Tag: EIR

Second District Finds that CEQA’s Supplemental Review Provisions Applied to Modification of Commercial Development Project adding a Specific Plan Amendment and that the Amendment was not Impermissible “Spot Zoning”

In Citizens Coalition Los Angeles v. City of Los Angeles (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 561, the Second District Court of Appeal overturned the trial court’s decision that revisions to a commercial development project to include a specific plan amendment constituted a “new project” under CEQA, and found that supplemental review under Public Resources Code section 21166 applied instead. Additionally, the Court determined that, while the specific plan amendment created a “spot zone,” substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that the amendment was in the public interest, and thus not impermissible under the test announced in Foothill Communities Coalition v. County of Orange (2014) 222 Cal.App.4th 1302.

Target Corporation (Target) applied to build a Super Target retail store at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue in Hollywood. The project contemplated a nearly 75-foot tall, three-story building with the Target store occupying the third floor, parking on the second, and the first floor containing several smaller retail stores, a transit kiosk, and a pedestrian plaza. The City of Los Angeles certified the environmental impact report (EIR) prepared for the project, and granted eight variances from the Vermont/Western Transit Oriented District Specific Plan (SNAP) allowing the project to be built as proposed. Target began construction of the project. Several community associations (plaintiffs) filed separate petitions for writ of mandate challenging the City’s approval of the project, alleging violations of CEQA, and that the grant of the variances were not supported by substantial evidence in violation of the Los Angeles Municipal Code. The trial court upheld the EIR, but found that six of the eight variances were not supported by substantial evidence and ordered construction to cease.

While that case was pending on appeal, the City amended the SNAP to create a new subarea (Subarea F) that would allow projects similar to Target’s to be built in certain parts of the specific plan area without the need for variances, and designated the project site as Subarea F. There were two other locations in the specific plan area that could qualify for the Subarea F designation, but no projects meeting the requirements of Subarea F were proposed to the City at those locations. The appellate court dismissed the appeal as moot, leaving the trial court’s decision intact. The City prepared and approved an addendum to the Target project EIR, defining the revised project as the SNAP amendment and the completion of construction for the Target project. The same plaintiffs challenged the revised project approval, alleging that the City violated CEQA by relying on an addendum rather than a new, subsequent, or supplemental EIR, and that the City impermissibly “spot-zoned” by amending the SNAP for the project. The trial court found that the SNAP amendment was a new project, making the addendum improper but did not reach the “spot zoning” issue. The City and Target appealed.

The court of appeal, in analyzing whether the addendum violated CEQA asked three questions: what did the SNAP amendment do? Do CEQA’s supplemental or initial project review provisions apply? And, did the City comply with the applicable CEQA provisions? The court answered each question in turn. First, the court found that SNAP amendment, though it created a new subarea, only placed the project location into that subarea. While two other locations in the SNAP area could meet the proximity to transit and acreage requirements, they did not meet the commercial square footage requirement and no projects meeting that requirement had been proposed to the City. The court also rejected plaintiffs’ “haphazard” development argument, finding that the amendment was consistent with the SNAP’s policies and that the City could rationally take planning and development “one step at a time.”

In determining whether CEQA’s supplemental review provisions applied, the court found that there had been prior CEQA review of the Target project. Thus, the question was “whether the previous environmental document retains any relevance in light of the proposed changes.” (Citing Friends of College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College Dist. (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937, 944.) The court found that substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that the previous EIR retained relevance for the revised project. The court rejected the argument that, because the previous EIR was limited to a specific development “project” and the SNAP amendment involved more general policy considerations, the “project” EIR was insufficient. The court found that the label placed on the EIR said little about its sufficiency as an informational document. The proper question is whether the EIR retains any value in addressing the impacts associated with the revised project.

Next, the court asked whether the City complied with CEQA’s supplemental review requirements, and found that substantial evidence supported the City’s decision to rely on an addendum for the revised project. Plaintiffs made four arguments, all of which the court rejected. First, petitioners argued that the addendum did not discuss the SNAP amendment, which the court stated was factually inaccurate. Second, they argued that the City intended further development in the SNAP area through the new subarea because of some of the language the City used in describing the requirements of the new subarea. The court found that the cited language did not negate the substantial evidence supporting the City’s finding that no additional development was foreseeable. Third, plaintiffs argued that additional development projects at the two locations that could qualify for the new subarea, and any other locations that could be “cobbled together” were reasonably foreseeable consequences of the SNAP amendment that required a subsequent or supplemental EIR. The court found that whatever incentive for development the amendment created, evidence of that incentive did not overcome the substantial evidence supporting the City’s determination. Lastly, plaintiffs argued that de novo review should apply because the challenge to the amendment required the court to construe its meaning. The court found that the issue before it involved the amendment’s environmental impact, not its meaning, and thus review was for substantial evidence.

Though the trial court did not address the “spot zoning” issue, the court of appeal did, finding that it was important enough to resolve the fully briefed, longstanding issue. Under the analysis in Foothill Communities, the court found that the SNAP amendment did create a zoning “island,” though it was unclear whether the zoning was less or more stringent than the surrounding parcels because of the specific requirements for the new subarea. Regardless, the question was whether the zoning decision creating the “island” was arbitrary, irrational or unreasonable. The court found that, under that standard, the spot zone was valid. Further, the City’s determination that the amendment was in the public interest was supported by substantial evidence, and the SNAP, as amended, remained compatible with the City’s general plan. The court rejected plaintiffs’ challenge to the City’s alleged motive in amending the SNAP, and plaintiffs’ questioning of whether the SNAP amendment represented good policy, as neither issue was appropriate for the court’s inquiry. The court also found that even if future projects proposed to use the new subarea, the City retained its power to determine whether each project is in the public interest. Lastly, the court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the amendment to the SNAP was “incompatible” with it because the amendment would “alter” the SNAP.  The court found that the law unambiguously allows specific plan amendments.

Nathan O. George

First District Court of Appeal Upholds Judicial Council of California’s Determination That Closure of Downtown Placerville Courthouse Would Not Lead to Significant Urban Decay Impacts

On October 16, 2017, the First District Court of Appeal published its decision in Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 187, upholding the San Francisco County Superior Court’s denial of a petition for writ of mandate challenging the Judicial Council of California’s decision to certify a Final EIR and approve the New Placerville Courthouse Project.

Background

El Dorado County’s court facilities are currently divided between the Main Street Courthouse, a historic building in downtown Placerville, and the County administrative complex. The Judicial Council proposed to consolidate all court activities in a new three-story building to be built on undeveloped land adjacent to the County jail, less than two miles away from the existing Main Street Courthouse.

In October 2014, the Judicial Council published a draft EIR for the proposed new courthouse. The draft EIR acknowledged that retiring the downtown courthouse could have an impact on downtown Placerville. The EIR also recognized that the Judicial Council was required address neighborhood deterioration as a significant environmental effect under CEQA if urban decay was a reasonably foreseeable impact of the project. The draft EIR defined “urban decay” as “physical deterioration of properties or structures that is so prevalent, substantial, and lasting 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 draft EIR concluded that urban decay, so defined, was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the new courthouse project.

Comments received both during and after the public review period on the draft EIR voiced the concern that closing the historic Main Street Courthouse could negatively affect businesses in downtown Placerville. In response to such concerns, the Judicial Council reiterated the draft EIR’s conclusion that the project was not likely to lead to urban decay. In support of this conclusion, the Judicial Council observed that it was working with both the city and county to develop a re-use strategy for the building that would support the downtown businesses and local residences. The Judicial Council also cited evidence of the City and County’s efforts to find a new use for the historic courthouse building.

Following the Judicial Council’s certification of the final EIR, the Placerville Historic Preservation League (League) filed a petition for writ of mandate, which the trial court denied. The Court of Appeal affirmed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, the League argued that the Judicial Council erred in concluding that urban decay is not a reasonably foreseeable indirect effect of relocating the courthouse activities from downtown Placerville to their new location. The court held that substantial evidence in the record supported the Judicial Council’s conclusion that the type of physical deterioration contemplated in the term “urban decay” is not reasonably foreseeable. The court explained that there is no presumption that urban decay would result from the project. To the contrary, as defined by CEQA—which focuses on the physical environment—urban decay “is a relatively extreme economic condition.” Evidence in the record, including comments submitted by the public, suggested that downtown Placerville was an economically stable area, and could withstand business closures without falling into urban decay.

The League also characterized the likelihood of the re-use of the historic courthouse building as an “‘unenforceable and illusory”’ commitment. The court explained, however, that the lack of a binding requirement for the re-use of the building does not undermine the EIR’s reasoning. Specifically, the issue before the Judicial Council was whether urban decay was a reasonably foreseeable effect of the project, not whether its occurrence was a certainty. It would be the best interest of the City of Placerville and the County of El Dorado to re-use the historic courthouse building, suggesting that the building was likely to be put to a new use. While the re-use was by no means guaranteed, it was reasonably likely. Therefore, the Judicial Council did not err in relying on the possibility of re-using the building as one basis for concluding that urban decay was not reasonably foreseeable.

The League also argued that the administrative record contained evidence, in the form of comments submitted by local residents and businesses, of the impact of moving the courtroom activities outside of downtown Placerville. The court held that although these letters and comments provided credible grounds to conclude that relocating the courthouse activities would constitute a hardship for some local businesses, it was not substantial evidence to support the conclusion that such economic effects would lead to substantial physical deterioration of the downtown.

The League further argued that the Judicial Council should have prepared an economic study evaluating the effects of removing the courthouse functions from downtown. The court disagreed, noting that in “any endeavor of this type, financial resources are limited, and the lead agency has the discretion to direct resources toward the most pressing concerns.” Just because a financial impact study might have been helpful does not make it necessary.

The Judicial Council was represented by RMM attorneys Andrea Leisy and Laura Harris in the trial court and on appeal.

Fourth District Holds that Land Acquisition Agreement Did Not Trigger Duty to Prepare an EIR

In Bridges v. Mt. San Jacinto Community College District (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 104, the Fourth District Court of Appeals held that a land acquisition agreement entered into by the Mt. San Jacinto Community College District to purchase property from the Riverside County Regional Park & Open-Space District for potential future use as the site of new campus did not trigger the duty to prepare an EIR.

As a threshold issue, the court held that the appellants were barred from raising objections to the college’s decision because they had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. The appellants argued that they were excused from objecting to the purchase agreement because the college did not give notice of the meeting at which it approved the agreement. Because the appellants could not establish that the no-notice exception applied—the court relied on the presumption afforded by Evidence Code section 664 to presume that the college had posted the agenda in accordance with the Brown Act requirements because the record contained no evidence to the contrary.

Nonetheless, the court went on to discuss the merits and determined that appellants’ claims were meritless because the purchase agreement required completion of an EIR before the sale could even be finalized. The court found that the purchase agreement complied with CEQA’s land acquisition agreement rule. Unlike the circumstances in the definitive California Supreme Court decision, Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116, here, no funds had been committed to the project and a developer had yet to be identified. The court found nothing in the administrative record to indicate that the college had committed itself to a definitive use of the property.

Finally, the court held the college did not violate CEQA by failing to formally adopt local implementing guidelines. Public Resources Code section 21082 provides an exemption for school districts, if they “utilize” the guidelines of another public agency. Here, the college had chosen to use the local guidelines adopted by Riverside County.

 

Christina Berglund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

First District Court of Appeal 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

Fourth District Court of Appeal Upholds Supplemental EIR for Jail Facility Upgrade Project

City of Irvine v. County of Orange (July 6, 2015) __ Cal.App.4th __, Case No. G049527

The court upheld a Supplemental EIR prepared by the County of Orange for a jail upgrade project over a decade after the original EIR had been certified. The court found the project was not substantially different than the project analyzed in the original EIR and that the Supplemental EIR adequately addressed the minor project changes and changed circumstances. And after a hearty dissertation on CEQA’s responses to comments requirement, the court determined that the county’s responses to comments on the Supplemental EIR were adequate.

The county prepared an EIR in the 1990s for the expansion of the James A. Musick Jail Facility. The City of Irvine challenged that EIR and lost; however, project construction was delayed indefinitely by a lack of funding. In 2012, the county decided to move forward with the project and prepared a Supplemental EIR to account for project changes and changed circumstances. Irvine filed a petition challenging the Supplemental EIR on various CEQA grounds. The trial court rejected the challenge and Irvine appealed.

On appeal, Irvine first claimed that the County was required to prepare a “Subsequent EIR” rather than a “Supplemental EIR.” Regarding the Supplemental EIR, Irvine’s contentions focused primarily on traffic impacts during construction and the loss of agricultural land. Irvine’s main argument, however, was that the county’s responses to Irvine’s comments on the Supplemental EIR were inadequate. The court rejected each of these claims in turn.

Irvine’s first claim was that the County was obligated to prepare a Subsequent EIR as opposed to a Supplemental EIR for their analysis of the impacts of the expansion. The court rejected this claim, explaining that courts should look to the substance of the EIR, not its nominal title.

Irvine’s next argument concerned the Supplemental EIR’s analysis of traffic impacts during project construction. Due to delays, there were discrepancies in the county’s construction timeline. Irvine claimed that these discrepancies amounted to an unstable project description that prevented the Supplemental EIR from adequately assessing project impacts. The court disagreed, finding that the project description was distinct from the interim impacts of construction. Specifically, Irvine claimed the county had failed to provide a stable project description because it could not account for the traffic impacts caused by construction in a given year. The court found that CEQA does not require a continuous update of traffic impacts as a result of construction delays and that, regardless of the delay, the impacts would not be substantially different from those disclosed in the Supplemental EIR even if traffic data was updated, and therefore, there was no prejudice.

The third claim concerned mitigation for the loss of agricultural land that would occur as a result of the expansion. The Supplemental EIR discussed seven possible mitigation measures, but none were found to be feasible. Irvine challenged the county’s feasibility findings for three of the measures: (1) the purchase of conservation easements on existing agricultural land to prevent it from being used in the future for nonagricultural purposes, (2) a transfer of development rights program, and (3) a “right to farm” ordinance.

The court held that the county’s findings rejecting these measures as infeasible were supported by substantial evidence. Conservation easements were found infeasible because there was no additional land for agriculture in the county that would be profitable and putting a conservation easement for agricultural use on land that is already used for agriculture would do nothing to mitigate the loss of other agricultural lands. The court also noted that the county’s zoning laws did not support the feasibility of conservation easements. Transfers of development rights were found to be even less feasible because the county did not have land laying fallow for which they could transfer rights in the preservation of agricultural land use. Lastly, the court concluded that a right to farm ordinance was the least viable option of all. The Supplemental EIR recognized that the conversion of current non-agricultural land to agricultural land would itself entail significant environmental effects, including nuisance suits. Beyond that, the court noted, a right-to-farm ordinance is meaningless where no land owner wants to farm. The court held that it is a reasonable inference that no one would want to convert land that is currently non-agricultural and put it to agricultural use even if they have the ostensible legal right to do so.

Lastly, the court addressed Irvine’s claim that the county failed to adequately respond to comments. The court began with a thorough discussion of CEQA’s responses to comment requirement and a detailed assessment of the state of case law on the subject. The court noted several oft-repeated principles by which courts may evaluate the sufficiency of responses, including (1) a general comment can be adequately met with a general response; (2) responses need not be exhaustive; and (3) the sufficiency of responses should be “viewed in light of what is reasonably feasible.” From the cases, the court divined a few more basic standards for the adequacy of responses: (1) when a comment raises a “significant” environmental issue, there must be some genuine confrontation with the issue, it can’t be swept under the rug; (2) responses that leave big gaps in the analysis of environmental impacts are obviously inadequate; (3) comments that bring some new issue to the table need genuine confrontation; and (4) comments that are only objections to the merits of the project itself may be addressed with cursory responses. Based on these guiding principles, the court found that the county had adequately responded to each of Irvine’s comments that merited a response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trial Court Rejects Challenge to EIR for Cadiz Valley Groundwater Recovery Project in San Bernardino County, Appeal Likely to Follow

On May 1, 2014, the Orange County Superior Court ruled against petitioners in six related cases and upheld the EIR for the Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery, and Storage Project.  The court noted its concern over the designation of Santa Margarita Water District as the lead agency for the project under CEQA.  But it concluded that even if the County of San Bernardino would have been a more appropriate lead agency, these concerns did not provide sufficient grounds for the granting of any of the writs sought by petitioners Delaware Tetra and Center for Biological Diversity.

Cadiz, Inc., is a private corporation that owns approximately 34,000 acres in the Mojave Desert portion of eastern San Bernardino County.  A vast groundwater basin capable of holding an estimated 17-34 million acre feet (MAF) underlies the Cadiz property.  The groundwater recovery project would allow Cadiz to sell up to 2 MAF of water that would otherwise become saline and evaporate over the next 100 years.  The project involves pumping and delivering to water providers like the Santa Margarita Water District a total of 50,000 AF a year for 50 years. The participating water districts and water providers could also send their surplus surface water supplies to the Cadiz Valley Project to recharge the groundwater and store it until the water is needed in subsequent years.

Currently, six entities have signed purchase or option agreements with Cadiz: 1) Santa Margarita Water District, 2) Three Valleys Municipal Water District, 3) Suburban Water Systems, 4) Golden State Water Company, 5) Jurupa Community Services, and 6) California Water Service Company.  These entities will receive 80% of the project’s water supplies, while 20% is reserved for future use by water agencies in San Bernardino County.

The project drew CEQA challenges from both the private sector and environmental groups.  Petitioner Delaware Tetra Technologies owns a salt mining operation in the Cadiz and Fenner Valleys of San Bernardino County. The groundwater recovery project threatens the continued operation of the salt mine because it will reduce the flow of saline water that creates salt when it evaporates.

In other suits, petitioners Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and other conservation groups asserted several CEQA claims, including concern over the potential environmental impacts on nearby springs in wilderness areas and the Mojave National Preserve.   They argue that the project would be growth-inducing because the Santa Margarita Water District will send the groundwater it purchases to support development in Orange County.  The Orange County Superior Court’s Ruling did not specify its rationale for rejecting petitioners’ CEQA arguments.  Instead, the court directed respondents Santa Margarita Water District and the County of San Bernardino to prepare proposed findings as to each petition reflecting that the court adopted the respondents’ arguments but noting that the court had some concerns regarding the lead agency designation.  Counsel for CBD has indicated that it will appeal the decision.