On May 27, 2014, the Fifth District Court of Appeal issued its decision in Sierra Club et al. v. County of Fresno et al. (Case No. F066798). The case involves the County of Fresno’s approval of the Friant Ranch project, a master-planned retirement community for “active adults” (age 55 and older) on an approximately 942-acre site in north central Fresno County.
In the trial court, petitioners Sierra Club, Revive the San Joaquin, and League of Women Voters of Fresno (collectively, the Sierra Club), argued that: (1) the Friant Ranch project was inconsistent with the county’s general plan policies regarding agricultural land use and traffic levels of service; (2) the EIR’s analysis of the project’s air quality impacts was inadequate; and (3) the EIR’s analysis of water quality impacts associated with the project’s wastewater treatment plant was inadequate. The trial court denied the Sierra Club’s petition for writ of mandate. The Sierra Club appealed.
On appeal, the Sierra Club argued that the general plan policy to “maintain agriculturally designated areas for agricultural use” prohibits the county from redesignating land designated as agriculture to other uses. Because the Friant Ranch project included a general plan amendment redesignating the project site from agriculture to residential and commercial designations, the Sierra Club argued the county’s approval of the project violated the agricultural policy. Respondent County of Fresno, and Real Party in Interest, Friant Ranch, LP, represented by RMM attorneys Jim Moose, Tiffany Wright, and Laura Harris, contended that the general plan does not require the county to maintain land currently designated agriculture in that designation in perpetuity. The court agreed that the general plan allows the county to amend land use designations. And, because the project site is no longer designated agriculture, the project is not inconsistent with the requirement to maintain agriculturally designated areas in agricultural use. The court also held that the Sierra Club had failed to exhaust its arguments concerning the county’s transportation policies.
The Sierra Club also argued that the EIR lacked sufficient detail about the amount and location of wastewater discharge from the project’s proposed wastewater treatment plant. Although the Sierra Club did not make this argument in the trial court (and therefore would ordinarily be deemed to have forfeited the argument), the Court of Appeal exercised its discretion to consider the argument because matters involving the disposal of wastewater affect the public interest and the argument raised a question of law. Although not directly stated, the Court of Appeal appeared to believe that CEQA requires detailed information regarding the water balance to be included in the project’s CEQA documents. The court explained that the fact that the county’s experts opined that sufficient storage was available was irrelevant because, according to the court, the existence of substantial evidence in the record does not mean that sufficient information was disclosed in the EIR. The court therefore undertook an exhaustive review of various statements in the EIR and its supporting appendices about the amount of wastewater anticipated to be generated by the project and the size of the storage pond. Based on this review, the court determined that sufficient information was included in the CEQA documents regarding the amount and location of wastewater disposal.
The Sierra Club further claimed that the EIR’s discussion of air quality impacts was inadequate because the EIR: (1) did not explain what it meant to exceed the thresholds of significance by tens of tons per year; and (2) provided no meaningful analysis of the adverse health effects that would be associated with the project’s estimated emissions, which were above the thresholds. Although the EIR disclosed the types of health impacts associated with unsafe levels of the pollutants, quantified the project’s emissions, and concluded that the project would exceed the thresholds of significance set by the local air district, which are based on standards necessary for public health, the court held that this was not enough.
The court concluded that although the EIR had identified the adverse health impacts that could result from the project’s effect on air quality, it did not sufficiently analyze this effect. For example, the information disclosed in the EIR did not enable the reader to determine whether the 100-plus tons per year of coarse particulate matter, reactive organic gases, and mono-nitrogen oxides would require people with respiratory difficulties to wear filtering devices when they go outdoors in the project area or nonattainment basin. Nor did the information provided in the EIR make it possible to know how many additional days the San Joaquin Valley Air Basin would be in nonattainment due to the project. The court noted that answers to these examples are not necessarily required in a revised EIR, but that the EIR must contain some analysis of the correlation between the project’s emissions and human health.
The court also concluded that the county’s mitigation measures adopted for the project’s significant and unavoidable operational air quality impacts violated CEQA because, in the court’s opinion, the mitigation measures were too vague and unenforceable. The court reasoned that the mitigation measures needed to be more specific about who would implement the measures, and when. As an example, the court noted that the mitigation measure that trees “shall be carefully selected and located” to protect buildings from energy consuming environmental conditions uses the passive voice to hide the identity of the actor—that is, the person or entity selecting and locating the trees.
The court also concluded that the mitigation measures were impermissibly deferred. Although the Sierra Club had not raised this argument in the trial court, the court decided to consider the issue because it raised an important issue of policy. The mitigation measures stated that the county and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District may substitute different air pollution control measures that are “equally effective or superior” to those set forth in the EIR, as better technology becomes available. The court found that this possibility of substitution rendered the mitigation measures deferred because the contents of the substituted provisions are unknown at present. Therefore, the court looked to whether the mitigation measures contained adequate performance standards to determine what types of measures would be “equally effective or superior” and concluded that many did not. For example, one mitigation measure required nonresidential projects to have bike lockers, which the court held failed to specify any performance standard to determine how to substitute the measure for an equally or more effective measure.
Furthermore, the court held that the statement in the EIR that the mitigation measures would “substantially” reduce air quality impacts was not supported by a discussion in the EIR and therefore violated CEQA.
Lastly, the court rejected Sierra Club’s claim that the county had not responded in good faith to comments suggesting that the county consider off-site emission reduction programs, such as the air district’s “Voluntary Emission Reduction Agreement” program. The court found that the county’s response to such comments, which explained that VERAs are voluntary and would be considered in connection with future project approvals was reasoned and met an objective good faith standard.