Tag: Alternatives

First District Court of Appeal upholds EIR for San Francisco’s Housing Element

On August 22, 2018, the First District issued its decision in San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods v. City and County of San Francisco (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 596. The appellate court upheld an EIR that San Francisco prepared for its 2004 and 2009 Housing Elements, notably rejecting a challenge to the use in the EIR of a future-conditions baseline for the plan’s traffic and water supply impacts.

In an earlier appeal involving San Francisco’s 2004 Housing Element, the First District concluded that the City should have prepared an EIR rather than a negative declaration. By the time the trial court issued an amended writ in April 2009 requiring the preparation of an EIR for the 2004 Housing Element, the City was already in the process of preparing its 2009 Housing Element. Consequently, the City combined the environmental review of the two versions and prepared one EIR for both the 2004 and 2009 Housing Elements. After the City adopted the 2009 Housing Element in June 2011, San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods (SFLN) filed a new suit and this appeal followed.

For traffic and water supply impacts, the EIR used a baseline of 2025 conditions based on population projections from the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). The court concluded that the City was “within its discretion to adopt a baseline calculation forecasting traffic and water impacts in 2025” rather than “comparing the existing conditions with and without the Housing Element.” Citing POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Board (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 52 (“POET II”), SFLN argued that the City took an improperly narrow view of the Housing Element and “sidestepped review of the reasonably foreseeable indirect physical changes in the environment.” The court was unpersuaded because the Housing Element consisted of growth-accommodating policies but did not induce or lead to population growth. Discussing the rule described in Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2013) 57 Cal.4th 439, the court found that substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that an existing-conditions baseline would be misleading as to traffic and water supply impacts. The court also rejected SFLN’s corollary argument about the baseline for land use and visual resources impacts, noting that the EIR did compare the changes in the Housing Element to the existing environment.

Second, the court tackled SFLN’s challenges to the EIR’s analysis of various impacts. It found that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s analysis, explaining that: (1) the EIR reasonably concluded that the 2009 Housing Element would not result in significant impacts on visual resources or neighborhood character because there would be no changes to allowable land uses or building heights, and residential growth would be directed to areas with existing residential uses; (2) the EIR for the Housing Element was not required to study traffic impacts of specific development projects in the pipeline because those projects were proceeding under their own EIRs or CEQA documents; (3) the EIR for the Housing Element was not required to establish a likely source of water and satisfied CEQA by acknowledging the possibility of a post-2030 water supply shortfall during a multiple-dry-year event and discussing the water rationing plan that would balance supply and demand; and (4) the City did not abuse its discretion in determining that the Housing Element was consistent with ABAG’s Land Use Policy Framework because policies would further the goals of the Framework by placing housing near transit and encouraging infill development.

Third, the court turned to SFLN’s argument that the EIR failed to consider feasible reduced-density alternatives. The EIR analyzed three alternatives, including a No Project Alternative, a 2004 Housing Element Alternative, and an Intensified 2009 Housing Element Alternative. The 2004 Housing Element Alternative was identified as the environmentally superior alternative because it would reduce the sole significant and unavoidable impact (cumulative impact on transit) even though it would not reduce the impact to a less than significant level. The court concluded that this was a reasonable range of alternatives. In particular, the court approved of the City’s explanation in responses to comments that the reduced density alternatives suggested by SFLN would not add any meaningful analysis to the EIR because they would not reduce the project’s potential cumulative transit impacts. The court also found that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that the SFLN-proposed alternative dubbed the No Additional Rezoning Alternative was infeasible because increasing the density of two major projects within existing neighborhoods as suggested would require rezoning.

Finally, the court rejected SFLN’s argument that the City should have considered additional mitigation measures to reduce transit impacts. The EIR explained that the only way to eliminate the significant transit impacts would be to increase the number of transit vehicles or reduce transit travel time. Since funding for these measures is uncertain and cannot be guaranteed, the EIR deemed them infeasible. Although SFLN suggested two mitigation measures, one was simply a permutation of the No Project Alternative and the other was infeasible because it involved imposing transit impact fees that the City had already decided would be infeasible because they cannot be guaranteed.

Elizabeth Sarine

Second District Finds for Respondents on All Counts, Upholding EIR for “Iconic Gateway” Project in West Hollywood

In Los Angeles Conservancy v. City of West Hollywood (2017) ­18 Cal.App.5th 1031, the Second Appellate District upheld the trial court’s denial of a petition for writ of mandate, finding that the EIR’s treatment of alternatives was sufficient and that the city adequately responded to comments.

In 2014, the city certified an EIR for a mixed–use development in the Melrose Triangle section of West Hollywood. The project was the product of city incentives to redevelop the area in order to create a unified site design with open space, pedestrian access, and an iconic “gateway” building to welcome visitors and promote economic development. The EIR concluded that a significant and unavoidable impact would result from the demolition of a building eligible for listing as a California historic resource.

One alternative would have preserved the building in its entirety, by reducing and redesigning the project. The preservation alternative was ultimately rejected as infeasible because it was inconsistent with project objectives, and would eliminate or disrupt the project’s critical design elements.

After circulating the draft EIR, the project’s architects developed a site design which incorporated the building’s façade and mandated this design as a condition of approval. Furthermore, a subsequent fire destroyed 25 percent of the building, but left the façade intact. The final EIR and conditions were approved in 2014. Petitioners immediately filed suit.

In the court below, petitioner argued that the EIR’s analysis of the preservation alternative was inadequate, the city did not respond to public comments, and that the city’s finding that the alternative was infeasible was not supported by substantial evidence. The respondents prevailed on all claims and petitioner appealed.

Finding for respondents, the court reiterated the Laurel Heights standard that an analysis of alternatives does not require perfection, only that the EIR provide sufficient information to support a reasonable range of alternatives. The court rejected petitioner’s contention that the EIR was required to include a conceptual drawing of the preservation alternative. Furthermore, the EIR’s statement that preservation of the building would preclude construction of other parts of the project was self-explanatory and did not require additional analysis. The EIR’s use of estimates to calculate how the preservation alternative would reduce the project’s footprint did not create ambiguities that would confuse the public. Such imprecision is simply inherent in the use of estimates.

The court also found that the city’s responses to the three comments cited by the petitioner were made in good faith and demonstrated reasoned analysis.  The court reiterated that a response is not insufficient when it cross-references relevant sections of the draft EIR, and that the level of detail required in a response can vary. Here, the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance and the President of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles opined in comments that the building could be preserved while achieving the project’s objectives. The city adequately responded to these comments by referencing, and expanding upon, the EIR’s analysis of the preservation alternative, where this option was considered. The last comment was of a general nature, so the city’s brief, general response was appropriate.

Finally, the court found sufficient evidence to support the city’s finding that the preservation alternative was infeasible. An alternative is infeasible when it cannot meet project objectives or when policy considerations render it impractical or undesirable. An agency’s determination of infeasibility is presumed correct and entitled to deference, if supported by substantial evidence in the record. The court found that the city’s conclusion that the alternative is infeasible was supported by substantial evidence in the record. Development plans, photographs, and testimony from senior planning staff support the city’s conclusion that retaining the building and reducing the project would not fulfill the project objectives of creating a unified site design, promoting pedestrian uses, and encouraging regional economic development.  That another conclusion could have be reached did not render the city’s decision flawed.

A consistent theme underlying the court’s decision was the city’s clear goal of revitalizing the entire site, in order to create a functional and attractive gateway for West Hollywood. Critical to the project’s success was removing the specific building that the petitioner sought to preserve. The court appeared reluctant to overcome such a strong mandate by flyspecking the EIR’s analysis of this acknowledged significant impact.

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.

In a Case of First Impression, First District Court of Appeal Holds That Presentation of Five Alternatives in EIR, Without Designation of One as the ‘Project,’ Does Not Satisfy CEQA’s Requirement for a Stable Project Description

In Washoe Meadows Community v. Department of Parks and Recreation (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 277, the First District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision directing the Department of Parks and Recreation and the State Park and Recreation Commission to set aside project approvals where the draft EIR analyzed five alternative projects in detail, but did not identify one preferred alternative.

In 1984, the Department of Parks and Recreation acquired 777 acres of land in the Lake Tahoe Basin—608 acres of the property were designated as Washoe Meadows State Park and the remainder contained an existing golf course. Studies conducted in the early 2000s indicated that the layout of the golf course was contributing to sediment running into Lake Tahoe, which contributed to deterioration of habitat and water quality in the lake.

In 2010, the Department circulated a draft EIR to address the concerns about the golf course. The draft EIR analyzed five alternatives in equal detail, with the stated purpose of “improv[ing] geomorphic processes, ecological functions, and habitat values of the Upper Truckee River within the study area, helping to reduce the river’s discharge of nutrients and sediment that diminish Lake Tahoe’s clarity while providing access to public recreation opportunities ….” The draft EIR did not identify one preferred alternative. In the final EIR, the Department identified the preferred alternative as a refined version of the original alternative 2, which provided for river restoration and reconfiguration of the golf course. In 2012, the Department certified the EIR and approved the preferred alternative.

Framing the issue as a question of law, the court found that the draft EIR did not “provide the public with an accurate, stable and finite description of the project,” because it did not identify a preferred alternative. The court found that by describing a range of possible projects, the Department had presented the public with “a moving target,” which required the public to comment on all of the alternatives rather than just one project. The court determined that this presented an undue burden on the public.

The court compared the draft EIR to County of Inyo v. City of Los Angeles (1977) 71 Cal.App.3d 185, where the court found an EIR insufficient because the project description described a much smaller project than was analyzed in other sections of the EIR. The court in Washoe Meadows found that rather than providing inconsistent descriptions like in County of Inyo, the draft EIR had not described a project at all. Thus, the court directed the Department to set aside the project approvals.

First Circuit Finds Environmental Review Under Certified Regulatory Program Inadequate

In Pesticide Action Network North America v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 224 (republished as modified) the First Appellate District reversed the Alameda Superior Court and found that environmental documents prepared by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, regarding amended labelling for two pesticides, inadequately analyzed potential impacts on honeybees. The court held that the Department was required to analyze the environmental baseline, alternatives, and cumulative impacts in documents promulgated under CEQA’s exemption for certified regulatory programs (CRP).

The Department of Pesticide Regulation registers all pesticides in California, after evaluating their efficiency and potential for impacts to human health and the environment. The Department has a continuing obligation to reevaluate pesticides, and may cancel a prior registration. Since 2006, there has been a documented widespread collapse of honey bee colonies in the United States. One suspected factor is exposure to pesticides such as dinotefuran, the active ingredient in pesticides sold by the real parties. For this reason, in 2009, the Department initiated the still-ongoing process of reevaluating dinotefuran’s registration. Simultaneously, in 2014, the Department issued public reports for a proposal to amend labels for pesticides containing dinotefuron. The amended labels would allow the pesticides to be used on fruit trees, and in increased quantities. The reports concluded that the use of each pesticide in a manner consistent with the new labels would have no direct or indirect significant adverse environmental impacts, and therefore the Department did not propose alternatives or mitigation measures. The Department issued a final approval of the label amendments in June 2014. Pesticide Action Network filed a petition for writ of mandate in Alameda Superior Court and after a lower court finding for the Department, this appeal followed.

The Department’s pesticide program falls under the CEQA section 21080.5 exemption for CRPs. This exemption permits a state agency to rely on abbreviated environmental review documents, which are the functional equivalent of CEQA documents. Here, the Department issued the functional equivalent of a negative declaration. The standard of review is whether there was a prejudicial abuse of discretion, which is established if the agency did not proceed in a manner required by law, or if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence.

First, the court rejected the Department’s assertion that because it operates a CRP, its functionally-equivalent environmental review documents are otherwise exempt from CEQA’s substantive requirements. The court found that section 21080.5 is a “limited” exemption, and environmental review must otherwise comply with CEQA’s policy goals, substantive requirements, content requirements stated in section 21080.5, and any other CEQA provisions, as well as the Department’s own regulations.

Second, the court found that the Department’s report was inadequate under CEQA because it failed to analyze alternatives and cumulative impacts, and did not describe the environmental baseline. With respect to alternatives, contrary to the Department’s assertion, a functionally-equivalent document prepared under a CRP must consider alternatives, as required by both CEQA and the Department’s own regulations. The Department argued that it did not need to consider alternatives because it concluded there would be no significant environmental impacts. The court explained that the standard for a CRP for determining whether an adverse impact may occur is the same as the “fair argument” standard under CEQA. Furthermore, the content requirements for environmental review under a CRP require that a state agency provide proof–either a checklist or other report–that there will not be adverse effects. The court found that the Department did not produce or consider such evidence.

The court also held that the substantive requirements and broad policy goals of CEQA require assessment of baseline conditions. The Department argued that it had acknowledged and assessed baseline conditions, but the court disagreed. The Department’s baseline discussion was based on one statement that “the uses are already present on the labels of a number of currently registered neonicotinoid containing products.” The court found that this general statement was not sufficient.

The court found that the Department also abused its discretion when it failed to consider cumulative impacts. In its report, the Department simply stated that the cumulative analysis would be put off until the reevaluation was complete. The court found that this one-sentence discussion lacked facts and failed to provide even a brief explanation about how the Department reached its conclusion.

Finally, the court found that the Department is required to recirculate its analysis. Recirculation is required when significant new information is added to an environmental review document, after notice and public comment has occurred, but before the document is certified. The court explained that, in light of the Department’s required reevaluation, its initial public reports on the amended labeling were so “inadequate and conclusory” that public comment on them was “effectively meaningless.”

Pesticide Action Network provides important guidance regarding environmental compliance under a CEQA-exempt CRP. The court emphasized that unless specifically exempt from a CEQA provision, even functionally-equivalent CRP documents must comply with CEQA’s substantive requirements and broad policy goals. Also notable was the court’s application of the “fair argument standard” to the analysis of whether an impact would be significant under the functional equivalent of a negative declaration.

Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach

Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918

The California Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Impact Report prepared for the proposed “Banning Ranch” project was inadequate because the EIR did not identify “environmentally sensitive habitat areas” (ESHA) under the Coastal Act that might be present on the property, and therefore did not consider mitigation measures and alternatives designed to reduce impacts on those areas. Although the project required a coastal development permit, and the Coastal Commission would make a determination regarding ESHA as part of that permit, the Court held the EIR had to include a prediction of where ESHA would likely be found in order to serve its information purposes under CEQA. Whit Manley argued the case for the City of Newport Beach.

First District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Plan Bay Area that Correctly Excluded Statewide Emissions Reductions in Developing Strategies to Meet SB 375’s Emissions Targets

In Bay Area Citizens v. Association of Bay Area Governments (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 966, the First District Court of Appeal interpreted SB 375 as requiring the California Air Resources Board (Board) and regional agencies to set and meet the emissions reductions targets through regionally-developed land use and transportation strategies that are independent of existing statewide clean technology mandates. Therefore, the court of appeal upheld the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Government’s (collectively, the Agencies) “Plan Bay Area” and its EIR, finding the opponent’s arguments failed because they were based on a misinterpretation of SB 375’s requirements.

SB 375 requires the Board to provide greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets to each region while taking into account statewide mandates such as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard and the New Vehicle Emissions Standards. Then, each regional metropolitan planning organization (MPO) must prepare a sustainable communities strategy to meet those targets. The Agencies prepared Plan Bay Area. The petitioners commented on the Plan’s EIR stating that the Agencies should have counted reductions expected from preexisting statewide mandates. When the Board’s staff conducted a technical review of the Plan, however, they stated that the Agencies had appropriately excluded greenhouse gas emissions reductions from other technology and fuel programs. The Board then issued an executive order with the staff’s technical report attached, accepting that Plan Bay Area, if implemented, would achieve the targets.

The petitioners alleged that the Agencies failed to comply with CEQA by incorrectly assuming that SB 375 compelled them to exclude compliance with statewide mandates when assessing strategies to meet emissions reductions targets. First, the court looked to the plain meaning and purpose of the statute and found that because the emissions reductions from the statewide mandates are projected to dwarf those achieved by SB 375, the whole statute would be superfluous if the MPOs were simply allowed to cite the expected reductions from preexisting initiatives. Further, the Board’s AB 32 Scoping Plan repeatedly emphasized that the regional land use and transportation strategies were distinct from the statewide mandates. Although the Board was required to take the statewide mandates into account when setting targets under SB 375, the statute did not require any specific approach and the board had discretion to instruct MPOs to exclude consideration of reductions expected from statewide mandates. The Board made this instruction clear when it approved of Plan Bay Area with the exclusion of reductions from statewide mandates.

On the alleged inadequacy of the Plan’s EIR, the court stated that the petitioner’s arguments were based on their misinterpretation of SB 375 and found the EIR adequate. The Agencies were not required to consider the appellants proposed alternative that relied on statewide mandates because, as discussed above, it did not comply with SB 375 and was therefore infeasible. Contrary to the appellants’ contentions, the EIR did not ignore statewide mandates. Consideration of the New Vehicle Emissions Standards and the Low Carbon Fuel standard were included when determining whether implementation of the Plan would result in a net increase in emissions and whether it would impede the goals of AB 32. Further, the court found that in light of the Agencies’ sufficient disclosures throughout the EIR, including when they did and did not consider statewide mandates, the appellant’s arguments amounted to an impermissible substantive attack on the plan.

Written by Sabrina S. Eshaghi

Court Rejects EIR for Pest Program, Finding Objectives Too Narrowly Defined, and Thus No Reasonable Range of Alternatives

The Third District Court of Appeal reversed the decision of the trial court and held that a programmatic EIR for a seven-year program to control an invasive pest violated CEQA. (North Coast Rivers Alliance v. Kawamura (2015) 243 Cal.App.4th 647. The draft EIR evaluated eradication of the light brown apple moth, but the California Department of Food and Agriculture adopted a program to control the moth due to intervening spread of the moth and ultimate infeasibility of eradication. The court held that even before new information on feasibility of eradication came to light, the EIR contained an impermissibly narrow project objective, resulting in omitted analysis of pest control as an alternative to eradication.

The light brown apple moth is native to Australia and was introduced to California in 2007. Its traits of eating plant leaves and buds, adapting to new plants, and multiplying rapidly posed a significant danger to California ecology and agriculture, including potential extinction of sensitive species. This threat prompted the CDFA to prepare an EIR for a moth eradication program.

The draft EIR included five “alternatives” to the program, which the court determined were not true alternatives, but were instead tools to achieve eradication. The tools focused on disrupting mating patterns and introducing pesticides and natural predators. The draft EIR did not evaluate control as an alternative to eradication, and stated that the two mechanisms were fundamentally different because eradication had an end date, but control could potentially continue forever. Although the certified final EIR was for the eradication program, the adopted findings evaluated a seven-year control program. The program’s objective was also changed from eradication to protecting food supply and California’s agricultural economy.

The court held that even without this last-minute change from eradication to control, the EIR violated CEQA because the EIR failed to analyze pest control as a reasonable alternative to the eradication program. The process of selecting alternatives, it stated, begins with the establishment of project objectives, and the project’s artificially narrow objective of eradication precluded evaluation of alternatives that might have lesser environmental effects. Rather, protection of plants and crops were “clearly” the objectives and underlying purpose of the eradication program. The revised objectives in the final EIR underscored this conclusion.

The EIR’s failure to analyze the alternative “infected the entire EIR insofar as it dismissed out of hand anything that would not achieve complete eradication” of the moth. Though the department claimed the approved control program was narrower (less intensive) than the eradication program, and therefore fit within that program, the failure to analyze the control program in the EIR left the department unable to support this assertion with substantial evidence. The court held the final EIR’s selection of an alternative not analyzed in the EIR was prejudicial error.

The court continued with petitioners’ other contentions despite having already found reversible error. The court held petitioners’ claims of insufficiency of the evidence did not constitute a separate grounds for reversal of the judgment, and petitioners failed to show reversible error regarding the “No-Program” alternative or the EIR’s impact analyses. The court did not address the cumulative impacts contentions, finding that the reversible error necessitated a new cumulative impacts discussion.

Third District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Sacramento Kings’ Downtown Arena Project

The Third District Court of Appeal held that the City did not prematurely commit to the arena project by entering into a nonbinding term sheet with the Sacramento Kings or by engaging in land acquisition through eminent domain before the EIR process was complete. The court further determined that the EIR included an appropriate range of alternatives and adequately analyzed traffic and safety impacts. Saltonstall v. City of Sacramento (Feb. 18, 2015) ___ Cal.App.4th ___, Case No. C077772.

The case involves a challenge to the certification of an EIR and approval of a new entertainment and sports arena in downtown Sacramento that will eventually house the Sacramento Kings. To facilitate the timely opening of the new downtown arena, the Legislature modified several deadlines under CEQA by adding section 21168.6.6 to the Public Resources Code.

The City certified the EIR and approved the project in May 2014. Opponents of the project immediately filed a lawsuit against the City and sought a preliminary injunction to stay construction. The trial court denied the preliminary injunction, and the Court of Appeal affirmed that decision. The appellate court ruled that petitioners failed to satisfy the requirements for a preliminary injunction and held that section 21168.6.6 was not unconstitutional. (Saltonstall v. City of Sacramento (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 837.) The trial court subsequently rejected the lawsuit in its entirety. Petitioners appealed.

In the appeal, petitioners argued (1) the City violated CEQA by committing itself to the downtown arena project before completing the EIR process, (2) the City’s EIR failed to consider remodeling the current Sleep Train Arena as a feasible alternative to building a new downtown arena, (3) the EIR did not properly study the effects of the project on interstate traffic traveling on the nearby section of Interstate Highway 5, and (4) the City did not account for large outdoor crowds expected to congregate outside the downtown arena during events. Petitioners also argued that the trial court erred in denying their motion to augment the record and in denying their Public Records Act request to the City to produce e-mail communications with the NBA. The Court of Appeal rejected all of petitioners’ claims.

The Third District first dismissed the claim that the City prematurely committed itself to approving the project. Petitioners claimed the City violated CEQA by engaging in land acquisition for its preferred site and entering into a preliminary term sheet with Sacramento Basketball Holdings LLC before finishing the EIR. Rejecting this argument, the Court held that the City was allowed to engage in land acquisition for its preferred site before finishing its EIR under CEQA Guidelines section 15004 and Public Resources Code section 21168.6.6. Guidelines section 15004, subdivision (b)(2)(a), expressly provides that “agencies may designate a preferred site for CEQA review and may enter into land acquisition agreements when the agency has conditioned the agency’s future use of the site on CEQA compliance.” Moreover, Public Resources Code section 21168.6.6 expressly allowed the City to exercise its eminent domain power to acquire the 600 block of K Street as the site of the arena before finishing the EIR. Finally, the court held that the preliminary term sheet did not improperly commit the City to approving the arena as proposed. The preliminary nonbinding term sheet constituted an agreement to negotiate regarding the project and did not foreclose environmental review, mitigation, or even rejection of the project.

Turning to petitioners’ claim that the alternatives analysis was inadequate, the court held that the City was not required to study remodeling the current Sleep Train Arena as a project alternative in the EIR. The City studied a “no project” alternative involving continued use of the Sleep Train Arena and an alternative that involved building a new arena next to the current arena in Natomas. Both the no project and new Natomas arena alternatives failed to meet most of the City’s objectives for the project to revitalize its downtown area. The remodel alternative suggested by petitioners would have suffered the same problems of location that caused the City to reject the two Natomas-based alternatives. Noting that “infeasible alternatives that do not meet project objectives need not be studied[,]” the court held the Sleep Train Arena remodel alternative did not need to be analyzed.

The court next addressed petitioners’ claim that the EIR’s traffic analysis was defective for failure to adequately analyze interstate traffic on I–5. The EIR studied and disclosed existing problems with the nearby section of I–5 at peak traffic times as well as how the downtown arena project would worsen traffic congestion. The EIR reached the conclusion that levels of service would—at times—reach the worst rating given by Caltrans for traffic flow. Even with proposed mitigation measures, the City acknowledged the adverse impact of the project on I–5 traffic would be significant and unavoidable. While petitioners acknowledged the City did study local I–5 traffic congestion, they argued the study was inadequate for not considering “mainline” I–5 traffic ranging from Canada to Mexico. Rejecting this argument, the court explained that the City was not required to separately study the effect on interstate motorists who will be impacted in the same way as other, local motorists sharing the same section of I–5. The court also noted the EIR did account for mainline traffic because it used the sampling data of mainline freeway traffic collected by Caltrans.

Petitioners also argued the City’s traffic study was deficient because the EIR understated the number of persons who would surround the downtown arena. The court again was not persuaded. The City’s review of crowd size included a national survey of similar entertainment and sports facilities as well as review of crowd sizes during the Sleep Train Arena’s history. The court held that the City did not err “in declining to speculate that the same games played a few miles away would suddenly and inexplicably draw large crowds of persons who would not watch the game but simply mill about in the winter nighttime.”

Addressing petitioners’ final CEQA claim, the court held that petitioners’ contention regarding failure to study post-event crowd safety and potential for violence did not implicate CEQA because petitioners failed to show any potential for environmental impacts. Petitioners argued the EIR both understated the number of persons who can be expected to congregate around the downtown arena as well as their proclivities toward drunken violence. The court ruled that the argument focused on a social issue for which no environmental effect was described.

Finally, regarding petitioners’ attempt to augment the administrative record, the court held that their challenge to the trial court’s denial of their Public Records Act request seeking over 62,000 emails related to communications between the City and the NBA was not properly before the court. Denial of such a request is reviewed only by petition for writ of mandate, not direct appeal. The court also held that petitioners forfeited their argument regarding the introduction of certain additional materials because they failed to offer any meaningful analysis on the issue.