In City of Irvine v. County of Orange, (July 6, 2015, G049527)__Cal.App.4th__, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the adequacy of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) prepared approximately 16 years after the original EIR was adopted. The court granted publication on July 7, 2015.
The dispute began in 1996 when the City of Irvine (Irvine) challenged the County of Orange’s (County’s) certification of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) involving the expansion of the Musick Facility (Musick). The Musick facility is a 1,200 inmate jail, and the proposed expansion would make it a 7,584 inmate jail. In Musick I, the court held that the 1996 EIR was adequate, but the project fell through for financial reasons.
In 2011, newly available state funding revived the Musick project. Irvine immediately challenged the County’s application for state funding, alleging that the application for funding itself required an EIR. In Musick II, the court held that there was no need for a new EIR just to apply for state funds.
The County then prepared an SEIR to the 1996 EIR. The SEIR reflects major changes that have taken place in the area surrounding Musick over the 16 years separating the two documents. First, a proposed airport that was supposed to be built next to the facility was scrapped in favor of a large park. Second, agricultural land around the facility and in the County almost entirely disappeared. Following the County’s certification of the SEIR, Irvine immediately sued, seeking a writ of mandate to invalidate the SEIR, but the trial court denied Irvine’s petition.
On appeal, Irvine raised four arguments: (1) the changes since the 1996 EIR warranted a new EIR, (2) the EIR’s traffic study was inadequate, (3) the mitigation measures for the loss of agricultural land were inadequate, and (4) the County’s responses to comments on SEIR were inadequate. The court of appeal disagreed with Irvine on all its arguments and held for the County.
Irvine argued that the significant changes between the 1996 EIR and SEIR warranted a new EIR altogether. The court disagreed. While the CEQA Guidelines state that a lead agency “may” prepare a supplemental EIR where “[o]nly minor additions or changes would be necessary to make the previous EIR adequate to apply to the project in the changed situation” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15163), the court noted that a “subsequent” EIR and a “supplemental” EIR are statutorily similar in their requirements. Moreover, the court explained that the appropriate judicial approach is to look to the substance of the EIR, not its nominal title.
Next, Irvine challenged the SEIR’s traffic study. It alleged that the SEIR is inconsistent in its descriptions of project phasing because it uses 2014 as the date an initial phase of the prison expansion would be completed when the evidence demonstrates the initial phase will not be completed until 2018. While the court acknowledged an accurate, stable and finite project description is critical, the court explained that evaluation of interim traffic impacts based on anticipated future construction necessarily cannot be predicted with certainty. Furthermore, the court concluded even if delays in the start of construction resulted in discrepancies, it was nothing more than an “insubstantial and technical error.”
Irvine also alleged that the mitigation measures for the loss of agricultural land were inadequate. But, the court noted that the price of land in the County had far outgrown any feasible level for agriculture to remain profitable. The court noted that a land price of $60,000 per acre is approximately the break-even point for agricultural profitability, and land in the County was averaging $2 million per acre in 2012.
Finally, Irvine argued that the County’s allegedly deficient responses to their comments on the SEIR required a new EIR. Irvine had submitted 88 comments on SEIR, and challenged eight of the responses given by the County. The court noted that the CEQA Guidelines do not specifically require responses to comments, only responses to “significant environmental issues raised.” The court explained:
When a comment raises a “significant” environmental issue, there must be some genuine confrontation with the issue; it can’t be swept under the rug. Responses that leave big gaps in the analysis of environmental impact are obviously inadequate. By the same token comments that bring some new issue to the table need genuine confrontation. And comments that are only objections to the merits of the project itself may be addressed with cursory responses.
The court held that many of Irvine’s comments were “objections to the merits of the project” that the County adequately addressed with cursory responses. For the remaining comments, the court found the County’s responses to be adequate. The court noted further that the case was “drowning in ‘paperwork’” and Irvine failed to demonstrate any prejudice resulting from the alleged inadequate responses.
Age does not automatically render an EIR invalid. Additionally, the appropriate judicial approach to evaluating an EIR is to look to its substance, not its nominal title. Furthermore, CEQA Guidelines only require responses to “significant environmental issues raised.” Comments that do nothing but object to the project’s merits may be addressed with cursory responses.