Ninth Circuit Upholds EIS for TRPA’s Regional Plan Update

On November 2, 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s 2012 Regional Plan Update (RPU).

TRPA adopted the RPU as the general governing document for development and environmental protection in the Lake Tahoe region. The RPU generally restricts future development to areas that are already developed, and sets forth the amount of further development that will be permitted in those areas. The precise nature of that development is to be determined in “Area Plans” to be adopted later. Before approving the RPU, TRPA prepared an extensive EIS examining the potential environmental effects of the update.

Shortly after TRPA approved the RPU, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court alleging that TRPA’s actions violated the Lake Tahoe Regional Planning Compact in various respects. Their principal contentions were that the RPU failed to adequately address the localized effects of runoff created by the amount of development permitted, and that the RPU improperly assumed that best management practices (BMPs) could be utilized to achieve the RPU’s planning goals, despite TRPA’s poor record of enforcing BMPs in the past. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of TRPA. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

The Ninth Circuit held that the EIS adequately addressed potential impacts regarding water quality, soil conservation, and cumulative effects on biological resources. Applying a standard similar to the one used for evaluating environmental impact statements under NEPA, the court held that the RPU and EIS took the requisite “hard look” at these resource areas, despite that fact that the analysis was generally intended to be region-wide with additional site-specific review occurring later during the approval of Area Plans.

In finding that the EIS adequately addressed the localized effects of runoff, the court upheld TRPA’s reliance on the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) model, which aims to reduce the total flow of certain pollutants into the lake, and noted that the EIS’s storm-water modeling simulation addressed localized effects of runoff near concentrated development areas. The court concluded that the EIS adequately explained its basis for finding that concentrating development in community centers would not result in more concentrated runoff or other water quality impacts.

Regarding soil conservation, the court held that TRPA was not required to perform site-specific analysis of impacts because evaluation of coverage at a more localized scale would occur, as part of the Area Plan process, prior to development taking place.

Finally, upholding the EIS’s reliance on BMPs despite historically less-than-perfect enforcement by TRPA, the court noted that the EIS explained the steps that had been taken to improve enforcement. For example, TRPA’s BMP handbook acknowledged past failures in maintenance and incorporated that experience into updated BMP guidelines. The court also noted that the RPU provided incentives for redevelopment, and thus, was designed to move properties from TRPA’s retrofit program into its mandatory permitting program for new development, which requires BMP maintenance plans and logs. Thus, the court concluded that TRPA reasonably relied on data in the record in concluding that the RPU would have a less-than-significant effect on water quality.