Tag: Adequacy of Mitigation

On Remand, Fourth District Determines that Case Challenging SANDAG’s RTP Is Not Mooted by Later EIR and Resolves CEQA Issues on the Merits

On November 11, 2017, the Fourth District, Division One in Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 413 (Cleveland II), resolved the remaining issues on remand from California Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year.

SANDAG certified a programmatic EIR for its 2050 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy in 2011. Petitioners challenged that EIR, alleging multiple deficiencies under CEQA, including the EIR’s analysis of greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts, mitigation measures, alternatives, and impacts to air quality and agricultural land. The Court of Appeal held that the EIR failed to comply with CEQA in all identified respects.  The Supreme Court granted review on the sole issue of whether SANDAG was required to use the GHG emission reduction goals in Governor Schwarzenegger’s Executive Order S-3-05 as a threshold of significance. Finding for SANDAG, the Court left all other issues to be resolved on remand.

First, the Court of Appeal ruled that the case was not moot, although the 2011 EIR had been superseded by a new EIR certified in 2015, because the 2011 version had never been decertified and thus could be relied upon. The court also found that petitioners did not forfeit arguments from their original cross-appeal by not seeking a ruling on them. And, even if failing to raise the arguments was a basis for forfeiture, the rule is not automatic, and the court has discretion to resolve important legal issues, including compliance with CEQA.

Second, the court reiterated the Supreme Court’s holding, that SANDAG’s choice of GHG thresholds of significance was adequate for this EIR, but may not be sufficient going forward. Turning to SANDAG’s selection of GHG mitigation measures, the court found that SANDAG’s analysis was not supported by substantial evidence, because the measures selected were either ineffective (“assuring little to no concrete steps toward emissions reductions”) or infeasible and thus “illusory.”

Third, also under the substantial evidence standard of review, the court determined that the EIR failed to describe a reasonable range of alternatives that would plan for the region’s transportation needs, while lessening the plan’s impacts to climate change. The EIR was deficient because none of the alternatives would have reduced regional vehicles miles traveled (VMT). This deficiency was particularly inexplicable given that SANDAG’s Climate Action Strategy expressly calls for VMT reduction. The measures, policies, and strategies in the Climate Action Strategy could have formed an acceptable basis for identifying project alternatives in this EIR.

Fourth, the EIR’s description of the environmental baseline, description of adverse health impacts, and analysis of mitigation measures for air quality, improperly deferred analysis from the programmatic EIR to later environmental review, and were not based on substantial evidence.  Despite acknowledging potential impacts from particulate matter and toxic air contaminants on sensitive receptors (children, the elderly, and certain communities), the EIR did not provide a “reasoned estimate” of pollutant levels or the location and population of sensitive receptors. The EIR’s discussion of the project’s adverse health impacts was impermissibly generalized. The court explained that a programmatic EIR improperly defers mitigation measures when it does not formulate them or fails to specify the performance criteria to be met in the later environmental review. Because this issue was at least partially moot given the court’s conclusions regarding defects in the EIR’s air quality analysis, the court simply concurred with the petitioners’ contention that all but one of EIR’s mitigation measures had been improperly deferred.

The court made two rulings regarding impacts to agricultural land. In finding for the petitioners, the court held that SANDAG impermissibly relied on a methodology with “known data gaps” to describe the agricultural baseline, as the database did not contain records of agricultural parcels of less than 10 acres nor was there any record of agricultural land that was taken out of production in the last twenty years.  This resulted in unreliable estimates of both the baseline and impacts. However, under de novo review, the court found that the petitioners had failed to exhaust their remedies as to impacts on small farms and the EIR’s assumption that land converted to rural residential zoning would remain farmland. While the petitioners’ comment letter generally discussed impacts to agriculture, it was not sufficiently specific so as to “fairly apprise” SANDAG of their concerns.

Justice Benke made a detailed dissent. Under Benke’s view, the superseded 2011 EIR is “most likely moot” and in any event, that determination should have been left to the trial court on remand. This conclusion is strengthened, when, as here, the remaining issues concern factual contentions. As a court of review, their record is insufficient to resolve those issues.

Fourth District Upholds EIR for Master-Planned Community and Concludes That County Not Required to Recirculate

On March 15, 2017 the Fourth District certified for publication its February 4, 2017 decision in Residents Against Specific Plan 380 v. County of Riverside (2017) 9 Cal.App.5th 941, upholding the EIR for a master- planned community (project). A citizens group challenged the sufficiency of the EIR and the county’s approval process on six grounds. The court found for the county and real party in interest, Hanna Marital Trust (applicant), on every count.

The project proposes a master-planned community with seven planning areas containing medium-density residential housing, mixed uses, commercial retail, and dedicated open space on 200 acres of undeveloped land in Riverside County. Planning area 6, the mixed use area, was analyzed as potentially providing for the development of a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) for seniors.

On July 28, 2011, the County Planning Department released a Draft EIR (DEIR). The DEIR stated that mitigation measures would reduce the environmental impacts to a below significant level, except for air quality and noise. During the public comment period, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) and the City of Temecula raised concerns about the project’s air quality impacts. The final EIR (FEIR) was released in January 2012 and included responses to SCAQMD’s and Temecula’s comments. The FEIR reflected changes in the location of some project elements, but was “in its basics identical” with the project as described in the DEIR.

The Planning Commission reviewed the FEIR in April 2012 and suggested revisions, which were subsequently presented to the Commission in October 2012. The Commission recommended approval of the FEIR and the Project to the Board of Supervisors. The Board reviewed the FEIR at its December 11, 2012 meeting, where it considered some modifications to the project and Residents Against Specific Plan 380 (petitioners) suggested additional noise mitigation measures. At its December 18, 2012 meeting, the Board tentatively approved the FEIR, contingent on finalization of the modifications. On November 5, 2013, the Board approved the finalized FEIR, general plan amendment, zone change, and Specific Plan 380. The EIR resolution included findings of fact, a mitigation monitoring and reporting plan, and a statement of overriding considerations. The same day, the county clerk posted a Notice of Determination (NOD) that erroneously used an out-of-date project description.

On November 18, 2013, petitioners filed a petition for a writ of mandate, which was denied by the trial court. This appeal followed.

First, the Fourth District concluded that the Board did not substantially modify the EIR after approving it. Because the Board only tentatively approved the project in December 2012, the final approval in November 2013 reflected the Plan’s modifications. Similarly, the court disagreed with the petitioners’ argument that the findings, statement of overriding considerations, and mitigation plan were not timely and concurrently approved.

Second, the court concluded that the NOD substantially complied with the informational requirements of CEQA, despite its project description errors. The court also noted that the petitioners could not show that the errors were prejudicial because they filed the suit well before the statute of limitations had run.

Third, the court held that the changes made by the Commission and Board were not significant enough to require recirculation of the EIR. In reaching its determination, the court relied on CEQA Guidelines § 15088.5, subd. (a), stating that a lead agency must recirculate an EIR when significant new information is added that reveals a substantially new or increased impact. The court rejected the petitioners’ argument of increased traffic impacts, holding that only traffic patterns would be affected, not intensity. The court also rejected the petitioners’ contention that increased biological impacts would result from moving the mixed-use area further north, as the open space region was already adjacent to it. Petitioners’ argument of increased noise impacts was contradicted by the county’s expert. Finally, the petitioners failed to substantiate their claim of potential land use inconsistencies. Therefore, the County had an adequate basis for not recirculating the EIR. Petitioners’ reliance on Vineyard Area Citizens for Responsible Growth v. City of Rancho Cordova (2007) 40 Cal.4th 412 and Save our Peninsula Committee v. Monterey County Board of Supervisors (2001) 87 Cal.App.4th 99 were inapposite, as the EIR did not reveal facially significant new impacts nor areas necessitating further factual development.

Fourth, the court concluded that the EIR adequately analyzed the impacts of the mixed-use area under the rubric of a proposed CCRC. Petitioners alleged that by analyzing only a CCRC, and not other potentially higher impact uses, the EIR’s analysis of the mixed-use planning area was improperly narrow in scope. The court rejected this argument because substantial evidence supported the County’s decision to limit the scope of the analysis to a CCRC. Even if the applicant did not build a CCRC, the project plan restricted the applicant to other permitted uses in the planning area, and only if they would not incur additional environmental impacts. Nor, the court stated, does CEQA require the county to analyze what are merely possible development schemes.

Finally, the court ruled that the EIR adequately considered the specific suggestions for mitigating the project’s air quality and noise impacts from SCAQMD, Temecula, and the petitioners. Regarding mitigation for air emission impacts proposed by SCAQMD and Temecula, the county could justify why the measures were not adopted, why they were infeasible given the project’s timeline and parameters, or why they were duplicative with measures already adopted. SCAQMD’s proposal to utilize lower emission vehicles did not reflect the construction equipment anticipated to be reasonably available. Temecula’s suggestion of applying the 2010 Energy Code was duplicative of the requirement to exceed the 2008 Code emission standards by 15%, and the code in force at the time of construction would control in any event. Furthermore, the county was not required to adopt the specific prescriptive emission reduction measures in the Green Building Standards Code, but could opt for performance-based standards that are less likely to incur enforcement and enforceability issues. With respect to the additional noise mitigation measures proposed by the petitioners, these were found to be untimely raised more than a year after the comment period had closed. Therefore, the county was not obligated to respond. Moreover, the county was justified in not adopting these noise mitigation measures because they require electric construction equipment that may not be available or may duplicate existing requirements.

 

First District Court of Appeal Applies Substantial Evidence Standard of Review to Subsequent MND and Upholds County’s Decision to Permit Expansion of Buddhist Retreat Center

In Coastal Hills Rural Preservation v. County of Sonoma (2016) (previously published at 2 Cal.App.5th 1234)* the First District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s determination that the County of Sonoma did not violate CEQA or the Planning and Zoning law when it adopted a subsequent mitigated negative declaration (MND) and approved a master use permit to expand the existing Ratna Ling Buddhist retreat center and printing facility.

The Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center (TNMC) has operated a monastery and retreat center in Cazadero since 1975. In 2004, TNMC purchased an additional property, which it designated the Ratna Ling Retreat Center. Since 2004 Ratna Ling has undergone numerous changes and expansions, including growing from a one-printing-press facility to operating six printing presses. In response to applications from Ratna Ling, the county adopted and approved a series of mitigated negative declarations in 2004, 2008 and 2012. In 2014, Ratna Ling applied for a third multiple-use permit, and the county adopted a subsequent MND to the 2004 and 2008 MNDs, superseding the 2012 MND. The 2014 subsequent MND analyzed Ratna Ling’s application to make permanent four storage tents for its printing-press operation, and construct a new six-bedroom residence and up to eight tent cabins.

Coastal Hills Rural Preservation (CHRP) filed suit, arguing that the county should have prepared an EIR because the project greatly expands the printing-press operation. CHRP also argued that the approval violated the county’s general plan and zoning provisions. The trial court denied the petition, and the First District Court of Appeal affirmed.

CHRP argued that the project was inconsistent with the county’s general plan and zoning provisions in violation of Government Code section 65300. The site is designated for “resources and rural development” under the county’s general plan, which is intended to “protect lands used for timber, geothermal and mineral resource production and for natural resource conservation.” Contrary to CHRP’s argument that the printing press included “extraordinary levels of manufacturing productions …, massive storage structures and commercial Internet sales,” the court found that substantial evidence supported the county’s determination that the proposed uses were consistent with the land use regulations. The court explained that an agency’s determination regarding consistency with its own general plan is given great deference because “the body adopting a general plan has unique competence to interpret those policies when applying them to a proposed project.” There was no evidence in the record that the printing activities were undertaken for profit, the printing press use had been permitted since 2004, and the Board fully considered the county’s land use policies and the extent to which the project conforms to those policies.

The Court of Appeal also affirmed the trial court’s determination that the Board did not violate CEQA. Because the court was considering the county’s decision to prepare a subsequent MND where an MND had already been prepared under Public Resources Code section 21166, the court applied the substantial evidence test rather than the fair-argument standard of review. The court noted that the issue of the standard of review is currently before the California Supreme Court in Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo Community College Dist. (Sept. 26, 2013, A135892 [nonpub. opn.]), review granted Nov. 5, 2013, S214061).

The court found that substantial evidence supported the Board’s conclusion that any fire risks posed by the storage tents were adequately mitigated: the membranes covering the tents met applicable fire protection standards, there was 200 to 300 feet of defensible space around each tent, and a condition of approval required Ratna Ling to provide and maintain its own onsite fire engine. In addition, the court held that, regardless of whether the county should have included the tents in the baseline for its analysis, substantial evidence in the record indicated that the Board fully considered the potential impacts of the tents.

The court also ruled against arguments put forth by amicus curiae Friends of the Gualala River and Forest Unlimited. Contrary to those arguments, the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan was not effective until October 25, 2011, well after the storage tents were permitted and constructed, and therefore was inapplicable. In addition, the county did not improperly defer mitigation when it required Ratna Ling to coordinate with the fire district and comply with all fire-related conditions, because the mitigaton simply granted the county the right to impose new, stricter requirements if deemed necessary.

Finally, CHRP argued that the county engaged in impermissible spot zoning. The court explained that because the record and the relevant zoning regulations did not suggest that the authorized use for Ratna Ling is prohibited as to all other parcels in the same zone, this was not impermissible spot zoning in violation of Government Code section 65852.

*On November 22, 2016, the California Supreme Court granted review (210 Cal.Rptr.3d 14), depublished the decision, and transferred the case back to the First District, Division One, for reconsideration in light of Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District et al. (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937, 957–959. On May 16, 2016, the First District filed an unpublished decision in matter, available at 2017 WL 2118370.

Third Appellate District Upholds Department of Fish and Wildlife EIR, But Finds Department Violated APA in Adopting Underground Regulations

The Third District Court of Appeal held that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s program EIR analyzing the Department’s statewide fish hatchery and stocking enterprise passed muster. The Department did not abuse its discretion in the manner it organized the EIR, analyzed the project, and mitigated numerous impacts. The court also found, however, that the Department had violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) by adopting three mitigation measures, which imposed new obligations on private aquaculture facilities and required the Department to perform new duties, without complying with APA procedures. Center for Biological Diversity v. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife (Feb. 10, 2015) ___ Cal.App.4th ___, Case No. C072486.

The Department operates 14 trout hatcheries and 10 salmon and steelhead hatcheries throughout the state, stocking fish at close to 1,000 locations each year. After CEQA’s enactment, the hatching and stocking enterprise was found categorically exempt from complying with CEQA. Subsequently, concerns arose regarding the enterprise’s impact on native and wild animals due to predation and genetic hybridization. To address these concerns, the Department developed aquatic biodiversity management plans and hatchery genetic management plans. Center for Biological Diversity sued the Department in 2006, and the trial court agreed with the Center that the enterprise was not categorically exempt from CEQA because it likely caused significant environmental impacts. The court in this prior suit ordered the Department to prepare an EIR and comply with CEQA.

The Department prepared a broad-scope, program EIR/environmental impact statement pursuant to that decision and to additionally comply with NEPA. The EIR analyzed the statewide hatchery and stocking enterprise, as well as three other programs, including the Fishing in the City Program (providing fishing opportunities in urban areas), and the Private Stocking Permit Program (authorizing fish stocking by private aquaculture facilities in private and public lakes and ponds). The Department selected operations from 2004 to 2008 as the baseline and identified more than 200 impacts on biological resources. The EIR proposed a number of mitigation measures to lessen these impacts, and laid out three project alternatives. The EIR did not consider closing the hatcheries or eliminating trout stocking as alternatives.

The Department’s EIR was challenged by the Center and other plaintiffs representing environmental interests in two separate CEQA suits, with plaintiffs representing recreational fishing interests bringing a third suit under the APA. The trial court upheld the EIR and found no violations of the APA. The appellate court affirmed in part and reversed in part.

First, the Third District addressed the EIR’s level of analysis. The CEQA Guidelines do not specify the level of analysis required to be performed in a program EIR. Rather, the Guidelines require an EIR to provide sufficient information in light of what is reasonably feasible. The court found the EIR satisfied that standard. The document reviewed and analyzed the hatchery and stocking enterprise specifically and comprehensively, but within reason, providing for further environmental review where warranted. Given the nature and statewide scope of the project and the consistency of its impacts across the state, the court found the analysis adequate to serve as a program EIR that also operated as project EIR. No additional site-specific environmental review was required given the agency’s determination that site-specific impacts were sufficiently addressed in the program EIR, and there were no new impacts. Indeed, that is the function of a program EIR.

The court also found the EIR did not impermissibly defer formulation of mitigation measures, as it provided sufficient performance standards for future mitigation to meet. The court noted that the rule prohibiting deferred mitigation prohibits loose or open-ended performance criteria. Here, in contrast, the EIR’s performance standards were sufficient to inform the Department what it had to do and accomplish, and committed the Department to mitigating impacts before proceeding with the enterprise. The performance standards were sufficient to ensure the aquatic biodiversity management plans would mitigate impacts in mountain lakes to insignificance. The Department also relied upon federal regulations to develop mitigation measures for impacts on anadromous fish.

The court held that the Department properly used the existing enterprise as the environmental baseline. The court rejected the Center’s contention that the EIR must use the existing environmental conditions—absent the project—as the baseline. It noted that though the origin of present conditions may interest enforcement agencies, such information is irrelevant to CEQA baseline determinations. The CEQA baseline must include existing conditions even when those conditions have never been reviewed and are unlawful. Furthermore, despite using the existing enterprise as the baseline, the EIR described, as much as reasonably possible the impacts hatcheries and stocking have had statewide on the environment from the enterprise’s inception more than a century ago, and proposed mitigation for those continuing impacts. Thus, the EIR did exactly what the Center sought.

Finally, the court held the EIR considered an adequate range of alternatives. For the no project alternative, the EIR considered the baseline project—continuation of the existing enterprise without making any changes. The court upheld this decision, noting that where the EIR is reviewing an existing operation or changes to that operation, the no project alternative is the existing operation; it is a factually based forecast of the environmental impacts of preserving the status quo. The court rejected the Center’s argument that the no project alternative should have been the elimination of the stocking enterprise, stating that the EIR is not the approval of a new program, but review of an ongoing one. The Department was not required to analyze the alternative scenario of discontinuing its hatchery and production enterprise, as it had no legal authority to implement a no-stocking alternative.

Turning to the APA contentions, the court concluded that three mitigation measures imposed by the Department were underground regulations, i.e., regulations adopted without complying with the notice and procedure requirements imposed by the APA. The mitigation measures at issue were: MM BIO-226 (Implement Private Stocking Permit Evaluation Protocol), MM BIO-229 (Require and Monitor Invasive Species Controls at Private Aquaculture Facilities), and MM BIO-233b (Implement Private Stocking Permit Evaluation Protocol). The court found that the measures fell within the definition of a “regulation” and were not exempt from APA requirements. The court rejected the Department’s argument that MM BIO-226 was exempt as a regulation relating “only to the internal management of the state agency,” and that MM BIO-229 and MM BIO-233b were exempt as regulations that embody the “only legally tenable interpretation of a provision of law.” In particular, the court concluded that MM BIO-226 required the Department to “perform a new duty” and MM BIO-229 imposed on a “class of persons a new affirmative duty.” The court’s application of the APA to mitigation measures in a state agency’s EIR appears to be a first and could have far-reaching implications on other EIRs studying statewide activities.

Fifth District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR Prepared for Large Mine Project in Fresno County

In a partially published opinion, the Fifth District Court of Appeal clarified an issue regarding appeals under the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1975 (SMARA) and upheld the county’s choice of mitigation for loss of farmland. Friends of the Kings River v. County of Fresno, Case No. C071891 (Dec. 8, 2014).

The project in this case involved a proposed aggregate mine and construction of related processing plants on a 1,500-acre site in the County of Fresno. Mining and production activities would eventually occupy about 900 acres of the site; the remaining acreage would continue to support orchards. The project application included a reclamation plan as required by SMARA.

The County of Fresno prepared and certified an EIR for the project in 2012. Subsequently, petitioners submitted a designation appeal to the State Mining and Geology Board (SMGB) alleging that the reclamation plan failed to comply with SMARA. The SMGB granted the appeal and remanded the reclamation plan to the county. The county, in turn, revised the reclamation plan. During the SMGB appeal process, petitioners also filed a petition for writ of mandate against the county alleging violations of CEQA. The trial court denied the petition, and an appeal ensued.

The first published issue in the opinion addresses the scope of the SMGB’s authority over reclamation plans approved by a local lead agency. Petitioners argued that by remanding the county’s approved reclamation plan, the SMGB set aside or nullified the reclamation plan. Petitioners reasoned that the county failed to proceed in the manner required by law because the county approved a CUP absent a valid reclamation plan, contrary to the county code. The appellate court disagreed. Under SMARA, the only remedy available for a successful appeal to the SMGB is remand to the lead agency for reconsideration. The lead agency must then hold a public hearing and reconsider the action, but the lead agency is not required to set aside its prior decision.

The second published issue in the opinion addresses whether the county complied with CEQA by inadequately mitigating for permanent loss of farmland. The EIR for the project acknowledged that about 600 acres of farmland would be permanently lost over the course of 100 years. The county determined this loss of farmland would be a significant impact and adopted three mitigation measures addressing the impact. During public comments on the project, the county received a suggestion that permanent agricultural conservation easements (ACEs) could mitigate for the loss of farmland. The county addressed this suggestion in a master response which compared proposed mitigation measures with the recommendation to include ACEs in the project. The master response concluded that establishing such easements would not reduce the amount of farmland permanently converted as a result of the project. Therefore, the county found that ACEs would not mitigate the significant impact to less-than-significant levels, or substantially reduce the severity of the impact. The appellate court determined this evaluation of suggested mitigation measures compared to proposed mitigation measures was sufficient.

The appellate court rejected petitioner’s follow-up argument that the county was required to adopt ACEs as mitigation for the project as a matter of law. In support of this argument, Petitioner relied on Masonite Corp. v. County of Mendocino (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 230, in which the First District Court of Appeal held that ACEs may appropriately mitigate for the direct loss of farmland. In Masonite, the County of Mendocino argued that ACEs only mitigate for “indirect and cumulative effects of farmland conversion.” The First District corrected the county, explaining that ACEs may compensate for direct loss within the meaning of the CEQA Guidelines, so the county erred by declining to consider ACE’s as a potentially feasible mitigation measure. In contrast, the County of Fresno considered the feasibility of ACEs in the final EIR.

Fourth District decision holds San Diego’s Climate Action Plan violates CEQA

Division One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal granted Sierra Club’s petition to enforce a climate change mitigation measure adopted by the County of San Diego. The court affirmed the decision below. Sierra Club v. County of San Diego (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 1152.

Mitigation measure CC-1.2, which was included in a program EIR for the County’s 2011 general plan update, committed the County to preparing a climate change action plan (CAP) with more detailed greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets and deadlines, and comprehensive and enforceable GHG emissions reductions measures that would achieve specified GHG reductions by 2020. Sierra Club alleged that, contrary to this commitment, the County prepared a CAP that expressly did not ensure reductions. The County also developed associated guidelines for determining significance thresholds. Sierra Club alleged that CEQA review of the CAP and thresholds was performed after the fact, using an addendum to the EIR, which did not address the concept of tiering or the County’s failure to comply with the express language in CC-1.2, and contained no meaningful analysis of the impacts of the CAP and thresholds.

The court first rejected the County’s contention that Sierra Club’s mitigation-related claim was barred by the statute of limitations because it could have been brought with the challenge to the general plan update. The court found that Sierra Club did not challenge the validity of the general plan update EIR or the enforceability of the mitigation measures provided therein, but instead challenged the County’s separate approval of the CAP.

Next, the court held that with respect to the CAP as mitigation for a plan-level document, the County failed to proceed in a manner required by law by going forward with the CAP and thresholds project in spite of the express language of CC-1.2 that the CAP include more detailed GHG emissions reduction targets and deadlines. The County described the CAP’s strategies as recommendations, rather than requirements. It also relied on unfunded programs to support the required emissions reductions. The CAP’s transportation section did not include an analysis of the County’s own operations and the record contained contradictions surrounding programs over which the County had exclusive control. The County did not bind itself to implementation of its programs, and did not cite to any evidence supporting its belief that people would participate in the programs to the extent necessary to achieve the asserted reductions. In fact, the CAP expressly stated that it did not ensure reductions. Quantifying GHG reduction measures, the court stated, was not synonymous with implementing them.

The County also made the erroneous assumption the CAP and thresholds project was the same project as the general plan update, despite the fact that no component of the CAP or thresholds had been created at the time of the general plan update. Thus, the general plan update EIR did not analyze the CAP as a plan-level document that itself would facilitate further development. As a result, the County failed to render a written determination of environmental impact before approving the CAP and thresholds. By failing to consider the environmental impacts of the CAP and thresholds, the court noted, the County effectively abdicated its responsibility to meaningfully consider public comments and incorporate mitigating conditions. The project acknowledged it did not comply with Executive Order No. S-3-05, and would therefore have significant impacts that had not previously been addressed in the general plan update EIR.

Fifth District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Wind Farm in Kern County

The court held that the EIR’s mitigation measure for aircraft safety impacts, requiring that wind turbines be reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration before issuance of building permits, was feasible and enforceable. The court also held that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that the mitigation measure would be effective to mitigate impacts on aviation safety. Citizens Opposing a Dangerous Environment v. County of Kern (June 30, 2014, Case No. F067567) was certified for partial publication on July 25.

The case arose from the County of Kern’s approval of a conditional use permit for the operation of a wind farm in the Tehachapi Wind Resource Area. The county approved the CUP for the construction of wind turbines, up to 500 feet tall, after preparing an EIR. The EIR determined that the wind turbines might pose significant safety hazards to aircraft and gliders using a nearby private airport. The county, therefore, adopted a mitigation measure requiring the project applicants to obtain a “Determination of No Hazard to Air Navigation” from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for each wind turbine prior to issuance of building permits. Citizens Opposing a Dangerous Environment (CODE) filed a petition challenging the EIR on various grounds. The trial court denied the petition and CODE appealed.

CODE’s principal challenge on appeal was to the validity of the aircraft safety mitigation measure. CODE argued that the EIR failed to describe an adequate mitigation measure as a matter of law because the measure would not avoid or minimize significant impacts to aviation safety. The court disagreed, noting the mitigation measure’s requirement that the applicant obtain FAA certification for each wind turbine prior to construction. The court then pointed to other CEQA cases holding that mitigation measures requiring compliance with existing regulatory schemes are common and reasonable. And since federal law occupies the entire field of aviation safety, the court found it reasonable to expect compliance with FAA regulations by the applicants.

CODE also argued the aircraft safety mitigation measure was infeasible because the FAA could not legally block the project through enforcement of its “hazard/no-hazard” determinations. But the court noted the evidence suggested the hazard/no-hazard determinations can have a substantial practical impact on projects, even if the FAA did not directly have the power to halt the project. In any event, the mitigation measure made issuance of building permits for each wind turbine contingent on FAA approval. So while the FAA could not directly halt construction of the project, the county, through its police power, could. Therefore, the court determined the mitigation measure adopted to protect aircraft safety was feasible and enforceable, and the EIR’s conclusion that the mitigation measure would be effective was supported by substantial evidence.

The court also rejected CODE’s claims that the EIR should be set aside because the county failed to respond to late comments and that the county was required to adopt either CODE’s proffered mitigation measure or the EIR’s “environmentally superior alternative.”

Third Appellate District Court Finds Analysis of Urban Decay and Energy Impacts in a Programmatic EIR for Commercial Development Fails to Comply with CEQA

California Clean Energy Committee v. City of Woodland, Case No. C072033 (April 1, 2014)

Petrovich Development Company, LLC proposed to develop a 234-acre regional shopping center knows as “Gateway II” on undeveloped agricultural land located on the outskirts of the City of Woodland. After preparing a programmatic EIR, the city council reduced the size of the project to 61.3 acres and approved the project. California Clean Energy Committee (CCEC) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the city’s approval of the project. The trial court denied the petition.

On appeal CCEC contended (1) the trial court erred in concluding the project did not conflict with the city’s general plan, (2) the city’s mitigation measures are insufficient to ameliorate the urban decay that the project could cause, (3) the city did not give meaningful consideration to feasible project alternatives such as the mixed-use alternative, and (4) the final EIR did not properly identify and analyze potentially significant energy impacts generated by the project.

In an unpublished portion of the opinion, the court rejected CCEC’s first claim that city’s actions in approving Gateway II violated the State Planning and Zoning Law because the project was inconsistent with the city’s general plan policy of revitalizing its downtown. The court held the CCEC had failed to preserve this argument because its CEQA petition had failed to plead a separate violation of the Planning and Zoning Law.

With respect to CCEC’s claims regarding the City’s urban decay mitigation measures, the court agreed with CCEC that the measures were inadequate to mitigate the urban decay anticipated to result from the project. The mitigation measures the city adopted required the developer (1) to apply for a master conditional use permit subject to future evaluation and potential further environmental review and indicating a list of specific project uses that “shall primarily consist of regional retail uses that do not include entertainment uses and other uses that would compete with retail in Downtown Woodland”; (2) to submit a market study and urban decay analysis for review and approval by the city’s Community Development Department showing either that adequate retail demand exists or require additional mitigation or an alternate use; (3) to contribute funds toward the development of a “Retail Strategic Plan” to be prepared by the city; (4) to contribute funds toward the preparation of an “Implementation Strategy for the Downtown Specific Plan” to be prepared by the city; and (5) to “coordinate with the current owner of the County Fair Mall to prepare a strategic land use plan for the County Fair Mall to analyze potential viable land uses for the site.” The EIR determined, however, that even with the implementation of this mitigation, the city still anticipated the urban decay impact to be significant and unavoidable, in part because it was unknown at the time of approval what specific uses and stores could be proposed in the future in the project area.

The court found, as to the first mitigation measure, it was permissible under CEQA because it served to ensure the primary retail uses for the development will be regional and would not outright ban all retail uses that compete with the city’s downtown. The court also accepted the city’s representation that it “merely found that this measure would help, albeit not enough to avoid the significant urban decay impact identified by the EIR.” The court found, however, that the measure was inadequate, standing alone, to mitigate the potential adverse impacts of the development.

The court found that the second mitigation measure, by requiring the developer to prepare the market study, impermissibly ceded the city’s responsibility for studying an environmental impact to the developer. The court rejected CCEC’s claim that the city council erred by delegating the responsibility to implement the mitigation measure to the community development department, finding that delegation of responsibility for a monitoring program is appropriate under CEQA. Further, the court found the market study measure was inadequate because it did not commit the city to any specific mitigation action or impose any performance standards for determining whether it needed to undertake any future measures. Despite the fact that the EIR was a programmatic review which anticipated potential future environmental review for site-specific discretionary projects, the court concluded that, given the city’s recognition that the project would cause urban decay, the mitigation was required to do more than merely agree to a future study of the problem.

The court found the third and fourth mitigation measures were similarly inadequate for their failure to commit the city to any feasible or enforceable mitigation measures to ameliorate the adverse effects of the project on urban decay elsewhere in Woodland. The requirement for preparation of the Retail Strategic Plan and Implementation Strategy for a downtown specific plan appeared in the Draft EIR without further discussion or analysis. The final EIR adopted these mitigation measures without elaboration. The court explained that although mitigation fee programs may constitute adequate mitigation to address the adverse effects of a project, the mere payment of fees does not presumptively establish full mitigation for a discretionary project if there is no evidence that there is an established fee program in place. Here, the court found the city’s EIR did not adequately assess the scope of the program or fees necessary to adequately address the urban decay impacts expected to result from the project.

Finally, the court found that the fifth measure, although it purported to alleviate expected urban decay at Woodland’s County Fair Mall, required the city to take no action other than to coordinate with the current owner to prepare a plan for viable land uses at the County Fair Mall. The court found the mitigation measure does not require any action by the city to mitigate the urban decay it may discover to result for the County Fair Mall. As such, the court held this purported mitigation measure was inadequate. The court found that, though the EIR was a programmatic EIR, tiering of environmental review and deferring environmental analysis and mitigation measures to later phases would only be appropriate in cases where the impacts or mitigation measures are specific to those later phases. Here, because the EIR studied and attempted to mitigate the urban decay effects from the project as a whole, the city could not be permitted to excuse inadequate mitigation by putting off corrective action to a future date.

The court then held the city failed to comply with CEQA when it rejected the mixed-use alternative as infeasible. The Draft EIR concluded that the alternative was infeasible due to economic considerations; however, the city council’s findings rejected the alternative as environmentally inferior to the project. The court found the city had adopted a rationale for rejecting the alternative that was unsupported by the EIR analysis, which assumed certain impacts would be similar to the project impacts.

Finally, the court found the city’s treatment of energy impacts was inadequate. The court noted that the EIR’s discussion of energy lacked detail as it comprised less than one page. Furthermore, the court found the discussion inadequate as it did not provide an assessment of or mitigation for certain energy impact categories set forth in Appendix F of the CEQA Guidelines including transportation energy impacts, construction energy impacts, and renewable energy impacts. While the EIR did require the project’s compliance with the state building code and green building standards, the court found such standards alone would not adequately mitigate construction and operational energy impacts of the project.

Second District Court of Appeal Holds EIR/EIS for the Newhall Ranch Resource Management and Development Plan and Spineflower Conservation Plan Complies with CEQA

In Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Fish and Wildlife (Mar. 20, 2014) ___ Cal.App. ___, Case No. B245131, the Second Appellate District reversed the trial court judgment granting a petition for writ of mandate challenging the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (Department) approval of the Newhall Ranch Resource Management and Development Plan and Spineflower Conservation Plan. In the published portion of its opinion, the court held that the provisions of the Fish and Game Code supported a determination that live trapping and transplantation of a protected species of fish does not constitute an unlawful taking when undertaken by the Department for conservation purposes. The court also found the Environmental Impact Report’s analysis of cultural resources, alternatives, impacts to Steelhead smolt, and impacts to spineflower complied with CEQA.

The Newhall Land and Farming Company proposed an almost 12,000-acre Specific Plan area approved by Los Angeles County in 2003 and to be built out over a number of years. After the local county approved an environmental impact statement for the proposed development, the Department prepared and certified an EIR for the project—a Resource Management and Development Plan and Spineflower Conservation Plan. The EIR analyzed the potential environmental effects of issuing incidental take permits and a streambed alteration agreement under the project. The construction of the project would impact, among other things, the stickleback, a fish protected under Fish & Game Code §5515(a)(1) as a “fully protected species.”

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the Department’s actions. The trial court granted the writ petition, finding, among other things, that the department failed to prevent the taking of the stickleback. The Department and the developer appealed. The court of appeal reversed, holding that the trial court erred in granting the petition.

The court found substantial evidence supported the Department’s conclusion that no take of the stickleback would occur. The court found that the EIR contained mitigation measures to exclude stickleback from any construction areas in the river and to trap and relocate any stranded stickleback to other parts of the river in temporary containers. The court found substantial evidence supported a determination that no mortality would occur given the extraordinary measures taken by the Department to ensure the sticklebacks’ safety, including undertaking surveys of stickleback habitat prior to developing its plan, preparation of ten different studies, and employing the expertise of one of the leading authorities on stickleback preservation. The extensive mitigation measures, coupled with the expert’s discussion, constituted substantial evidence no deaths would result.

The court also rejected CBD’s contention that the mitigation measures themselves would constitute a taking prohibited by Fish and Game Code §§86 and 5515(a)(1). Those sections defined a prohibited take as the “catch, capture, or kill” of protected fish. After a thorough review of pertinent sections of the code, along with their legislative histories, the court agreed with the Department and developer that the use of live trapping and transplantation techniques approved in Fish and Game Code §2061 would not constitute a prohibited take or possession. The court reasoned the entire statutory scheme must be construed together and section 2061 allows for live trapping and transplantation when performed for conservation purposes. Such techniques, as explained by the Department’s expert, can involve the possession and movement of the stickleback in containers to parts of the river that would not be impacted by construction. Therefore, the court concluded the mitigation measures would not result in an unlawful take or possession of stickleback.

The court also rejected CBD’s claims that the EIR failed to adequately address the cultural resources impacts of the project. As an initial matter, the court found CBD had forfeited its cultural resources claims by failing to raise such issues during the public comment period. As a result, the court held CBD failed to exhaust administrative remedies and Department had no obligation to respond to untimely comments. Though finding the claims waived, the court addressed these claims on the merits and rejected them, finding the cultural resource analysis was supported by substantial evidence. The analysis in the EIR was based on extensive research, surveys, and studies performed by consultants with expertise in the field. The consultants undertook excavations of areas that the research and studies indicated resources might be present. Furthermore, the court found there was no evidence that the consultant have failed to uncover any human remains. Though human remains had been found near the project site, the court found that those earlier, off-site discoveries did not require the Department to conduct additional plug tests on site to confirm the consultant’s conclusion. The court also upheld the cultural resources mitigation measures set forth in the EIR as adequate and in full compliance with CEQA Guidelines §15126.4(b)(3)(A).

The court rejected CBD’s claim that the Department’s determination regarding the feasibility of one of the alternatives was not supported by substantial evidence. The court found that, in general, the alternatives were appropriate because they were required to follow the Newhall Ranch Specific Plan. In considering the objectives of the specific plan, the alternative in question would not meet the project objectives to provide a new major community with industrial, commercial, and residential uses because the alternative lacked commercial uses in one planning area and had no connectivity to the easternmost portion of the project area. Furthermore, the alternative was economically infeasible based on application of an industry metric of the cost per developable acre compared to the proposed project. The court upheld this methodology and found substantial evidence supported the Department’s determination regarding the infeasibility of the alternative.

The court rejected CBD’s claims that the EIR failed to address the potential effects on steelhead smolt downstream of the project area due to dissolved copper discharges.  Again, the court found CBD had forfeited its claims for failing to raise them during the public comment period. Though waived, the court addressed the claims and found that there were no steelhead smolt in the project area because the habitat would be below the dry gap where the river goes underground. Furthermore, the dissolved copper discharged to the river would be below the California Toxics Rule Threshold with compliance with regulatory requirements and implementation of mitigation measures and design features. The court found substantial evidence supported the Department’s determination that the project’s impacts on steelhead smolt would be less than significant.

The court rejected CBD’s claims of flaws in the EIR’s analysis of impacts to the San Fernando Valley spineflower, which is listed as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) and is known to occur only in the project area and one other location in Ventura County.  The Department issued an incidental take permit for spineflower, allowing take of 24% of the habitat within the Specific Plan area. The court found substantial evidence supported the mitigation plan for the spineflower. The Department had employed 43 biologists who conducted 21 surveys to identify the potential spineflower habitat. The Conservation Plan would dramatically expand the area for potential growth of the spineflower: from 13.88 acres of growth to 56.79 acres of core growth, 110.77 acres of buffer and 42.90 acres of expansion areas. The Plan would ultimately increase the preserve areas from two to five. The court also found that Department’s comprehensive monitoring plan did not constitute impermissible deferral of mitigation, but rather called for future research, which represented “sound ecological management.”

In an unpublished portion of the opinion, the court upheld the EIR’s greenhouse gas analysis. The Department employed a significance threshold for greenhouse gas emissions premised on the reduction target established under the California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) where GHG emissions would be significant if the project would impede achievement of a reduction in statewide GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.  The court held the Department had discretion to employ this threshold and concluded the threshold was appropriate.  The court found the GHG analysis complied with CEQA because it was consistent with the requirements for such analysis set forth in CEQA Guidelines §15064.4(b)(1)-(3) and was supported by substantial evidence.