In California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (August 13, 2013, Case No. A136212) ___ Cal.App.4th ___, the First District Court of Appeal reversed a trial court’s decision striking down the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s (BAAQMD’s) CEQA thresholds of significance for greenhouse gas emissions. The appellate court held that CEQA does not require BAAQMD to prepare an environment impact report (EIR) before adopting “thresholds of significance” to assist in the determination of whether air emissions of proposed projects might be deemed “significant.”
On June 2, 2010, BAAQMD adopted CEQA thresholds of significance for greenhouse gas emissions. The thresholds also set standards for impacts related to toxic air contaminants (TACs) and very small particulate matter (PM2.5). The thresholds were adopted pursuant to CEQA Guidelines section 15064.7, which encourages agencies to “develop and publish thresholds of significance” for “general use as part of the lead agency’s environmental review process.” The section further mandates that the thresholds be “adopted by ordinance, resolution, rule, or regulation, and developed through a public review process and be supported by substantial evidence.”
The California Building Industry Association (CBIA) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging BAAQMD’s adoption of the thresholds. CBIA argued the issuance of the thresholds was a “project” under CEQA, and that BAAQMD had violated CEQA by not preparing an EIR before adopting the guidelines. CBIA claimed the thresholds were too stringent and would discourage developers from building desirable urban infill projects close to public transportation by making the CEQA review process more burdensome and expensive. This, in turn, would result in more housing being built in the suburbs, causing more commuter traffic and more traffic-related emissions. This increased pollution, CBIA argued, was an adverse impact mandating preparation of an EIR.
The Alameda County Superior Court agreed, ruling that the adoption of the thresholds was a project under CEQA and entered an order awarding the CBIA substantial attorney fees under Code Civil Procedure section 1021.5.
The First District Court of Appeal reversed, reasoning that (1) the district’s adoption of thresholds was not a “project” within the meaning of CEQA and (2) there were no reasonably foreseeable impacts associated with this action.
CEQA defines a project as any activity “which may cause either a direct physical change in the environment, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment.” (Pub. Res. Code, § 21065.) The appellate court concluded that the adoption of thresholds was not a project. BAAQMD relied on CEQA Guidelines section 15064.7 in promulgating the thresholds. The court explained that section 15064.7 establishes the procedures for adopting thresholds in some detail, and CEQA review is not part of that procedure. Section 15064.7, subdivision (b), provides that thresholds of significance must be formally adopted through a public review process and supported by substantial evidence if, as in this case, they are to be placed in general use. The agency accepted public comments and responded to comments. Striking an uncommon tone, the court concluded that this process was substantially similar to the EIR process and that requiring more would be a duplicative effort and a waste of tax dollars.
The court noted in any event, the action was not a “project” because the activity would not cause a direct physical change in the environment or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change. (Pub. Res. Code, § 21065; CEQA Guidelines, § 15378, subd. (a).) CBIA argued that impacts were reasonably foreseeable because the thresholds were more stringent than earlier thresholds and would require a more thorough environmental analysis; as a result, the CEQA process would become more burdensome, making urban development less desirable and leading to more suburban development with all its attendant impacts including traffic and air quality impacts.
The court was not persuaded, instead reasoning that the analysis posited by CBIA included many assumptions and a great deal of speculation because “the extent to which land development projects might be relocated to a more suburban location would require a prescience we cannot reasonably demand of the [BAAQMD].” The court, therefore, concluded that no CEQA review was required before BAAQMD promulgated the thresholds.
In its petition for writ of mandate, CBIA raised several challenges to the substance of the thresholds that were not decided by the trial court. Though CBIA failed to cross-appeal, the appellate court agreed to consider the other two issues. First, CBIA argued that the standards were inappropriate in any event because they evaluated the effects of the environment on sensitive receptors as part of the project; this is contrary, it argued to the purpose of CEQA, which is to protect the environment from proposed projects, not protect the proposed projects from the existing environment. The court cited a long line of cases for this proposition, including the recent Ballona Wetlands Land Trust v. City of Los Angeles (2011) 201 Cal.App.4th 455. The court did not address whether Ballona, et al., were correctly decided, or whether, as a general rule, an EIR may be required solely because the existing environment may adversely affect future occupants of a project. Instead, finding CBIA’s claim that the receptor thresholds were unauthorized by CEQA analogous to a claim a statute or regulation is unconstitutional on its face, the court held that the regulations were not facially invalid because they were relevant for purposes other than determining the effects of the environment on the project. The court also suggested that continuing vitality of Ballona, et al., was better reserved for a case in which the receptor thresholds were actually applied to a project.
As to the second CBIA challenge not ruled on by the trial court, the First District concluded that BAAQMD’s TAC Single-Source and Cumulative Thresholds were supported by substantial evidence and upheld them.
In reversing the trial court’s judgment in CBIA’s favor and declining to grant the relief CBIA sought on the issues not resolved by the trial court, the court of appeal also reversed the substantial attorney’s fees award, concluding the industry association was no longer the successful party under Code of Civil Procedure Section 1021.5.