Second District Upholds Agency Use of Projected Future Condition for Environmental Baseline

Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2nd Dist. April 17, 2012) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. B232655)

On April 17, 2012, the Second Appellate District affirmed a lower court’s denial of a petition for writ of mandate challenging the approval of a light rail project and certification of a final EIR under CEQA. The Second Appellate District disagreed with recent cases from other appellate circuits regarding the use of a projected future baseline and found that the use of a future baseline for analyzing certain impacts is appropriate when supported by substantial evidence.

The project at issue, known as the Exposition Corridor Project Phase 2, is intended to extend high-capacity, high-frequency transit service from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (Expo Authority) prepared an EIR in which it determined that the current population and traffic levels did not provide a reasonable baseline for determining the significance of traffic and air quality impacts of the project. Instead, Expo Authority used projected conditions in 2030 for the baseline.

Petitioners sued, arguing, among other things, that the Expo Authority’s use of a future baseline was improper.  The trial court denied the petition, and Petitioners appealed.

On appeal, Appellants argued Expo Authority’s use of projected future conditions could not provide the baseline for reviewing the significance of environmental impacts under CEQA, as a matter of law. Citing Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management Dist. (2010) 48 Cal.4th 310 (CBE), the court noted “Neither CEQA nor the CEQA Guidelines mandates a uniform, inflexible rule for determination of the existing conditions baseline.” Instead, agencies have discretion to decide exactly how to realistically measure existing physical conditions without the proposed project. The court noted CBE rejected use of present-day hypothetical conditions where those conditions were not a realistic description of the existing conditions. Expo Authority’s use of projected future conditions was distinguishable.

The Court of Appeal determined there was nothing “illusory” about population growth and its inevitable impacts on traffic and air quality.  Therefore, measuring the environmental effects of a long-term project by looking at those effects in the long-term was appropriate for this EIR. In fact, the Court of Appeal stated “In a major infrastructure project…assessment of the significance of environmental effects based on [current] conditions…yields no practical information, and does nothing to promote CEQA’s purpose of informed decisionmaking on a project designed to serve a future population.” Therefore, the court found Expo Authority was not prevented, as a matter of law, from using projected baseline conditions for a long-term project when its approach was supported by substantial evidence.

In reaching this holding, the Court of Appeal expressly disagreed with the holdings of both Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (2010) 190 1351, and Madera Oversight Coalition, Inc. v. County of Madera (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 48.

This holding is significant because it creates a stark split in authority between the Appellate Districts. Project applicants should be aware of this split in authority before attempting to rely on projected future conditions for an environmental baseline. There will undoubtedly be a push to take the issue to the California Supreme Court for resolution of the split in authority.