County General Plan EIR Need Only Address “Reasonably Foreseeable Development” Outside the Planning Area, Population Reports in the Record Showed Possible Subdivision Unlikely

December 20th, 2018

By: Thomas Law Group



In High Sierra Rural Alliance v. County of
Plumas
(2018) 29 Cal.App.5th 102, the Third District Court of Appeal held a
general plan update and EIR were valid where evidence in the record supported
the County of Plumas’ (County) determination that there was no “reasonably foreseeable
development” outside the planning area. The Court also held that adding
building intensity standards and a comprehensive map to the EIR did not require
recirculation after close of the comment period where the specific zones were
not likely to be developed and the map information was otherwise available
during the public comment period.

The County certified
a final EIR and approved a general plan update (Project) in December 2013. The
update focused on new population growth and housing construction in the
“planning area” in order to preclude urban sprawl and degradation of natural
resources. The planning area boundary encompassed the existing developed land
area and the potential expansion area directly surrounding it. In contrast,
rural areas were those “defined as having little to no public infrastructure
and services.” High Sierra Rural Alliance (High Sierra) filed suit alleging
that the County violated CEQA by failing to consider growth and subdivision
development outside the planning area and failing to recirculate the final EIR
once adding maps and building intensity standards after the close of the public
comment period.

The trial court held
that the EIR was a “reasonably crafted…first-tier environmental document that
assesses and documents broad environmental impacts of a program with the
understanding that a more detailed site-specific review may be required to
assess future projects.” Further, substantial evidence supported that the
County’s policies and mitigation measures contained in the EIR were sufficient
to reduce the severity of any environmental impacts of future projects. Lastly,
the addition of building intensity standards and cumulative maps, while
possibly in error, was not prejudicial error under CEQA meriting recirculation.
High Sierra timely appealed.

The Appellate Court confirmed
that its role is not to determine “the correctness of the EIR’s environmental
conclusion, but only its sufficiency as an informative document.” Applying
these principles, the Court affirmed the judgment.

The Court first
addressed High Sierra’s claim that the EIR was functionally deficient for
failing to assess the impacts of development, especially subdivision
development, outside of the planning area. The Court clarified that CEQA only
required the County to address “reasonably foreseeable development” within the
County. It is of no consequence to the Court’s determination if this excludes rural
areas within the County.

The record showed
that the County consulted population and economic data from the Department of
Finance and CalTrans and determined that the County growth rate over the
planning period would be minimal. This data supported the County’s
determination that all reasonably foreseeable growth was to occur almost
exclusively in the planning area. Further, sections of the general plan
specifically provided restrictions on development in rural areas by requiring
adequate, independent fire protection for each new development. Finally, the
EIR specifically provided that the minimal amount of development that may occur
will be best addressed in a site-specific manner. Thus, the EIR was a proper
first-tier environmental document. The Court held that the County adequately
addressed development outside of the planning area.

The Court then
turned to High Sierra’s argument that the County failed to recirculate the EIR.
The Court confirmed that recirculation is required when “significant new
information is added…in a way that deprives the public of meaningful
opportunity to comment upon a substantial adverse environmental effect.” (CEQA
Guidelines 15088.5.)

High Sierra alleged
that the County violated CEQA by failing to recirculate the EIR after adding
maps and building intensity standards to the final EIR. The Court held that
evidence in the record showed that the addition of comprehensive maps to the
final EIR was not “significant new information” as the public had access to
maps with land use designations for the County throughout the comment period.
Further, the addition of building intensity standards for certain rural zones
did not constitute “significant new information” where the additions did not change
the scope of the Project. Also, the record supported a finding that even fewer
structures in those zones would be built during the planning period than the
small number in the past decade. Thus, the building intensity standards were
nearly inconsequential and not “significant.” Considering these findings, the
Court held that the scope of the Project did not change between the draft EIR
and final EIR in a manner that requires recirculation.

The Court affirmed
the trial court’s judgment and upheld the EIR.

Key Point:

A general plan EIR is
only required to address “reasonably foreseeable development,” supported by
evidence in the record, outside of the planning area to be sufficient under
CEQA.

“Significant new
information” meriting recirculation of an EIR does not include maps whose
information was available elsewhere during the comment period nor standards
that did not change the scope of the project.




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