Posts Tagged ‘CEQA’


In Ukiah Citizens for Safety First v. City of Ukiah (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 256, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found that the city’s environmental impact report (EIR) failed to sufficiently analyze potential energy impacts and that the adoption of an addendum subsequent to EIR approval could not be considered in determining the EIR’s adequacy because it was not part of the administrative record. Therefore, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s ruling that the EIR was adequate when analyzed in tandem with the addendum.

The project at issue was a Costco warehouse store and gas station. The EIR concluded the project would have significant traffic impacts but the city certified it and adopted a statement of overriding conditions.  CEQA requires that EIRs propose mitigation measures to reduce the wasteful, inefficient, and unnecessary consumption of energy. Although the certified EIR mentioned energy impacts throughout, it did not contain a separate section devoted to energy impacts analysis. One section stated that since the project would comply with the California Code of Regulations Title 24 energy conservation standards, it would not result in wasteful, inefficient, and unnecessary consumption of energy.

Project opponents filed a petition asserting that the EIR failed to include adequate information regarding the project’s energy use. After the writ petition was filed, the Third District Court of Appeal issued an opinion finding that the analysis of energy impacts in an EIR substantially similar to the one at issue in this case was inadequate. In California Clean Energy Committee v. City of Woodland (2014) 225 Cal.App.4th 173 (CCEC) the Third District held that the energy analysis was insufficient for three reasons: (1) the EIR concluded the project would generate new trips without calculating the impacts of those trips; (2) the EIR improperly relied on compliance with the building code to mitigate energy impacts without analyzing the additional considerations required by appendix F; and (3) reliance on mitigation measures designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was misplaced because though there may be a correlation between the two, air quality mitigation is not a substitute for energy analysis. Ukiah’s EIR had all three of these problems. The city addressed these deficiencies by adopting an addendum to the EIR, and the trial court read the two documents together and concluded the energy analysis was adequate.

The court of appeal reversed the trial court’s decision upholding the EIR and found that subject to Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5 the addendum was not part of the administrative record and therefore could not be considered in deciding whether the city abused its discretion in certifying the EIR. CEQA Guidelines section 15164, which allows the preparation of addendums, assumes the EIR previously certified was adequate and does not allow retroactive correction of inadequate EIRs. Thus, the court directed the city to set aside its project approval and certification of the EIR until recirculation of the energy analysis and consideration of public comments took place. The court did not offer any opinion on the adequacy of the addendum.

In the unpublished portion of the opinion the court rejected the rest of the project opponent’s arguments. First, the impacts from an interchange improvement discussed in the traffic section of the EIR did not need to be analyzed because it was a longstanding proposal that was needed regardless of the project. Second, the population estimates used in the traffic study were supported by substantial evidence. Third, the court held that the noise study was sufficient and that the impacts to nearby hotel guests were insignificant because nighttime deliveries already occurred for existing commercial uses. Lastly, the court found that the Airport Industrial Park specific plan, with which the project was inconsistent, did not apply because it was effectively superseded.

Written by Sabrina S. Eshaghi

The Third District Court of Appeal reversed the decision of the trial court and held that a programmatic EIR for a seven-year program to control an invasive pest violated CEQA. (North Coast Rivers Alliance v. Kawamura (2015) 243 Cal.App.4th 647. The draft EIR evaluated eradication of the light brown apple moth, but the California Department of Food and Agriculture adopted a program to control the moth due to intervening spread of the moth and ultimate infeasibility of eradication. The court held that even before new information on feasibility of eradication came to light, the EIR contained an impermissibly narrow project objective, resulting in omitted analysis of pest control as an alternative to eradication.

The light brown apple moth is native to Australia and was introduced to California in 2007. Its traits of eating plant leaves and buds, adapting to new plants, and multiplying rapidly posed a significant danger to California ecology and agriculture, including potential extinction of sensitive species. This threat prompted the CDFA to prepare an EIR for a moth eradication program.

The draft EIR included five “alternatives” to the program, which the court determined were not true alternatives, but were instead tools to achieve eradication. The tools focused on disrupting mating patterns and introducing pesticides and natural predators. The draft EIR did not evaluate control as an alternative to eradication, and stated that the two mechanisms were fundamentally different because eradication had an end date, but control could potentially continue forever. Although the certified final EIR was for the eradication program, the adopted findings evaluated a seven-year control program. The program’s objective was also changed from eradication to protecting food supply and California’s agricultural economy.

The court held that even without this last-minute change from eradication to control, the EIR violated CEQA because the EIR failed to analyze pest control as a reasonable alternative to the eradication program. The process of selecting alternatives, it stated, begins with the establishment of project objectives, and the project’s artificially narrow objective of eradication precluded evaluation of alternatives that might have lesser environmental effects. Rather, protection of plants and crops were “clearly” the objectives and underlying purpose of the eradication program. The revised objectives in the final EIR underscored this conclusion.

The EIR’s failure to analyze the alternative “infected the entire EIR insofar as it dismissed out of hand anything that would not achieve complete eradication” of the moth. Though the department claimed the approved control program was narrower (less intensive) than the eradication program, and therefore fit within that program, the failure to analyze the control program in the EIR left the department unable to support this assertion with substantial evidence. The court held the final EIR’s selection of an alternative not analyzed in the EIR was prejudicial error.

The court continued with petitioners’ other contentions despite having already found reversible error. The court held petitioners’ claims of insufficiency of the evidence did not constitute a separate grounds for reversal of the judgment, and petitioners failed to show reversible error regarding the “No-Program” alternative or the EIR’s impact analyses. The court did not address the cumulative impacts contentions, finding that the reversible error necessitated a new cumulative impacts discussion.

Paulek v. Western Riverside County (June 17, 2015) __ Cal.App.4th __, Case No. E059133

In a decision reversing the trial court, Division Two of the Fourth District held that the removal of a conservation overlay constituted a project under CEQA and that the project did not fall within the identified exemptions. The decision involves a Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to maintain open spaces in western Riverside County. The HCP identified a “criteria area” broken down into cells, each about 160 acres in size, that were to be evaluated to determine what portions of the criteria area should be included in the conservation area. Part of the criteria area included the Warm Springs Ranch owned by Anheuser-Bush; a conservation overlay had been placed upon the ranch.

In 2005, Anheuser submitted applications to develop the Ranch. The County informed Anheuser that all but 71 acres of the Ranch would be acquired for conservation under the HCP, and in 2011 the parties reached a settlement agreement whereby the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority (the Agency) would purchase the Ranch from Anheuser. The property was to be purchased in 9 phases, and phase 9, which consisted of a 200-acre area, would cost $11 million. One of the purchasing conditions for the phase-9 property was that the conservation overlay would be removed.

Paulek asserted that the Agency should have considered whether removing the conservation overlay would have a significant environmental impact, and contended possible development on that area had the potential to affect wildlife by reducing habitat. The Agency contended that because, as part of the agreement with Anheuser, 1,064 acres would be acquired by the Agency and protected as open space, and because the phase-9 property was highly degraded habitat, the conservation transfer would result in more and better land being protected. Therefore, the Agency reasoned, the action was not a project under CEQA, and if even it was, it was exempt from CEQA.

The court rejected the Agency’s arguments, holding that the removal of the conservation overlay from the phase-9 property constituted a project under CEQA. Among other things, the court reasoned that removing the overlay was analogous to amending a general plan or changing a zoning ordinance, which are projects under CEQA. Removing the conservation overlay embodied a fundamental land use decision that had the potential to cause physical changes in the environment in that the land protected for conservation purposes would no longer be subject to such protections. Therefore, the Agency’s decision to remove the overlay was a project under CEQA.

The court was unpersuaded by the Agency’s arguments concerning the protection of 1,064 acres of more environmentally pristine land in exchange for the 200-acre phase-9 property. The court explained that the decision to remove the overlay was a separate decision from the decision to put 1,064 acres of other land in conservation. But even if the removal of the overlay and addition of overlay elsewhere was considered part of the same project, the fact remained that the 200 acres of the phase-9 property would no longer be protected by the conservation overlay. The court characterized the Agency’s argument as “essentially washing over any negative changes to the phase 9-property by highlighting the positive changes to the [other] properties.” For instance, noted the court, there are two species present on the phase-9 property that are not present on the 1,064 acres, so the land swap would not protect these two species.

The court also rejected the Agency’s argument that the project fell within certain exemptions from CEQA. The court held that a Class 7 exemption, which exempts projects that consist of actions taken by regulatory agencies to assure the maintenance, restoration, or enhancement of a natural resource, did not apply because a fair argument existed that removing the overlay could adversely affect certain species. Although the phase-9 property was not “prime” habitat for those species, there was no indication that it was so superfluous to those species that removing it from conservation would not adversely affect the species.

With respect to the Class 8 exemption, which is nearly identical to a Class 7 exemption except that it applies to the “environment” rather than natural resources, the court held that because there was uncertainty as to whether there would be a significant impact on the environment, the Class 8 exemption did not apply. Evidence in the administrative record demonstrated that the loss of the conservation overlay could affect the neighboring conservation area, and the effects could be significant such that there would need to be an attempt to lessen the effects.

The court also rejected the Agency’s claim that the project fell within the common sense exemption, which applies where it is certain that there is no possibility that an activity will have a significant effect on the environment. The change in designation of the phase-9 property from protected to unprotected had the potential for causing ultimate physical environmental changes, which was sufficient to take the project outside the purview of the exemption.

In addition to rejecting the Agency’s arguments on the merits, the court rejected various procedural arguments made by the Agency, holding that Paulek had standing, that Paulek’s action was timely, and that Paulek did not fail to join an indispensable party.

 

 

The court held that a Nonindustrial Timber Management Plan (NTMP) approved by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) authorizing logging on 615 privately owned acres in Mendocino County did not violate CEQA. Center for Biological Diversity v. Cal. Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection (Dec. 30, 2014) ___ Cal.App.4th ___, Case No. A138914.

Timberland use in California is primarily governed by the Forest Practice Act and Forest Practice Rules. An NMTP is a long-term plan for sustained yield timber production utilized by owners of less than 2500 acres of timberland and whose focus is not manufacturing forest products. Though Cal Fire’s approval of timber operations is generally subject to CEQA, the Forest Practice Act’s regulatory scheme is a certified regulatory program. An NTMP functions as the equivalent of an EIR.

In October 2008, the Bower family submitted a proposed NTMP to Cal Fire seeking authorization for timber harvesting activities northeast of Gualala. Petitioners took issue with the fact that Cal Fire approved, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) did not object to, logging activity on a 17-acre section that DFW identified as a Late Succession Forest Stand (LSFS). This LSFS was considered a potential functional nesting habitat for a threatened seabird, the marbled murrelet. At the same time, there was no known history of any actual murrelet nesting in the LSFS.

Following a preharvest inspection of the Bowers’ property, a forester asserted the LSFS had only marginal potential for marbled murrelet occupation. A revised NTMP submitted in 2009 required retention of several large-diameter trees to benefit wildlife. Cal Fire issued responses to public comments on the NTMP and approved the document, concluding that large wildlife trees were being preserved, and species largely dependent on late seral habitat features would not be adversely impacted. DFW did not submit a nonconcurrence.

Petitioners filed a petition for a writ, complaint for breach of public trust, and request for injunctive relief. Petitioners contended that Cal Fire, in approving the NTMP, had failed to comply with CEQA and the Forest Practice Rules. They insisted the cumulative impacts of the proposed logging would eliminate enough large trees in the LSFS to render the stand unsuitable for murrelet nesting. Petitioners also argued the NTMP violated the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) by authorizing logging that would be adverse to nesting habitat essential for the survival and recovery of the murrelet.

Reviewing Cal Fire’s approval under the substantial evidence standard, the court denied the petition. It characterized petitioners’ contentions as disagreements over the evidence—parties drawing “dramatically differing conclusions from the same record.” The calculations and comparisons petitioners attempted to make, even if accurate, did not offer a complete description of the resulting environment, the court stated. Furthermore, Cal Fire was entitled to choose between differing expert opinions. Petitioners failed to affirmatively show that there was no substantial evidence in the record to support Cal Fire’s findings. The court also rejected petitioners’ claims that the NTMP did not analyze a reasonable range of alternatives.

Petitioners also claimed the NTMP should have been recirculated based on “significant new information” added prior to certification. They cited to a 2009 one-page memorandum from a Cal Fire biologist recommending additional protective measures for large tree retention. Each of the biologist’s recommendations were addressed in additional mitigation measures. The court found that the memo disclosed no new environmental impacts nor any substantial increase in the severity of an impact. The mitigation measures added in response to the memo were discussed in a second review, in which petitioners participated, and were accepted eight days prior to the close of the public comment period.

Petitioners’ CESA claims failed because Cal Fire found that implementation of the plan, as mitigated, would not result in take, jeopardy, or adverse modification of habitat in violation of the CESA. That finding was supported by substantial evidence.

Petitioners’ claim against DFW also failed. Petitioners cited no authority for the proposition that an NTMP is subject to review through traditional mandamus under CCP section 1085, particularly when the petition is not directed to the agency with authority to approve or reject the project. DFW’s decision not to actively oppose Cal Fire’s decision was merely an exercise of agency discretion.

The Second District Court of Appeal held the County of Ventura violated CEQA when it increased the height of a proposed building by 15 feet without filing a supplemental EIR. The county had filed an addendum considering the impact of the building’s change in location, but the addendum neglected to mention a change in building height from 75 feet to 90 feet. The court considered this a substantial change in the project requiring major revisions to the EIR. Ventura Foothill Neighbors v. County of Ventura, Case No. B254120 (Dec. 15, 2014).

In 1993, the County Board of Supervisors decided to construct a five-story ambulatory care clinic on the county’s Medical Center campus. The 1993 EIR stated that the building would be up to 75 feet tall. The county delayed construction until 2005, when the board decided the clinic should be relocated a few hundred feet northwest of the original location to reduce environmental impacts and to utilize a more parking-centric location. The county prepared an addendum for the relocation and filed a notice of determination (NOD). Neither the addendum nor the NOD stated that the clinic would exceed 75 feet. In 2008, a nearby resident inquired about the presence of a rig on the site, and learned that the relocated clinic was to be 90 feet tall. The height difference, petitioners claimed, would “significantly diminish the superior ocean view setting” of the Foothill residences. The trial court held in favor of the residents, and the court of appeal affirmed.

The court of appeal denied the county’s argument that the Ventura Foothill Neighbors were time-barred from challenging the decision to proceed with an addendum because the challenge fell outside CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations. The court distinguished the California Supreme Court decision in Committee For Green Foothills v. Santa Clara County Bd. of Supervisors (2010) 48 Cal.4th 32, in which the Court held that filing of a valid NOD triggers a 30-day statute of limitations. Since the neither the addendum or the NOD made any mention of the increase in the building’s height, the timeline ran from the time of the neighbor’s inquiry.

This case stems from one of the many efforts by opponents of the City of Sacramento’s decision to approve a partially subsidized downtown arena project to stop the project. Here, the project opponents argued Public Resources Code section 21168.6.6, which shortens several CEQA deadlines for the project, is unconstitutional. The Third District Court of Appeal disagreed in a published opinion: Saltonstall v. City of Sacramento, Case No. C077031 (Nov. 20, 2014).

As a result of the City’s efforts to retain the Kings NBA team, the NBA blocked sale of the team to the city of Seattle. But the NBA reserves the right to acquire the team and relocate it to another city if the downtown arena is not opened by 2017. To address this timeframe, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 743. Relevant to this case, the bill added section 21168.6.6 to the Public Resources Code. This section accelerates the ordinary CEQA litigation timeline, with provisions addressing, for example, speedy preparation of the administrative record. The section also augments the proof of harm required to obtain a preliminary injunction against the project. Specifically, a preliminary injunction may only issue if proceeding with the project presents an “imminent threat to the public health and safety” or if unforeseen historical or archaeological artifacts are discovered on the project site. The section applies only to the downtown arena project.

The project opponents initially sought a preliminary injunction in the trial court to stop demolition and construction activities for the downtown arena. The trial court declined to grant the injunction, and the project opponents appealed on the grounds that section 21168.6.6 violates the state constitution.

Project opponents first argued section 21168.6.6 violates the state constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. Project opponents reasoned that, by passing this section into law, the Legislature infringed on the power of the state courts to grant injunctive relief. The appellate court noted that while the section does change the standard for granting injunctive relief, nothing in the section prevents a court from issuing such relief. Therefore, the courts may still fulfill their adjudicatory function under the section.

In reaching this outcome, the appellate court emphasized that CEQA is a legislative act, subjective to legislative limitation and amendment. In fact, the court pointed out that the Legislature could exempt the downtown arena project entirely from the requirements CEQA. Such an exemption implicates no constitutional rights because rights derived from CEQA are granted by the Legislature.

Nor does section 21168.6.6 impermissibly interfere with the judicial branch by requiring the Judicial Council to adopt procedures for resolving actions, “to the extent feasible,” within 270 days. The appellate court noted the time-line is suggestive and, therefore, does not materially impair the ability of state courts to adjudicate cases pursuant to the section.

In light of its determination that section 21168.6.6 is constitutional, the appellate court declined to overturn the trial court’s decision to deny the preliminary injunction. The appellate court also rejected the City’s request for sanctions for failure to comply with Rules of Court, rule 8.276(b)(1). Requesting sanctions pursuant to this rule requires that the moving party file a motion supported by a declaration. The City did not file such a supported motion.

A published opinion by the First District Court of Appeal emphasizes the importance of filing timely CEQA lawsuits. In Citizens for a Green San Mateo v. San Mateo Community College District, the court determined that, even under the most generous interpretation of CEQA’s statute of limitations, a petitioner’s lawsuit was time-barred under Public Resources Code section 21167.

The controversy arose when the San Mateo Community College District removed and pruned over 200 invasive eucalyptus trees on the northern edge of the community college campus. The district began removing trees on December 28, 2010. On January 5, 2011, a member of Citizens for a Green San Mateo contacted the district expressing concern over the tree removal and pruning. Citizens for a Green San Mateo filed a petition for writ of mandate on July 1, 2011, alleging that the district violated CEQA and was required to prepare an EIR to study the tree removal. The trial court determined the challenge was timely and granted the petition, finding the district had violated CEQA. The district appealed.

The Appellate Court’s Decision

On appeal, the district argued the 30-day statute of limitations period established by Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivisions (b) or (e) applied to bar the CEQA lawsuit because the district filed a Notice of Determination. The NOD described the mitigated negative declaration prepared by the district when it approved the Facility Improvements at College of San Mateo project, or the “CSM Project,” in 2007.

The CSM Project included renovation, demolition, replacement, or new construction of about 25 buildings, numerous pedestrian and automobile circulation enhancements, and other improvements to modernize the campus. The negative declaration also determined that the proposed project would result in the removal and pruning of an unknown number of trees, but tree plantings proposed as part of the project would mitigate any unavoidable tree removal, resulting in a less than significant impact. At the hearing, a district trustee expressed concern regarding campus-wide tree removal proposed as part of the CSM Project, but noted that, due to the mitigation required by the negative declaration, “the number of newly planted trees will be greater than that of removed trees.” No public comments were offered at the hearing.

The appellate court rejected the petitioner’s claim that the tree removal was “materially different” from the activities discussed in the mitigated negative declaration and subsequent NOD that the community college district filed for the CSM Project. The court emphasized that the term “project,” for the purposes of CEQA, does not mean each separate governmental approval that may ultimately be required to complete the proposed action. The court concluded that the record demonstrated the tree removal was a subsequent activity encompassed within the scope of the CSM Project. Since the district filed an NOD recording its approval of the CSM Project, and the public was on notice that trees could be removed anywhere on campus as a result of the CSM Project, the 30-day statute of limitations established by section 21167, subdivisions (b) and (e) applied to bar the lawsuit.

Even if the 180-day limitations period, which applies when no NOD is filed, applied to this case, the appellate court determined the lawsuit was still time-barred. Assuming, for the purposes of analysis, that the district failed to adequately notify the public of the tree removal, any challenge would need to be filed within 180 days from the date of the district’s decision to carry out or approve the project, according to section 21167, subdivision (a). Here, the district committed to the tree removal at the public trustee meeting on November 17, 2010. The appellate court emphasized that section 21167, subdivision (a), does not require any special notice requirement to start the 180-day clock; all that is required is a formal decision by a public agency to carry out or approve the project. Therefore, the petition was time-barred, even assuming the tree removal was not described in the mitigated negative declaration certified for the CSM Project.

Finally, the appellate court was not persuaded by the efforts of Citizens for a Green San Mateo to avoid the result of filing its complaint outside CEQA’s statute of limitations. Citizens asserted it had no notice of the potential for tree removal activities until a neighbor/member observed the trees being cut down on January 5, 2011. To support this argument, the citizens cited the California Supreme Court’s opinion in Concerned Citizens of Costa Mesa, Inc. v. 32nd District Agricultural Association (1986) 42 Cal.3d 929. But the appellate court noted that the citizens interpreted the test established in that case incorrectly. In Concerned Citizens, the agency approved a fairground on six acres that would have seated 5,000. As constructed, the theater actually seated 7,000 across 10 acres, so the project constructed was materially different than the project the agency initially approved. Further, the agency never alerted the public to these changes. Therefore, the Supreme Court determined the 180-day statute of limitations ran from when the public reasonably should have known the project being constructed was different than the project approved. In contrast, the mitigated negative declaration prepared by the community college district notified the public that the district intended extensive landscaping improvements across campus that could require the removal of mature trees. Further, the tree removal activities conducted were not materially different from those approved by the district at an open hearing in November 2010. So even under the most generous interpretation of section 21167 and the case law established by the Supreme Court, Citizens for a Green San Mateo’s petition was time-barred.

RMM partners James Moose and Sabrina Teller represented the San Mateo Community College District.

Highland Park Heritage Trust v. City of Los Angeles, Case No. B242930 (Feb. 18, 2014), unpublished

On February 18, 2014, in an unpublished decision, the Second District Court of Appeal denied petitioners’ request to set aside approval of the Autry Museum’s internal remodeling project. The court held the city of Los Angeles did not abuse its discretion in determining the project was exempt from CEQA.

In 2003, the Autry Museum merged with the Southwest Museum and thereafter discovered that the Southwest site was unsuitable for housing the museum collection. Autry decided to move the collection from the Southwest’s Arroyo Campus in Mount Washington to Autry’s Griffith Park Campus. At first, Autry intended to expansively extend the external footprint of its museum, but withdrew the plan after it was met with public controversy and delays. Autry replaced this proposal with a less ambitious plan to replace 18,000 square feet of the first floor of the museum. The City of Los Angeles approved this new project and determined it was categorically exempt from CEQA. The state later awarded Autry a $6.6 million grant to redesign the interior of the Griffith Park Museum.

Local residents and preservationists sought to set aside the approved collection relocation, claiming that the city had a duty to support the Southwest Museum as a cultural resource and preserve the Arroyo Campus location. Petitioners claimed that the project was not exempt under CEQA, and that the project was improperly piecemealed from a greater project. The trial court held for the city, and petitioners appealed.

The Court of Appeal held that whether the project could be considered a piecemealed section of a larger project was irrelevant where the project was exempt from CEQA. Under Class 1 exemptions, certain projects involving interior alterations to an existing facility are categorically exempt from CEQA, unless they fall under an exception whereby there are unusual circumstances creating a reasonable probability that the activity would have a significant impact on the environment. The court found no such exception here. The court held that moving the artifacts from the Southwest collection to the Autry Museum would not have a significant impact on the geographic environment of that museum or its surroundings, and the objects themselves were not site-specific to the Arroyo location. The court also held that the project was not inconsistent with the Northeast Los Angeles Community Plan because the plan’s goal to preserve and protect the Southwest museum pertained to the building itself rather than its contents. Thus, the city had not abused its discretion in approving the project.

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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On January 15, 2014, the California Supreme Court granted review of Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District (Case No. S214061). The case was previously heard in Division One of the First Appellate District, which issued an unpublished opinion in favor of the petitioner group on September 26, 2013.

The action arose when petitioner Friends challenged the San Mateo County Community College District’s decision to demolish a building complex on the district’s College of San Mateo campus to make room for a new parking lot. The District’s decision was supported by an addendum to a six-year-old previously adopted negative declaration covering campus-wide renovation plans. Friends argued the demolition project violated CEQA and sought to compel the district to prepare an EIR for the demolition and parking lot project as a “new project”, rather than a change to the previously adopted campus renovation plans under CEQA. The trial court granted Friends’ petition. The Court of Appeal affirmed, opining that, as a matter of law, the demolition project was a “new” project, thereby requiring environmental review beyond an addendum.

In its petition for review, the District requested the Supreme Court clarify the appropriate level of judicial deference due to agencies in subsequent environmental review situations. The District presented the following issue to the court: “[i]f a lead agency approves modifications to a previously reviewed and approved project through an addendum, may a court disregard the substantial evidence underlying the agency’s decision to treat the proposed action as a change to a project rather than a new project, and go on to decide as a matter of law that the agency in fact approved a ‘new’ project rather than a modification to a previously approved project, even though this ‘new project’ test is nowhere described in CEQA or the Guidelines?”

Although CEQA sets a relatively low threshold for requiring the preparation of an EIR for a project of first impression, the District noted, Public Resources Code section 21166 establishes a presumption against subsequent review; a later EIR is not required unless new or substantially worse environmental impacts would occur as a result of the changes to the previously-reviewed project. The inquiry was thus whether the District’s project changes would require major revisions of the previous negative declaration “due to the involvement of new significant environmental effects or a substantial increase in the severity of previously identified significant effects.” The District argued that the project changes were appropriately presented in the addendum, which showed there would be no more severe environmental impacts due to these changes—in fact, less total building area would be demolished than was originally planned in 2007, due to the District’s interim decisions to renovate, rather than demolish as originally planned, a couple of other buildings on the campus.

The District argued that the Court of Appeal had relied on a heavily criticized outlier case, Save Our Neighborhood v. Lishman, in reaching its decision, furthering a split among the appellate districts regarding the appropriate standard of review to apply to an agency’s conclusions under section 21166. In Lishman, the Third Appellate District announced a new standard whereby it could decide for itself as a threshold matter of law whether a challenged action constituted a change to a previously reviewed and approved project or a new project altogether. The District, in its petition, discouraged the use of Lishman’s “new project” standard, which affords no deference to agencies, does not derive from CEQA or the Guidelines, and does not provide workable guidance to agencies in understanding what factors should be taken into consideration in the “changed project” versus “new project” determination. Instead, the District urged that courts should follow case law holding substantial evidence applies to review of an agency’s determination that section 21166 applies to proposed actions, including a decision to prepare an addendum to a previously reviewed document.

The District also noted that the Court of Appeal failed to identify any flaws in the analysis presented in the addendum and thus no prejudicial error committed by the District. In doing so, the District argued, the appellate court had prioritized form over substance and created needless expense for the district and state taxpayers in requiring that a new initial study be prepared.

RMM attorneys, James G. Moose and Sabrina V. Teller, partners in the firm, and John T. Wheat, associate, represent the San Mateo County Community College District in the litigation.

The docket for the case is available here.

Senate Bill 743, passed on September 27, 2013 directs the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), in part, to prepare revisions to the CEQA Guidelines establishing criteria for measuring the significance of projects’ transportation impacts. OPR has produced a Preliminary Evaluation of Alternative Methods of Transportation Analysis, which develops those recommendations by exploring new ways to measure environmental impacts related to transportation. The goal of the new transportation-impact metrics is to both reduce environmental review costs and achieve better economic, health, and environmental outcomes from such review.

Currently, CEQA review of transportation impacts uses the Level of Service (LOS) metric, which focuses on vehicle delay at intersections and on roadways. Mitigation measures to increase traffic flow typically involve increasing the capacity (i.e., width) of the intersection or road, rather than encouraging alternate lower-emission forms of transportation. LOS has thus been criticized as working against state goals like GHG emissions reductions, infill development, and multimodal transportation networks. Other criticisms of the metric are that LOS is difficult and expensive to calculate; LOS measures motorist convenience rather than physical impact to the environment; and LOS skews environmental priorities by characterizing bicycle and pedestrian improvements as detrimental to transportation, thereby discouraging more environmentally friendly modes of travel.

SB 743 requires OPR to provide non-LOS evaluation methods for transportation impacts. These criteria must promote the reduction of greenhouse gases and the development of transportation networks, particularly in areas with transportation infrastructure already in place. The most important way in which SB 743 facilitates achievement of state goals is that once the new criteria are in place, LOS-measured traffic will not be considered a significant impact on the environment. The bill does not limit the type of projects to which the new transportation criteria would apply.

OPR’s preliminary evaluation studies a number of suggested alternative measures of transportation impacts including vehicle miles traveled per automobile or per capita, automobile trips generated, fuel use, and motor vehicle hours traveled. The agency’s analysis highlights the difficulty of using each metric and identifies which mitigation measures and project alternatives might result from the use of each metric.

Comments on the proposed metrics are due by February 14, 2014 to CEQA.Guidelines@ceres.ca.gov. OPR must produce a draft of the Guidelines revisions by July 1, 2014.

OPR Seeks Input on CEQA Guidelines Update

January 7th, 2014 by Gwynne Hunter

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) is seeking input on proposed topics and changes for its 2014 CEQA Guidelines update. OPR asks whether Read the rest of this entry »

On January 3, 2014, the First District Court of Appeal ordered publication of Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City and County of San Francisco. We previously wrote about the case here.

The League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties jointly submitted a request for publication. In support of this request, the groups pointed out that: no other published decision has applied the rules of preemption to single-use plastic bag bans; the opinion suggests that if environmentally beneficial components are an integral aspect of a project from its inception, they may be considered when determining that a categorical exemption from CEQA applies to the project; the opinion clarifies that local agencies can use the Class 7 and Class 8 categorical exemptions and operate in a regulatory capacity; and the opinion provides helpful guidance regarding what qualifies as substantial evidence under the fair argument standard. The court did not state which, if any, of these arguments influenced its decision to publish the opinion.

On December 10, 2013, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alan J. Goodman issued a 41-page tentative ruling in three consolidated cases filed against the City of Los Angeles. The court struck down updates to the Hollywood Community Plan and accompanying EIR Read the rest of this entry »