First District Court of Appeal upholds EIR for San Francisco’s Housing Element

On August 22, 2018, the First District issued its decision in San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods v. City and County of San Francisco (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 596. The appellate court upheld an EIR that San Francisco prepared for its 2004 and 2009 Housing Elements, notably rejecting a challenge to the use in the EIR of a future-conditions baseline for the plan’s traffic and water supply impacts.

In an earlier appeal involving San Francisco’s 2004 Housing Element, the First District concluded that the City should have prepared an EIR rather than a negative declaration. By the time the trial court issued an amended writ in April 2009 requiring the preparation of an EIR for the 2004 Housing Element, the City was already in the process of preparing its 2009 Housing Element. Consequently, the City combined the environmental review of the two versions and prepared one EIR for both the 2004 and 2009 Housing Elements. After the City adopted the 2009 Housing Element in June 2011, San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods (SFLN) filed a new suit and this appeal followed.

For traffic and water supply impacts, the EIR used a baseline of 2025 conditions based on population projections from the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). The court concluded that the City was “within its discretion to adopt a baseline calculation forecasting traffic and water impacts in 2025” rather than “comparing the existing conditions with and without the Housing Element.” Citing POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 52 (“POET II”), SFLN argued that the City took an improperly narrow view of the Housing Element and “sidestepped review of the reasonably foreseeable indirect physical changes in the environment.” The court was unpersuaded because the Housing Element consisted of growth-accommodating policies but did not induce or lead to population growth. Discussing the rule described in Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2013) 57 Cal.4th 439, the court found that substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that an existing-conditions baseline would be misleading as to traffic and water supply impacts. The court also rejected SFLN’s corollary argument about the baseline for land use and visual resources impacts, noting that the EIR did compare the changes in the Housing Element to the existing environment.

Second, the court tackled SFLN’s challenges to the EIR’s analysis of various impacts. It found that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s analysis, explaining that: (1) the EIR reasonably concluded that the 2009 Housing Element would not result in significant impacts on visual resources or neighborhood character because there would be no changes to allowable land uses or building heights, and residential growth would be directed to areas with existing residential uses; (2) the EIR for the Housing Element was not required to study traffic impacts of specific development projects in the pipeline because those projects were proceeding under their own EIRs or CEQA documents; (3) the EIR for the Housing Element was not required to establish a likely source of water and satisfied CEQA by acknowledging the possibility of a post-2030 water supply shortfall during a multiple-dry-year event and discussing the water rationing plan that would balance supply and demand; and (4) the City did not abuse its discretion in determining that the Housing Element was consistent with ABAG’s Land Use Policy Framework because policies would further the goals of the Framework by placing housing near transit and encouraging infill development.

Third, the court turned to SFLN’s argument that the EIR failed to consider feasible reduced-density alternatives. The EIR analyzed three alternatives, including a No Project Alternative, a 2004 Housing Element Alternative, and an Intensified 2009 Housing Element Alternative. The 2004 Housing Element Alternative was identified as the environmentally superior alternative because it would reduce the sole significant and unavoidable impact (cumulative impact on transit) even though it would not reduce the impact to a less than significant level. The court concluded that this was a reasonable range of alternatives. In particular, the court approved of the City’s explanation in responses to comments that the reduced density alternatives suggested by SFLN would not add any meaningful analysis to the EIR because they would not reduce the project’s potential cumulative transit impacts. The court also found that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that the SFLN-proposed alternative dubbed the No Additional Rezoning Alternative was infeasible because increasing the density of two major projects within existing neighborhoods as suggested would require rezoning.

Finally, the court rejected SFLN’s argument that the City should have considered additional mitigation measures to reduce transit impacts. The EIR explained that the only way to eliminate the significant transit impacts would be to increase the number of transit vehicles or reduce transit travel time. Since funding for these measures is uncertain and cannot be guaranteed, the EIR deemed them infeasible. Although SFLN suggested two mitigation measures, one was simply a permutation of the No Project Alternative and the other was infeasible because it involved imposing transit impact fees that the City had already decided would be infeasible because they cannot be guaranteed.

Elizabeth Sarine