First District Court of Appeal Strikes Down Portions of Caltrans EIR

Lotus v. Dept. of Transportation (Jan. 30, 2014) ___ Cal.App.4th ___, Case No. A137315

On January 30, 2014, the First District Court of Appeal struck down portions of a Caltrans EIR evaluating redwood tree removal on a stretch of U.S. Route 101. The court found the agency’s environmental review insufficient for failing to properly evaluate the impacts on root systems of old growth trees bordering the roadway.  The opinion was certified for partial publication.

Caltrans sought to widen parts of Route 101 in Richardson Grove State Park because the narrow, windy roads did not meet current design standards and prevented large trucks from easy access to Humboldt County. The restriction on these trucks, according to the agency, hindered profits and competition for businesses in Humboldt. The EIR for the project described the proposed activities as “minor road adjustments including realignments, curve corrections, and shoulder widening” and “culvert improvements and repaving the roadway.” The project’s environmental impacts included tree removal and potential damage to tree roots caused by excavation and fill. The EIR found that only six redwoods – none of them old growth redwoods – would be removed. About forty other trees in the park would potentially have fill place over their roots.

The EIR described measures to lessen these impacts, including restorative planting and invasive plant removal. The analysis concluded the project would not result in any significant environmental impacts with the implementation of these “special construction techniques.”

The trial court did not believe Caltrans violated CEQA simply by taking into account mitigation measures in determining that the project would have no significant effects. But it held that where an agency decides to incorporate mitigation measures into its significance determination and relies on those measures in finding no significant effects, the agency must treat those measures as required. Consequently, the court ordered Caltrans to show whether it had adopted a mitigation monitoring or reporting program. On appeal, the court did not think the monitoring solution sufficient to cure the EIR’s deficiencies.

The Court of Appeal found that the EIR adequately described the project’s environmental setting and scope. The general description of the project’s technical characteristics aligned with the Guidelines’ directive to not supply detail beyond what is needed to evaluate and review the environmental impacts. The court also found, however, that the EIR failed to comply with CEQA in its evaluation of the project’s impact on old growth redwood roots adjacent to the roadway. The EIR neither contained nor applied a standard of significance. This omission was compounded by the fact that Caltrans had incorporated mitigation measures into its project description and concluded that any potential impacts would be less than significant. “By compressing the analysis of impacts and mitigation measures into a single issue,” the court stated, “the EIR disregards the requirements of CEQA.”

In conclusion, the court found that the EIR suffered from “structural deficiency” due to its failure to discuss significant impacts apart from mitigation measures and thus to consider whether other mitigation would be more effective. The court ordered Caltrans to correct the deficiencies in the EIR and to recirculate the document if the agency found it necessary under CEQA standards.

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