In Santa Rita Union School Dist. v. City of Salinas (2023) 94 Cal.App.5th 298, the Sixth District Court of Appeal found indirect impacts resulting from inadequate funding to construct new schools included in specific plan to be speculative and therefore did not need to be evaluated under CEQA.
The project at issue was a specific plan for a 797-acre site in Salinas. The project included 4,340 housing units with up to 15,928 residents at full buildout, and was anticipated to occur over 20 to 30 years.
The City of Salinas prepared an EIR for the specific plan, which provided a very high level of design detail for certain project components. Where sufficient detail was available, the EIR also provided a full project-level analysis. The EIR stated that the design of school facilities and other public facilities was not known at the time of EIR preparation and so could not be analyzed at the project-level.
The EIR disclosed that the project was expected to generate between approximately 1,927 and 2,354 additional students in the neighborhood. To accommodate these new students, the project included three elementary schools, one of which was already operational, and one middle school, all located within the Santa Rita Union School District, and one high school which was already under construction in the Salinas Union High School District. Throughout the administrative proceedings, the two school districts sent comment letters raising concerns that sufficient funding may not be available for construction of the new schools. The districts argued that the EIR was therefore required to consider the possibility that the districts would need to accommodate the new students at existing schools and evaluate the associated environmental effects. In responses to comments, the city concluded that the information provided by the districts was “too speculative, uncertain, and vague” to give rise to meaningful environmental evaluation, and the city declined to conduct any additional analysis.
In December 2019, the city council approved the specific plan. The districts filed a petition for writ of mandate on the grounds that the EIR was inadequate because it did not evaluate the project’s impacts associated with enrolling new students at existing school sites. The districts also alleged the city failed to provide adequate responses to the districts’ comments.
The trial court granted the petition, finding the EIR inadequate for failing to address potential impacts arising from expansion of existing school facilities and concluding the city failed to adequately respond to the districts’ comments. The trial court delineated between indirect off-site impacts related to modification of existing facilities and direct impacts on those facilities.
On June 23, 2021, the trial court entered a written order ruling on the merits. On August 24, 2021, the trial court entered a stipulated order staying entry of judgment to allow time for settlement discussions and indicating that any appeal would be from the later judgment and not the June 23, 2021 written order. On December 27, 2021, the trial court held a hearing to clarify the judgment and orders. At the hearing, the trial court found that severance of portions of the project under Public Resources Code section 21168.9, whereby the court did not set aside project approvals and only required narrow relief related specifically to the analysis of impacts on schools, was appropriate. The court entered judgment on January 18, 2022. Real parties, but not the city, filed a notice of appeal on February 8, 2022.
Court of Appeal’s Decision
Initially, the court held that real parties’ appeal was not moot even though the city chose not to appeal and instead comply with the trial court’s judgment. Compliance by the lead agency does not eliminate real parties’ right to appeal where that party is exposed to an award of attorney fees.
Next, the court considered whether the appeal was timely. Specifically, the court considered whether the June 23, 2021, order constituted an appealable final judgment. The court explained that an order is final where it disposes of all issues and does not contemplate any further action. In contrast, where further judicial action is essential to a final determination of the rights of the parties, an order is interlocutory. As applied to this matter, the court concluded that the January 2022 judgment began the appeal period because not only did the earlier merits order contemplate and direct later preparation of a judgment and a separate writ, but that order also did not articulate the narrow statutory remedies the court ultimately directed in granting the petition.
School Facilities and Funding under CEQA
Reaching the merits of the case, the court explained that pursuant to the Government Code, including Senate Bill (SB 50), and relevant case law, payment of school impact fees “provide[s] full and complete mitigation” under CEQA for a project’s impacts on school facilities due to increased student enrollment. A project’s indirect impacts on the non-school physical environment and reasonably foreseeable impacts on the environment due to construction necessary to accommodate increased enrollment, however, must still be considered. Nevertheless, the court underscored that for an EIR to be required to analyze such indirect impacts, those impacts must be reasonably foreseeable.
Here, the court observed, the parties did not dispute that the EIR complied with CEQA in providing project-level mitigation measures for non-school physical impacts from construction of school facilities, and the city imposed the required developer impact fees.
The parties disagreed, though, regarding whether the city was required to conduct additional environmental review based on the districts’ assertion that there might be insufficient funding in the future to construct new schools. The court held that under CEQA, the city was not required to: (1) ensure additional school-funding mechanisms beyond school impact fees; (2) resolve the districts’ concerns regarding insufficient funding; or (3) analyze speculative, vague scenarios to accommodate increased enrollment at existing school sites as an alternative to the project.
Responses to Comments
The court characterized the districts’ comments as “non-specific, uncertain, and vague” information that identified only generally potential indirect and off-site impacts related to existing school facilities. The comments were based on decisions the districts might make in the future, and did not describe reasonably foreseeable indirect impacts that the EIR was required to analyze. The city’s response that the analysis requested by the districts was speculative, the court held, was therefore adequate under CEQA.