In 2009, the City of Sacramento (City) adopted its 2030 General Plan. In October 2012, the City initiated its five-year technical update to the 2030 General Plan (hereafter referred to as “2035 General Plan” or “Plan”). The City released the draft Plan and draft EIR for public review in August 2014. Changes from the 2030 General Plan included a revised traffic threshold of significance from LOS to VMT. On March 3, 2015, the City approved the Plan and certified the EIR with the proposed changes. On April 1, 2015, Citizens for Positive Growth and Preservation (Citizens) filed suit challenging the facial validity of the Plan and raised numerous challenges to the adequacy of the 2035 General Plan EIR including challenges to the impacts analyses related to traffic, greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, cyclist safety, and the “no project alternative”. The superior court denied the petition and Citizens timely appealed.
Citizens contended that the Plan was insufficient due to internal inconsistencies between its introductory language and policies. The Third District noted that because the adoption of a general plan is a presumptively valid legislative act, Citizens were required to demonstrate that the City’s action was an abuse of discretion. The Court found that Citizens failed to cite evidence sufficient to meet this standard. Even if the City were to “create a hierarchy of General Plan elements, or to approve projects inconsistent with any policy of the General Plan” in the future it would not render the Plan invalid because a determination made separate from the approval of a general plan cannot render the general plan internally inconsistent.
Citizens also challenged the Plan based on its use of the level of service (LOS) metric instead of the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) metric in the transportation impacts section. In enacting Public Resources Code section 21099, the Legislature directed that traffic analyses prepared to comply with CEQA move away from LOS to encourage infill development and focus CEQA’s traffic analysis on potential traffic-related environmental impacts, rather than inconvenience associated with traffic congestion. Section 21099(b)(2) defines automobile delay as described solely by LOS as not “a significant impact on the environment pursuant to [CEQA] except in locations specifically identified in the guidelines”. In 2018, the Secretary of the Natural Resources Agency promulgated and certified CEQA Guidelines section 15064.3 to implement Public Resources Code section 21099(b)(2). Citizens argued that because CEQA Guidelines section 15064.3 applies prospectively, and because the EIR was certified before the guideline was certified, a LOS impact still constitutes a potentially significant traffic impact of the Plan for the purposes of CEQA.
The Court rejected this interpretation, and held that the plain language of Public Resources Code section 21099(b)(2) provides that “[u]pon certification of the guidelines by the Secretary of the Natural Resources Agency pursuant to this section, automobile delay, as described solely by level of service or similar measures of vehicular capacity or traffic congestion shall not be considered a significant impact on the environment pursuant to this division, except in locations specifically identified in the guidelines, if any.” The Court held that, in mandamus proceedings, “the law to be applied is that which is current at the time of judgment in the appellate court”. On that basis, the Court concluded that the Plan’s LOS determinations could not constitute a significant environmental impact.
Citizens also argued that if potential automobile delay caused by the Plan’s LOS determinations did not constitute a significant impact pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21099(b)(2), then the City should have been required to conduct a VMT analysis pursuant to CEQA Guidelines section 15064.3. The Court disagreed because the City’s EIR was certified before CEQA Guidelines section 15064.3 was enacted, and the criteria set forth therein only apply prospectively. In addition, the Court rejected Citizens’ challenge to the no project alterative, greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, and cyclist safety because Citizens failed to cite to substantial evidence to support those arguments. Similarly, the Court rejected Citizens’ argument that recirculation was required because Citizens did not cite to substantial evidence of significant new information requiring recirculation.