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Posts Tagged ‘EIR sufficiency’


Third District Holds City’s Explanation and Substantial Evidence Supported Traffic Impact Conclusion, Discharge of Writ of Mandate Proper

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019

In reviewing whether the City of Sacramento complied with a peremptory writ of mandate issued by the Sacramento Superior Court (East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City v. City of Sacramento (2016) 5Cal.App.5th 281 (ESPLC I)), the Third District Court of Appeal ruled that the City had explained and provided substantial evidence supporting both its traffic threshold and its conclusion that the traffic impact was less than significant. (East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City v. City of Sacramento (2018) Cal.App. Case No. C085551.)  In ESPLC I, the Court faulted the City’s use of a General Plan threshold because, the Court concluded, the threshold was not supported by substantial evidence.

Real Parties in Interest, Encore McKinley Village, LLC, proposed a 328-unit residential development (Project), which is now 80% built out. As pertinent here, the Project EIR recognized that the Project potentially impacted four intersections in the core and, utilizing the level of service (LOS) standard from the City’s General Plan, concluded that there would be no significant impacts to traffic. The City of Sacramento (City) reviewed the Project application, certified the Project EIR, and approved the Project. East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City (ESPLC) filed suit.

The trial court denied the petition for writ of mandate, finding the EIR sufficient. ESPLC appealed. In ESPLC I, the Court of Appeal held that the EIR was sufficient except for its reliance on the General Plan LOS standards without explanation. Specifically, the City was in error in relying on the LOS standards as an automatic determinant that traffic effects at the four intersections in the core were not significant. In doing so, the City failed to provide substantial evidence to support the finding of no significant traffic impact. “The fact that a particular environmental effect meets a particular threshold cannot be used as an automatic determinant that the effect was or was not significant.” Accordingly, the Court remanded the case.

The trial court then entered judgement in favor of ESPLC and issued a preemptory writ of mandate to rescind and set aside the EIR’s certification until the City brought the transportation and circulation sections of the EIR into compliance with CEQA. The City recirculated and certified a revised EIR. The trial court found the revised EIR was sufficient and discharged the writ. ESPLC appealed the order discharging the writ.

ESPLC alleged that the City failed to provide substantial evidence to support the conclusion that the Project’s impacts on traffic at the four intersections in the core are insignificant. ESPLC claimed that it was insufficient to merely provide evidence and an explanation to support the choice of threshold of significance for traffic impacts. ESPLC contended that the City was instead required to prepare a new traffic study to support its determination. The City responded that, among other things, the appeal should be dismissed as untimely.

Here, the Appellate Court held that ESPLC I only asked that the City provide an explanation and substantial evidence for the City’s determination to use the flexible LOS standards. The Court then found that it was to review for abuse of discretion because compliance with a writ is, for all practical purposes, an attempt to comply with CEQA.  

The Court found the revised EIR provided substantial evidence supporting the City’s determination that there would be no significant traffic impacts at the challenged intersections in the core. The revised EIR provided an explanation of how the flexible LOS policy promotes infill development and achieves environmental benefits by reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas emissions. Further, the revised EIR explained that vehicle delay is not a physical impact on the environment and is preferable to roadway expansion as the latter increases VMT. These conclusions were supported by staff opinions, legislation, studies of flexible LOS, evidence of VMT in the area, and comments from Regional Transit, the Air District, and Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

ESPLC contended that the revised EIR should have studied and quantified the alleged reductions in VMT and greenhouse gas emissions in the Project area. The Court held that it was only required that the City provide “sufficient information and analysis to enable the public to discern the analytic route the agency traveled from evidence to action.” Because the City provided sufficient explanation and substantial evidence to support its selection of the threshold of significance for the traffic impacts, the Court affirmed the judgment.

The Court further established that the appeal was not untimely. A post judgment order, like that issued by the trial court discharging the writ, extends the time for filing a notice of appeal. Relying on City of Carmel-by-the-Sea v. Board of Supervisors (1982) 137 Cal.App.3d 964, the Court held that an order relating to the enforcement of a judgment is appealable. Thus, the discharge order, finding the return to the writ adequate, was an appealable post judgement order and subject to reconsideration. As such, the appeal was timely.

As a final point, the Court granted the City’s motion to strike ESPLC’s argument that the City admitted the traffic impacts were significant as defined by the 2030 General Plan because it could have been raised earlier and ESPLC failed to show why the issue was raised for the first time in their reply brief. The Court further noted that adoption of a 2035 General Plan mooted arguments based on the 2030 General Plan.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s discharge of the writ of mandate.

Note: This case is currently unpublished. Pursuant to California Rules of Court, the deadline to request publication is 20 days from filing –Wednesday, January 16, 2019.

Second District Prohibits Preparation of Subsequent EIR Where Project-level EIR Covered All “Reasonably Foreseeable Consequences” of Later Plan-level Project; Spot-Zoned Target Store Permissible Where in Public Interest

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

The partially-completed Target Superstore sits dormant on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue in the Hollywood Neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Edwin Folven)

In Citizens Coalition Los Angeles v. City of Los Angeles, (2018) 26 Cal. App. 5th 561, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the City of Los Angeles’s (City) reliance on an addendum to a prior project-level EIR prepared for a Target store was legally sufficient environmental review for the approval of a later ordinance amending a specific plan applicable to the area containing the Target store. The City’s reliance on the Target EIR and addendum was permissible where the new ordinance did not present “reasonably foreseeable consequences” beyond those presented in the Target EIR.

The City completed an EIR for a Target store and then later passed an ordinance that amended its neighborhood-based specific plan to create a new subzone for large commercial development, and placed the half-built Target store into that new subzone. In passing the ordinance, the City relied on an addendum to the Target store EIR. Citizens Coalition Los Angeles (Citizens) filed suit.

Citizens alleged that the City’s actions violated CEQA by failing to conduct subsequent environmental review when creating the new subzone. The trial court held that the City violated CEQA for treating the action as a follow-on to its prior, initial approval of the Target store. The City and Real Party in Interest, Target Corporation, timely appealed.

The Appellate Court outlined that, where an EIR has been prepared, Public Resource Code section 21166 provides a supplemental EIR may only be required where new information comes to light or there is a substantial change to the project plans or project circumstances that requires a “major revision” to the EIR. Relying on Friends of College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District, (2016) 1 Cal. 5th 937, the Court found that only where one of the exceptions of Public Resources Code section 21166 applies may a new EIR be required. If an EIR “retains any relevance in light of the proposed changes,” then an addendum is proper, not a subsequent EIR.

The Court, relying on CEQA Guidelines section 15162 for direction, asked “[did] the existing CEQA document encapsulate all of the environmentally significant impacts of the project?” Further environmental review was only required if the later action was not a “reasonably foreseeable consequence” of the original project-level EIR. The Court awarded “greater deference to a public agency’s determination … than they [would for] whether initial CEQA review is required.”

The Court clarified that a “reasonably foreseeable consequence” is where “that consequence is, as a practical matter, sufficiently certain to happen.” The Court then outlined five such situations: (1) where an agency has already committed itself to undertake the consequence; (2) where a project presupposes the occurrence of consequence – where a consequence is a necessary and essential component of the project itself; (3) where a consequence is already under environmental review; (4) where an agency subjectively intends or anticipates the consequence; and (5) where an agency creates an incentive that is all but certain to result in a consequence.

Here, the Court found that substantial evidence supported the City’s finding that the sole reasonably foreseeable consequence of the ordinance was the construction of the Target store. Evidence in the administrative record showed that the City had not committed to any other large-scale commercial development on parcels meeting the ordinance criteria.  As such, Public Resources Code section 21166 did not merit subsequent or supplemental EIR as all of the reasonably foreseeable consequences of the ordinance had been addressed in the prior EIR and addendum. The Court further clarified that it did not matter that, though unconventional, the plan-level project relied on a project-level EIR.

Having settled the adequacy of the City’s environmental review, the Court then determined that the ordinance did not constitute impermissible spot zoning because extensive evidence in the record showed that the location of the store was in the public interest. Relying on Foothill Communities Coalition v. County of Orange, (2014) 222 Cal.App.4th 1302, the Court defined an island or spot zoning as where a parcel of land is rezoned to give it fewer or greater rights than parcels around it. In reviewing such claims, the Court’s focus is on if the City’s discretionary action is in the public interest. Only where an island is arbitrary, irrational, or unreasonable will it be impermissible. Here, record evidence showed demonstrated numerous benefits of the store being part of a shopping complex near pedestrian walkways and public transportation. Thus, the City’s action was in the public interest.

The Appellate Court reversed the trial court holding. In a separate holding, the Appellate Court awarded attorneys fees to Citizens’ co-petitioners, La Mirada Neighborhood Association. Read more about that in our blog post “Private Attorney General Doctrine Attorney’s Fees Proper For Party Successful in Invalidating Specific Plan Variances

Note that this case was originally published by the Appellate Court and then depublished by the Supreme Court at the same time that the Supreme Court denied review.

Key Point:

Public Resources Code section 21166 prohibits an agency from preparing a subsequent EIR where a project-level EIR covered all “reasonably foreseeable consequences” of a later plan-level project.

A city’s action to spot zone is evaluated by the court for being in the public interest, with great deference given to the city’s determination.

Second District Court of Appeal Upholds Decertification of Portion of Contested EIR on Remand

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

Construction of the Newhall Ranch Project, a 21,500-home development currently under construction along the Highway 126 freeway in north Los Angeles County.(Courtesy of Austin Dave, The Signal)

In Center for Biological Diversity v. California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (2017) 17 Cal. App. 5th 1245, the Second District Court of Appeal addressed a challenge to the postremand judgment involving the Newhall Ranch Project issued by the trial court in response to Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Fish & Wildlife (2015) 62 Cal.4th 204 and Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Fish and Wildlife (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 452.  Following the terms of the remand, the trial court entered judgment in favor of the plaintiffs on two issues: the analysis of greenhouse gas emission and stickleback impacts. Judgment was rendered in favor of the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (department) and the developer as to all other issues.

The judgment further ordered that a peremptory writ of mandate be issued directing the department to decertify the portions of the EIR that address the significance of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the validity of the stickleback mitigation measures. The judgment stated: “Consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion, all remaining portions of the EIR comply with CEQA.” Accordingly, the writ directed the department to void certification of portions of the EIR that address the department’s determination regarding the significance of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions and the stickleback mitigation measures.

The judgment and writ also enjoined all project activity including construction until the EIR was compliant with law. Further, the department also was ordered to “suspend” two project approvals that related directly to the EIR’s determinations regarding the significance of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions and stickleback mitigation measures, but four other approvals were left in place because no action was needed as to them “unless compliance with the Writ changes or affects” them.

Plaintiffs appealed from the trial court’s judgment on remand, arguing that the trial court’s decision to decertify only a portion of the EIR and leave some of the project approvals in place violated CEQA. The court rejected plaintiffs’ challenges to the postremand judgment.

First, the court explained that Public Resources Code section 21168.9, subdivision (a) clearly allows a court to order partial decertification of an EIR following a trial, hearing, or remand. The section applies when a court finds that “any determination, finding, or decision of a public agency” is noncompliant. (Pub. Resources Code § 21168.9, subd. (a).) After making such a finding, “the court must enter an order, in the form of a peremptory writ of mandate, containing one or more of three specified mandates. (Pub. Resources Code § 21168.9, subds. (a) & (b).) One of those three mandates is voiding the agency determination “in whole or in part.” (Pub. Resources Code § 21168.9, subd. (a)(1).) When a court voids an agency determination “in part,” it must make severance findings pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21168.9, subdivision (b), to determine whether the voided portions are severable, and whether the remainder will be in full compliance with CEQA. In reaching its holding, the court distinguished LandValue 77, LLC v. Board of Trustees of California State University (2011) 193 Cal.App.4th 675 and Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control v. City of Bakersfield (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 1184 on the basis that in those cases the courts did not make the severance findings required under Public Resources Code section 21168.9, subdivision (b).

Second, the court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that it was improper for the trial court to leave some project approvals in place. The court explained that under Public Resources Code section 21168.9, subdivision (b), the court is required to order “only those mandates which are necessary to achieve compliance with this division and only those specific project activities in noncompliance with this division.” Thus, if the court finds that it will not prejudice full compliance with CEQA to leave some project approvals in place, it must leave them unaffected.

Finally, the court reviewed the severability findings made by the trial court to confirm whether the court properly exercised its authority. Applying the abuse of discretion standard, the court concluded the trail court’s severability findings satisfied Public Resources Code section 21168.9, subdivision (b).

 

Key Point:

When examining inadequate portions of an EIR, Public Resources Code section 21168.9, subdivision (b) allows courts to determine whether the inadequate and voidable portions are severable, and whether the remainder will be in full compliance with CEQA.

Fifth District Court of Appeal Examines EIR Sufficiency, Kern County Oil Refinery Project Upheld and Reversed in Part

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

An example of an oil refinery similar to the one at issue (courtesy of the California Air Resources Board).

In Association of Irritated Residents v. Kern County Bd. of Supervisors (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 708, the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision upholding the County of Kern’s certification of an environmental impact report (EIR) and approval of a project to modify an oil refinery in Bakersfield, including the expansion of the existing rail, transfer and storage facilities, so it can unload two unit trains (104 cars) of crude oil per day, equating to 150,000 barrels.

On appeal, Plaintiffs Association of Irritated Residents argued that the EIR failed to comply with CEQA because it (1) erroneously used the refinery’s operational volume from 2007 as the baseline instead of the conditions existing in 2013 when the notice of preparation of the EIR was published; (2) incorrectly relied upon the refinery’s participation in California’s cap-and-trade program to conclude the project’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) would be less than significant; and (3) underestimated and failed to fully describe the project’s rail transport impacts, including the risk of a rail accident causing a release of hazardous materials and the environmental impacts of off-site rail activity. The court rejected Plaintiffs’ first two arguments but found in favor of Plaintiffs on their final argument.

With respect to Plaintiffs’ first argument, that the EIR used an improper environmental baseline for refinery operations, the court held that the decision to use refinery operation data from 2007 was supported by substantial evidence including the refinery’s history of fluctuating operations and was consistent with the Supreme Court’s holding in Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management Dist. (2010) 48 Cal.4th 310.  In reaching its holding, the court distinguished Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2013) 57 Cal.4th 439 because it concerned use of a “future” baseline and not a lead agency’s discretion in measuring an existing conditions baseline. In other words, the appellate court held that the unique burden the Supreme Court imposed on agencies using projected future conditions as a baseline—identification of substantial evidence that using an existing conditions baseline would be uninformative or misleading—does not apply in “historical baseline” cases.

As to Plaintiffs’ second argument, the EIR stated the project’s GHG emissions were less than significant because (1) the project is consistent with CARB’s climate change scoping plan and the cap-and-trade program and (2) GHG reductions achieved under cap-and-trade, federal renewable fuels standard, and displacement of fuel transport trucks exceed the 29 percent greenhouse gas emissions reductions target recommended by the Air District. Plaintiffs argued that the EIR’s conclusion was erroneous because compliance with California’s cap-and-trade regulation will not actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions since allowances are authorizations to emit greenhouse gases.  In rejecting Plaintiffs’ second argument, the court held that California’s cap-and-trade program constituted “regulations … adopted to implement a statewide … plan for the reduction of mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions” pursuant to CEQA Guidelines section 15064.4, subdivision (b)(3). Accordingly, the court stated that a lead agency has the discretion to conclude that a project’s GHG emissions will have a less than significant effect on the environment based on the project’s compliance with the cap-and-trade program. Thus, the court concluded the EIR’s GHG analysis complied with CEQA.

Finally, the court concluded that the EIR’s rail transport impact analysis included two flaws. First, in an unpublished section of the opinion, the court held the analysis included factual errors in its description of federal railroad safety data because it erroneously used the total number of “accident/incidents” reported for a 10-year period as the number of “train accidents.”  As a result of this error, the court concluded that the EIR understated the risk of release of hazardous materials in the event of accident during the rail transportation of crude oil to the refinery by fivefold.  Next, in a published portion of the opinion, the court also held that the EIR erroneously concluded that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995 (ICCTA; 49 U.S.C. § 10101 et seq.) preempted CEQA review of certain environmental impacts of off-site rail activities. While the court acknowledged that the ICCTA may preempt some mitigation measures that may otherwise be required by CEQA, the ICCTA did not preclude the EIR from evaluating and disclosing reasonably foreseeable environmental effects that may be caused by the off-site rail activities associated with the project and addressing the feasibility of possible mitigation measures.  As a result of these errors, the appellate court directed the trial court to enter a new order granting the petition for writ of mandate.

 

Key Point:

While environmental baseline and GHG emission significance determinations are subject to some degree of deference, factual errors and misapplication of ICCTA preemption principles can be fatal to a finding of an EIR’s legal sufficiency and may open project leaders to valid writs of mandate.