions prevented any impact at all and therefore, there was no reason to recirculate the EIR.  The court also highlighted CSTI’s failure to set forth the evidence supporting the City’s findings, and then to show why the evidence is lacking.

The court lastly addressed CSTI’s contentions that the EIR’s discussions of historical resource preservation and consistency with tideland trusts were insufficient.  In rejecting both arguments, the court emphasized that the EIR was adequate even though the future uses for certain buildings and tidal areas were not yet fully defined, and therefore the EIR could not fully articulate how specific project components would ensure preservation of historical resources and compliance with tidal trust laws.  The EIR stated the regulations and processes that the Project would comply with, and the court held that was sufficient for the decision makers to analyze the environmental impacts of the Project.

KEY POINT

In several different contexts, the Court reaffirmed that “CEQA requires an EIR to reflect a good faith effort at full disclosure; it does not mandate perfection, nor does it require an analysis to be exhaustive.”  The Court also reaffirmed that Petitioners bear the burden of describing the lead agency’s supporting evidence and showing how it is lacking.

Court Holds EIR’s Inadequacy Is Rooted In Its Failure to set Forth A Significance Threshold For Impacts To Old Growth Redwoods And To Properly Disclose Related Impacts And Mitigation Measures

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

In Lotus v. Department of Transportation, 2014 Cal. App. LEXIS 97, the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, reversed the trial court’s denial of appellants’ petition for writ of mandate challenging the adequacy of the EIR for a highway realignment project.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) sought to realign and widen portions of Highway 101 traversing Richardson Grove State Park in Humboldt County. The existing highway could not accommodate industry standard-sized trucks. Caltrans noted that this lack of access affected the competitiveness and profitability of Humboldt County businesses. The primary environmental impact from the highway realignment identified in the EIR was the removal of redwoods and the excavation and filling within in the root zone of old growth redwoods.

In the published portion of its decision, the court held the EIR was inadequate in that it failed to properly evaluate the significance of impacts on old growth redwoods from the excavation and filling operations within the trees’ root systems. The fundamental problem with the EIR was that it failed to include a clearly defined significance threshold for these potential impacts.  Instead, the EIR merely identified a series of special construction techniques that were treated as part of the project (rather than mitigation) and the EIR concluded that in consideration of the special construction techniques all potential impacts, including impacts to the trees’ root system, would be less than significant.  The court was very critical of this approach.  Because Caltrans had not identified a standard for measuring the significance of impacts and had not explained what impacts would occur in the absence of mitigation measures, it was impossible to know which of the mitigation measures identified were necessary to avoid significant impacts or whether alternative measures might be more effective.

The court observed that “[b]y compressing the analysis of impacts and mitigation measures into a single issue, the EIR disregards the requirements of CEQA.” Caltrans, for example, appears not to have adopted a formal monitoring or reporting program as required by CEQA because Caltrans treated the proposed special construction techniques as part of the project.  The trial court questioned whether this was proper but concluded the record demonstrated that Caltrans had a method to track the project specific environmental commitments and that the special construction techniques would also be incorporated into contract plans and specifications. While the trial court found this to be sufficient, the First District Court of Appeal disagreed finding that notwithstanding these commitments Caltrans failure to fully comply with CEQA could not be considered harmless.  Therefore, the court reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded.

In three unpublished portions of the opinion, the court rejected appellants’ other challenges to the EIR’s sufficiency. First, the court found the EIR provided an adequate description of the project’s environmental setting. The EIR described the redwoods as the predominant plant community in the park and included tables setting forth the size and type of individual trees, as well as a map depicting the location of these trees and the proposed realignment of the highway. Second, the court determined the project’s scope was adequately described. The technical information sought by appellants relating to the software used in the project’s design would have constituted “extensive detail beyond that needed for evaluation and review of the environmental impact,” contrary to the directive of CEQA Guideline 15124. Lastly, the court held that a cumulative traffic impacts analysis was unnecessary here. Various studies supported Caltrans’ conclusion that the project would not divert traffic from I-5 and would not lead to a significant increase in commercial truck traffic in Humboldt County, even factoring in other regional highway realignment projects.

KEY POINTS:

Significance thresholds must be clearly defined for all potential impacts analyzed in an EIR.  It is not uncommon for project features to play a role in mitigating potential impacts of a project.  However, where project features resemble mitigation measures it would be prudent to treat them as such including listing them in an adopted monitoring or reporting program as required by CEQA.

California Supreme Court Issues Neighbors for Smart Rail Decision: Predicted Conditions Baseline Allowable Under CEQA in Limited Circumstances

Monday, August 5th, 2013

In a much anticipated decision, the California Supreme Court held in Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority that lead agencies can use future predicted conditions as an environmental baseline in assessing the impacts of proposed projects. The court held that in order for an agency to omit the normally required existing conditions baseline analysis and rely solely on a predicted conditions baseline, it must first demonstrate that the existing conditions analysis would be uninformative or misleading. In doing so, the court disapproved of the holdings in Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 1351 (Sunnyvale) and the Fifth Appellate District’s decision in Madera Oversight Coalition, Inc. v. County of Madera (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 48 (MOC).

The dispute in Neighbors for Smart Rail originated over the second-phase of a transit project called the Exposition Transit Corridor, a proposed light rail line connecting downtown Los Angeles with Santa Monica. The Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (“Expo Authority”) approved the project on February 4th,
2010.

The central issue in the case is the environmental baseline that was used to evaluate traffic, air quality, and greenhouse gases. CEQA Guidelines section 15125(a) states that an EIR “must include a description of the physical environmental conditions in the vicinity of the project, as they exist at the time the notice of preparation is published, … [t]his environmental setting will normally constitute the baseline physical conditions by which a lead agency determines whether an impact is significant.” Lead agencies have relied on the use of the word “normally” in the guideline to use environmental baseline based on conditions that exist after the publication of a notice of preparation (“NOP”). This typically happens for large projects that will be constructed over a long period of time. Lead agencies often argue that a future environmental baseline reflecting the likely conditions in which the project will be built gives a more accurate assessment of the project’s impacts.

The Supreme Court addressed a related environmental baseline issue in Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management District (2010) 48 Cal.4th 310 (“CBE”). There, the court held that a petroleum refinery project must use actual historical emissions as its environmental baseline for evaluating a proposed expansion; it was impermissible to use maximum permitted capacity as a hypothetical baseline. The court noted that neither CEQA nor the CEQA Guidelines “mandates a uniform, inflexible rule for determination of the existing conditions baseline. Rather, an agency enjoys the discretion to decide, in the first instance, exactly how the existing physical conditions without the project can most realistically be measured, subject to review, as with all CEQA factual determinations, for support by substantial evidence.” The court did not address whether a future baseline reflecting an agency’s projected environmental setting could be used as the basis for analysis in an EIR.

Since CBE, two appellate districts have held that agency’s may not use a projected environmental setting beyond the date of project approval. The Sixth Appellate District’s decision in Sunnyvale and the Fifth Appellate District’s decision in MOC both held that projected future conditions provide an improper baseline for determining traffic impacts.

In preparing the EIR for the Exposition Transit Corridor, the Expo Authority determined that a 2009 baseline (when the NOP was published) would not provide a reasonable basis for determining the project’s traffic and air quality impacts. The EIR instead uses a 2030 baseline that the agency determined based on projected changes in the environmental setting between 2009 and 2030. This approach would be a clear violation of CEQA under Sunnyvale or MOC.

The Second District disagreed with the Sunnyvale and MOC opinions and upheld the Expo Authority’s use of a future baseline. The Second District held that “in a proper case, and when supported by substantial evidence, use of projected conditions may be an appropriate way to measure the environmental impacts that a project will have on traffic, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions. As a major transportation project that will not even begin to operate until 2015 at the earliest, its impact on presently existing traffic and air quality conditions will yield no practical information to decision makers or the public.”

The Supreme Court struck a balance between the split in the appellate districts. The court agreed with the Second District, and correspondingly disapproved of Sunnyvale and MOC, in holding that agencies may rely solely on a predicted conditions baseline. The court’s decision also imposes a new requirement that will result in a more restrictive use of future baselines than what would have otherwise been permissible under the Second District’s ruling. The court held that agencies can rely solely on a predicted conditions baseline only after they justify the omission of an existing conditions baseline. Before an agency can eliminate an analysis based on existing conditions, it must first determine, based on substantial evidence, that the inclusion of an existing conditions analysis would be misleading or without informational value.

The court stated, “[t]o the extent a departure from the ‘norm[]’ of an existing conditions baseline (Guidelines, § 15125(a)) promotes public participation and more informed decisionmaking by providing a more accurate picture of a proposed project’s likely impacts, CEQA permits the departure. Thus an agency may forego analysis of a project’s impacts on existing environmental conditions if such an analysis would be uninformative or misleading to decision makers and the public.”

The court then applied this rule to the present case and held that, while Expo demonstrated that a predicted baseline was a more informative analysis, there was no evidence in the record that an existing conditions analysis would have been uninformative or misleading. The court implied that in this case, the lead agency should have analyzed the project’s impacts against an existing conditions baseline as well as a predicted baseline. Nonetheless, the court held that under these circumstances, the omission of an existing conditions baseline did not deprive decision makers or the public of substantial information relevant to approving the project, and was therefore a non-prejudicial error.

The court also upheld the adequacy of mitigation for spillover parking effects, which was the only other issue before the court. The court held that the agency made the proper findings for reliance on local jurisdictions to implement mitigation measures and that the findings were supported by substantial evidence. The Petitioner’s speculation that local agencies may not agree to permit the parking facilities was not sufficient to show that the mitigation measures violated CEQA.

Key Point: The baseline issue has important implications for all environmental review documents under CEQA as it affects the underlying basis of the analysis. After this decision, agencies have the discretion to rely solely on a predicted conditions baseline; however, in doing so, agencies must be sure to demonstrate that the inclusion of an existing conditions baseline would be uninformative or misleading. It is not enough to show that the predicted conditions baseline is supported by substantial evidence or that it is more informative than the existing conditions baseline. Agencies would be wise to include explicit findings in their project approval documents supporting the determination to rely solely on a predicted conditions baseline.