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Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments (2017) ___ Cal. 5th __ (Case No. S223603) (July 13, 2017).

In a 6/1 opinion, the California Supreme Court held that the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) did not abuse its discretion by failing to present a consistency analysis in the EIR for its 2011 regional transportation plan (RTP) comparing anticipated GHG emissions with the long-term reduction goals presented in Executive Order (EO) S-3-05. The court reasoned that SANDAG had adequately informed the public, using information available at the time, of inconsistencies with overall state climate goals.

In 2011, SANDAG issued its RTP as a 40-year blueprint for regional transportation planning. The RTP was accompanied by an EIR that used three thresholds of significance to assess GHG impacts. Compared to existing (2010) conditions, the EIR found GHG impacts to be “not significant” in 2020, but significant in both 2035 and 2050. The EIR also analyzed GHG emissions against statutory goals for the years 2020 and 2035, but did not compare emissions against the long-term (2050) goal set forth in EO S-3-5 (80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050).  In response to comments that were critical of the GHG analysis, SANDAG maintained that it had no obligation to analyze projected GHG emissions against the Executive Order.

Several groups filed lawsuits challenging the EIR and the Attorney General later joined the petitioners. The superior court found the EIR inadequate and issued a writ of mandate. The Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that, among other flaws, the EIR violated CEQA by failing to measure GHG impacts against the Executive Order.

The Supreme Court granted review on the following question: “Must the environmental impact report for a regional transportation plan include an analysis of the plan‘s consistency with the greenhouse gas emission reduction goals reflected in Executive Order No. S-3-05 to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.)?”

Addressing this question, the Supreme Court held that the EIR was not required to include an express analysis of GHG impacts compared to the Executive Order’s goals. The court was careful, however, to limit its holding to the facts before it, explaining that it was holding “only that SANDAG, in analyzing greenhouse gas impacts at the time of the EIR, did not abuse its discretion by declining to adopt the Executive Order as a measure of significance or to discuss the Executive Order more than it did.” The court noted that this level of analysis would not “necessarily be sufficient going forward.”

Finding that an express consistency analysis was not required, the court disagreed that the EIR obscured the statutory framework or statewide goals, although it conceded that SANDAG could have presented the information in “clearer or more graphic” ways. Because the EIR presented anticipated GHG emissions in 2050 and discussed the long-term goals in the Executive Order, the court found that the information was “not difficult” for the public to obtain to conduct a consistency analysis. The court stressed that the inclusion of this information in responses to comments instead of the EIR itself was “not an infirmity” because it would be expected that members of the public “interested in the contents of an EIR will not neglect this section.”

The court acknowledged the parties’ understanding that an executive order does not carry the “force of a legal mandate” when preparing a CEQA document but did not discuss this issue further. Nor did the Court prescribe this specific outcome for other agencies but instead repeatedly asserted the “narrowness” of its ruling and that planning agencies must ensure their analysis keeps up with “evolving scientific knowledge and state regulatory schemes.” In reversing the Court of Appeal’s judgement, the court ruled only that the 2011 analysis of GHGs emissions did not render the EIR inadequate. The court declined to express an opinion on other deficiencies identified by the trial court and Court of Appeal.

In a comprehensive dissent that included a detailed discussion of the legislative framework, Justice Cuéllar maintained that SANDAG’s EIR lacked “good faith reasoned analysis” because it obscured important GHG information. Justice Cuéllar pointed to the “relative clarity of statewide statutory goals” as reasoning why SANDAG did not have the discretion to downplay the GHG consequences of its RTP. Further, he expressed concern that the majority’s ruling could allow other regional planning agencies to “shirk their responsibilities.”

Remy Moose Manley (Whitman F. Manley, Laura M. Harris, and Christopher L. Stiles) submitted an Amicus Curiae brief in support of SANDAG.

[Casey Shorrock Smith]

Friends of Outlet Creek v. Mendocino County Air Quality Management District (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1235.

The First District Court of Appeal held that a responsible agency air quality management district may be sued under CEQA, but such suit must be limited to the agency’s specific discretionary action and may not challenge prior lead agency approvals. In addition, the court held that such an action must be brought as an administrative mandamus proceeding under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5.

In 2014, Grist Creek Aggregates, LLC (Grist Creek), initiated a process with Mendocino County to resume aggregate and asphalt production after years of reduced operation due to market conditions. The site had been used for aggregate and asphalt production since 1972. In 2009, the county updated its general plan and certified an EIR to, among other things, change the land use designation at the site from rangeland to industrial, and in 2010, the county rezoned the site to conform to the updated land use designations. No legal challenges were brought against the county’s actions.

In response to Grist Creek’s request to resume aggregate and asphalt production, the county Board of Supervisors issued a March 2015 resolution declaring that the resumption of asphalt production was neither a new, nor a changed, industrial use, and therefore it was allowed under a previously issued permit. The county issued a notice of exemption and Friends of Outlet Creek (Friends) filed a lawsuit challenging the county’s determination. Grist Creek then applied to the Mendocino County Air Quality Management District for an Authority to Construct (ATC), which the district issued in June of 2015 based on the county’s previous actions as the CEQA lead agency.

After its administrative appeal was denied, Friends filed a lawsuit against the district alleging that the district failed to comply with CEQA because it did not conduct a separate environmental analysis, and alleging the district did not follow its own regulations. The district and Grist Creek filed demurrers asserting that Friends could not sue the district directly under CEQA, and instead could only sue under Health and Safety Code section 40864. The trial court sustained the demurrers and Friends appealed.

The Court of Appeal cited to several cases to support its determination that the district could be sued under CEQA, including those that addressed challenges to individual permit decisions. In addition, the court pointed out that no court has ever declared that Health and Safety Code section 40864 is the only statute that can be invoked in challenging an action by an air quality management district. Therefore, the court held, Friends could sue directly under CEQA and was not required to sue under Health and Safety Code section 40864.

The court then turned to the scope of the CEQA challenge. Relying on the fact that the district’s role was limited to issuing the ATC, the court found that Friends could not challenge any of the county’s land use decisions through this litigation. The court further determined that, because a hearing was required, evidence was taken, and the administrative agency had discretion in determining the facts, the lawsuit must be brought as an administrative mandamus proceeding under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5. Thus, the challenge was limited to the record from the administrative appeal and matters judicially noticeable.

For information on Grist Creek’s action against the trial court seeking to vacate its demurrer rulings, see: http://www.rmmenvirolaw.com/2017/07/air-district-boards-tie-vote-on-authority-to-construct-permit-is-effectively-a-decision-not-to-revoke-it-which-is-reviewable-for-prejudicial-abuse-of-discretion/.

[Casey Shorrock Smith]

On November 2, 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s 2012 Regional Plan Update (RPU).

TRPA adopted the RPU as the general governing document for development and environmental protection in the Lake Tahoe region. The RPU generally restricts future development to areas that are already developed, and sets forth the amount of further development that will be permitted in those areas. The precise nature of that development is to be determined in “Area Plans” to be adopted later. Before approving the RPU, TRPA prepared an extensive EIS examining the potential environmental effects of the update.

Shortly after TRPA approved the RPU, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court alleging that TRPA’s actions violated the Lake Tahoe Regional Planning Compact in various respects. Their principal contentions were that the RPU failed to adequately address the localized effects of runoff created by the amount of development permitted, and that the RPU improperly assumed that best management practices (BMPs) could be utilized to achieve the RPU’s planning goals, despite TRPA’s poor record of enforcing BMPs in the past. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of TRPA. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

The Ninth Circuit held that the EIS adequately addressed potential impacts regarding water quality, soil conservation, and cumulative effects on biological resources. Applying a standard similar to the one used for evaluating environmental impact statements under NEPA, the court held that the RPU and EIS took the requisite “hard look” at these resource areas, despite that fact that the analysis was generally intended to be region-wide with additional site-specific review occurring later during the approval of Area Plans.

In finding that the EIS adequately addressed the localized effects of runoff, the court upheld TRPA’s reliance on the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) model, which aims to reduce the total flow of certain pollutants into the lake, and noted that the EIS’s storm-water modeling simulation addressed localized effects of runoff near concentrated development areas. The court concluded that the EIS adequately explained its basis for finding that concentrating development in community centers would not result in more concentrated runoff or other water quality impacts.

Regarding soil conservation, the court held that TRPA was not required to perform site-specific analysis of impacts because evaluation of coverage at a more localized scale would occur, as part of the Area Plan process, prior to development taking place.

Finally, upholding the EIS’s reliance on BMPs despite historically less-than-perfect enforcement by TRPA, the court noted that the EIS explained the steps that had been taken to improve enforcement. For example, TRPA’s BMP handbook acknowledged past failures in maintenance and incorporated that experience into updated BMP guidelines. The court also noted that the RPU provided incentives for redevelopment, and thus, was designed to move properties from TRPA’s retrofit program into its mandatory permitting program for new development, which requires BMP maintenance plans and logs. Thus, the court concluded that TRPA reasonably relied on data in the record in concluding that the RPU would have a less-than-significant effect on water quality.

The Supreme Court issued its opinion in California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (2015) __Cal.4th__ (Case No. S213478). In one of the most closely-watched CEQA cases of the year, the Court addressed whether CEQA requires analysis of the existing environment’s impact on the residents and users of a proposed project.

The case involved a challenge to BAAQMD’s adoption of new CEQA thresholds of significance for air pollutants, including Toxic Air Contaminant (TAC) “receptor thresholds” ­– thresholds for “new receptors” consisting of residents and workers who will be brought to the area as a result of a proposed project – and thresholds for GHGs and PM2.5. The thresholds were published in the District’s 2010 CEQA Air Quality Guidelines. CBIA challenged the adoption of the thresholds on various CEQA grounds. Relevant here, CBIA claimed the receptor thresholds were invalid because CEQA does not require analysis of the impacts that existing hazardous conditions will have on a new project’s occupants.

The Court of Appeal narrowly determined that the receptor thresholds have valid applications irrespective of whether CEQA requires an analysis of how existing environmental conditions impact a project‘s future residents or users, and therefore were “not invalid on their face.”

The Supreme Court granted review, but limited the scope of review to the following issue: Under what circumstances, if any, does CEQA require an analysis of how existing environmental conditions will impact future residents or users (receptors) of a proposed project?

In answering this question, the Court held that “agencies subject to CEQA generally are not required to analyze the impact of existing environmental conditions on a project‘s future users or residents. But when a proposed project risks exacerbating those environmental hazards or conditions that already exist, an agency must analyze the potential impact of such hazards on future residents or users. In those specific instances, it is the project’s impact on the environment ­– and not the environment’s impact on the project – that compels an evaluation of how future residents or users could be affected by exacerbated conditions.”

Based on its holding, the Court found CEQA Guidelines section 15126.2, subdivision (a), valid only in part. The Court noted that CEQA Guidelines section 15126.2, subdivision (a), indicates that CEQA generally requires an evaluation of environmental conditions and hazards existing on a proposed project site if such conditions and hazards may cause substantial adverse impacts to future residents or users of the project. Finding that CEQA calls upon an agency to evaluate existing conditions in order to assess whether a project could exacerbate hazards that are already present, the Court held that most of subdivision (a) is valid. The Court, however, found that the following two sentences were clearly erroneous and unauthorized by CEQA: “[A]n EIR on a subdivision astride an active fault line should identify as a significant effect the seismic hazard to future occupants of the subdivision. The subdivision would have the effect of attracting people to the location and exposing them to the hazards found there.” The Court therefore, invalidated these two sentences of the Guidelines.

After marching through relevant CEQA sections, the CEQA Guidelines, and case law, the Court concluded that its holding was consistent with the language and purposes of CEQA. The Court also concluded that its decision was not inconsistent with Court of Appeals cases on this issue, including Baird and Ballona Wetlands, among others.

The issue of whether CEQA requires analysis of the environment on a project is sometimes referred to as “CEQA-in-reverse.” The Supreme Court took issue with that characterization, finding it “misleading and inapt.” The Court explained that “[b]ecause CEQA does sometimes require analysis of the effect of existing conditions on a project‘s future residents or users, such analysis is not the reverse of what CEQA mandates.”

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeal for reconsideration in light of the Court’s holding.

The California Supreme Court issued its highly-anticipated decision in Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The case, which involved a challenge to an EIR prepared for the Newhall Ranch development project in Southern California, provided the first opportunity for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the analysis of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts under CEQA. The Court also addressed important issues regarding mitigation for protected species and exhaustion of administrative remedies.

Background

In 2010, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) prepared a joint EIS/EIR for two natural resource plans related to Newhall Ranch ­– a proposed land development that included over 20,000 dwelling units as well as commercial and business uses, schools, golf courses, parks and other community facilities. Of relevance in the case, the EIR found that the project’s emissions of greenhouse gases would have a less-than-significant impact on the global climate, and that the project could significantly impact the unarmored threespine stickleback but adopted mitigation measures would avoid or substantially lessen that impact.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court addressed three issues: (1) Does the EIR validly determine the development’s greenhouse gas emission would not significantly impact the environment? (2) Are mitigation measures adopted for protection of a freshwater fish, the unarmored threespine stickleback, improper because they involve a prohibited take of the fully-protected species? (3) Were petitioners’ comments on two other issues submitted too late in the environmental review process to exhaust their administrative remedies under Public Resources Code section 21177?

Greenhouse Gas Impacts

In analyzing greenhouse gas emissions, the EIR explained that the project would cause an annual emissions increase of 269,053 MTCO2E. The EIR noted that while the increase is “an obvious change to existing, on-site conditions,” the global nature of climate change and the “absence of scientific and factual information” on the significance of particular amounts of GHG emissions make the change insufficient to support a significance determination. The EIR accordingly went on to consider whether the project’s emissions would impede the state’s compliance with the statutory emissions reduction mandate established by AB 32.

The EIR’s method for determining whether the project would impede achievement of AB 32’s goals was modeled on the Air Resources Board’s use, in its Scoping Plan, of comparison to a “business-as-usual” projection as a measure of the emission reductions needed to meet the 2020 goal (determined to be a reduction of 29-percent from business as usual). Because the EIR’s estimate of actual annual project emissions was 31 percent below its business-as-usual estimate, exceeding the Air Board’s determination of a 29 percent reduction from business as usual needed statewide, the EIR concluded that the project’s GHG emissions would not impede achievement of AB 32’s goals and were therefore less than significant for CEQA purposes.

The Court first addressed whether consistency with AB 32’s emissions-reduction goals was an appropriate significance threshold for greenhouse gas emissions. In upholding the use of the threshold, the Court noted that, to the extent a project incorporates efficiency and conservation measures sufficient to contribute its portion of the overall greenhouse gas reductions necessary, one can reasonably argue that the project‘s impact is not cumulatively considerable, because it is helping to solve the cumulative problem of greenhouse gas emissions as envisioned by California law. Under these circumstances, the court explained, evaluating the significance of a residential or mixed use project‘s greenhouse gas emissions by their effect on the state‘s efforts to meet its long-term goals makes at least as much sense as measuring them against an absolute numerical threshold.

Although the Court determined that the EIR employed a legally permissible threshold of significance, it held that the EIR’s finding that the project’s emissions would not be significant under that threshold was “not supported by a reasoned explanation based on substantial evidence.”

The Court explained that DFW erred in assuming that because the Scoping Plan concluded that the State of California, as a whole, had to reduce its GHG emissions by 29 percent compared with the hypothetical “business-as-usual” scenario, the project would not have significant GHG-related impacts if the project itself also reduced its own GHG emissions by 29 percent compared with what would have occurred under a business-as-usual scenario. The Court explained that “the EIR’s deficiency stems from taking a quantitative comparison method developed by the Scoping Plan as a measure of the greenhouse gas emissions reduction effort required by the state as a whole, and attempting to use that method, without consideration of any changes or adjustments, for a purpose very different from its original design: To measure the efficiency and conservation measures incorporated in a specific land use development proposed for a specific location.” In other words, the EIR simply assumed that the level of effort required in one context, a 29-percent reduction from business as usual statewide, would suffice in the other, a specific land use development. The Court held there was no substantial evidence to support that assumption. Therefore, the EIR’s reliance on the project-specific reduction in GHG emissions compared to the business as usual scenario was not sufficient to support the conclusion that GHG impacts would be less than significant.

Although the Court found DFW’s record to be inadequate to support the conclusion that GHG-related impacts were less than significant, the Court did provide some guidance regarding potential alternative approaches to GHG impact assessment that other agencies around the State might follow going forward in the future.

Mitigation for Fully Protected Species

Finding that the project could result in significant impacts to special status wildlife and plant species, DFW adopted numerous mitigation measures for biological impacts. Two mitigation measures provided for collection and relocation of special status fish, including the fully protected unarmored threespine stickleback, during construction in, or diversion of, the Santa Clara River.

The Court held that specifying these actions as mitigation in an EIR violated the Fish and Game Code section 5515’s prohibition on authorizing the taking or possession of fully protected fish in mitigation of project impacts under CEQA. The Court explained that DFW may conduct or authorize capture and relocation of the stickleback as a conservation measure to protect the fish and aid in its recovery, but the agency may not rely in a CEQA document on the prospect of capture and relocation as mitigating a project’s adverse impacts.

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

The Court of Appeal held two of the petitioners’ challenges to the EIR, regarding impacts on Native American cultural resources and on steelhead smolt, were not preserved because they were not brought to DFW’s attention until after the public comment period on the Draft EIR had closed.

The Supreme Court disagreed. It held that the petitioners adequately exhausted their administrative remedies for these issues because the issues were presented to DFW during the public review period provided by the Corps pursuant to NEPA, which, under the circumstances, constituted a “public comment period” for purposes of CEQA. The Court was careful to note that it need not decide whether every federally mandated comment period on a final combined EIS/EIR also constitutes a CEQA comment period for purposes of section 21177, subdivision (a). The Court explained that because DFW independently reviewed petitioners’ comments on the final EIS/EIR, contributed its expertise to the drafting of responses and revisions based on those comments, and included those responses and revisions in the final version of the EIR it certified and relied on in making its approval decision, the purpose of the exhaustion requirement had been served. Therefore, the Court concluded that the disputed comments were timely under section 21177, subdivision (a) because they were submitted during a public comment period provided by CEQA.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions

Justice Corrigan issued a concurring and dissenting opinion. She agreed with the majority that the mitigation measures described in the EIR for the unarmored threespine stickleback constitute a taking prohibited by the Fish and Game Code. She also agreed that the methodology used to assess the significance of GHG emissions was consistent with CEQA. She disagreed, however, with the portion of the majority opinion finding that the GHG analysis was not supported by substantial evidence. According the Justice Corrigan, the level of detail the majority demanded from the EIR was contrary to both the deferential standard of review and the majority’s approval of the methodology used to assess GHG significance.

Justice Chin issued a strongly worded dissenting opinion. He agreed that the threshold of significance used in the EIR to assess GHG impacts was appropriate but disagreed with the majority‘s conclusion that the EIR did not adequately explain why a projected 31 percent reduction in GHG emissions is consistent with legally mandated reduction goals in AB 32. Justice Chin also disagreed with the majority‘s holding that the proposal to move the unarmored threespine stickleback fish out of harm‘s way was a taking under the Fish and Game Code, and that, therefore, the EIR could not call the program a mitigation measure.

The First District Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s determination in part and reversed in part, finding the State Lands Commission’s EIR for a sand mining project adequate, but holding that the Commission did not comply with the public trust doctrine when it granted mineral extraction leases. (S.F. Baykeeper, Inc. v. Cal. State Lands Commission (November 18, 2015) ___Cal.App.4th ___, Case No. A142449.)

In 2014, the State Lands Commission approved the San Francisco Bay and Delta Sand Mining Project, which granted 10-year extensions of mineral extraction leases for dredge mining for marine aggregate sand under the San Francisco Bay. The lease parcels are all on sovereign lands owned by the State of California and are subject to the public trust.

The Commission published a Notice of Preparation in 2007 and released a draft EIR in 2010. Then, in 2011, using a new five-year average baseline against which the EIR measured environmental impacts, the Commission recirculated a revised draft EIR. In 2012, the Commission published a final EIR and a statement of overriding considerations, and approved a reduced project alternative. San Francisco Baykeeper, Inc. filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging that the Commission failed to comply with CEQA and violated the common law public trust doctrine.

Baykeeper argued that the Commission’s use of a five-year average baseline was improper and that the EIR should have used data from 2007, the year of publication of the NOP. The court, however, held that substantial evidence in the record, including data and statistics showing a significant decrease in production of construction aggregate in 2007, supported the baseline in the EIR.

The court also rejected Baykeeper’s arguments with respect to cumulative impacts from sand mining on erosion. The EIR determined that the project would have less-than-significant impacts because sand mining is not likely to cause measurable sediment depletion outside of mining areas. The draft EIR recognized studies suggesting that sand mining in the Bay contributes to erosion on beaches, but found no direct or empirical causal link. But after receiving numerous comments on this issue, the Commission conducted further analysis including new modeling and a review of two additional scientific articles. Again, the Commission found that there was no causal link, and determined in the final EIR that the project would have less than significant impacts on erosion. The court upheld this determination, rejecting Baykeeper’s argument that the Commission improperly used a ratio theory, as that was only one component of the analysis in the EIR and simply reinforced the Commission’s previous conclusions. Further, the court found that the new studies and analysis did not require recirculation because they did not change any of the substantive conclusions in the DEIR and did not significantly alter the main points of disagreement.

The court then turned to the Commission’s interpretation of CEQA Guidelines appendix G thresholds regarding mineral resources. The Commission interpreted the thresholds to question whether the project would interfere with important mineral resource deposit areas that should be conserved for purposes of extraction and not lost to an incompatible use, whereas Baykeeper posited that the EIR should have analyzed whether the project would deplete the mineral resource. The court pointed out that appendix G thresholds are only suggested and lead agencies have the discretion to develop their own thresholds. In addition, the court said that the Commission’s interpretation was supported by state policies regarding mineral extraction, and Baykeeper failed to provide any authority supporting a different interpretation.

Baykeeper also argued, and the court agreed, that the Commission did not properly provide notice to, nor properly consult with, the Coastal Commission or the City of San Francisco. The court emphasized that such a violation “requires reversal only upon proof of prejudice,” and found that Baykeeper failed to identify any information that would have been provided by these agencies but was omitted from environmental review as a result of the Commission’s notice and consultation violations. In fact, Baykeeper did request that the court take judicial notice of a 2015 letter regarding the project, but the court declined to do so because this did not constitute material information that was actually available when the Commission conducted its review. According to the court, because Baykeeper failed to demonstrate that pertinent information was omitted from the review process, the court could not find that the violation of notice and consultation requirements was prejudicial.

Finally, the court turned to the public trust doctrine and concluded that the Commission had an affirmative duty to consider whether the granting of private sand mining leases constitutes a permissible use under the doctrine, and the Commission failed to comply with that duty. The parties agreed that the project authorized the private use of land that is protected by the public trust, and that the Commission did not make any findings pursuant to the doctrine. The court rejected a series of arguments from the Commission, finding in part that it does not have “unfettered discretion to prefer sand mining as a preauthorized public trust use of the lease parcels.” Further, the court held that conducting a CEQA review alone does not fulfill obligations of the public trust doctrine. Thus, the court held that the Commission failed to conduct the required public trust analysis and remanded accordingly.

City of Irvine v. County of Orange (July 6, 2015) __ Cal.App.4th __, Case No. G049527

The court upheld a Supplemental EIR prepared by the County of Orange for a jail upgrade project over a decade after the original EIR had been certified. The court found the project was not substantially different than the project analyzed in the original EIR and that the Supplemental EIR adequately addressed the minor project changes and changed circumstances. And after a hearty dissertation on CEQA’s responses to comments requirement, the court determined that the county’s responses to comments on the Supplemental EIR were adequate.

The county prepared an EIR in the 1990s for the expansion of the James A. Musick Jail Facility. The City of Irvine challenged that EIR and lost; however, project construction was delayed indefinitely by a lack of funding. In 2012, the county decided to move forward with the project and prepared a Supplemental EIR to account for project changes and changed circumstances. Irvine filed a petition challenging the Supplemental EIR on various CEQA grounds. The trial court rejected the challenge and Irvine appealed.

On appeal, Irvine first claimed that the County was required to prepare a “Subsequent EIR” rather than a “Supplemental EIR.” Regarding the Supplemental EIR, Irvine’s contentions focused primarily on traffic impacts during construction and the loss of agricultural land. Irvine’s main argument, however, was that the county’s responses to Irvine’s comments on the Supplemental EIR were inadequate. The court rejected each of these claims in turn.

Irvine’s first claim was that the County was obligated to prepare a Subsequent EIR as opposed to a Supplemental EIR for their analysis of the impacts of the expansion. The court rejected this claim, explaining that courts should look to the substance of the EIR, not its nominal title.

Irvine’s next argument concerned the Supplemental EIR’s analysis of traffic impacts during project construction. Due to delays, there were discrepancies in the county’s construction timeline. Irvine claimed that these discrepancies amounted to an unstable project description that prevented the Supplemental EIR from adequately assessing project impacts. The court disagreed, finding that the project description was distinct from the interim impacts of construction. Specifically, Irvine claimed the county had failed to provide a stable project description because it could not account for the traffic impacts caused by construction in a given year. The court found that CEQA does not require a continuous update of traffic impacts as a result of construction delays and that, regardless of the delay, the impacts would not be substantially different from those disclosed in the Supplemental EIR even if traffic data was updated, and therefore, there was no prejudice.

The third claim concerned mitigation for the loss of agricultural land that would occur as a result of the expansion. The Supplemental EIR discussed seven possible mitigation measures, but none were found to be feasible. Irvine challenged the county’s feasibility findings for three of the measures: (1) the purchase of conservation easements on existing agricultural land to prevent it from being used in the future for nonagricultural purposes, (2) a transfer of development rights program, and (3) a “right to farm” ordinance.

The court held that the county’s findings rejecting these measures as infeasible were supported by substantial evidence. Conservation easements were found infeasible because there was no additional land for agriculture in the county that would be profitable and putting a conservation easement for agricultural use on land that is already used for agriculture would do nothing to mitigate the loss of other agricultural lands. The court also noted that the county’s zoning laws did not support the feasibility of conservation easements. Transfers of development rights were found to be even less feasible because the county did not have land laying fallow for which they could transfer rights in the preservation of agricultural land use. Lastly, the court concluded that a right to farm ordinance was the least viable option of all. The Supplemental EIR recognized that the conversion of current non-agricultural land to agricultural land would itself entail significant environmental effects, including nuisance suits. Beyond that, the court noted, a right-to-farm ordinance is meaningless where no land owner wants to farm. The court held that it is a reasonable inference that no one would want to convert land that is currently non-agricultural and put it to agricultural use even if they have the ostensible legal right to do so.

Lastly, the court addressed Irvine’s claim that the county failed to adequately respond to comments. The court began with a thorough discussion of CEQA’s responses to comment requirement and a detailed assessment of the state of case law on the subject. The court noted several oft-repeated principles by which courts may evaluate the sufficiency of responses, including (1) a general comment can be adequately met with a general response; (2) responses need not be exhaustive; and (3) the sufficiency of responses should be “viewed in light of what is reasonably feasible.” From the cases, the court divined a few more basic standards for the adequacy of responses: (1) when a comment raises a “significant” environmental issue, there must be some genuine confrontation with the issue, it can’t be swept under the rug; (2) responses that leave big gaps in the analysis of environmental impacts are obviously inadequate; (3) comments that bring some new issue to the table need genuine confrontation; and (4) comments that are only objections to the merits of the project itself may be addressed with cursory responses. Based on these guiding principles, the court found that the county had adequately responded to each of Irvine’s comments that merited a response.

The Third District Court of Appeal held that the City did not prematurely commit to the arena project by entering into a nonbinding term sheet with the Sacramento Kings or by engaging in land acquisition through eminent domain before the EIR process was complete. The court further determined that the EIR included an appropriate range of alternatives and adequately analyzed traffic and safety impacts. Saltonstall v. City of Sacramento (Feb. 18, 2015) ___ Cal.App.4th ___, Case No. C077772.

The case involves a challenge to the certification of an EIR and approval of a new entertainment and sports arena in downtown Sacramento that will eventually house the Sacramento Kings. To facilitate the timely opening of the new downtown arena, the Legislature modified several deadlines under CEQA by adding section 21168.6.6 to the Public Resources Code.

The City certified the EIR and approved the project in May 2014. Opponents of the project immediately filed a lawsuit against the City and sought a preliminary injunction to stay construction. The trial court denied the preliminary injunction, and the Court of Appeal affirmed that decision. The appellate court ruled that petitioners failed to satisfy the requirements for a preliminary injunction and held that section 21168.6.6 was not unconstitutional. (Saltonstall v. City of Sacramento (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 837.) The trial court subsequently rejected the lawsuit in its entirety. Petitioners appealed.

In the appeal, petitioners argued (1) the City violated CEQA by committing itself to the downtown arena project before completing the EIR process, (2) the City’s EIR failed to consider remodeling the current Sleep Train Arena as a feasible alternative to building a new downtown arena, (3) the EIR did not properly study the effects of the project on interstate traffic traveling on the nearby section of Interstate Highway 5, and (4) the City did not account for large outdoor crowds expected to congregate outside the downtown arena during events. Petitioners also argued that the trial court erred in denying their motion to augment the record and in denying their Public Records Act request to the City to produce e-mail communications with the NBA. The Court of Appeal rejected all of petitioners’ claims.

The Third District first dismissed the claim that the City prematurely committed itself to approving the project. Petitioners claimed the City violated CEQA by engaging in land acquisition for its preferred site and entering into a preliminary term sheet with Sacramento Basketball Holdings LLC before finishing the EIR. Rejecting this argument, the Court held that the City was allowed to engage in land acquisition for its preferred site before finishing its EIR under CEQA Guidelines section 15004 and Public Resources Code section 21168.6.6. Guidelines section 15004, subdivision (b)(2)(a), expressly provides that “agencies may designate a preferred site for CEQA review and may enter into land acquisition agreements when the agency has conditioned the agency’s future use of the site on CEQA compliance.” Moreover, Public Resources Code section 21168.6.6 expressly allowed the City to exercise its eminent domain power to acquire the 600 block of K Street as the site of the arena before finishing the EIR. Finally, the court held that the preliminary term sheet did not improperly commit the City to approving the arena as proposed. The preliminary nonbinding term sheet constituted an agreement to negotiate regarding the project and did not foreclose environmental review, mitigation, or even rejection of the project.

Turning to petitioners’ claim that the alternatives analysis was inadequate, the court held that the City was not required to study remodeling the current Sleep Train Arena as a project alternative in the EIR. The City studied a “no project” alternative involving continued use of the Sleep Train Arena and an alternative that involved building a new arena next to the current arena in Natomas. Both the no project and new Natomas arena alternatives failed to meet most of the City’s objectives for the project to revitalize its downtown area. The remodel alternative suggested by petitioners would have suffered the same problems of location that caused the City to reject the two Natomas-based alternatives. Noting that “infeasible alternatives that do not meet project objectives need not be studied[,]” the court held the Sleep Train Arena remodel alternative did not need to be analyzed.

The court next addressed petitioners’ claim that the EIR’s traffic analysis was defective for failure to adequately analyze interstate traffic on I–5. The EIR studied and disclosed existing problems with the nearby section of I–5 at peak traffic times as well as how the downtown arena project would worsen traffic congestion. The EIR reached the conclusion that levels of service would—at times—reach the worst rating given by Caltrans for traffic flow. Even with proposed mitigation measures, the City acknowledged the adverse impact of the project on I–5 traffic would be significant and unavoidable. While petitioners acknowledged the City did study local I–5 traffic congestion, they argued the study was inadequate for not considering “mainline” I–5 traffic ranging from Canada to Mexico. Rejecting this argument, the court explained that the City was not required to separately study the effect on interstate motorists who will be impacted in the same way as other, local motorists sharing the same section of I–5. The court also noted the EIR did account for mainline traffic because it used the sampling data of mainline freeway traffic collected by Caltrans.

Petitioners also argued the City’s traffic study was deficient because the EIR understated the number of persons who would surround the downtown arena. The court again was not persuaded. The City’s review of crowd size included a national survey of similar entertainment and sports facilities as well as review of crowd sizes during the Sleep Train Arena’s history. The court held that the City did not err “in declining to speculate that the same games played a few miles away would suddenly and inexplicably draw large crowds of persons who would not watch the game but simply mill about in the winter nighttime.”

Addressing petitioners’ final CEQA claim, the court held that petitioners’ contention regarding failure to study post-event crowd safety and potential for violence did not implicate CEQA because petitioners failed to show any potential for environmental impacts. Petitioners argued the EIR both understated the number of persons who can be expected to congregate around the downtown arena as well as their proclivities toward drunken violence. The court ruled that the argument focused on a social issue for which no environmental effect was described.

Finally, regarding petitioners’ attempt to augment the administrative record, the court held that their challenge to the trial court’s denial of their Public Records Act request seeking over 62,000 emails related to communications between the City and the NBA was not properly before the court. Denial of such a request is reviewed only by petition for writ of mandate, not direct appeal. The court also held that petitioners forfeited their argument regarding the introduction of certain additional materials because they failed to offer any meaningful analysis on the issue.

The First District Court of Appeal held that changes to the City of San Jose’s Airport Master Plan did not constitute a new project as a matter of law and did not require supplemental review under Public Resources Code section 21166. The court ordered publication of the opinion – Citizens Against Airport Pollution v. City of San Jose (June 6, 2014, Case No. H038781) – on July 2, 2014.

The center of the dispute was an addendum to the City of San Jose’s 1997 EIR prepared for its International Airport Master Plan. The city had also prepared a Supplemental EIR for the plan in 2003. The addendum, which was the city’s eighth addendum to the 1997 EIR, assessed the impacts of proposed amendments to the Airport Master Plan, including changes to the size and location of future air cargo facilities, the replacement of air cargo facilities with 44 acres of general aviation facilities, and the modification of two taxiways to provide better access for corporate jets.

Petitioner Citizens Against Airport Pollution’s (CAAP) primary argument was that the amendments to the Airport Master Plan addressed in the eighth addendum constituted a new project as a matter of law, and therefore, an EIR addendum was barred under CEQA. Alternatively, CAAP argued that an EIR addendum could not be used to analyze the environmental impacts of the plan changes, since those changes were substantial and required major revisions to the EIR with respect to noise, greenhouse gas emissions, toxic air contaminants, and biological resources.

The Court of Appeal was not persuaded by CAAP’s argument that the changes to the Airport Master Plan constituted a new project as a matter of law, and that the city was therefore required to prepare a new EIR. The court confirmed that the an agency’s determination on whether supplemental environmental review is required is review under the substantial evidence test, distinguishing previous cases that applied the “fair argument” standard to the question of whether a subsequent approval was “within the scope” of a previous approval.

The court next turned to CAAP’s alternative argument that the city was required to prepare a supplemental EIR for the plan amendments because they were “substantial changes” requiring “major revisions” in the EIR. CAAP claimed that there would be new or more severe impacts in several areas including noise, greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, and biological resources.

Notably, the court rejected CAAP’s argument that the city was required to analyze Greenhouse Gas Emissions for the project since CEQA Guidelines section 15064.5, which requires analysis of GHG impacts in EIRs, was added to the Guidelines after the 1997 and 2003 EIRs were prepared. Relying on CREED v. City of San Diego (2011) 196 Cal.App.4th 515, the court held that the potential for GHG impacts was not substantial new information triggering the need for a supplemental EIR. Rather, the potential for GHG impacts have been known since well before the first EIR for the Master Plan was adopted.

The court also held that there was substantial evidence demonstrating that there would be no new or more severe impacts to biological resources. The addendum acknowledged that the project changes would result in the loss of four acres of burrowing owl habitat and included mitigation measures to mitigate the impact. The court explained that mitigation measures can be modified in an addendum if there is a legitimate reason and the changes are supported by substantial evidence. The mitigation measures in the addendum met that standard because they completely offset the loss of the four acres by establishing new permanent habitat. Moreover, the mitigation measure was only a change in the location of habitual preserved under a burrowing owl mitigation plan that as established for the 1997 EIR and it would be managed within the parameters of the established plan.

The court also upheld the city’s determination that potential changes in noise and air quality impacts did not trigger a supplemental environmental review because jet engines of today and the future are quieter and cleaner than the engines of 1997.

The court held that the State Water Resources Control Board has broad regulatory authority to prevent the unreasonable use of water, upholding a Board regulation that prohibits certain diversions by grape growers in the Russian River watershed. The First District Court of Appeal issued a partially published opinion in Light v. State Water Resources Control Board (2014) __Cal.App.4th __ (Case No. A138440) on June 16, 2014.

In April 2008, young salmon were found to have been fatally stranded along the banks of the Russian River stream system. Scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded the deaths were caused by abrupt declines in water level that occurred when water was drained from the streams and sprayed on vineyards and orchards to prevent frost damage, a common practice in the watershed.

Following a series of hearings and the preparation of an EIR, the Board adopted Regulation 862 in September 2011. Regulation 862 is likely to require a reduction in diversion of water from the stream system for frost protection, at least under certain circumstances. It applies to “any diversion of water from the Russian River stream system … for purposes of frost protection from March 15 through May 15.” The regulation itself contains no substantive regulation of water use, instead delegating the task of formulating regulatory programs to “water demand management programs” (WDMPs), which will be created by self-organized groups of agricultural diverters who will act as the “governing bodies.” Each WDMP must be submitted annually to the Board for approval. The regulation declares that any water use inconsistent with the programs, once they have been formulated and approved by the Board, is unreasonable, and therefore prohibited.

Regulation 862 was challenged in two petitions for writ of mandate. The petitions alleged that the Board lacked regulatory authority to adopt the regulation and that the regulation would unlawfully interfere with plaintiffs’ use of water drawn from the Russian River stream system. The trial court granted a writ invalidating the regulation on several grounds. The Board appealed. The Court of Appeal reversed.

The Court of Appeal first addressed plaintiffs’ argument that Regulation 862 was invalid because the Board lacked sufficient regulatory authority to adopt the regulation. Plaintiffs argued that the Board lacked authority to adopt the regulation because, according to them, the Boards’ authority to regulate the unreasonable use of water was limited to enforcement actions. The Court of Appeal disagreed, finding that the Board may exercise its regulatory powers through the enactment of regulations, as well as through the pursuit of judicial and quasi-judicial proceedings. The court noted that the Board is charged with acting to prevent unreasonable and wasteful uses of water, regardless of the claim of right under which the water is diverted, and that the Board’s authority to enact regulations in furtherance of this purpose was addressed and upheld nearly 40 years ago in People ex rel. State Water Resources Control Bd. v. Forni (1976) 54 Cal.App.3d 743. The court concluded that, given the Board’s statutory charge to “prevent waste, unreasonable use, unreasonable method of use, or unreasonable method of diversion of water in this state” and the recognized power of the Legislature to pass legislation regulating reasonable uses of water, the Board’s grant of authority to “exercise the … regulatory functions of the state” necessarily includes the power to enact regulations governing the reasonable use of water.

The Court of Appeal next addressed Plaintiffs’ contention that the Board lacks regulatory authority to limit water use by riparian users and early (pre-1914) appropriators, whose diversion is beyond the permitting authority of the Board. Rejecting this argument, the court explained that, although the Board has no authority to require such users to obtain a permit to divert, that does not mean their use of California’s water is free from Board regulation. Preventing these users from the unreasonable use of water necessarily requires the imposition of limits on that use by the Board. The Court explained that there is “no question” the Board has the power to prevent riparian users and early appropriators from using water in an unreasonable manner.

The court also determined that the regulation did not violate the rule of priority. When the supply of water is insufficient to satisfy all persons and entities holding water rights, it is ordinarily the function of the rule of priority to determine the degree to which any particular use must be curtailed. Yet, as the court explained, even in these circumstances, the Board has the ultimate authority to allocate water in a manner inconsistent with the rule of priority, when doing so is necessary to prevent the unreasonable use of water. Because no one can have a protectable interest in the unreasonable use of water, when the rule of priority clashes with the rule against unreasonable use of water, the latter must prevail. The court was careful to point out that since this was a facial challenge, its holding extended only to whether the regulation was valid on its face. It explained that the regulation does not declare any specific diversion of water for frost protection unreasonable, much less all such use. Rather, frost protection diversion is unreasonable only when it occurs in violation of the WDMP. As among individual water rights holders, the regulation requires the WDMP’s to respect the rule of priority in assigning corrective actions. Thus, a determination of whether specific regulatory measures adopted by the WDMP’s violate the rule of priority, must await implementation of the regulation.

The court also concluded that the Board properly found the regulation to be necessary to enforce water use statutes and did not unlawfully delegate its authority by requiring local governing bodies to formulate the substantive regulations.

Lastly, in an unpublished portion of the opinion, the court upheld the Board’s certification of the EIR for the regulation.

 

 

The First District Court of Appeal ordered publication of its opinion upholding San Francisco’s determination that a city-wide utility project was exempt from CEQA under the “Class 3” categorical exemption. The case, San Francisco Beautiful v. City and County of San Francisco (April 20, 2014) ___ Cal.App. ___, was published May 30, 2014.

The challenged project was AT&T’s proposal to install 726 metal utility boxes housing telecommunications equipment on San Francisco sidewalks in order to expand its fiber-optic network. San Francisco approved the project without requiring an EIR, based on its conclusion that the project fell within the “Class 3” categorical exemption described in CEQA Guidelines section 15303. Class 3 establishes exemptions for “[1] construction and location of limited numbers of new, small facilities or structures,” and “[2] installation of small new equipment and facilities in small structures.” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15303.) Among the examples of this exemption are “[w]ater main, sewage, electrical, gas, and other utility extensions, including street improvements, of reasonable length to serve such construction.” (Guidelines, § 15303, subd. (d).)

The petitioners argued that the project was not exempt under clause 1 of the Class 3 exemption because the 726 new structures were not a “limited number,” and that it was not exempt under clause 2 because it involved the construction and location of new structures, rather than the “installation” of equipment in existing small structures. The Court of Appeal disagreed, finding that under clause 2, the terms of the exemption were not limited to the installation of equipment in existing small structures. Rather, it determined that the Class 3 exemption can apply even when new structures are installed or constructed. Based on this determination, the court held that the city’s project fit into the Class 3 exemption. Because it found the project exempt on this basis, the court found it unnecessary to address the “limited number” argument.

The petitioners also claimed that, even if the Class 3 exemption applied, the city was still required to prepare an EIR because exceptions to the exemption applied. Specifically, they argued that the project would have a significant environmental effect due to unusual circumstances and would have cumulative impacts. (See CEQA Guidelines, § 15300.2, subd. (b), (c).) Regarding the unusual circumstances exception, the court determined that the petitioners identified no unusual circumstances relating to placement of the new utility structures in an urbanized area that already housed similar structures. The court also determined that, even if there were unusual circumstances, the petitioners failed to demonstrate that the project would have a significant environmental effect.  Notably, the court rejected the petitioners’ argument that residents’ views on the project’s aesthetic effects constituted evidence of a significant impact sufficient to trigger the need for an EIR.

The court acknowledged that the appropriate standard of review for the “unusual circumstances” exception is an issue currently pending before the Supreme Court (Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (S201116, rev. granted May 23, 2012). The court was careful to explain that its decision would be the same under either standard of review (“substantial evidence” or “fair argument”) and, therefore, it was not necessary for the court to determine that issue or any other issues that are before the Supreme Court in Berkeley Hillside.

The court also rejected the applicability of the cumulative impacts exception, explaining that the city did not have to consider the cumulative impact of all similar equipment to be installed throughout the city because the CEQA Guidelines instead limit the cumulative impact exception to successive projects of the same type in the same place. For the purposes of the utility boxes, the court found the “same place” meant the individual locations where the boxes would be placed.

Lastly, the court determined that the city had not improperly relied on mitigation measures in concluding the project was categorically exempt from CEQA. Although the city was required to review the utility cabinets to evaluate their potential to impede travel, inconvenience property owners, or otherwise disturb use of the right-of-way, that review is required by a Public Works Order, which is generally applicable to excavation permits for surface-mounted facilities. According to the court, this was not considered mitigation because an agency may rely on generally applicable regulations to conclude an environmental impact will not be significant and therefore does not require mitigation.

 

Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, ___ U.S. ___ (2014) No. 12-1173, March 10, 2014.

In a case that piqued the interest of many throughout the West, including property owners and outdoor enthusiasts, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a Wyoming property owner in a dispute over an abandoned railroad right of way.  The case presented the question of what happens to a railroad’s right of way granted under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 when the railroad abandons it: does it go to the Government or to the private party who acquired the land underlying the right of way?  Reversing the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court ruled that the railroad’s abandoned right of way reverts to the private landowner.

The Supreme Court’s opinion begins with some extensive history regarding the settlement of the West and the federal land grant policies led to the present predicament. The opinion explained that to encourage early settlement and development of the West, Congress first passed acts giving railroad companies fee title to vast stretches of land (the land acquired by the Central Pacific – later the Southern Pacific – and the Union Pacific in exchange for their construction of the Transcontinental Railroad is a good example), but that following public complaints about the amount of land being given away, it passed the General Railroad Right–of–Way Act of 1875 to provide railroad companies only “right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States.”  I.e., just the right to use the land – not fee title. One such right of way, granted to a railroad company in 1908, crosses land that the United States later conveyed to the Brandt family in a 1976 land patent. That patent specifically stated that the land was granted subject to the railroad’s rights in the 1875 Act, but it did not specify what would occur if the railroad later relinquished those rights. Years later, a successor railroad abandoned the right of way with federal approval. In 2006, the Government sought a judicial declaration of abandonment and an order quieting title in the United States to the abandoned right of way, including the stretch that crossed the land conveyed in the 1976 Brandt patent.

Petitioners contested the claim, asserting that the right of way was a mere easement that was extinguished when the railroad abandoned it, so that Brandt now enjoyed full title to his land without the burden of the easement. The Government countered that the 1875 Act granted the railroad something more than a “mere easement,” and that the United States retained a reversionary interest in that land once the railroad abandoned it.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Government. Although it acknowledged a division among lower courts regarding the nature of the Government’s interest, if any, in abandoned General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 rights of way, it concluded based on 10th Circuit precedent that the United States had retained an “implied reversionary interest” in the right of way, which then vested in the United States when the right of way was relinquished. The Supreme Court reversed.

The Supreme  Court rejected the Government’s position, in large part because the Government had won when it argued the opposite before the Supreme Court more than 70 years ago, in the case of Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States (1942) 315 U.S. 262. There, the Government argued, and the Supreme Court agreed, that the 1875 Act granted nothing more than an easement to the railroad companies. Under Great Northern, therefore, the railroad had only an easement in its right of way over the land.

The Supreme  Court  then explained that, when the United States patented the parcel to the Brandt family in 1976, it conveyed fee simple title to that land, “subject to those rights for railroad purposes” that had been granted to the railroad. The United States did not reserve to itself any interest in the right of way in that patent.

After determining that the interest granted to the railroad was nothing more than an easement and that the U.S. retained no interest, the Court noted that the essential elements of easement, including what happens when they cease to be used, are well settled as a matter of property law.  Applying basic common law principles, the Court determined that when the railroad abandoned the right of way, the easement referred to in the Brandt patent terminated. Brandt’s land became unburdened of the easement, conferring on him the same full rights over the right of way as he enjoyed over the rest of the parcel.

Justice Sotomayor issued a dissenting opinion arguing that the majority improperly brushed off pre- Great Northern precedent suggesting that the United States retained a reversionary interest in railroad rights of way and, to the extent the majority regarded Great Northern as having abrogated those precedents, it placed on Great Northern more weight than that case could bear.  She also claimed that the majority erred by relying on basic common law principles without recognizing that railroad rights of way were not always governed by the ordinary common-law regime.

Justice Sotomayor also pointed out the negative practical implications of the majority’s opinion, claiming that it “undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation.  And lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Echoing Justice Sotomayor, many rails-to-trails organizations have described the decision as a serious set-back to the hiking and bicycling trails system envisioned by Congress when it enacted the National Trails System Improvements Act of 1988; however, the decision appears to apply only to privately-held land transferred by the United States subject to an existing railroad easement that is subsequently abandoned.  Many thousands of miles of trails along former railroad routes are situated on federal, state or local public lands, or on routes that were originally conveyed to the railroad companies in fee, rather than as easement. The decision does nothing more than confirm what has for centuries been the law of easements: an easement is a right to use another’s land for a specified purpose, and when the holder of the easement expressly or impliedly abandons its use, the easement no longer encumbers the underlying land.

HonoluluTraffic.com v. Federal Transit Administration (9th Cir. 2014) __F.3d __ (Case No. 13-15277)

The litigation involved a challenge to a 20-mile, high-speed rail project that would traverse from the western portion of Oahu through the downtown area of Honolulu, Hawaii. After considering various long-range alternatives for federally funded transportation projects, the city of Honolulu ultimately focused on a “Fixed Guideway” public transport system for the project. The project was designed to improve transportation and relieve traffic congestion in Honolulu – a persistent problem and controversial topic in Hawaii and on the island of Oahu in particular.  According to the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, Honolulu is the second-most congested metropolitan area in the nation.

Plaintiffs were a consortium of interest groups and individuals opposing the project. They filed the action in 2011 against FTA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the city and county of Honolulu, and various federal and local administrators. Plaintiffs raised challenges under the NEPA and other federal laws.  The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on the NEPA claims and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Plaintiffs’ challenges under NEPA were directed principally at the choice of the steel-wheel-on-steel-rail Fixed Guideway system for the project.  Plaintiffs claimed that the defendants unreasonably restricted the project’s purpose and need and did not consider all reasonable alternatives as required under NEPA and its regulations.

The court first addressed Plaintiffs’ argument that the project objectives stated in the EIS were too narrow. Plaintiffs argued that the objectives were so narrowly defined that only one alternative would accomplish them, and therefore, there was no real consideration of alternatives.  The Ninth Circuit disagreed.  The court noted that the project objectives, as stated as the purpose and need statement in the EIS, were defined in accordance with the statutorily mandated transportation plan that preceded the EIS – the 2004 Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization, Regional Transportation Plan (“2004 ORTP”).  The 2004 ORTP had concluded that a high-capacity, high-speed transit project connecting west Oahu with downtown Honolulu was necessary to implement Oahu’s land use policies. It also identified the Fixed Guideway system as a central component of that plan.  The court held that, viewed in its statutory context, the project’s objectives were not so narrowly defined that only one alternative would accomplish them.  The statement of purpose and need was broad enough to allow the agency to assess various routing options and technologies for a high-capacity, high-speed transit project.  The Ninth Circuit, therefore, agreed with the district court’s conclusion that “because the statement of purpose and need did not foreclose all alternatives, and because it was shared by federal legislative purposes, it was reasonable.”

The court next addressed Plaintiffs’ claim that the EIS did not properly consider all reasonable alternatives and should have considered alternatives that the state had earlier rejected.  Early in the process, the city had prepared an Alternatives Assessment (AA) to narrow the various alternatives that would be included in the EIS.  The Ninth Circuit noted that an AA may be used as part of the NEPA process as long as it meets certain requirements. Because those requirements were satisfied, the court found no problem with the AA.  The court also noted that alternatives that were previously rejected by an agency in prior studies do not need to be discussed in an EIS.  According to the court, Plaintiffs’ real quarrel was not with the use of an AA generally, but rather that the process failed to consider Plaintiffs’ proposed three-lane Managed Lanes Alternative (a new roadway for busses and other high-occupancy vehicles).  A similar alternative, however, had been considered and rejected in the AA for cost reasons.  The court determined that the cost analysis in the AA was reasonable and that the three-lane Managed Lanes Alternative would be even more costly than the alternative rejected in the AA.  Therefore, the court held that three-lane Managed Lanes Alternative did not need to be included in the EIS.

Plaintiffs’ final argument was that the defendants had improperly excluded a light-rail alternative from the EIS.  The court determined, however, that the defendants properly relied on the AA to reject alternatives including light-rail.  Ultimately, the court held that the EIS’s identification of project objectives and analysis of alternatives satisfied NEPA’s requirements.

The California Supreme Court ordered the Third District Court of Appeal to undertake an expedited review of two trial court rulings concerning the financing plan for California’s High-Speed Rail project, by transferring the state’s petition for writ of mandate to the lower court. The petition was filed by the state in late January asking the Supreme Court to step in and prevent the two recent lower court rulings from derailing construction of the High-Speed Rail project.  According to the state, the challenged trial court rulings “cast a cloud of uncertainty” over the project and put at risk billions of dollars in federal grants. The state sent a direct request to the California Supreme Court because the normal appeals process, it claimed, would take too long given the time-sensitive nature of the project and its funding.

Although it declined to consider the petition directly, the Supreme Court recognized that the petition should be a priority and decided expeditiously by the Court of Appeal. The transfer order directed the appellate court to “expedite its consideration of this matter” and set an expedited briefing schedule for the parties.

Further information on the previous trial court rulings and the state’s petition to the California Supreme Court can be found in our previous blog post here.