In Abatti v. Imperial Irrigation District (2012) 2012 Cal.App. LEXIS 496, the court considered whether the substantial evidence, rather than the “fair argument,” test applies to determine whether further environmental review is warranted for a subsequent approval where the agency has initially adopted a negative declaration for the project.
In 2006, the irrigation district adopted an “Equitable Distribution Plan” to address the allocation of water in times of shortage, and concurrently approved a negative declaration, which concluded that the plan would not have a significant effect on the environment. The irrigation district then adopted implementing regulations in 2007, and adopted additional regulations in 2008, along with an environmental compliance report, which relied on CEQA Guidelines section 15162 to find that the 2006 negative declaration adequately addressed impacts, and no further CEQA review was required. A group of property owners challenged the 2008 regulations, arguing that an EIR should have been prepared because the regulations substantially changed the way water would be allocated. They asserted that the regulations specifically gave higher priority to geothermal users as opposed to agricultural users.
The court first considered whether it had jurisdiction in light of the fact that appellants had dismissed several non-CEQA claims without prejudice prior to the trial court’s decision on the CEQA claim. The court concluded in the affirmative, finding that a party may appeal from a judgment rendered on a particular claim on a case, regardless of whether certain other claims have been dismissed without prejudice, provided no claims remain pending between the parties.
On the merits, the court first rejected the petitioners’ argument that CEQA Guidelines section 15162 was an invalid regulation. Section 15162 provides that, after an agency has certified an EIR or negative declaration, no subsequent EIR is required unless certain circumstances occur. This section of the Guidelines implements Public Resources Code section 21166, which refers to EIRs, but not negative declarations. The appellate court rejected the petitioners’ challenge, relying on Benton v. Board of Supervisors (1991) 226 Cal.App.3d 1467, which upheld application of the standards for determining when a subsequent EIR is required for a project that has previously been reviewed when the original CEQA document was a negative declaration.
The appellate court proceeded to apply the substantial evidence test to assess the irrigation district’s determination that the 2008 regulations did not represent a substantial change in the project requiring additional CEQA review. The court found that substantial evidence supported the irrigation district’s determination. A comparison of the 2008 regulations with the pre-existing regulations showed that they were substantially similar and would not, in fact, change the priority preferences in case of water shortage, as petitioners had claimed.
This case affirms an agency’s ability to rely on a negative declaration for subsequent actions related to the project where substantial evidence supports the agency determination that the subsequent action has no new environmental impacts. Of particular note, the court rejected the petitioners’ attempt to characterize Benton as an “outlier” case. Instead the court upheld Benton, noting that numerous courts have agreed with that court’s conclusion that Guidelines section 15162 applies in determining whether further environmental review is warranted where the agency has initially adopted a negative declaration.
Written By: Tina Thomas and Amy Higuera
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