City of Irvine v. County of Orange (July 6, 2015) __ Cal.App.4th __, Case No. G049527
The court upheld a Supplemental EIR prepared by the County of Orange for a jail upgrade project over a decade after the original EIR had been certified. The court found the project was not substantially different than the project analyzed in the original EIR and that the Supplemental EIR adequately addressed the minor project changes and changed circumstances. And after a hearty dissertation on CEQA’s responses to comments requirement, the court determined that the county’s responses to comments on the Supplemental EIR were adequate.
The county prepared an EIR in the 1990s for the expansion of the James A. Musick Jail Facility. The City of Irvine challenged that EIR and lost; however, project construction was delayed indefinitely by a lack of funding. In 2012, the county decided to move forward with the project and prepared a Supplemental EIR to account for project changes and changed circumstances. Irvine filed a petition challenging the Supplemental EIR on various CEQA grounds. The trial court rejected the challenge and Irvine appealed.
On appeal, Irvine first claimed that the County was required to prepare a “Subsequent EIR” rather than a “Supplemental EIR.” Regarding the Supplemental EIR, Irvine’s contentions focused primarily on traffic impacts during construction and the loss of agricultural land. Irvine’s main argument, however, was that the county’s responses to Irvine’s comments on the Supplemental EIR were inadequate. The court rejected each of these claims in turn.
Irvine’s first claim was that the County was obligated to prepare a Subsequent EIR as opposed to a Supplemental EIR for their analysis of the impacts of the expansion. The court rejected this claim, explaining that courts should look to the substance of the EIR, not its nominal title.
Irvine’s next argument concerned the Supplemental EIR’s analysis of traffic impacts during project construction. Due to delays, there were discrepancies in the county’s construction timeline. Irvine claimed that these discrepancies amounted to an unstable project description that prevented the Supplemental EIR from adequately assessing project impacts. The court disagreed, finding that the project description was distinct from the interim impacts of construction. Specifically, Irvine claimed the county had failed to provide a stable project description because it could not account for the traffic impacts caused by construction in a given year. The court found that CEQA does not require a continuous update of traffic impacts as a result of construction delays and that, regardless of the delay, the impacts would not be substantially different from those disclosed in the Supplemental EIR even if traffic data was updated, and therefore, there was no prejudice.
The third claim concerned mitigation for the loss of agricultural land that would occur as a result of the expansion. The Supplemental EIR discussed seven possible mitigation measures, but none were found to be feasible. Irvine challenged the county’s feasibility findings for three of the measures: (1) the purchase of conservation easements on existing agricultural land to prevent it from being used in the future for nonagricultural purposes, (2) a transfer of development rights program, and (3) a “right to farm” ordinance.
The court held that the county’s findings rejecting these measures as infeasible were supported by substantial evidence. Conservation easements were found infeasible because there was no additional land for agriculture in the county that would be profitable and putting a conservation easement for agricultural use on land that is already used for agriculture would do nothing to mitigate the loss of other agricultural lands. The court also noted that the county’s zoning laws did not support the feasibility of conservation easements. Transfers of development rights were found to be even less feasible because the county did not have land laying fallow for which they could transfer rights in the preservation of agricultural land use. Lastly, the court concluded that a right to farm ordinance was the least viable option of all. The Supplemental EIR recognized that the conversion of current non-agricultural land to agricultural land would itself entail significant environmental effects, including nuisance suits. Beyond that, the court noted, a right-to-farm ordinance is meaningless where no land owner wants to farm. The court held that it is a reasonable inference that no one would want to convert land that is currently non-agricultural and put it to agricultural use even if they have the ostensible legal right to do so.
Lastly, the court addressed Irvine’s claim that the county failed to adequately respond to comments. The court began with a thorough discussion of CEQA’s responses to comment requirement and a detailed assessment of the state of case law on the subject. The court noted several oft-repeated principles by which courts may evaluate the sufficiency of responses, including (1) a general comment can be adequately met with a general response; (2) responses need not be exhaustive; and (3) the sufficiency of responses should be “viewed in light of what is reasonably feasible.” From the cases, the court divined a few more basic standards for the adequacy of responses: (1) when a comment raises a “significant” environmental issue, there must be some genuine confrontation with the issue, it can’t be swept under the rug; (2) responses that leave big gaps in the analysis of environmental impacts are obviously inadequate; (3) comments that bring some new issue to the table need genuine confrontation; and (4) comments that are only objections to the merits of the project itself may be addressed with cursory responses. Based on these guiding principles, the court found that the county had adequately responded to each of Irvine’s comments that merited a response.