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CEQA Updates

Keeping You Up-to-Date on the California Environmental Quality Act

Posts Tagged ‘Air Quality’


Supreme Court Holds Inadequate Effort to Explain Nature and Magnitude of Significant Environmental Effect Subject to De Novo Review, Substitution Clause and Sufficient Guidance Make Mitigation Measures Not Vague

Friday, December 28th, 2018

In Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (2018) 2018 Cal.LEXIS 9831, the California Supreme Court held that, where the description of an environmental impact “lacks analysis or omits the magnitude of the [significant] impact,” the reviewing court applies the de novo standard of review.  The substantial evidence standard of review is reserved for wholly factual questions; where a question presented is both legal and factual, the issue shall be reviewed de novo. The Court also found that a substitution clause in a mitigation measure did not constitute deferred mitigation, a mitigation measure that only partially reduced a significant impact did not violate CEQA, and mitigation measures involving HVAC installation and tree selection were adequately enforceable.

The proposed project includes a specific plan and specific plan update covering 942-acres that together contemplate the construction of about 2,500 single and multifamily homes, commercial and recreation areas, and dedicated open space (Project) into a master-planned “pedestrian friendly” community near the unincorporated area of Friant in northern Fresno County (County). The County adopted Project alternative 3 (Northeast Development Configuration, the “environmentally superior alternative”), certified the EIR, and approved the Project.  At the same time, the County adopted a mitigation monitoring program, which noted compliance would be enforced through subsequent conditions on future discretionary actions, including use permits and tentative subdivision maps.

The Sierra Club, Revive San Joaquin, and League of Women Voters of Fresno filed suit alleging that the project approval violated CEQA. The trial court denied the petition for writ of mandate and noted that “it may not exercise its independent judgement on the evidence, but must determine only whether the act or decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Sierra Club timely appealed the decision pertinent to the air quality impacts and certain mitigation measures.

In May 2014, the Fifth District Court of Appeal held that the EIR was inadequate because it failed to include an analysis that “correlated the [P]roject’s emissions of air pollutants to its impact on human health,” only provided air quality impact mitigation measures that were “vague, unenforceable, and lack[ed] specific performance criteria,” and failed to support the claim that the mitigation measures would “substantially” reduce the Project’s significant air quality impacts. The Appellate Court reversed the trial court judgement on those grounds only and directed the preparation of a revised EIR. Real Party, Friant Ranch LP, appealed the Appellate Court decision.

The Supreme Court granted review on the issues of the air quality impact findings and conclusions in the EIR as well as the adequacy of certain mitigation measures.

The Court held that an EIR must (1) include “sufficient detail” to enable readers to understand and to “consider meaningfully” the issues that the proposed project raises, and, (2) make a “reasonable effort to substantively connect” the Project’s significant air quality impacts to likely health consequences.

Further, the Court held a lead agency has not impermissibly deferred mitigation measures where it leaves open the possibility of employing measures consistent with evolving technology nor are such measures impermissibly vague where it can be demonstrated in “good faith” that the measures will be at least partially effective.

The Court first recognized the familiar distinction between the standard of judicial review applicable to claims that the agency failed to proceed in the manner CEQA provides as compared to claims that the agency reached factual conclusions unsupported by substantial evidence: “[w]hile we determine de novo whether the agency has employed the correct procedures, ‘scrupulously enforc[ing] all legislatively mandated CEQA requirements’ [ ] we accord greater deference to the agency’s substantive factual conclusions.” The Court then recognized that “the question whether an agency has followed proper procedures is not always so clear” especially when the issue is “whether the discussion sufficiently performs the function of facilitating ‘informed agency decisionmaking and informed public participation.’”

Relying heavily on Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of University of California (1988) 47 Cal.3d 376 (Laurel Heights I), the Court found that the standard of review for the adequacy of an EIR’s discussion of certain impacts is subject to de novo review where “a description of an environmental impact is insufficient because it lacks analysis or omits the magnitude of the impact is not a substantial evidence question.”

The Court provided several examples and prior decisions addressing procedural issues subject to the de novo standard of review:

  • Did the agency provide sufficient notice and opportunity to comment on a draft EIR? (Fall River Wild Trout Foundation v. County of Shasta (1999) 70 Cal.App.4th 482, 491-493; Pub. Resources Code, § 21092; Guidelines, § 15087.)
  • Did the agency omit the required discussion of alternatives or consider a reasonable range of alternatives? (Guidelines, § 15126.6; Laurel Heights I.)
  • Did the agency fail to reasonably describe the nature and magnitude of a project’s significant environmental effect?  (Berkeley Keep Jets Over the Bay Com. v. Board of Port Cmrs. (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 1344, 1371; Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Assn. of Governments (2017) 3 Cal.5th 497, 514–515.)
  • Did the agency omit material necessary to informed decision making (Kings County Farm Bureau v. City of Hanford (1990) 221 Cal.App.3d 692, 712; East Peninsula Ed. Council, Inc. v. Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School Dist. (1989) 210 Cal.App.3d 155, 174)
  • Did the agency respond to comments? (Rural Landowners Assn. v. City Council (1983) 143 Cal.App.3d 1013, 1021–1023.)

The Court contrasted these with factual issues like the decision to use a particular methodology and reject another.

Similar to the facts in Laurel Heights I, the Court found that, while the EIR’s conclusion as to the impact may have been correct, the analysis and discussion of the significant impact was deficient as an EIR must “reasonably describe the nature and magnitude of the adverse effect.” The core purpose of an EIR is to inform the public and decision-making body, regardless of the conclusion drawn. In certifying the EIR, the County failed to disclose the analytic route that it took in making its decision relating to the Project’s significant air quality impact. This was a CEQA procedural issue as the Court determined it resulted in noncompliance with CEQA’s information disclosure provisions. Thus, the Court held, de novo review was proper.  

Applying the de novo standard of review to the EIR’s analysis of the Project’s significant air quality impacts, the Court found that the EIR’s discussion failed to correlate health impacts with the Project’s air emissions as required by CEQA Guidelines section 15126.2. It was insufficient that the EIR provided a “general discussion of adverse health effects associated with certain Project-related pollutants,” recognized “Fresno County suffers from the ‘most severe’ ozone problems,” and acknowledged that a more detailed analysis on health impacts was “not possible at this early planning phase.” Critically, the EIR failed to indicate the anticipated ozone emission levels as a result of the Project. The analysis “[was] not meaningful …because the reader ha[d] no idea how much ozone [would] be produced.”  The Court held that the EIR’s discussion of the Project’s significant air quality impacts was deficient; it must give a sense of the “nature and magnitude of the health and safety problems…resulting from the Project as required by the CEQA Guidelines … [or] explain why it was not feasible to provide an analysis.”

The Court found that briefs from the County, the Real Party, and amici curiae clarifying the connection between air emissions information in the EIR and health impacts information in the EIR were “irrelevant.” Relying on Vineyard, the Court held that the question is not whether the Project’s impacts can be clearly explained, but whether they were at the time that the Project was approved. The County’s plan to require Health Risk Assessments as part of future development projects approved within the specific plan area was also irrelevant where the issue was the sufficiency of the EIR’s discussion of the Project’s significant air quality impacts, not the sufficiency of future studies.

Turning to the Project’s mitigation measures, the Court found that the EIR was incorrect to claim a mitigation measure would “substantially reduce air quality impacts” without factual support.

The Court next held that a mitigation measure is not deficient where it leaves open the opportunity to add or substitute other measures when they become technologically available. The Court established that this kind of substitution clause “should be encouraged….and [was] not an impermissible deferral.”

The Court also held that Project mitigation measures relating to HVAC systems and tree-planting were not impermissibly vague. The first identified the anticipated cost for a HVAC catalyst that was considered feasible and detailed the HVAC brand or equivalent that could be installed. The latter required tree varieties be planted that would shade 25% within 20 years of planting, which “provide[d] sufficient guidance for selecting appropriate shade trees.” Contrary to the Appellate Court’s holding, it was of no issue that the burden of enforcement of mitigation measures was on the County as the EIR and Specific Plan was not impermissibly vague on the means of enforcement.

Finally, the Court held that a lead agency does not violate CEQA for approving a project though the environmental impacts are not reduced to less than significant levels. CEQA is satisfied where a project’s mitigation measures only partially reduced significant impacts “as long as the public is able to identify any adverse health impacts clearly, and the EIR’s discussion of those impacts includes relevant specifics about the environmental changes attributable to the project.” In such a situation, unmitigated effects must be outweighed by the project’s benefits—whether economic, social, technological, or other, as documented in a statement of overriding considerations. 

Key Point:

“[A] sufficient discussion of significant impacts requires not merely a determination of whether an impact is significant, but some effort to explain the nature and magnitude of the impact.” The determination whether an EIR achieves its informational purpose by providing such details is subject to de novo review.

CARB Regulatory Advisory “Project Approval” Triggers CEQA Review Despite Agency Certified Regulatory Program, Public Testimony Must Be Adequately Addressed to Meet Cal APA Standards

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

In John R. Lawson Rock & Oil, Inc. v. State Air Resource Board (2018) 20 Cal. App. 5th 77, the Fifth District Court of Appeal found the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) issuance of a regulatory advisory was “project approval” triggering CEQA review. Doing so prior to completion of environmental review violated CEQA timing requirements. Later, CARB relied on a negative declaration, which the Court also set aside. Further, CARB failed to comply with the California Administrative Procedures Act (CalAPA). As such, the Court directed CARB to comply with CEQA in modifying a set of 2008 regulations known as the Truck and Bus Regulations (Regulations).

CARB issued the Regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from large vehicles by, as pertinent here, requiring vehicle owners to retrofit and upgrade existing vehicles by January 2014. In mid-2013, CARB staff found the global recession substantially reduced trucking activity making compliance with the Regulations financially difficult, especially for those in rural areas and small business settings. CARB responded by delaying reporting deadlines and requesting modification proposals. In November 2013, CARB issued a regulatory advisory stating a handful of modifications to the Regulations would be implemented. Specific changes included: delaying compliance dates, eliminating filter replacement requirements for certain light trucks, and providing a 10-year window where only engines less than 20-years-old would require modernization. After circulating a staff report and proposed modifications in March 2014, CARB issued its final approval in December 2014. Plaintiffs and Respondents filed suit on behalf of fleets that had already incurred significant cost in complying with the unmodified regulations, alleging CARB failed to comply with CEQA and CalAPA requirements.

The Appellate Court found agencies that operate under a certified regulatory program are exempt from certain elements of CEQA review yet still subject to the “functional equivalent” of CEQA environmental review, per the Court’s holding in POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Control Board (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 681. CARB’s regulatory program requires the preparation of a public staff report at least 45 days before public hearing on a proposed regulation, discussion of environmental alternatives, response to public comment, and compliance with CEQA. Within the regulatory scheme, documents like the CARB staff report are expected to be analyzed and considered before project approval in the same way that CEQA documents are considered.

Applying CEQA principles, the Court determined that project approval triggering CEQA or its equivalent occurred where the regulatory advisory “opened the way” for a project to proceed. CARB conduct following the advisory was “detrimental to further fair environmental analysis.” That the final approval was not to be until 2014 and there was stated CARB authority to change the modifications before that time was insufficient to show the regulatory advisory was not project approval. Language in the advisory that truckers could immediately take advantage of certain programs and the subsequent CARB reliance on the advisory “foreclosed alternatives” to the proposed modifications. Because the advisory was issued before environmental review was complete, CARB failed to comply with CEQA timing requirements.

Next, the Court held the proper baseline for CEQA consideration in this case is the actual environmental conditions at the time of review, not those allowable by the current regulations. As such, CARB acted within its discretion to use a baseline that recognized some trucks and buses were not yet in compliance

Despite this, substantial evidence supported a fair argument that modifications to the Regulations would negatively and significantly impact air quality therefore CARB was incorrect to rely on a negative declaration. CARB failed to address that the modifications, while continuing to decrease emissions in the long term, would increase emissions in the short term. CARB also failed to address the inconsistencies between the proposed project’s emissions and applicable general plans, specific plans, and regional plans.

Notwithstanding these findings, the Court held that the trial court incorrectly directed CARB to prepare an EIR, or its functional equivalent. Such a remedy is only appropriate where the agency no longer has discretion to act in compliance with CEQA. Here, CARB still retained such discretion so the proper remedy is to simply direct CARB to comply with CEQA.

Lastly, CARB failed to comply with CalAPA where it did not adequately address economic impacts to intrastate commerce. While the Court usually gives deference to the agency on determinations of economic impacts, there is no deference for improperly adopted regulations. Here, CARB heard public testimony that relaxing the regulations would impact intrastate competition where those in compliance took on a large expense to be so and others would be able to undercut them. The Court held that testimony, while not written in a formal letter or report, nonetheless put CARB on notice of such issues. While CARB claimed it answered this issue in other comment answers, the Court found that its responses were not supported by any record evidence or meaningful analysis.

Key Point:

A regulatory advisory may be “project approval” triggering CEQA where it forecloses project alternatives therefore environmental review must be complete before its issuance. This standard applies to partially-exempt regulatory bodies and state agencies when their certified regulatory programs are intended to be CEQA-compliant.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Upholds Environmental Review of Master-Planned Community, Finds Project Changes After Tentative Approval Non-Actionable

Friday, September 15th, 2017

In Residents Against Specific Plan 380 v. County of Riverside (2017) 9 Cal.App.5th 941, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court and upheld the County’s approval of the Keller Crossing Specific Plan Project (“Project”), a master-planned community proposed by Hanna Marital Trust (“Trust”). The Project proposed residential, mixed-use, commercial and open space components on approximately 200 acres of undeveloped land in the French Valley region of the County. The Project included a general plan amendment, a zoning amendment, and a specific plan (Specific Plan 380).

After finding that the Project’s air quality and noise impacts could not be reduced below the level of significance after mitigation, the County approved the Project and the plaintiffs sued, asserting the County failed to comply with procedural, informational, and substantive provisions of CEQA. The trial court held in favor of the County and the Trust.

On appeal, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the Trust and the County substantially modified the Project after the Board of Supervisors certified an EIR for the Project and approved the Project on December 18, 2012. The court explained that the administrative record clearly showed that the Board only tentatively approved the Project on December 18, 2012 and the Board approved the final version of the Project on November 5, 2013 after planning staff and the Trust had codified the plan changes discussed at the December 18, 2012 hearing.

Second, the court held that errors contained in the notice of determination did not justify unwinding the County’s approval. These errors were related to the description of the Project, such as the number of planning areas, the size of commercial office development, the number of residential units, and the acreage for residential, commercial, and mixed uses. Finding that much of the Project description in the notice was accurate, the court concluded the notice substantially complied with CEQA’s informational requirements by providing the public with the information it needed to weigh the environmental consequences of the County’s determination.

Third, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the County failed to revise and recirculate the EIR after changes were made to Specific Plan 380. The plaintiff contended these changes might cause significant traffic, biological, and noise impacts. Finding these changes related to the details of the allocation and arrangement of uses within the Project site, the court held the EIR adequately addressed potential impacts that might result from the changes to the plan.

Fourth, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the EIR failed to adequately analyze the air quality, noise, and traffic impacts from the mixed-use planning area in the Project. Specifically, the plaintiff contended that, although the EIR analyzed the impacts of development of a continuing care retirement community (“CCRC”) in the mixed-use planning area, the EIR failed to analyze the impact of higher-impact uses that could be allowed. Because the plan included a provision that uses other than a CCRC are allowed only if such uses are compatible with the adjacent planning areas and no additional environmental impacts would occur (based on review by the County) the court held that the County did not improperly defer environmental analysis of other uses.

Finally, the court held that the EIR adequately considered specific suggestions for mitigating the impact of the Project on air quality and noise levels. The court found that the Planning Department properly determined that an air quality mitigation measure proposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District – requiring all off-road diesel-powered construction equipment greater than 50 horsepower to meet Tier 3 off-road emissions standards – was not feasible because the applicant provided evidence that such equipment would not be available at the time of construction. Further, the court held that the County was not required to respond to the plaintiff’s comments in which it proposed several noise mitigation measures because they were submitted more than 14 months after the comment period ended.

Key Point:

Changes made to a project do not constitute legally actionable substantial modifications when approvals made on the project prior to modification were tentative in nature.

Third Appellate District Upholds CARB’s Cap-And-Trade Program

Monday, July 24th, 2017

In California Chamber of Commerce, et al., v. State Air Resources Board, et al. (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 604, the Third Appellate District affirmed the trial court and rejected challenges to a cap-and-trade program developed by the State Air Resources Board (“CARB”) under the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (“AB 32”).

The program imposes a “cap” on the total amount of GHG emissions from regulated entities, which mostly consist of large GHG emitters. CARB lowers the cap over time to reduce the total emissions and issues allowances, the total value of which is equal to the amount of the cap.

Regulated entities receive these allowances – either through auction, from CARB for free, or a combination of both – or purchase “emission offsets,” credits generated from voluntary emission reductions made outside the capped entities, and surrender an allowance for each ton of emissions they release. If a regulated entity does not need all of the allowances it has in a given period, it may bank them to surrender later or sell them to another registered party. Non-covered entities may buy allowances, either to speculate, or to retire them and reduce emissions.

Business groups filed the suit, arguing that the auction sales exceeded CARB’s authority under AB 32, and that the revenue generated by the auction sales amounted to a tax subject to Proposition 13, which requires any new tax to be passed by a supermajority vote of each house of the state legislature.

First, the court held that CARB did not exceed its authority in designing the cap-and-trade auction program because the legislature had given broad discretion to CARB to design a system including an auction style, market-based mechanism for reducing GHG. The court noted that even if AB 32 had not authorized CARB to adopt the auction program, the legislature ratified it in 2012 through passage of four bills specifying how auction proceeds would be used to effectuate AB 32.

Second, the court held that the revenue generated by the auction sales was not a tax subject to Proposition 13, based on what the court deemed as two “hallmarks” of a tax: (1) it is compulsory; and (2) it does not grant any special benefit to the payer. The court found that participation in the program was voluntary. According to the court, this is because an entity would not have to obtain extra allowances or offset credits unless it chooses to pollute beyond the level of allowances it receives from CARB for free. The court also found that the allowance credits, unlike taxes, would grant benefits to the payers as they were valuable commodities tradable between private parties.

Finally, the court held that the test used to determine whether regulatory fees were taxes in Sinclair Paint Company v. State Board Of Equalization (1997) 15 Cal.4th 866 (Sinclair Paint), which was applied by the trial court, did not control this case. The court explained that the auction system that set up a revenue generating measure at hand was entirely different than a regulatory fee.

In a 13-page dissent, Justice Hull agreed that CARB did not exceed its authority under AB 32, but argued that the cap-and-trade auction program was compulsory and a tax, because covered entities currently in California would be compelled to buy allowances if they were to remain in California. Justice Hull also questioned the majority’s characterization of the auction credits, noting that the value of the auction credits would be ephemeral, given that the state could at its sole discretion limit or terminate them. 

Key Point:

The new test set by the court for assessing whether the cap-and-trade auction program is a tax is far from clear. The majority and Justice Hull disagreed on what “compulsory” meant under the test. On June 28, 2017, the California Supreme Court denied the petitions for review of the Third Appellate District’s decision.