Sustainable Transportation Advocates of Santa Barbara v. Santa Barbara County Association of Governments

(2009) 179 Cal.App.4th 113

The Second District Court of Appeal upheld the Santa Barbara Association of Governments (SBCAG) approval of a transportation sales tax measure without conducting CEQA review. SBCAG developed and approved its sales tax measure pursuant to its authority under the Local Transportation Authority and Improvement Act. The Act requires that an agency approving a transportation sales tax measure receive a supermajority approval of the County voters before implementing the measures, and requires that the agency develop a funding plan listing projects anticipated to receive funding under the measure. The decision confirmed that neither of these requirements turns a funding mechanism into a project subject to CEQA. The Court explains that a funding plan “does not qualify as a project within the meaning of CEQA . . . [if] it is a mechanism for funding proposed projects that may be modified or not implemented depending on a number of factors, including CEQA environmental review.” The Court also explains that a ballot measure that does not meet the definition of a project, such as funding mechanism established consistent with CEQA Guidelines section 15378, subdivision (b)(4), does not require prior CEQA review merely because an agency must put the measure before the voters.

Importantly, the court considered the implications of the California Supreme Court’s analysis in Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116 (Save Tara) to reach its holding. The court concluded that the analysis in Save Tara is applicable not only to agency agreements relating to private development, as was the case in Save Tara, but also to public projects that do not involve agreements with private entities. The court, therefore, conducted the fact-specific inquiry required by Save Tara in considering whether SBCAG’s actions constituted a “project approval” under CEQA. The court held that it did not, and explained that an agency’s esteem for projects that may be funded by a government funding mechanism is not, in and of itself, the equivalent of a commitment to fund any particular project. [RMM Counsel of record: Whitman F. Manley, Tiffany K. Wright, and Christopher J. Butcher.]