Tag: EIR

SECOND DISTRICT FINDS QUANTIFICATION OF EXISTING WATER RIGHTS NOT REQUIRED UNDER CEQA FOR WATER DIVERSION AND STORAGE PROJECT

On March 3, 2022, the Second District Court of Appeal ordered published its decision in Buena Vista Water Storage District v. Kern Water Bank Authority (2022) 76 Cal.App.5th 576, in which the court held that an EIR for a project to divert and store unappropriated flood flows need not quantify all existing water rights. The court also held that CEQA does not require the project description to specify the exact amount of water that would be diverted, since that amount will vary from year to year based on the weather. Additionally, the court held that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that the project would not adversely affect the long-term recovery of the groundwater basin in which it is located, as the project would cause a net benefit to the aquifer.

Factual & Procedural Background

Although the Kern River had been designated a fully appropriated stream for many years—such that only those who held an appropriative right could divert from it—in 2010, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) found that in certain wet years, Kern River water was available in excess of the amount appropriated. In particular, following construction of the Kern River-California Aqueduct Intertie in 1977, the Kern River water master began occasionally releasing reservoir water into the intertie to alleviate flooding. This release only occurs when flows are in excess of those held by existing water rights holders. The SWRCB concluded that this flood-released water was unappropriated and stated that it would allow applications to appropriate that water.

Respondent, the Kern Water Bank Authority, thereafter filed an application with the SWRCB seeking a permit for a water right to divert and store up to 500,000 acre-feet-per-year of the unappropriated water. The Authority also certified an EIR for the project. Buena Vista Water Storage District filed a petition for writ of mandate, seeking to set aside the Authority’s certification of the EIR and its approval of the project.

The trial court granted Buena Vista Water Storage District’s writ petition, holding: (1) the EIR’s project description was inadequate because it did not quantify existing water rights and it was unstable; (2) the EIR’s discussion of the existing baseline was inadequate because it did not quantify competing existing rights to Kern River water; and (3) the EIR’s impact analysis was inadequate because it did not adequately assess impacts on senior rights holders and impacts on groundwater during long-term recovery operations. The Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that the EIR complied with CEQA.

The Court of Appeal’s Opinion

The EIR’s Project Description is Accurate and Stable

Unlike the trial court, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the EIR’s project description is adequate under CEQA. As explained by the court, the EIR consistently and adequately describes the project as “‘high flow Kern River water, only available under certain hydrologic conditions and after the rights of senior Kern River water right holders have been met, that otherwise would have (1) been diverted to the Intertie, (2) flooded farmlands, or (3) left Kern County.’”

Buena Vista Water Storage District argued that the EIR’s project description is unstable because it relies on an “open-ended limit of ‘up to 500,000 [acre-feet] of water.” The court rejected this argument, explaining that a precise amount of water to be diverted by the project cannot be determined because water availability will fluctuate from year to year. As stated by the court: “A project description may use a flexible parameter when subject to future changing conditions.” Furthermore, the proposed 500,000 acre-foot-per-year is a finite maximum amount based on historical conditions, thus providing an adequate upper-end of the proposed diversion.

EIR Not Required to Quantify Existing Water Rights

The appellate court also rejected the District’s contention that the EIR’s project description must include a quantification of existing Kern River rights. That amount of detail is not necessary under CEQA Guidelines section 15124, subdivision (c), which requires a “general description” of the project’s technical and environmental characteristics. Moreover, a stream-wide quantification is a complex proceeding conducted by the SWRCB or a court and can take several years (or even decades) to complete. CEQA does not require this type of exhaustive detail.

Similarly, the EIR’s description of the existing environmental setting is not required to include a quantification of the existing Kern River water rights. The EIR satisfies CEQA’s informational requirements by providing measurements of Kern River water historically diverted into the Kern Water Basin and estimating, based on these historic records, how much water the Kern River Bank Authority could have diverted from the basin under baseline conditions. A complete quantification of existing water rights was not necessary to provide these estimates.

Finally, the court found it was clear that existing rights would not be impacted because the SWRCB cannot issue a new permit to divert water that is already subject to existing water rights. Further, the SWRCB expressly allowed processing of water rights applications, like the one at issue, in its Order finding that the water diverted to the Intertie was not fully appropriated. Quantification of the existing water rights was not necessary to evaluate the project’s impacts.

Substantial Evidence Supports the EIR’s Conclusions Regarding Groundwater Impacts

According to the trial court, the project would alter groundwater recovery by making groundwater available for long-term pumping for additional months or years during drought conditions, which, in the trial court’s view, would likely deplete groundwater during a drought. The Second District rejected the lower court’s analysis as factually inaccurate. The purpose of the project is to add to groundwater supplies and increase the availability of groundwater storage. The EIR concludes that the project would raise the local groundwater, resulting in a net increase in aquifer volume. Additionally, the Kern Water Bank Authority’s existing groundwater and monitoring policies will ensure that banking additional groundwater will not lower groundwater tables or affect the production rate of existing wells. Thus, substantial evidence supports the EIR’s conclusion that the project’s groundwater impacts will not be significant.

Conclusions & Implications

The Second District’s decision addresses whether an EIR for a water diversion and storage project must quantify the existing water rights to the underlying waterbody. In holding that such quantification is not required for the Kern Water Bank Authority’s proposed water diversion project, the Court of Appeal adhered to the principle that CEQA does not require an exhaustive analysis, but rather a good faith and reasonable effort at full disclosure. The decision also recognizes that for certain types of projects, particularly those involving water supplies, a project description must be somewhat flexible. The decision illustrates how a court reviewing an EIR must defer to the lead agency’s factual analyses and conclusions—deference that the trial court had failed to give to the Kern Water Bank Authority’s determinations.

– Laura Harris Middleton

THIRD DISTRICT PARTIALLY AFFIRMS JUDGMENTS SETTING ASIDE EIR FOR SPECIFIC PLAN LAND SWAP IN EASTERN PLACER COUNTY

In a 123-page decision, League to Save Lake Tahoe Mountain Area Preservation Foundation v. County of Placer (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 63, the Third District partially affirmed the trial court’s judgment in two cases granting a petition for writ of mandate, finding that the EIR for the Martis Valley West Parcel Specific Plan (Project) failed to adequately describe the environmental setting of Lake Tahoe regarding water quality, failed to adequately analyze impacts to Lake Tahoe water quality resulting from automobile trips, impermissibly deferred the formulation of mitigation for GHG impacts, failed to analyze proposed mitigation for the Project’s significant and unavoidable traffic impacts on SR 267, and failed to analyze whether renewable energy features could be incorporated into the Project. The Court of Appeal upheld the EIR’s analysis of impacts to forest resources and air quality, including the County’s reliance on the Placer County Air Pollution Control District’s (PCAPCD) thresholds of significance. The court also upheld the County’s decision not to recirculate the Draft EIR and to immediately rezone the subject property out of Timberland Productivity Zone (TPZ). Lastly, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision that the EIR did not adequately analyze emergency evacuation impacts.

Background

Real Party in Interest, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), owns two undeveloped parcels on either side of SR 267, between Truckee and Lake Tahoe. The West Parcel is southeast of the Northstar Resort and has 1,052 acres. The East Parcel has 6,376 acres.  The existing zoning and land use designation in the Martis Valley Community Plan (MVCP) allows up to 1,360 residential units and 6.6 acres of commercial uses in a 670-acre area of the larger east parcel. Otherwise, both parcels are zoned TPZ and designated as forest in the MVCP. Starting in 2013, SPI and its partners (collectively, Real Parties in Interest or RPI) proposed that the County adopt a specific plan for the two parcels that would amend the MVCP and zoning to move the residential and commercial uses from the East Parcel to the West Parcel, reduce the residential capacity from 1,360 units to 760 units, immediately rezone 662 acres on the West Parcel out of TPZ, and rezone the entire East Parcel as TPZ. Following adoption of the specific plan, the applicants would sell the East Parcel for conservation purposes or place the land in a conservation easement. The effect of the land swap would be to allow development on the West Parcel, adjacent to Northstar and existing residential development, while permanently conserving all 6,376 acres of the East Parcel, connecting some 50,000 acres of open space east of SR 267. Two small areas of both parcels are within the Lake Tahoe Basin, and thus subject to the jurisdiction of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), but neither area would be included in the specific plan.

The County circulated a draft EIR for the Project in 2015. In 2016, the County certified the final EIR, immediately rezoned the 662-acre project area of the West Parcel out of TPZ, rezoned the East Parcel to TPZ, and adopted the specific plan.

Sierra Watch, Mountain Area Preservation, and the League to Save Lake Tahoe (collectively, Sierra Watch) filed a lawsuit challenging the EIR and the County’s finding that immediately rezoning the project area on the West Parcel was consistent with the purposes of the Timberland Productivity Act (TPA). The California Clean Energy Committee (CCEC) filed a separate petition, also challenging the EIR. The trial court issued judgments in April and June 2018, rejecting all the challenges to the EIR, with the exception of the EIR’s analysis of impacts to emergency evacuations, and upholding the County’s findings on the immediate rezone out of TPZ. Sierra Watch and CCEC filed separate appeals, and the County and RPI cross-appealed on the emergency evacuation issue.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, Sierra Watch argued that the EIR failed to adequately describe the Lake Tahoe Basin’s existing air and water quality, that the County should have adopted the TRPA’s threshold of significance for vehicle miles traveled (VMT) with respect to basin air and water quality, and that the EIR failed to adequately analyze the impacts of project traffic on air and water quality in the basin. Sierra Watch also challenged the County’s decision not to recirculate the EIR following changes to the analysis of GHG impacts, and argued that the adopted GHG mitigation measure was invalid. Lastly, Sierra Watch argued that the County violated the TPA by failing to make required findings. In their cross-appeal, the County and RPI argued that the EIR’s analysis of impacts to emergency evacuations was adequate, and that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that the impacts would be less than significant.

CCEC’s appeal argued that the EIR did not adequately describe existing forest resources or analyze cumulative impacts to forest resources, failed to analyze feasible traffic mitigation measures proposed in comments, failed to disclose significant impacts from widening SR 267, and failed to discuss the use of renewable energy sources to meet Project energy demand. CCEC also argued that the adopted GHG mitigation measure was infeasible and unenforceable.

Lake Tahoe

The Court of Appeal found the County was not legally required to use TRPA’s thresholds of significance for measuring the Project’s impacts because, although the two parcels did include land within TRPA’s jurisdiction, the Project was revised to not include those areas. Instead, the County, as the lead agency, had discretion to rely on TRPA’s thresholds or those of another agency, or use their own thresholds, including thresholds unique to the Project. The court also concluded that, while TRPA had “jurisdiction by law” over resources that could be affected by the Project, and was thus, a “Trustee agency” under CEQA, they were not a “Responsible agency” because they had no permitting authority over the Project.
The court also found that the County did not abuse its discretion in adopting the PCAPCD’s thresholds of significance for the project’s air emissions impacts because, contrary to Sierra Watch’s claims, the PCAPCD’s significance thresholds were adopted to address air and water quality (resulting from air emissions) within the Tahoe Basin. However, the EIR failed to adequately describe the existing water quality of Lake Tahoe, which could be impacted by “crushed abrasives and sediment” from project traffic within the basin. According top the court, the EIR did not include a threshold of significance (though several were discussed in post-EIR responses to comments) for such impacts, even though there was substantial evidence that the project-generated traffic would travel within the basin, which the court found to be an abuse of discretion.

Recirculation

Sierra Watch argued that the revisions to the draft EIR’s GHG analysis included in the Final EIR triggered the need to recirculate. The draft EIR included a tiered analysis of GHG impacts. First, annual Project GHG emissions were calculated and compared to PCAPCD’s numeric threshold of 1,100 MTC2E for residential development. Second, although the draft EIR acknowledged that little, if any, of the Project would be constructed by 2020, the EIR compared a completed Project in 2020 with the GHG reduction measures, including those required by law, in place with a “no action” or “business as usual” scenario to determine the Project’s GHG efficiency, pursuant to the California Air Resources Board’s revised Scoping Plan. The draft EIR concluded that, because the Project would generate GHG emissions substantially greater than the numeric threshold, and because it was uncertain what regulatory GHG measures would be in place after 2020, when the Project was likely to begin operating, the impact was significant and unavoidable.

Before the final EIR was published, however, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (2015) 62 Cal.4th 204 (Newhall Ranch). Newhall Ranch ruled that an efficiency metric comparing a proposed project to a hypothetical “business as usual” scenario was a permissible way to analyze GHG impacts, but the Scoping Plan’s statewide efficiency threshold required additional evidence and analysis to apply to individual projects, and the EIR in that case did not include the required connection. In response to Newhall Ranch, the final EIR dropped the efficiency analysis, but affirmed the draft EIR’s conclusion that impacts would be significant and unavoidable because the Project would generate emissions exceeding the numeric threshold, and because of the uncertainty around future regulatory GHG reduction measures. The County concluded that, because the significance conclusion did not change, recirculation was not required. The Court agreed recirculation was not required because the final EIR did not show new or substantially more significant effects, and merely clarified or amplified the information provided in the draft EIR.

GHG Mitigation

The court agreed with the appellants that the GHG mitigation measure impermissibly deferred determining the significance of GHG impacts, because the measure required future tentative maps to establish consistency with future efficiency targets adopted in compliance with the Newhall Ranch decision, even though the EIR acknowledged that no such targets existed and may not ever exist. The measure provided a suite of proposed mitigation tools that future maps could use to meet the efficiency targets. The court reasoned that, if no efficiency target consistent with Newhall Ranch became available, mitigation would never be triggered. RPI and the County argued that, if no efficiency targets were available, the 1,100 MTC2E threshold would apply to future maps, but the court found that the language of the measure itself did not include the numeric threshold.

Emergency Evacuations

The court agreed with the County and RPI that the EIR’s analysis of impacts to emergency evacuation plans was adequate and the EIR’s conclusion that impacts would be less than significant was supported by substantial evidence. The court upheld the EIR’s reliance on the questions in Appendix G to the CEQA Guidelines to set a threshold of significance. The EIR acknowledged that adding people and development to the area could exacerbate cumulative impacts to evacuation but concluded that the impact was less than significant because the project would not cut off or modify any evacuation routes and would not prevent an evacuation from occurring or otherwise interfere with the implementation of the County’s evacuation plans. The court found that the conclusion was supported by substantial evidence, including the EIR’s analysis of how long it would take to evacuate the project site, the number of emergency access/evacuation roads included in the project, the requirement that RPI develop a “shelter in place” feature, and the analysis of impacts to fire department response times.

The court acknowledged that evacuation planning involved multiple unknown factors and a host of potential circumstances which made it difficult to predict how an evacuation might play out or how a project could impact such an evacuation. The court reasoned that because the County had discretion as the lead agency to decide how to analyze an impact, the court would defer to the County’s methodology decision provided it was reasonable and supported by substantial evidence. The court found that it was. The court concluded that many of Sierra Watch’s challenges to the EIR’s analysis amounted to requests for further analysis, additional modeling, and speculative hypothetical scenarios. The court cited Guidelines sections 15145 and 15151 for the propositions that the EIR need not speculate and need not be exhaustive. While some of the evidence, relating to fire prevention and fire department response times, did not directly relate to emergency evacuation planning, the evidence indirectly supported the County’s conclusions by demonstrating that the project was reducing the likelihood of wildfire on the site and reducing the need for an evacuation.

Sierra Watch also argued that the EIR was internally inconsistent because the traffic analysis reached the opposite conclusion of the emergency evacuation analysis regarding project traffic on SR 267. The court found that the EIR’s conclusion that project generated traffic would have a significant impact on vehicle delay was not inconsistent with the conclusion that project generated traffic would not substantially interfere with emergency evacuation plans. The court reasoned that the two analyses focused on different types of impacts, with time (as measured by vehicle delay) being the focus of the traffic analysis and public safety being the focus of the emergency evacuation analysis.

Forest Resources

The court upheld the EIR’s conclusions that cumulative impacts to forest resources were less than significant. The EIR discussed the County’s 1994 General Plan EIR’s analysis of impacts to forest resources based on projected growth and development in the County and concluded that the Project’s impacts were consistent with and would not exceed the impacts disclosed in 1994 General Plan EIR. The Final EIR concluded that analyzing climate-related forest impacts, such as drought, wildfire, and tree mortality cause by bark beetles, would be speculative, and the court agreed. The court concluded that climate-driven tree mortality was not within the scope of a CEQA cumulative impacts analysis, which required the County to analyze impacts from the Project combined with past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future projects. Tree mortality is not a “project” under CEQA. The court acknowledged that climate-caused tree mortality could be exacerbated by a project, but such impacts would be best analyzed as part of the climate change and GHG analysis. The court concluded that aspect of the GHG analysis was not challenged in this case.

Traffic Mitigation

The EIR concluded that the Project’s traffic impacts on SR 267, measured in terms of delay and using the level of service (LOS) metric, would be significant and unavoidable. The EIR reached this conclusion in part because while the California Department of Transportation had plans to widen SR 267 from two to four lanes, the plan did not cover the portion of SR 267 within the Tahoe Basin, and it was uncertain when the widening would occur. Several commenters suggested that the EIR analyze transportation demand management (TDM) options to reduce traffic on SR 267. The EIR included similar measures for the Project’s impact on public transit but did not analyze whether TDM measures could further reduce the significant traffic impacts. The court, without acknowledging previous rulings by the Third District Court of Appeal finding LOS impacts to be moot given the Legislature’s directive that vehicle delay is not a significant environmental impact, ruled that the EIR failed to analyze facially feasible mitigation proposed in comments and therefore violated CEQA. The Court also found that, while the EIR did not analyze the impacts of widening SR 267, that lack of analysis was not prejudicial error because widening SR 267 was previously approved by the County in the MVCP, which concluded at the time that impacts of such a project would be analyzed in a separate EIR once the improvements were designed.

Energy Resources

Lastly, the court found fault in the EIR’s analysis of impacts to energy resources. The EIR concluded that the Project’s energy consumption impacts would be less than significant because the Project would not result in “wasteful, inefficient, or unnecessary use of energy, or wasteful use of energy resources.” The court, however, ruled that the EIR was required to analyze the Project’s potential use of renewable energy both in determining whether the Project may have a significant impact and how to mitigate that impact. Citing California Clean Energy Com. v. City of Woodland (2014) 225 Cal.App.4th 173, 209, the court concluded that the requirement to analyze renewable energy as part of a project’s impact analysis was a procedural requirement of CEQA, which the EIR failed to comply with.

– Nathan George

*RMM Attorneys Whit Manley, Chip Wilkins, and Nate George served as counsel to Real Parties in Interest in the above litigation.

FOURTH DISTRICT UPHOLDS EIR FOR MULTI-FAMILY HOUSING PROJECT AND FINDS CITY PROPERLY USED A PLANNED DEVELOPMENT PERMIT TO ALLOW A VARIATION FROM CONVENTIONAL ZONING REGULATIONS

In Ocean Street Extension Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Cruz (2022) 73 Cal.App.5th 985, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that an EIR for a multi-family housing project properly relied on the biological resources analysis and mitigation measures identified in the initial study for the project, and sufficiently addressed the project objectives, alternatives, and cumulative impacts to water supply and traffic. Reversing the trial court, the Court of Appeal also held that the City complied with its municipal code by using a planned development permit as a variation from its conventional slope regulations.

Background

The proposed project consisted of a 40-unit residential complex on a vacant lot in the City of Santa Cruz. The City prepared an initial study that discussed, among other topics, biological impacts that would be reduced to less-than-significant with mitigation, and later circulated a draft EIR and recirculated draft EIR before certifying the final EIR. The City Council approved a reduced-housing alternative with 32 units.

Along with a general plan amendment, rezone, and other entitlements, the City approved a planned development permit (PDP) to allow a variation from the conventional slope regulations in the City’s zoning code.

The Ocean Street Extension Neighborhood Association (OSENA) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the EIR and the City’s approval of the PDP. The trial court ruled that the City complied with CEQA, but found the City violated its municipal code by not requiring compliance with the conventional slope regulations. OSENA appealed and the City and Real Parties in Interest cross-appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

CEQA and Adequacy of the EIR

Upholding the trail court’s ruling on the CEQA claims, the Court of Appeal concluded that the EIR was adequate. The court held that impacts that are less than significant with mitigation may be discussed in an initial study rather than in the EIR as long as the EIR fulfills its purpose as an informational document. The court noted that the EIR summarized the impacts and mitigation measures, and the EIR’s reference to the initial study—which was attached to the EIR as appendix—sufficiently alerted the public to the environmental issues and provided readers with adequate information. Accordingly, the court determined that it was appropriate for the EIR to rely on the biological resources analysis and mitigation measures identified in the initial study.

The court also rejected OSENA’s argument that the mitigation measures were vague and improperly deferred because OSENA failed to exhaust its administrative remedies as to this issue and did not raise it in the trial court proceedings. The court nonetheless explained that even if it considered this issue on the merits, it would reject OSENA’s arguments because the question of effectiveness of a mitigation measure is a factual one, which, in this case, was supported by substantial evidence in the record.

The court further concluded that the project’s objectives and alternatives analyses were adequate, and that OSENA’s arguments amounted to mere disagreement with the City’s conclusions. The court explained that rejecting or approving an alternative is a decision only for the decisionmakers, and they may reject alternatives that are undesirable for policy reasons or fail to meet project objectives. While the project objectives included specific targets, those objectives did not improperly restrict the range of alternatives analyzed in the EIR, and the City justified its reasons for rejecting alternatives with even less housing than the 32-unit alternative.

Additionally, the court determined that the EIR sufficiently analyzed the project’s cumulative impacts on water supply and traffic. Regarding water supply, the court explained that the EIR’s analysis properly considered the water supply impact in light of city-wide needs and future demand, and properly relied on the City’s Urban Water Management Plan. Regarding traffic, the court held that OSENA’s arguments challenging the EIR’s analysis of LOS impacts were moot because CEQA Guidelines section 15064.3, which took effect after the case was initiated, provides that a project’s effects on automobile delay shall not constitute a significant environmental impact.

Therefore, the Court affirmed the portion of the trial court’s order and judgment concluding that the City complied with CEQA.

Santa Cruz Municipal Code

Reversing the trial court’s ruling on OSENA’s municipal code claims, the Court of Appeal held that the City did not violate its municipal code by granting a PDP without also requiring compliance with the conventional slope modification regulation procedures in its zoning code. The City’s PDP ordinance allows a variation from certain zoning regulations including “Slope Regulations Modifications, pursuant to procedures set forth in Chapter 24.08, Part 9 (Slope Regulations Modifications).” Rejecting OSENA’s claim that the City was required to comply with the conventional regulations in Chapter 24.08, Part 9, in addition to the requirements for a PDP, the court explained that the City should be afforded deference in the interpretation of its own municipal code. The court upheld the City’s determination that the granting of a PDP does not require compliance with the conventional slope regulations, as this interpretation was consistent with the text and purpose of the ordinance and interpreting the PDP ordinance as requiring compliance with both the PDP ordinance and the slope regulations would have served no readily apparent purpose.

RMM Partners Christopher L. Stiles and Tiffany K. Wright represented the Real Parties in Interest in this case.  Chris Stiles argued the case in Court of Appeal on behalf of the City and Real Parties.

-Veronika S. Morrison

SIXTH DISTRICT HOLDS COASTAL COMMISSION VIOLATED CEQA BY FAILING TO COMPLETE ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW OF COASTAL DEVELOPMENT PERMIT PRIOR TO PROJECT APPROVAL

In Friends, Artists, and Neighbors of Elkhorn Slough v. California Coastal Commission (2021) 72 Cal.App.5th 666, the Sixth District Court of Appeal held that the California Coastal Commission (CCC) violated CEQA by analyzing a coastal development permit’s environmental impacts and adopting findings in support thereof after it had approved the permit and underlying project. Although the CCC is authorized to issue “revised findings” when the Commission’s action differs from what was proposed in the staff report, the court held that the revised findings in this case went too far and were an improper pot-hoc rationalization.

Background

In 2000, Real Party in Interest Heritage/Western Communities, Ltd., applied to the County of Monterey for a combined development permit and coastal development permit (CDP) for the Rancho Los robles Subdivision. The project proposed more than 100 residential units on a commercial parcel. Monterey County prepared an EIR containing several alternatives, including one with a reduced number of units.

In 2008, the County Planning Commission recommended denying the project due to water supply and traffic congestion issues. Heritage/Western appealed the denial to the County Board of Supervisors. The Board disagreed with the Planning Commission and approved the project. The Board also certified the EIR and adopted a statement of overriding considerations regarding significant and avoidable impacts to traffic, groundwater, and seawater intrusion.

In 2009, Friends, Artists, and Neighbors of Elkhorn Slough (FANS) appealed the Board’s decision to the CCC, alongside two Coastal Commissioners. CCC staff issued a staff report recommending denial of the CDP primarily due to lack of adequate water supply. The staff report concluded further analysis for certain issues was unwarranted in light of staff’s recommendation to deny the permit.

On November 8, 2017, the CCC held a de novo hearing and voted to approve the CDP, despite staff recommending denial.

In August 2018, CCC staff issued a subsequent report, containing revised findings in support of the CCC’s approval of the CDP. The 2018 report concluded that water supply was no longer an issue that necessitated denying the project. The 2018 staff report also considered other impacts previously identified in the 2017 report and determined they were no longer relevant or significant, and that staff’s prior conditions of approval would still apply to the project but be adjusted where necessary and implemented in a manner consistent with the project as approved by the Commission. Finally, the report concluded that the project was consistent with CEQA because it adequately addressed any potential adverse impacts to coastal resources, and there were no additional feasible alternatives or mitigation measures that would substantially lessen adverse impacts. The CCC approved the revised findings at a public hearing on September 13, 2018, approximately ten months after the CDP was approved.

FANS filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the CCC’s approval of the CDP. The trial court denied the petition, rejecting FANS’ assertion that the CCC violated CEQA by approving the project without conducting environmental review before making findings. FANS appealed.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, FANS asserted that the CCC failed to employ the proper procedures required by CEQA and the Coastal Act because its “revised findings” were a post-hoc rationalization for the CCC’s prior decision to approve the project and went beyond what was permitted by the CCC’s regulations. The Court of Appeal agreed and reversed the trial court.

The Court of Appeal outlined the steps for seeking CCC review of an approved CDP application and noted that the Commission’s de novo review of a permit application mimics CEQA’s environmental review process. The analysis and recommendation in a staff report must be accompanied by specific findings regarding—among other factors—the project’s conformity with the Coastal Act and CEQA. If the CCC’s action on the project substantially differs from staff’s recommendation, the prevailing Commissioners must separately state the basis to allow staff to prepare a revised staff report with proposed revised findings that reflect the action taken by the Commissioners. Under section 13096 of the CCC’s regulations, a public hearing must be held before the revised findings are adopted. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 13, § 13096, subd. (c).) After the hearing, the CCC must vote on whether to adopt the revised findings.

Based on the facts of the case, the court held that the CCC’s environmental review for the CDP was incomplete at the time of approval, and the revised finding did not make up for the shortcoming. The court determined that the CCC’s decision to approve the project relied on a staff report that failed to contain elements required by CEQA (and the Commission’s certified regulatory program), including project alternatives, feasible mitigation measures to substantially lessen significant adverse effects, and conditions of approval.

In reaching its conclusion, the court explained the importance of these factors: “Requiring specific findings about alternatives and mitigation measures ‘ensures there is evidence of the public agency’s actual consideration of alternatives and mitigation measures, and reveals to citizens the analytical process by which the public agency arrived at its decision.’ [Citation.]” (Opinion, p. 32.) Through this lens, the court clarified that section 13096 “requires commissioners to set forth the analytic route between the evidence and the action at the hearing before approval.” The court further observed that no prior case law involved facts similar to this one, where the CCC’s environmental analysis was this incomplete at the time a CDP was approved. Accordingly, the court found that the CCC abused its discretion because it was required to conduct the analysis before it approved the project.

– Bridget McDonald

FOURTH DISTRICT UPHOLDS EIR FOR ROADWAY CONNECTION PROJECT AND HOLDS CITY’S QUASI-LEGISLATIVE APPROVALS WERE NOT SUBJECT TO PROCEDURAL DUE PROCESS REQUIREMENTS

In Save Civita Because Sudberry Won’t v. City of San Diego (2021) 72 Cal.App.5th 957, a partially published opinion, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that the City of San Diego did not violate CEQA by failing to summarize revisions made in its recirculated draft EIR, and that the City’s certification of the Final EIR and approval of the project were quasi-legislative acts not subject to procedural due process requirements.

Background

In 2008, as part of an alternative to a proposed mixed-use development project, the City of San Diego proposed a four-lane major roadway in Mission Valley that would directly connect the development to local roadways. This connector roadway required an amendment to the Serra Mesa Community Plan (SMCP) and the City’s General Plan.

In April 2016, the City issued examined this connector roadway as its own project and prepared a programmatic draft EIR (PDEIR) for the SMCP and General Plan amendments. In March 2017, when roadway construction became foreseeable and upon a large volume of public comment, the City issued a revised and recirculated draft EIR (RE-DEIR) that looked at both the programmatic portion of the project, the adoption of amendments, as well as the actual construction of the roadway. In August 2017, the City issued the Final EIR for the project. Also in August 2017, the Planning Commission voted unanimously, with one member recusing, to recommend approval of the project and certification of the FEIR, with the City Council’s Smart Growth & Land Use Committee voting the same a month later. The City Council certified the Final EIR and approved the project in October 2017.

Save Civita Because Sudberry Won’t (Save Civita) filed a petition for writ of mandate and complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief challenging the City’s certification of the Final EIR and approval of the project on several grounds, namely here that it violated the requirement in CEQA Guidelines section 15088.5, subdivision (g) that a recirculated EIR summarize the revisions made to the prior EIR, and also that it violated procedural due process rights. The trial court denied the petition and complaint. Save Civita appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Save Civita argued that the City violated CEQA Guidelines section 15088.5, subdivision (g), because it failed to summarize the changes in the RE-DEIR from the PDEIR, thereby forcing readers to “‘leaf through thousands of pages,’” and cause them “‘to have the mistaken belief’” that the two EIRs address the same project. The Court of Appeal disagreed, holding that statements in the RE-DEIR adequately summarized the changes to the PDEIR, and that these summary provisions informed the public that the revisions to the PDEIR were extensive and the PDEIR had been effectively “replaced” by the RE-DEIR. To make its determination, the court also looked to section 15088.5, subdivision (f), which requires that an agency inform the public that, when an EIR is so substantially revised that the document is recirculated, then comments on the prior EIR will not receive a response. The City fulfilled this criteria.

Furthermore, the court concluded that even if the City had failed to comply with the summation requirements of section 15088.5, any such failure was not prejudicial because it did not deprive the public of a meaningful opportunity to discuss and critique the project. Specifically, the court noted that the administrative record contained “ample and vigorous” public discussion of the RE-DEIR, proof that there were not fatal obstacles to public discourse created by any absence of a revision summary.

Save Civita also argued that the City’s certification of the Final EIR and project approval violated the public’s procedural right to due process and a fair hearing because a member of the City Council, who voted to approve the project was, according to Save Civita, “‘a cheerleader for the Project’” who had predetermined his vote. The court foreclosed this claim by explaining that procedural due process requirements are applicable only to quasi-adjudicatory hearings. Here, the City’s actions were quasi-legislative because they involved the adoption of generally applicable rules on the basis of broad public policy. The project approved by the City and analyzed in its EIR—construction of the roadway and amendment of planning documents—were, as the court determined, matters of public policy that required it to assess a broad spectrum of community costs and benefits. Therefore, procedural due process did not apply.

– Veronika S. Morrison

THIRD DISTRICT FINDS EIR FOR OLYMPIC VALLEY RESORT PROJECT FAILED TO ADEQUATELY CONSIDER IMPACTS TO LAKE TAHOE’S UNIQUE ENVIRONMENTAL RESOURCES

In Sierra Watch v. County of Placer (2021) 69 Cal.App.5th 86, the Third District Court of Appeal found that the EIR for a resort development project in Olympic Valley violated CEQA because it contained an inadequate description of the environmental setting and failed to adequately consider the project’s potential air quality, water quality, and noise impacts on Lake Tahoe and the surrounding Basin.

FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In 1983, Placer County adopted the Squaw Valley General Plan and Land Use Ordinance to guide development and growth within the Olympic Valley (formerly Squaw Valley) area. The 4,700-acre area lies a few miles northwest of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

In 2011, Real Party in Interest Squaw Valley Real Estate LLC proposed the first project under the general plan and ordinance—the Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan—which included two components to be built over a 25-year timeframe: (1) an 85-acre parcel that included 850 lodging units, approximately 300,000 square feet of commercial space, and 3,000 parking spaces (“the Village”); and (2) an 8.8-acre parcel that included housing for up to 300 employees (“the East Parcel”).

The County approved the project and certified its associated EIR in 2016. Following the County’s approval, Sierra Watch filed a petition for writ of mandate, alleging the County violated CEQA in numerous ways. The trial court rejected Sierra Watch’s claims. Sierra Watch appealed.

COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION

In the published portion of the opinion, the Third District considered whether the EIR sufficiently described the project’s environmental setting and adequately considered water quality, air quality, and noise impacts.

EIR’s Description of the Environmental Setting

The court first considered whether the EIR’s discussion of the environmental setting adequately addressed Lake Tahoe and the Lake Tahoe Basin, particularly with respect to the settings for water and air quality.

Water Quality Setting

As to water quality, the Court of Appeal agreed with Sierra Watch’s assertion that the EIR’s hydrology and water quality analysis failed to adequately describe the regional setting specific to Lake Tahoe. Though the Draft EIR explained that the project would be “located within the low elevation portion of the approximately eight square mile Squaw Creek watershed, a tributary to the middle reach of the Truckee River (downstream of Lake Tahoe),” it concluded that VMT generated by the project would not exceed TRPA’s cumulative VMT threshold, and thus, would not affect the Lake’s water quality. The court rejected this rationale by noting that the EIR’s description failed to discuss the importance of the Lake’s current condition or the relationship between VMT and the Lake’s water clarity and quality, thereby depriving the public of an ability to evaluate and assess impacts on the Lake.

Air Quality Setting

As to air quality, the court found that the EIR’s description of the air quality setting and baseline was more substantial, and thus, adequate. The EIR properly explained the applicable air quality standards and presented data on the current concentrations and sources of criteria air pollutants in the area.

EIR’s Analysis of Impacts

Air Quality Impacts

The court agreed with Sierra Watch’s assertion that the EIR failed to meaningfully assess the project’s traffic impacts on Lake Tahoe’s air quality. The EIR concluded the project would not exceed TRPA’s cumulative VMT threshold but acknowledged it would likely exceed TRPA’s project-level VMT threshold for basin traffic. Nevertheless, the EIR ultimately concluded that TRPA’s VMT significance thresholds did not apply because the project was not located in the Tahoe Basin. The court found this rationale “provided mixed messages.” Rather than summarizing and declaring TRPA’s VMT thresholds as inapplicable, the court held that the EIR should have determined whether the Project’s impacts on Lake Tahoe and the Basin were potentially significant.

The court also agreed that the EIR underestimated the Project’s expected cumulative VMT in the Basin by failing to consider expected VMT from other anticipated projects. Even though the County addressed this issue in post-FEIR responses to comments, the court held that the public was denied an opportunity to “test, assess, and evaluate the newly revealed information and make an informed judgment as to the validity of the conclusions to be drawn therefrom.”

Construction Noise Impacts

The court rejected Sierra Watch’s initial assertion that the EIR failed to adequately disclose the duration of construction noise at any specific location, particularly at the Village parcel. The EIR properly explained that that portion of the Project would be constructed over 25 years based on market conditions, and thus, it would be too speculative to identify specific noise levels for every single receptor.

The court agreed, however, with Sierra Watch’s assertion that the EIR failed to analyze the project’s full geographic range of noises by ignoring activities occurring farther than 50 feet from sensitive receptors. The court reasoned that a “lead agency cannot ignore a project’s expected impacts merely because they occur…’outside an arbitrary radius.’” The EIR only considered impacts to sensitive receptors within 50 feet of construction—yet, according to the court, “ignore[d] potential impacts to a receptor sitting an inch more distant[,] even though the noise levels at these two distances would presumably be the same.” Though the County explained this analysis was standard practice, the court contended that an agency “cannot employ a methodological approach in a manner that entirely forecloses consideration of evidence showing impacts to the neighboring region [and] beyond a project’s boundaries.”

Finally, the court agreed that mitigation requiring “operations and techniques … be replaced with quieter procedures where feasible and consistent with building codes and other applicable laws and regulations” was too vague because “in effect, [it] only tells construction contractors to be quieter than normal when they can.” The court concluded that the measure improperly deferred which construction procedures can later be modified to be quiet but did not explain how these determinations are to be made.

– Bridget McDonald

*RMM Attorneys Whit Manley, Andee Leisy, Chip Wilkins, and Nathan George represented Real Party in Interest Squaw Valley Real Estate LLC in this litigation. 

Second District Court of Appeal Holds That Reduced Parking at National Monument is not a Direct Environmental Impact and Upholds Alternatives Analysis with Only a “No Project” Alternative.

In Save Our Access—San Gabriel Mountains v. Watershed Conservation Authority (2021) 68 Cal.App.5th 8, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the plaintiff failed to show that reduced parking within the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument would cause any adverse physical changes in the environment, that the lead agency did not abuse its discretion in setting the baseline for parking based on aerial photography that was not included in the record, and that, based on the project’s purpose, analyzing only a “no project” alternative was a reasonable range of alternatives.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The San Gabriel Mountains National Monument was designated in 2014. The project site includes 198 acres along two and a half miles of the East fork of the San Gabriel River, including public roads, recreational facilities, and the riverbed itself. The site is significantly degraded due to heavy public use and a lack of adequate facilities. The project was proposed to improve and better manage recreation facilities along with ecological restoration and reducing environmental impacts associated with recreational use at the site.

The EIR discussed existing issues associated with parking, including the small number of designated parking spaces and the widespread practice of parking in undesignated areas, which created public safety and traffic issues throughout the site. In total, the EIR estimated that there was a total of 417 parking spaces throughout the site, of which only 48 were designated parking spaces. The estimates were based on aerial photography that was included in the EIR. The EIR also included survey data that found that average weekend use at the site from Memorial Day to Labor Day was 273 vehicles per weekend day. To address the parking and related issues, the project proposed to create a total of 270 designated car spaces and three bus spaces, and to reduce undesignated parking with a combination of signage and physical barriers.

The EIR analyzed the project’s potential impacts to recreation and concluded, based on survey data, that impacts would be less than significant because many users of the site would choose to recreate in other nearby areas if parking or other facilities were unavailable, and, given the number and variety of recreation opportunities in proximity to the site, the impacts of those users going elsewhere would be disbursed and would not be cumulatively considerable. The EIR concluded that all impacts associated with the project would be less than significant with mitigation. The alternatives analysis compared the proposed project to a “no project” alternative but did not analyze any other alternatives.

The plaintiff filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the Watershed Conservation Authority’s certification of the EIR and approval of the project. The trial court granted the petition, in part, based on the court’s conclusion that (1) the parking baseline lacked substantial evidence support because the aerial photography the baseline relied on was not in the record; (2) the agency failed to disclose the exact number of parking spaces available in each area of the site; (3) the parking survey was unsupported by substantial evidence because of the time of day when the surveys took place; and (4) without an accurate parking baseline, the EIR failed as an informational documents because the proposed parking reduction could be significant and require mitigation.

THE COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION

Reversing the trail court’s decision, the Court of Appeal determined that the EIR adequately discussed the project’s proposed reduction in total parking spaces and that the alleged discrepancy in total parking spaces (plaintiff alleged that there were 473 available spaces, rather than 417) was immaterial because plaintiff failed to identify any adverse physical impacts on the environment resulting from the reduced parking. The court noted that, in fact, the purpose of reducing and formalizing parking at the site was to protect and restore the environment.

The court went on to analyze two CEQA cases addressing parking issues. First, the court considered San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. City and County of San Francisco (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 656, which held that the inconvenience associated with “hunting” for scarce parking was not an environmental impact, but secondary effects, like traffic and air quality are. Accordingly, the court determined that an EIR need only address the adverse secondary effects of limited parking, not the social impact itself. The court also reviewed Taxpayers for Accountable School Bond Spending v. San Diego Unified School Dist. (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 1013, which rejected the school district’s argument that a parking shortage is “never” a direct physical environmental impact. The court reasoned that each case must be decided on its facts, and that while, in some cases parking deficits may have direct physical impacts on the environment, plaintiff had not shown that the project’s parking reduction would result in direct or secondary physical impacts on the environment.

Turning to the EIR’s analysis of recreation impacts, the court found that the EIR’s analysis of nearby recreational facilities and likely impacts was adequate and that the EIR’s assumptions, based on survey data, were reasonable. The court rejected plaintiff’s speculation that, instead of leaving to recreate elsewhere, visitors to the project site would “circle and idle” until a parking space became available. Thus, the EIR’s conclusion that recreation impacts would be less than significant was supported by substantial evidence.

Regarding alternatives, the court focused on the EIR’s discussion of alternatives that were considered, but not analyzed in the EIR. The EIR explained that, through a series of workshops, three project design concepts were proposed and assessed for their ability to achieve the purposes of the project, but only one (the project), was selected for study in the EIR, along with the required “no project” alternative. The agency also considered an alternative proposed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife but decided not to analyze it in the EIR either. The plaintiff argued that, as a matter of law, analyzing only one alternative was inadequate. The court rejected plaintiff’s argument, finding that, although CEQA and the Guidelines use the term “alternatives” (i.e., the plural form), the law is clear that the range of alternatives is subject to a rule of reason, and that each case must be evaluated on its facts. The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that several feasible alternatives were proposed to the agency by a nearby business owner who was concerned that reduced parking at the site would impact his business. The court concluded that plaintiff had failed to show how the proposed alternatives would attain most of the basic project objectives or feasibly avoid or lessen one or more of the project’s significant impacts. The court found, on the facts of this case, that the inclusion of only a “no project” alternative was reasonable, given the purpose of the project and that the project, with mitigation, would not result in any significant impacts.

Lastly, plaintiff argued that the project was inconsistent with the Angeles National Forest Land Management Plan (LMP) and the designation creating the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. Plaintiff’s argument centered around the reduction in parking and claimed that the corresponding reduction in access to the National Monument created inconsistencies. The court rejected this argument, finding that it elevated public access above all the other objectives and policies in the declaration. The court reasoned that the agency was required, under the proclamation and LMP, to balance public access with other concerns, including protection of the environment, and that the project did so.

– Nathan O. George

Fifth District Court of Appeal Upholds Air Pollution Control District As Proper Lead Agency, Finds Permit Requirements Provide Substantial Evidence For EIR Emissions Estimates, And Holds EIR Lacked “Reasoned Analysis” For Rejecting Additional Mitigation Measures

In Covington v. Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 867, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed in part the judgement of the trial court by holding that the District is the proper CEQA lead agency and that permit requirements provide substantial evidence to support the EIR’s fugitive emissions estimates for a proposed geothermal power project; and reversed in part by holding that the District’s feasibility assessment of a mitigation measure proposed by EIR commenters was flawed and required more “reasoned analysis.”

Background

In July 2014, the District certified the Casa Diablo IV Geothermal Development Project joint document EIR/EIS prepared for a proposed geothermal energy facility located on national forest land in Mono County. The project was proposed by Ormat Nevada, Inc., and Ormat Technologies, Inc. (“project proponents”) to be located adjacent to an existing geothermal power complex in an area that has been developed for geothermal activity since 1984. The joint document was prepared by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the District, with the state agency serving as the CEQA lead agency. The project was designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels by using heat extracted from water pumped from a deep geothermal reservoir to fuel a closed-loop system that would ultimately produce electricity. The reaction, however, would produce n-pentane (normal pentane)—a non-toxic reactive organic gas but a precursor to ozone—which would leak in some amount leak from the system and result in fugitive emissions. The EIR concluded that the amount of fugitive emissions would not exceed 410 pounds per day.

The Laborer’s International Union of North America Local Union No. 783 and certain individual members (“Petitioners”) filed a petition for writ of mandate against the District and project proponents as real parties in interest claiming that the EIR’s fugitive emissions conclusions were not supported by substantial evidence, that the District was an improper lead agency, and that the District erred in its feasibility analysis for measures to further mitigate fugitive emissions. The trial court denied the petition in full. Petitioners appealed.

District is Proper Lead Agency

Petitioners argued that Mono County, not the District, was the proper CEQA lead agency as defined in Guidelines section 15051, subdivision (b), because it was the agency with more “‘general governmental powers’” over the project. While the Court agreed that “‘normally’” a county would be the CEQA lead, as the first non-federal agency to act on the project, the District was qualified under Guidelines section 15052, subdivision (c), to act as lead.  As further evidence, the Court pointed out that, for a while, the District appeared to be the only involved state agency because of its unique permit authority over an otherwise federalized project. The Court further reasoned that the County’s involvement is minimal in comparison because the project requires “only” a conditional use permit from the County for a “small portion” of its pipeline, which gave it lesser responsibility for “approving the project as a whole,” thereby making the District the proper CEQA lead.

Permit Provides Substantial Evidence

Petitioners also argued that “the record does not contain substantial evidence to support the [EIR’s] conclusion that the Project’s n-pentane [fugitive] emissions will be limited to 410 pounds per day.” The EIR did not, in fact, include emissions calculations. But, the District countered that it provided total emissions numbers to Petitioner’s counsel under a public records act request prior to EIR certification. And, after EIR certification, it sent Petitioner’s counsel additional emissions data, albeit with some redactions. The District further argued that project compliance with permit requirements that limit daily fugitive emissions to 410 pounds per day provides substantial evidence to support the EIR’s conclusion that the project will not exceed that limitation. The Court agreed and cited to several cases for support, including Oakland Heritage Alliance v. City of Oakland (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 884 and Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of University of California (1988) 47 Cal.3d 376, where other courts held that “compliance with performance standards is a substitute for substantial evidence.” The Court also pointed out that the EIR contained several mitigation measures to lessen impacts from project fugitive emissions.

Mitigation Feasibility Assessment Lacks “Reasoned Analysis”

Petitioners then argued that additional feasible mitigation measures existed to further reduce fugitive emissions, provided by commenters on the Draft EIR, and that the District abused its discretion in finding them infeasible. The District countered  that the project’s required use of “‘best available technology’” and “‘state of the art equipment’” was enough to reduce impacts to less than significant, thereby rendering additional measures irrelevant. The Court, while not invalidating the District’s conclusion, required it to provide a “good faith, reasoned response” explaining why the specific technologies suggested by commenters, which are successfully used in other industrial facilities, could not be used for the project to further reduce impacts. Without such explanation, the Court contended that the EIR would not contain “a sufficient degree of analysis to enable decision makers to make an intelligent and informed decision,” pursuant to Guidelines section 15151.

– Casey Shorrock

Third District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Chico Walmart Expansion Against Challenge to Urban Decay Analysis

In a partially published decision issued on October 3, 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment upholding an EIR for a Walmart expansion project in Chico against challenges to the EIR’s urban decay analysis. (Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy v. City of Chico (2019) 40 Cal.App.5th 839.)

In 2015, Walmart applied to the city to expand its existing Chico store in a regional retail center that includes the Chico Mall and several national chain retail stores. A FoodMaxx grocery store is also nearby. Walmart planned to expand its existing store by approximately 64,000 square feet, add an eight-pump gas station, and create two new outparcels for future commercial development. Approximately 49,000 square feet of the new space would be used for grocery-related sales.

The city prepared an EIR for the project that included, among other things, a “robust 43-page urban decay analysis.” The urban decay analysis was supported by a 123-page expert study prepared by ALH Urban & Regional Economics. The purpose of the ALH study was to assess the economic impact of the project on retailers in the surrounding area and to evaluate the extent to which the project could contribute to store closures and urban decay. For purposes of the study, “urban decay” was defined as “visible symptoms of physical deterioration . . . that is caused by a downward spiral of business closures and long term vacancies . . . [and]. . . so prevalent, substantial, and lasting for a significant period of time that it impairs the proper utilization of the properties and structures, and the health, safety, and welfare of the surrounding community.”

The ALH study concluded that, on its own, the project would have a negligible impact on sales for competing retailers and that store closures were not expected to follow. Based on these findings, the EIR concluded that the project would not cause the type of severe economic effects that would lead to urban decay. With regard to cumulative impacts, the ALH study concluded that the project, when combined with other planned retail projects in the area, could induce the closure of one full-service grocery store. The city’s retail vacancy rate, however, would only increase by approximately one percent and would remain “well within the range of a robust, healthy commercial retail sector.” The EIR further explained that Chico has a strong history of “backfilling” store vacancies, that existing vacant properties are well-maintained, and that the city has regulations to prevent decay and blight. For these reasons, the EIR concluded that although some economic impacts were expected, cumulative impacts likely would not result in urban decay.

Following the city’s certification of the EIR, Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy (CARE) challenged the urban decay analysis in an administrative appeal to the city council. CARE supported its challenge with its own “retail expert” report refuting the city’s analysis. The city council denied the appeal.  CARE then filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking to rescind the EIR and project approvals. The trial court denied the petition in full and CARE appealed.

On appeal, CARE challenged the EIR’s urban decay analysis on two grounds. First, CARE argued that the EIR relied on an “unnaturally constrained” definition of “urban decay” and, as a result, failed to treat the loss of “close and convenient shopping” as a significant environmental impact. Second, CARE argued that, due to flaws in the ALH study’s methodology, the EIR’s urban decay findings were not supported by substantial evidence.

Addressing the first issue, the court began its discussion by explaining the applicable standard of review for allegations that an EIR failed to include necessary information. Citing the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (2018) 6 Cal.5th 502, the court explained that CARE’s argument presented the predominantly legal question of whether the EIR included enough detail “to enable those who did not participate in its preparation to understand and consider meaningfully the issues raised by the proposed project,” which is subject to independent review. On this issue, the court found “CARE’s argument lacks merit – the City did not violate CEQA because the potential loss of close and convenient shopping is not an environmental issue that must be reviewed under CEQA.” “CEQA is concerned with physical changes in the environment,” the court explained, and “[a]lthough the loss of close and convenient shopping could impact some Chico residents psychologically and socially, such impacts are not, by themselves, environmental impacts.”

Next, the court turned to CARE’s attack on the methodology for the urban decay analysis. CARE alleged three flaws with the urban decay study’s methodology. First, CARE argued that the study relied on incorrect assumptions for calculating the anticipated grocery sales. Second, CARE argued that the study underestimated impacts on Chico stores by incorrectly assuming shoppers from the neighboring Town of Paradise would patronize the Walmart. Lastly, CARE argued that the study incorrectly assumed economic impacts would be spread amongst existing stores, rather than concentrated on the closest competitor – the FoodMaxx grocery.

In rejecting each of CARE’s arguments, the court explained that challenges to the EIR’s methodology are reviewed under the substantial evidence standard. Under this standard, challenges to the EIR’s methodology “must be rejected unless the agency’s reasons for proceeding as it did are clearly inadequate or unsupported.” Moreover, the court explained, when an agency is faced with conflicting evidence on an issue, it is permissible to give more weight to some evidence than others – mere “disagreement among experts” does not render an EIR inadequate.

In this case, the court concluded that CARE’s challenge amounted to “nothing more than differences of opinion about how the Project’s expected grocery sales should be estimated, how the Project’s market area should be defined, and which competitors are most susceptible to impacts from the Project.” These differences in opinion, the court explained, did not render the EIR’s analysis clearly inadequate or unsupported. Therefore, CARE’s challenge failed under the substantial evidence test.

The court further noted that although CARE’s own expert report showed additional store closures would occur, CARE failed to demonstrate how such closures would lead to urban decay. As the court explained, “Store closures, by themselves, do not amount to urban decay.”