On December 10, 2013, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alan J. Goodman issued a 41-page tentative ruling in three consolidated cases filed against the City of Los Angeles. The court struck down updates to the Hollywood Community Plan and accompanying EIR for using out-of-date population estimates. The plan would allow high-density construction near transit stops in Hollywood. The consolidated cases were brought by community groups, including the La Miranda Avenue Neighborhood Association of Hollywood, an organization that has successfully challenged other land use approvals in the Hollywood.
Judge Goodman held that the plan update and its certified EIR contained errors of fact and law because its land use designations were based on “substantially inaccurate” population estimates. Preparation of the Draft EIR began in 2005. The draft was based on growth analyses using estimated 2005 population data, which in turn was derived from a 2004 Regional Transport Plan developed by the Southern California Association of Governments – but neither the 2004 plan nor the method by which the City reached the 2005 estimate appeared in the record. The 2005 population baseline was 224,426 persons.
Based on the 2004 and 2005 population data points, the Draft EIR predicted that Hollywood’s population could reasonably be expected to reach 249,062 persons by 2030. Petitioners, however, contended that the 2010 U.S. census data, which became available shortly after the Draft EIR’s release, compelled revision of the EIR. The census data revealed that in 2010, the Hollywood population was only 198,228 persons – 26,198 persons fewer than the 2005 baseline, and 50,774 persons fewer than the anticipated 2030 population. The court agreed that in light of this new data, the EIR’s “fundamentally flawed” baseline should have been adjusted. Although the CEQA Guidelines provide that the conditions as they exist at the time the notice of preparation is published “normally” constitute the existing environmental baseline against which to compare the project, in this case, Judge Goodman reasoned, there was good reason to depart from the normal baseline. According to the court, the City’s failure to use accurate, current data was a failure to proceed in a manner required by law because without an adequate baseline, the City could not properly analyze impacts, mitigation measures, or alternatives. For example, the distorted population data skewed the estimation of the effect of the plan’s growth on fire and police services and related physical changes.
Judge Goodman also found fault with the City’s discussion of alternatives to the project, which consisted of “no project,” the project itself, and one alternative based on the 2030 population forecast. Not only were the alternatives faulty for being based on outdated data, but the project itself should not have been considered an alternative. According to the court, the defectively narrow range of alternatives was not remedied by the “hasty” addition of an addendum to the EIR issued five days prior to the City Council’s hearing on the project. According to the court, the addendum was based on the unsupportable notion that accommodating 50,744 new residents will have fewer impacts than a population half that size.
Because the City omitted information necessary to inform the public, the City’s error in using the wrong population data was prejudicial, according to the court. Reliance on the outdated 2005 population figures created a fatal inconsistency between the project and the General Plan. The court ordered the City to rescind, vacate, and set aside all approvals of the general plan update and its EIR.