Third District Court of Appeals Reverses CEQA Holding in Placer County Emergency Road Use Debate

September 10th, 2020

By: Johannah Kramer

In Martis Camp Cmty. Ass’n v. County of Placer (2020) Cal.App. LEXIS 773, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed and reversed portions of a judgment concerning the County’s partial abandonment of public easement rights in an emergency access road used by private homeowners. The Court concluded that the County did not violate the Brown Act or the statutory requirements in abandoning the road, affirmed the dismissal of one of the plaintiff’s inverse condemnation claims, and reversed and remanded a CEQA claim. For purposes of this review, only the CEQA holding is discussed in detail.

The case arose from a dispute involving a publicly dedicated emergency access road, Mill Site Road, connecting two developments – Martis Camp and the Retreat at Northstar (the Retreat) – near Northstar-at-Tahoe. As initially conceived (and anticipated in planning documents), use of Mill Site Road was to be limited to emergency vehicles and public transit. Eventually, Martis Camp residents began using the access road as a shortcut to and from Northstar-at-Tahoe.

Following an initial action, with the intent of precluding Martis Camp residents from using Mill Site Road, the Retreat homeowners filed an application in February 2014 requesting the County abandon the public road easement rights in Mill Site Road. Ultimately, the County approved the abandonment request in November 2015. Several plaintiffs filed suit, alleging inter alia that the County’s approval violated CEQA. On appeal, plaintiffs contended that the County violated CEQA by relying on an addendum to the Martis Camp EIR, by failing to prepare a supplemental or subsequent EIR, and by using an improper baseline to evaluate the impacts of abandoning Mill Site Road.

The Third District found that the decision to rely on the Martis Camp EIR was unsupported by substantial evidence. Mill Site Road was not part of the Martis Camp project; rather, it was part of the Retreat project, evidenced in part by the stated effect of abandoning the road to prevent Martis Camp residents from using the road for private travel – a use that was already prohibited by the Martis Camp project’s own conditions of approval. Accordingly, no evidence supported the County’s finding that Mill Site Road abandonment modified any part of the Martis Camp project. While sympathizing with the County’s practical desire to use the Martis Camp EIR based on the intended effect of restoring traffic patterns to those envisioned by the Martis Camp project, the Court held that no authority allows an agency to conduct subsequent environmental review of a change to a project by relying on analysis from a prior EIR prepared for a different project. The Court concluded that the County should have looked to the Retreat EIR to determine whether the previous environmental document retained relevance in light of the proposed project modifications. The Court further concluded that the County’s reliance on an addendum to the Martis Camp EIR constituted a prejudicial abuse of discretion.

Next, the Court agreed with plaintiffs’ argument that because the road abandonment could cause new and more severe environmental impacts by forcing Martis Camp residents to use an alternative route to reach the Retreat (thus increasing VMT), the County violated CEQA by preparing an addendum instead of a supplemental or subsequent EIR. The Court, having established that the abandonment cannot be compared against the environmental impacts analyzed in the Martis Camp EIR concluded that the County prejudicially abused its discretion by concluding no SEIR was required based on the Martis Camp EIR.

The Court ultimately did not decide whether the County used an appropriate baseline because the County should have compared the effects of abandoning Mill Site Road against the environmental impacts analyzed in the Retreat EIR, rather than the Martis Camp EIR. Accordingly, the Court remanded the baseline issue, so the County could determine whether the Retreat EIR retained relevance despite the changes to the project or its circumstances, thus allowing the County to proceed under CEQA’s subsequent review sections. Alternatively, if the County determines the Retreat EIR lacks relevance, the County must undertake environmental review from the beginning of the CEQA process.

Key Point
When an action may impact more than one preexisting project, agencies must focus on which project will be changed by the action. Subsequent environmental review must relate to the project for which further discretionary approval is required – not merely which project will be impacted – because CEQA does not permit agencies to prepare an SEIR or addendum that relies on a prior EIR for a different project.