Plaintiffs Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics are currently seeking California Supreme Court review of the First District Court of Appeal’s recent opinion in Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority (2014) 230 Cal.App.4th 85. Plaintiffs filed their petition for review with the Supreme Court on November 7, 2014. In Friends of the Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority, the First District upheld the trial court’s decision rejecting plaintiffs’ challenge to North Coast Railroad Authority’s certification of an EIR. The appellate court found that the federal Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act preempted the local agency’s CEQA review of rail operations, which fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal Surface Transportation Board. The court also held that the rail line’s previous agreement with Caltrans to prepare an EIR for the project did not estop the line from later asserting preemption. At the earliest, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to grant certification by early January 2015.
Division One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal granted Sierra Club’s petition to enforce a climate change mitigation measure adopted by the County of San Diego. The court affirmed the decision below. Sierra Club v. County of San Diego (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 1152.
Mitigation measure CC-1.2, which was included in a program EIR for the County’s 2011 general plan update, committed the County to preparing a climate change action plan (CAP) with more detailed greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets and deadlines, and comprehensive and enforceable GHG emissions reductions measures that would achieve specified GHG reductions by 2020. Sierra Club alleged that, contrary to this commitment, the County prepared a CAP that expressly did not ensure reductions. The County also developed associated guidelines for determining significance thresholds. Sierra Club alleged that CEQA review of the CAP and thresholds was performed after the fact, using an addendum to the EIR, which did not address the concept of tiering or the County’s failure to comply with the express language in CC-1.2, and contained no meaningful analysis of the impacts of the CAP and thresholds.
The court first rejected the County’s contention that Sierra Club’s mitigation-related claim was barred by the statute of limitations because it could have been brought with the challenge to the general plan update. The court found that Sierra Club did not challenge the validity of the general plan update EIR or the enforceability of the mitigation measures provided therein, but instead challenged the County’s separate approval of the CAP.
Next, the court held that with respect to the CAP as mitigation for a plan-level document, the County failed to proceed in a manner required by law by going forward with the CAP and thresholds project in spite of the express language of CC-1.2 that the CAP include more detailed GHG emissions reduction targets and deadlines. The County described the CAP’s strategies as recommendations, rather than requirements. It also relied on unfunded programs to support the required emissions reductions. The CAP’s transportation section did not include an analysis of the County’s own operations and the record contained contradictions surrounding programs over which the County had exclusive control. The County did not bind itself to implementation of its programs, and did not cite to any evidence supporting its belief that people would participate in the programs to the extent necessary to achieve the asserted reductions. In fact, the CAP expressly stated that it did not ensure reductions. Quantifying GHG reduction measures, the court stated, was not synonymous with implementing them.
The County also made the erroneous assumption the CAP and thresholds project was the same project as the general plan update, despite the fact that no component of the CAP or thresholds had been created at the time of the general plan update. Thus, the general plan update EIR did not analyze the CAP as a plan-level document that itself would facilitate further development. As a result, the County failed to render a written determination of environmental impact before approving the CAP and thresholds. By failing to consider the environmental impacts of the CAP and thresholds, the court noted, the County effectively abdicated its responsibility to meaningfully consider public comments and incorporate mitigating conditions. The project acknowledged it did not comply with Executive Order No. S-3-05, and would therefore have significant impacts that had not previously been addressed in the general plan update EIR.