Fourth District Court of Appeal Upholds Traffic Baseline Derived from Historical Occupancy of Shopping Center as Opposed to the “Existing Conditions”

On October 9, 2015, the Fourth District ordered partial publication of North County Advocates v. City of Carlsbad (Sept. 10, 2015) ___Cal.App.4th___, Case No. D066488), excluding Sections III, IV, and V. The published section of the Opinion provides guidance on the proper use of an historic baseline by lead agencies for certain common types of urban land use projects with potentially fluctuating future impacts.

Westfield proposed to renovate a shopping center in Carlsbad that had originally been built more than 40 years prior. The city approved Westfield’s request to renovate a former Robinsons-May store and other small portions of the shopping center. Petitioners challenged the city’s approval, arguing that the project’s EIR used an improper baseline in its traffic analysis because it treated the Robinsons-May store as fully occupied, even though it had been only periodically occupied for the past six years. The trial court rejected petitioners’ contentions, and the Court of Appeal affirmed.

The Court of Appeal started by discussing the rule stated in Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2013) 57 Cal.4th 439, 457, that an agency’s decision to deviate from the normal rule for determining a baseline cannot be disturbed by a reviewing court if substantial evidence supports the agency’s “determination that an existing conditions impacts analysis would provide little or no relevant information or would be misleading as to the project’s true impacts.”

The Court then provided an overview of cases that have dealt with the issue of a historic baseline. In Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management District (2010) 48 Cal.4th 310, 322, the California Supreme Court disapproved of the air district’s selection “as the project’s baseline for nitrogen oxide emissions the amount the boilers would emit if they operated at the maximum level allowed under ConocoPhillips’s existing permits,” because “ConocoPhillips had never operated them at that level” in the past. The Court in Communities for a Better Environment explained that the deviation from the normal rule was impermissible because the district’s selected baseline was hypothetical and based on maximum permitted operating conditions that were not the norm and had never before occurred at the facility. In contrast, the Court of Appeal in Cherry Valley Pass Acres & Neighbors v. City of Beaumont (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 316, 340, upheld the City of Beaumont’s use of a historic baseline derived from fluctuating historical water use of past agricultural operations on the project site.

Here, the Court upheld the City of Carlsbad’s selection of a traffic baseline that assumed full occupancy of the shopping center as opposed to the “existing conditions” of the shopping center with recent key vacancies. The Court found that the baseline derived from the “fluctuating occupancy” of the shopping center over the past few decades was more like the baseline derived from historical water use in Cherry Valley Pass Acres than the entirely hypothetical baseline in Communities for a Better Environment. Concluding that substantial evidence of actual historical operations of the shopping center space over a 30-year period supported the City’s selection of a historic baseline, the Court distinguished Communities for a Better Environment.

The unpublished portions of Opinion addressed whether substantial evidence supported the City’s selected traffic mitigation measure (Section III), whether the City adequately responded to comments on the Draft EIR (Section IV), and whether the trial court erred by awarding the city all of its requested costs (Section V).