In Spring Valley Lake Association v. City of Victorville (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 91, Division One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the San Bernardino County Superior Court’s decision in part, agreeing with the petitioner that revisions to impact analyses after the Draft EIR had been circulated for review constituted significant new information triggering recirculation, and that the Subdivision Map Act required the respondent city to adopt affirmative findings prior to approving a parcel map. The court also held that the project—a commercial retail development anchored by a Wal-Mart—was inconsistent with the city’s general plan.
Subdivision Map Act
The Court of Appeal held that the City of Victorville violated the Subdivision Map Act by failing, in approving the proposed parcel map associated with the project, to make the findings addressing the issues enumerated in Government Code section 66474, subdivisions (a) through (g). On its face, this section seems only to require that a local agency deny approval of a proposal parcel map if it makes any one of the specified findings. The section does not explicitly address what findings must be made in approving a proposed parcel map. The court held, however, that section 66474 does apply in the latter situation, and requires city and county legislative bodies, in approving parcel maps, to make affirmative findings on each matter addressed in subdivisions (a) through (g) of that section. In reaching this conclusion, the court relied on the following: (i) a related provision of the Subdivision Map Act (Government section 66473.5), which requires local legislative bodies, in approving parcel maps, to affirmatively find that such maps are consistent with the governing general plan and any applicable specific plan; (ii) a 1975 opinion from the Attorney General concluding that section 66474 requires affirmative findings for parcel map approvals as well as parcel map denials; and (iii) case law and secondary sources supporting the Attorney General’s broad interpretation of section 66474.
Consistency with General Plan
The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court’s decision that the city’s finding that the project was consistent with the general plan’s requirement for on-site generation of electricity was not supported by substantial evidence. The general plan requires that all new commercial projects generate on-site electricity to the maximum extent feasible. As part of the project approvals, however, the city did not require the project to generate on-site electricity. In doing so, the city effectively found that generation of on-site electricity was infeasible. In support of this outcome, the EIR stated that there were many factors considered in determining whether the use of solar panels is cost effective, and described the project as being “solar ready.” But the EIR provided no discussion of those factors or how they applied to the project. Nor did the EIR discuss the feasibility of other alternatives such as wind power. The appellate court therefore held that the city’s finding that the project complied with the general plan requirement that commercial projects generate electricity on-site to the maximum extent feasible was not supported by substantial evidence. It is not clear why the court applied the substantial evidence standard to petitioner’s general plan consistency claims, rather than the traditional arbitrary and capricious standard.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision that the EIR failed to adequately address the project’s impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In concluding the project would have no significant impacts on GHG emissions, the city relied on the project’s compliance with the general plan policy to exceed the Title 24 Building Energy Efficiency Standards for Residential and Nonresidential Buildings by 15 percent. The appellate court determined that this conclusion was not supported by the record. First, the court pointed out inconsistencies in the EIR. In one place, the EIR stated that the project would achieve a minimum of 14 percent increased efficiency over Title 24 Standards. In other places, including the technical reports, the EIR stated the project would only be a minimum of ten percent more efficient than Title 24 Standards. Second, in responding to comments, the city acknowledged that the EIR was “currently not in conformity” with the general plan policy that the project would comply with the new energy efficiency standards at the time of construction, and stated that “several of the project’s current energy efficient measures likely meet the 15 percent requirement.” The court found that, at most, the record showed that the project may comply, but not that it would comply with the general plan policy. Therefore, the city’s conclusion that the project would have no significant air quality impacts from GHG emissions was not supported by substantial evidence.
Recirculation under CEQA
Finally, the appellate court also held that the city’s revisions to analyses of certain impact topics constituted “significant new information” triggering recirculation of portions of the Draft EIR. First, the city added to the Final EIR information analyzing the project’s consistency with general plan air quality policies that had inadvertently been omitted from the Draft EIR. Noting that the public did not have a meaningful opportunity to comment on this information, the court found this information disclosed a substantial adverse effect, and therefore triggered the obligation to recirculate the draft EIR. Second, after the city circulated the draft EIR, the applicant substantially revised the project’s storm water management plan. Although no new impacts were identified, the final EIR included 350-pages of new water quality and hydrology analysis. The court held the new information triggered the duty to recirculate. As the court reasoned: “Given their breadth, complexity, and purpose, the revisions to the hydrology and water quality analysis deprived the public of a meaningful opportunity to comment on an ostensibly feasible way to mitigate a substantial adverse environmental effect.” Notably, the court reached these conclusions without attempting to relate its reasoning to the four examples within CEQA Guidelines section 15088.5, subdivision (a), of situations requiring recirculation.