In Friends of College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College Dist. (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937, in an unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the First Appellate District’s ruling on the grounds that the court applied the wrong standard of review in determining whether a subsequent project constituted a new project for the purposes of CEQA review.
The subsequent project related to a district-wide master facilities improvement plan (“Plan”) previously approved by the San Mateo County Community College District (“District”) based on an MND. The District’s Plan originally proposed nearly $1 billion in new construction and facilities renovations, including renovations of the Building 20 complex (“Complex”) at the College of San Mateo. The Complex contains a small cast-in-place concrete classroom and lab structure, greenhouse, lath house, garden space, and an interior courtyard.
After the District adopted an MND for the Plan in 2007, the District was unable to obtain funding for the planned renovations of the Complex. Consequently, in 2011 the District modified the Plan by proposing to demolish the complex and replace it with a parking lot. The District issued an addendum to the MND addressing the modification, and subsequently approved the proposed demolition of the Complex. The Friends of College of San Mateo Gardens filed suit alleging the District was required to prepare an EIR before approving the Complex demolition project.
Both the trial court and appellate court ruled in favor of Friends of College of San Mateo Gardens. Specifically, the court of appeal held that it was “clear” as a matter of law that the District’s proposed demolition of the Complex was not merely a change to its previously approved project, but a new project altogether.
The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court explained that pursuant to CEQA, a lead agency’s environmental review obligations depend on the effect of the proposed changes on the decisionmaking process, rather than on any abstract characterization of the project as “new” or “old.” Thus, the Court stated that the proper framework for the analysis is to ask “[i]f the original environmental document retains some informational value despite the proposed changes….” The Court held that this inquiry is subject to the substantial evidence standard of review. The Court emphasized that it “expect[s] occasions when a court finds no substantial evidence to support an agency’s decision to proceed under CEQA’s subsequent review provisions will be rare….”
However, once a lead agency determines to proceed under CEQA’s subsequent review provisions, the next question concerns the type of subsequent document to prepare. In this context, the question is whether there is “substantial evidence that the proposed modifications will involve ‘[s]ubstantial changes’ that ‘require major revisions of the previous EIR or negative declaration due to the involvement’ of new or significantly more severe environmental effects.” Applying this test, the Court held that, where the original environmental document was a negative declaration (and not an EIR), the lead agency must prepare a subsequent EIR whenever the changes to the previously approved project may have a significant environmental impact not considered at the time of the previous environmental review.
Finally, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that because the original project was a Plan, CEQA’s provisions relating to programmatic environmental review were applicable. The Court found that the MND for the Plan expressly concluded that it constituted a project-specific analysis and not a phased project or program. Thus, Public Resources Code section 20194 and related provisions concerning “tiered” environmental review had no direct application.
The Court remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the holding. The Court noted that the issues that would need to be addressed by the appellate court included plaintiff’s claim that CEQA Guidelines sections 15162 through 15164 improperly authorize lead agencies to approve certain proposed project modifications through the use of addenda without public comment, rather than requiring the issuance of a subsequent or supplemental EIR or negative declaration.
The Supreme Court affirmed that an agency’s decision whether a subsequent project can be analyzed under CEQA’s subsequent review provisions is subject to the substantial evidence standard of review. Similarly, the Supreme Court held that agency’s decision as to the type of subsequent environmental review to perform is also subject to the substantial evidence standard of review where original environmental document is an EIR. However, where the original document is a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration, a subsequent or supplemental EIR is required where there is a fair argument that the project may have a significant environmental impact not considered at the time of the previous environmental review.