In Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego (2018) Cal.App.5th 892, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held San Diego County’s (County) adoption of a guidance document for the evaluation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions established a threshold of significance for determining impacts. The County violated CEQA where it adopted the guidance document without first conducting CEQA review, sidestepped required public review and violated the Court’s prior writ.
The County adopted a Climate Action Plan (CAP) in 2012 and related guidelines in 2013. Following successful petitions from the Sierra Club, the County was directed by both the trial court and appellate court to set aside the documents for failing to make required findings and failing to adequately detail deadlines and enforceable measures, amongst other things. In 2016, the County adopted the “2016 Climate Change Analysis Guidance Recommended Content and Format for Climate Change Analysis Reports in Support of CEQA Document” (Guidance Document). Golden Door Properties, LLC and Sierra Club brought suit challenging the adoption.
The trial court consolidated the two suits, granted a writ of mandate and injunction against the County, and entered judgment prohibiting the County from using the Guidance Document. The trial court concluded (1) the claims were ripe; (2) the Guidance Document creates a threshold of significance under CEQA; (3) the Guidance Document violates the County’s general plan mitigation measures; and (4) the Guidance Document is not supported by substantial evidence. The County timely appealed.
The Appellate Court first addressed the ripeness of this action. Ripeness is “primarily bottomed on the recognition that judicial decision-making is best conducted in the context of an actual set of facts so that the issues will be framed with sufficient definiteness to enable the court to make a decree finally disposing of the controversy.” However, the Court continued, the issues here are ripe where the Guidance Document provided a generally applicable threshold of significance and there is sufficient public interest in the matter, citing California Building Industry Assn. v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 1067. The ultimate analysis of ripeness, the Court quoted, is “both the fitness of the issues for judicial decision and the hardship to the parties of withholding court consideration.”
The Court then turned to the CEQA arguments. The Court concluded that the Guidance Document is a threshold of significance. CEQA Guidelines section 15064.7 defines a threshold of significance as “an identifiable, quantitative, qualitative or performance level of a particular environmental effect, non-compliance with which means the effect will normally be determined to be significant by the agency and compliance with which means the effect normally will be determined to be less than significant.” The Court found that the Guidance Document provided a “recognized and recommended” efficiency metric for determining significance of GHG emissions, and therefore was a threshold of significance for the purposes of CEQA.
The Court then held that a threshold of significance for general use (as opposed to a project-specific threshold) is subject to CEQA public adoption guidelines, per Save Cuyama Valley v. County of Santa Barbara (2013) 213 Cal.App.4th 1059. The County conceded that the Guidance Document was not formally adopted through a public review process. Thus, the County violated the CEQA requirement that a threshold of significance be adopted “by ordinance, resolution, rule or regulation, and [be] developed through a public review process,” as mandated by CEQA Guidelines section 15064.7.
Further, the Court held, the County failed to provide substantial evidence to support its recommendations in the Guidance Document. Specifically, the County “reli[ed] on statewide data without evidence supporting its relationships to countywide [GHG] reductions.” This approach was legally flawed under the principles set forth in Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (2015) 62 Cal.4th 204. The County failed to address why using the statewide data that did not specifically address the County was appropriate for the County and also failed to account for variations in different types of development.
Finally, the Court held that the County’s adoption of the threshold of significance in advance of its required Climate Action Plan (CAP) constituted improper “piecemealing [of] environmental regulations” in violation of CEQA. The County argued that development of a CAP and thresholds of significance were proceeding in compliance with the schedule established in the writ issued after the Court’s prior decision in Sierra Club, and the Guidance Document therefore did not violate that decision. However, the Court concluded that its earlier decision treated the CAP and thresholds of significance as a single CEQA project and required completion of the CAP prior to the adoption of the thresholds. Considering this, the Court held the County’s 2016 adoption of the Guidance Document was improper piecemealing.
For these reasons, the Court affirmed the trial court’s holding.
A document that provides a threshold of significance is required to undergo CEQA review.