In Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (2017) 2 Cal.5th 918, the California Supreme Court held that CEQA requires an EIR for a project located within a coastal zone to identify which areas in a project site might qualify as “environmentally sensitive habitat areas” (ESHA) under the California Coastal Act and account for those areas in its analysis of project alternatives and mitigation measures.
Banning Ranch is a privately owned 400-acre tract of land. A small portion of the site is within the City of Newport Beach; the remainder is in unincorporated Orange County, within the City’s Sphere of Influence. The City’s general plan sets forth two options for the site. The preferred option is community open space. The second option would allow construction of up to 1,375 residential units, 75,000 square feet of retail facilities, and 75 hotel rooms. The City was unable to raise funds to buy Banning Ranch for open space. So in 2008, Real Party in Interest Newport Banning Ranch, LLC (NBR) submitted a proposal for development consistent with the second option for the site outlined in the general plan.
The Banning Ranch site is in a designated coastal zone under the Coastal Act. Under the Coastal Act, local governments within the coastal zone must submit a local coastal program for Coastal Commission approval. The program consists of a coastal land use plan (CLUP) and implementing regulations. The City has not yet adopted the regulatory component of its local coastal program, so the Coastal Commission exercises permitting authority over the Banning Ranch development. Further, the Banning Ranch site is not included in the City’s CLUP.
Because the site is within a coastal zone, the Costal Act places limits on what can be developed on the site. The Coastal Act specifies that ESHA “shall be protected against any significant disruption of habitat values, and only uses dependent on those resources shall be allowed within those areas.” (Pub. Resources Code, § 30240, subd. (a).) ESHA is defined as an area in which plant or animal life or their habitats are either are or especially valuable because of their special nature or role in an ecosystem and which could be easily disturbed or degraded by human activities and developments. (Pub. Resources Code, § 30107.5.) In order to issue a coastal development permit for the project, the Coastal Commission must determine whether the project violates the ESHA requirements of the Coastal Act.
The City prepared an EIR for the Banning Ranch project. Although the EIR contained an extensive analysis of biological impacts, it did not identify potential ESHA or discuss the subject in substantive detail. Rather, it noted that the project would require a permit from the Coastal Commission, which would determine whether the site contained ESHA.
Comments on the draft EIR criticized the EIR for omitting an analysis of ESHA. The Coastal Commission submitted 15 pages of staff comments, suggesting that the EIR should address whether the proposed development was consistent with the policies of the City’s CLUP and the Coastal Act. The letter pointed out that the development must avoid impacts to ESHA and recommended that the EIR use the CLUP, which includes criteria for the determination of ESHA, to evaluate sensitive habitat areas and appropriate buffer zones. The letter concluded that based on its preliminary analysis, Coastal Commission staff had found the project to be inconsistent with the ESHA requirements of the Coastal Act. Commission staff requested that the EIR more fully consider alternatives that would avoid ESHA impacts.
In the final EIR, the City responded to comments, but maintained that it was not required to reach a legal determination as to whether Banning Ranch contained ESHA. The responses to comments explained that this determination would be made by the Coastal Commission at the time the applicant applies for a coastal development permit. The responses stated: “no conclusions of ESHA can and will be made by the City at this time as part of the EIR process that would in any way bind the Coastal Commission or elucidate on the Coastal Commission’s ultimate conclusions…. Rather, as appropriate under CEQA, the City has analyzed the impacts of the project, and concluded that they can be reduced to a less-than-significant level or avoided with appropriate measures.” In response to the Coastal Commission staff’s comments, the final EIR explained:
The purpose of the Draft EIR is to analyze a proposed project’s impact on the physical environment. It is not, in and of itself, a policy consistency analysis, except to the extent that such inconsistencies reveal impacts that otherwise are not discussed. … [T]he Draft EIR analyzes the proposed Project’s impact on biological resources, including federal and State listed endangered and threatened species, sensitive plant and animal species, and specific habitats such as wetlands and vernal pools. All impacts to these resources would be mitigated or avoided with the Mitigation Program. … The Draft EIR acknowledges that the Coastal Commission makes the determination as to whether any or all of these constitute ESHA under the Coastal Act, and application of the policies of the Coastal Act to the existing conditions on the Project site would be undertaken as part of the Coastal Commission’s Costal Development Permit process.
The City certified the final EIR in 2012 and approved the project. Petitioner Banning Ranch Conservancy (BRC) filed a petition for writ of mandate, contending that the EIR did not adequately analyze environmental impacts and mitigation measures with respect to ESHA, instead deferring this critical analysis to the Coastal Commission. BRC also alleged that the City had violated the requirement under the City’s general plan to coordinate with and work with the Coastal Commission to identify habitats for preservation, restoration, and development. The trial court denied the petition as to Petitioner’s CEQA claims, but granted the petition as to the General Plan claim. The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the City complied with its General Plan. The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that the EIR complied with CEQA. With respect to BRC’s ESHA arguments, the Court of Appeal held that “CEQA does not require the City to prognosticate as to the likelihood of ESHA determinations and coastal development permit approvals.”
The California Supreme Court’s Opinion
The Supreme Court reviewed the City’s decision not to identify ESHA in the EIR under the “de novo” standard of review. The Court reasoned that “whether an EIR has omitted essential information is a procedural question” to which the court owes no deference to the agency.
Having established that the de novo standard of review applies, the Court rejected the City’s argument that CEQA imposes no duty on the City to reach conclusions as to whether the Project site includes ESHA. The Court explained that “CEQA sets out a fundamental policy requiring local agencies to ‘integrate the requirements of [CEQA] with planning and environmental review procedures otherwise required by law or by local practice so that all those procedures, to the maximum feasible extent, run concurrently, rather than consecutively.” (Slip Op. pp. 18–19, quoting Pub. Resource Code, § 21003, subd. (a).) Likewise, the CEQA Guidelines state that “‘[t]o the extent possible, the EIR process should be combined with the existing planning, review, and project approval process used by each public agency.”’ (Slip Op. p. 19, quoting CEQA Guidelines, § 15080.) Additionally, agencies are encouraged to consult with responsible agencies in preparing EIRs “‘so that the document will meet the needs of all the agencies which will use it.’” (Slip Op. p. 19, quoting CEQA Guidelines, § 15006, subd. (g).) Here, concluded the Court, the City ignored its duty to integrate CEQA review with the requirements of the Coastal Act, and “gave little consideration to the Coastal Commission’s needs.”
Further, reasoned the Court, the CEQA Guidelines require an agency to consider related regulatory regimes, such as the Coastal Act, when discussing project alternatives. In particular, an EIR must “‘describe a range of reasonable alternatives to the project,’ or to its location, that would ‘feasibly attain’ most of its basic objectives but ‘avoid or substantially lessen’ its significant effects.” (Slip Op. p. 19, quoting CEQA Guidelines, § 15126.6, subd. (a).) Among the factors that may be taken into account when addressing the feasibility of alternatives is whether there are “other plans or regulatory limitations [and] jurisdictional boundaries (projects with a regionally significant impact should consider the regional context).”’ (Slip Op., quoting CEQA Guidelines, § 15126.6, subd. (f)(1).) Projects with substantial impacts in coastal zones are, by definition, “regionally significant.” (Slip Op. pp. 19–20, citing CEQA Guidelines, § 15206, subd. (b)(4)(C).) Accordingly, “the regulatory limitations imposed by the Coastal Act’s ESHA provisions should have been central to the Banning Ranch EIR’s analysis of feasible alternatives.” (Slip Op., p. 20.)
The City and amicus curiae League of California Cities argued that lead agencies under CEQA are not required to make legal determinations that are within the sole jurisdiction of another agency. The League of Cities voiced a concern that ESHA identifications in EIRs might be subject to de novo judicial review. The Court rejected these arguments, reasoning that “a lead agency is not required to make a ‘legal’ ESHA determination in an EIR. Rather, it must discuss potential ESHA and their ramifications for mitigation measures and alternatives when there is credible evidence that ESHA might be present on a project site.” (Slip Op., p. 21.) Such discussions would only be reviewed by the courts for “sufficiency.” (Ibid.)
The City further contended that the identification of potential ESHA would be merely speculative. The Court rejected this argument because, on the record before it, there had been positive identifications of ESHA on the Project site by Coastal Commission, and the applicant’s own consultant had identified areas of potential ESHA. The Coastal Commission staff had also offered the City assistance in identifying ESHA. Thus, the City had “ample bases” for an informed ESHA analysis. Further, the City routinely identified ESHA in EIRs for projects within the City’s CLUP. The fact that Banning Ranch is not in the CLUP did not excuse the City from identifying ESHA in the Banning Ranch EIR.
The Court also rejected the City’s argument that ESHA would be fully considered during the coastal development permitting phase of the project. The Court explained that such a delay “is inconsistent with CEQA’s policy of integrated review.” (Slip Op., p. 23, citing Pub. Resources Code, § 21003, subd. (a).) Further, the City’s position was inconsistent with CEQA’s requirement that lead agency’s “consider related regulations and matters of regional significance when weighing [the feasibility of] project alternatives.” (Slip Op., p. 23, citing CEQA Guidelines, § 15126.6.) Moreover, lead agencies “must take a comprehensive view in an EIR.” (Slip Op., p. 23, italics added by Court, citing Pub. Resources Code, § 21002.1, subd. (d).)
Finally, the Court rejected the City’s supposition that if the City were required to identify ESHA in the EIR, it would have to accept the Coastal Commission staff’s opinions about what constitutes ESHA and what mitigation measures are required. The Court noted that CEQA does not require a lead agency to agree with the opinions of other agencies. But to serve the public and decisionmakers, the EIR must lay out competing views. Although the Coastal Commission makes the final ESHA determination, the public and the members of the Coastal Commission are “entitled to understand the disagreement between commission staff and the City on the subject of ESHA.” (Slip Op., p. 25.)
Because the Court determined the Banning Ranch EIR violated CEQA for failing to identify ESHA and account for ESHA in its discussion of alternatives and mitigation measures, the Court declined to address the general plan issues.
Whit Manley, of counsel at Remy Moose Manley, LLP, represented Respondent City of Newport Beach in the case.