In San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods v. City and County of San Francisco (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 596, the First District Court of Appeal held the City of San Francisco (City) general plan housing element EIR satisfied CEQA in using 2025 population projections as a baseline for a growth-accommodating policy and adequately considered traffic impacts, water needs, and project alternatives.
In 2011, the City updated the housing element to the City’s general plan. The housing element EIR baseline was based on 2025 population projections. San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods (SFLN) filed suit alleging the EIR used an improper baseline and failed to adequately address various environmental impacts.
The trial court held that the City complied with CEQA in most respects. Specifically, the trial court agreed with Respondents that the general plan was not internally inconsistent, the City need not have recirculated the EIR after publication, and the EIR contained an adequate project description, sufficient impact analyses, and a reasonable range of project alternatives. However, the trial court found that the EIR was inadequate in its analysis of alternatives and findings regarding potentially feasible mitigation measures. Parties timely appealed.
Typically, CEQA requires an EIR baseline to employ present environmental conditions for the baseline analysis. However, the Appellate Court held that the use of an alternative baseline was permissible under CEQA so long as contextual factors support the alternative baseline and the agency takes an informed, deliberate approach. An agency may adjust its baseline conditions at its own discretion and in appropriate circumstances in order to account for a major change in environmental conditions expected to occur before project implementation. For instance, where an amendment to a general plan takes a long view of city planning, the analysis of the amendment’s impacts may do so as well. Here, the City used a hypothetical baseline—population projections for 2025—in order to measure resulting traffic and water impacts related to the housing element. Recognizing “it would be absurd to ask the City to hypothesize the impacts of a long-term housing plan taking hold immediately,” the Court held the City acted within its discretion to define the baseline with 2025 population projections and forecast traffic and water impacts in 2025 rather than compare the existing conditions with and without the housing element.
The Court determined that the housing element sought to accommodate housing needs in response to a growing population, growth that would happen regardless of the housing element, therefore it was a growth-accommodating policy rather than a growth-inducing policy. Cases relied on by SFLN were unconvincing as they analyzed project approvals that would result in population growth in previously undeveloped areas.
With the baseline properly defined, the Court then held the EIR’s analysis of environmental impacts was sufficient. The EIR reasonably concluded that the housing element would not have a substantial impact on visual resources or neighborhood character as it encouraged residential uses in areas that were already allotted or existing and did not change any zoning.
Then focusing on the EIR traffic impact analysis, the Court held the City was not required to study in-the-pipeline projects with potential traffic impacts as they are subject to their own CEQA review and EIR process. Nonetheless, the City did so at sixty intersections and properly relied on 2025 population projections in their analysis for the above reasons.
The Court then held the EIR’s water supply impact analysis was sufficient where it acknowledged the “degree of uncertainty involved, discuss[ed] the reasonably foreseeable alternatives—including alternative water sources and the option of curtailing the development if sufficient water is not available for later phases—and disclos[ed] the significant foreseeable environmental effects of each alternative, as well as mitigation measures to minimize each adverse impact.”
Finally, the Court held the EIR’s analysis of alternatives complied with CEQA where it identified and provided “extensive information and analysis regarding the alternatives” for at least three alternatives. SFLN failed to meet their burden to show the range of alternatives are “manifestly unreasonable or deprive the decision-makers and the public of information they need to evaluate the project and its impacts.” Where the EIR’s alternatives allowed decision makers a meaningful context to weigh the project’s objective against its environmental impacts, it complied with CEQA.
The Court affirmed the trial court’s holding on these issues.
An alternative project baseline for CEQA purposes may be proper so long as contextual factors support the alternative baseline and the agency takes an informed, deliberate approach in utilizing it.