Sixth District Allows Use of Background Conditions and Future Growth Factors in Traffic Baseline, Backing Away From Recent Cases Rejecting Use of Future Conditions

Pfeiffer v. City of Sunnyvale
(2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 1552

The Sixth District Court of Appeal upheld an EIR for the expansion of a medical campus in the City of Sunnyvale. The petitioners, neighbors of the project, alleged that: (1) the project is inconsistent with the general plan; (2) the EIR’s discussion of general plan conformity is inadequate; (3) the EIR used a legally incorrect baseline to determine traffic impacts; and (4) the analysis of traffic noise is inadequate.

Regarding general plan consistency, the project opponents argued that that project is inconsistent with the general plan because a portion of the project slated for storage and waste management are located in an area that the general plan designates as low-density residential, which, the opponents argued, expressly excludes any use other than single-family, detached homes. The court rejected the opponents’ claims, pointing to the existing zoning and other uses in the vicinity of the project.

The project opponents also argued that, pursuant to CEQA Guidelines section 15125, subdivision (d), the EIR “had a duty to fully present the issue of general plan consistency of that portion of the project being built on land designated in the City’s general plan as exclusively residential with single family detached homes.” The court rejected this argument stating that CEQA requires only a discussion of general plan inconsistency. Similarly, the court rejected the opponents’ claims that the City did not adequately respond to comments on the issue of consistency because “[t]he response contains a similar level of detail as the comment and demonstrates a good faith analysis as to how the matter was addressed and analyzed.”

The project opponents argued that the EIR’s baseline for traffic was improper because it used hypothetical “background conditions” rather than the actual existing conditions. The “background conditions” were “existing peak-hour volumes multiplied by a growth factor plus traffic from approved but not yet constructed developments in the area. The traffic growth factor was developed based on the City of Sunnyvale’s travel demand forecasting model.” The court first confirmed that establishing the proper baseline is a fact-based analysis and is subjected to the substantial evidence standard of review. Here, the opponents had failed to show that the City’s determination was not supported by substantial evidence.

The court distinguished the case of Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Sunnyvale (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 1351. The court quoted Sunnyvale West “[a]lthough ‘[n]either CEQA nor the CEQA Guidelines mandates a uniform, inflexible rule for determination of the existing conditions baseline’ [citation] nothing in the law authorizes environmental impacts to be evaluated only against predicted conditions more than a decade after EIR certification and project approval.” The court then explained “Sunnyvale West is therefore distinguishable from the present case, where the traffic baselines included in the EIR were not limited to projected traffic condition in the year 2020, but also included existing conditions and the traffic growth anticipated from approved but not yet constructed developments.”

Regarding noise, the court rejected the opponents’ claim that the traffic noise was inadequate because it relied on hypothetical levels of traffic. The record showed the analysis used existing noise levels, and the court found the opponents had failed to meet their burden. The court also rejected the opponents’ claim that the EIR did not properly identify mitigation for significant construction noise impacts. Although the EIR was less than clear on the point, the court pointed to significance conclusions and mitigation measures identified in the EIR. The court held this was adequate.