The Court of Appeal rejected petitioner’s argument that the city was required to prepare a program-level EIR rather than project-level EIR for a long-term development plan in the San Francisco Bay. In Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island v. City and County of San Francisco (July 7, 2014, Case No. A137828), the court held that the EIR provided sufficient project-level information and properly relied on regulatory standards and guidelines. The court also upheld the EIR’s project description, analyses of hazardous substances and historic resources, and its discussion regarding conformity with the Tidelands Trust. In addition, the court held that the draft EIR did not need to be recirculated.
The Treasure Island/Yerba Buena Island Project is a comprehensive plan to redevelop the former naval station located on Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco into a mixed-use community. Among other amenities, the project will include up to 8,000 residential units, up to 140,000 square feet of commercial and retail space; up to 100,000 square feet of office space; 300 acres of parks, playgrounds, and open public space; restoration and reuse of historic buildings; bike and transit facilities; and a new ferry terminal and intermodal transit hub. Build-out of the project is planned to occur in phases over a 15- to 20-year period.
The City and County of San Francisco, along with the Treasure Island Development Authority, approved the project in June 2011. A group called Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island (CSTI) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the EIR for the project on various grounds. The trial court denied the petition in its entirety and CSTI appealed.
The Appellate Court’s Opinion
Before reaching the merits of CSTI’s arguments, the court clarified the applicable standard of review. Despite CSTI’s efforts to frame the issues to allege procedural violations under CEQA, the court determined that most of the issues raised on appeal were properly reviewed under the substantial evidence standard because they involved the sufficiency of the information provided to the public and to the decision makers. The court clarified that because CEQA requires an EIR to reflect a good faith effort at full disclosure, rather than perfect or exhaustive analysis, the absence of information in an EIR will normally rise to a failure to proceed in the manner required by law only if the analysis in the EIR is clearly inadequate or unsupported.
Project-Level v. Program-Level Analysis
CSTI’s primary argument on appeal was that the city was required to prepare a program EIR rather than a project EIR. It claimed that the project was only developed at a conceptual level by design, and therefore, the city was required to prepare a program EIR and analyze the project using “tiered” environmental review. The court rejected the argument, pointing out that CSTI failed to cite any authority suggesting that the city was required to prepare any particular type of EIR. The court emphasized that the label assigned to an EIR is less important than the EIR’s sufficiency as an informative document. Instead of focusing on labels when reviewing EIRs for legal adequacy, courts focus on whether EIRs provides decision makers and the public with sufficient analysis to intelligently consider the environmental consequences of a project.
Adequacy of Project Description
The court next addressed CSTI’s argument that the project description was inadequate. Similar to its previous argument, CSTI claimed that the EIR analyzed only an “abstract and indeterminate ‘conceptual’ development scenario” lacking necessary project-level detail. It complained, for example, that the specific configuration and design for particular buildings is left for future review and the street layout is only conceptual, with the final layout also subject to future review by responsible agencies.
The court rejected these criticisms. While the EIR did not include the exact, final plans for each building or street, it identified numerous design standards “governing virtually every aspect of project development.” The court determined these design standards provided stable information regarding final building details, including heights, mass, bulk, and other design specifications, while still allowing flexibility at the early stage in the planning process to allow future revisions. The court also noted that future revisions would likely be the subject of further supplemental environmental review. Accordingly, the court determined the EIR’s project description was adequate.
Presence and Remediation of Hazardous Substances
The court next rejected CSTI’s argument that the EIR did not include enough detail about the hazardous materials on the project site and how the city might remediate them. It explained that the EIR included extensive information on the presence of toxic or hazardous substance in the project area. It also noted that the Navy assumed primary responsibility for the remediation of each parcel of land before transferring it to the City. Further, in the event the city or developer assumed responsibility for any cleanup efforts in the future, they would be subject to the same environmental regulations and regulatory oversight as the Navy, and these numerous regulatory requirements were described in a mitigation measure adopted with the EIR.
CSTI also argued the mitigation measure was improperly deferred because a remediation plan would not be developed until a future time. The court found this argument unconvincing. The EIR relied on the existing regulatory scheme and performance standards to ensure any potential future remediation would occur without generating significant environmental impacts.
CSTI also argued that the City was required to recirculate the draft EIR in light of “significant new information.” During the comment period, the Coast Guard submitted a comment suggesting the project could interfere with vessel safety and homeland security on San Francisco Bay by interfering with the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service (VTS).
In response to the comment, the City met with the Coast Guard and conducted additional technical studies to determine potential impacts of buildings on VTS equipment operations. The final EIR amended design standards for the project to require consultation with the Coast Guard if future proposals included buildings tall enough to interfere with VTS equipment. The design standards also require any building developer to work with the Coast Guard to make space for additional equipment, or reach a similar solution, to preserve the effectiveness of the VTS. The Coast Guard submitted an additional comment letter, indicating the consultation process addressed the agency’s prior concerns. When approving the project, the city explicitly found that this binding consultation process would eliminate any impacts to vessel safety on San Francisco Bay.
Finding that the Coast Guard’s letter did not raise significant new information within the meaning of CEQA, the court explained that the record contained substantial evidence indicating the continued effectiveness of the VTS system would be ensured, despite urban development on Treasure Island and the refinements made to the EIR to satisfy the Coast Guard’s concerns did not constitute the type of significant new information requiring recirculation of an EIR.
CTSI also argued the EIR did not adequately disclose or mitigate potential impacts to two historic buildings in the project area because the EIR did not identify the precise and final disposition of those buildings. But again, the EIR identified binding design standards which would apply to any final architectural design proposals. The design standards require that rehabilitation of the historic buildings be conducted in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings. The court noted that these standards serve as an explicit benchmark to establish whether a project will have a significant adverse impact to historic buildings. The court also noted that if a non-conforming use of the historic buildings was proposed in the future, the use would not be covered in the EIR and would therefore require supplemental environmental review. But the city was not required to study a hypothetical future change to the project in the current EIR.
Consistency with the Tidelands Trust
Finally, CSTI argued the EIR did not adequately discuss and analyze the potential impacts of the project on land subject to the Tidelands Trust. CSTI’s argument again centered on that fact that not all proposed uses within the Project area are known at this time. But the court rejected CSTI’s insinuations that non-trust uses would be permitted on lands subject to the trust. The EIR explained that the project must conform to the legal requirements of the Trust. The EIR also acknowledged the use restrictions the trust would impose on tidelands. And any proposed use is subject to the Tidelands Trust overlay zone and final approval and review by the Treasure Island Development Authority.
RMM Partners Whit Manley and Chip Wilkins, along with associates Jennifer Holman and Jeannie Lee, represented Real Party in Interest and Cross-Appellant Treasure Island Community Development, LLC.