In Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Fish and Wildlife (Mar. 20, 2014) ___ Cal.App. ___, Case No. B245131, the Second Appellate District reversed the trial court judgment granting a petition for writ of mandate challenging the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (Department) approval of the Newhall Ranch Resource Management and Development Plan and Spineflower Conservation Plan. In the published portion of its opinion, the court held that the provisions of the Fish and Game Code supported a determination that live trapping and transplantation of a protected species of fish does not constitute an unlawful taking when undertaken by the Department for conservation purposes. The court also found the Environmental Impact Report’s analysis of cultural resources, alternatives, impacts to Steelhead smolt, and impacts to spineflower complied with CEQA.
The Newhall Land and Farming Company proposed an almost 12,000-acre Specific Plan area approved by Los Angeles County in 2003 and to be built out over a number of years. After the local county approved an environmental impact statement for the proposed development, the Department prepared and certified an EIR for the project—a Resource Management and Development Plan and Spineflower Conservation Plan. The EIR analyzed the potential environmental effects of issuing incidental take permits and a streambed alteration agreement under the project. The construction of the project would impact, among other things, the stickleback, a fish protected under Fish & Game Code §5515(a)(1) as a “fully protected species.”
The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the Department’s actions. The trial court granted the writ petition, finding, among other things, that the department failed to prevent the taking of the stickleback. The Department and the developer appealed. The court of appeal reversed, holding that the trial court erred in granting the petition.
The court found substantial evidence supported the Department’s conclusion that no take of the stickleback would occur. The court found that the EIR contained mitigation measures to exclude stickleback from any construction areas in the river and to trap and relocate any stranded stickleback to other parts of the river in temporary containers. The court found substantial evidence supported a determination that no mortality would occur given the extraordinary measures taken by the Department to ensure the sticklebacks’ safety, including undertaking surveys of stickleback habitat prior to developing its plan, preparation of ten different studies, and employing the expertise of one of the leading authorities on stickleback preservation. The extensive mitigation measures, coupled with the expert’s discussion, constituted substantial evidence no deaths would result.
The court also rejected CBD’s contention that the mitigation measures themselves would constitute a taking prohibited by Fish and Game Code §§86 and 5515(a)(1). Those sections defined a prohibited take as the “catch, capture, or kill” of protected fish. After a thorough review of pertinent sections of the code, along with their legislative histories, the court agreed with the Department and developer that the use of live trapping and transplantation techniques approved in Fish and Game Code §2061 would not constitute a prohibited take or possession. The court reasoned the entire statutory scheme must be construed together and section 2061 allows for live trapping and transplantation when performed for conservation purposes. Such techniques, as explained by the Department’s expert, can involve the possession and movement of the stickleback in containers to parts of the river that would not be impacted by construction. Therefore, the court concluded the mitigation measures would not result in an unlawful take or possession of stickleback.
The court also rejected CBD’s claims that the EIR failed to adequately address the cultural resources impacts of the project. As an initial matter, the court found CBD had forfeited its cultural resources claims by failing to raise such issues during the public comment period. As a result, the court held CBD failed to exhaust administrative remedies and Department had no obligation to respond to untimely comments. Though finding the claims waived, the court addressed these claims on the merits and rejected them, finding the cultural resource analysis was supported by substantial evidence. The analysis in the EIR was based on extensive research, surveys, and studies performed by consultants with expertise in the field. The consultants undertook excavations of areas that the research and studies indicated resources might be present. Furthermore, the court found there was no evidence that the consultant have failed to uncover any human remains. Though human remains had been found near the project site, the court found that those earlier, off-site discoveries did not require the Department to conduct additional plug tests on site to confirm the consultant’s conclusion. The court also upheld the cultural resources mitigation measures set forth in the EIR as adequate and in full compliance with CEQA Guidelines §15126.4(b)(3)(A).
The court rejected CBD’s claim that the Department’s determination regarding the feasibility of one of the alternatives was not supported by substantial evidence. The court found that, in general, the alternatives were appropriate because they were required to follow the Newhall Ranch Specific Plan. In considering the objectives of the specific plan, the alternative in question would not meet the project objectives to provide a new major community with industrial, commercial, and residential uses because the alternative lacked commercial uses in one planning area and had no connectivity to the easternmost portion of the project area. Furthermore, the alternative was economically infeasible based on application of an industry metric of the cost per developable acre compared to the proposed project. The court upheld this methodology and found substantial evidence supported the Department’s determination regarding the infeasibility of the alternative.
The court rejected CBD’s claims that the EIR failed to address the potential effects on steelhead smolt downstream of the project area due to dissolved copper discharges. Again, the court found CBD had forfeited its claims for failing to raise them during the public comment period. Though waived, the court addressed the claims and found that there were no steelhead smolt in the project area because the habitat would be below the dry gap where the river goes underground. Furthermore, the dissolved copper discharged to the river would be below the California Toxics Rule Threshold with compliance with regulatory requirements and implementation of mitigation measures and design features. The court found substantial evidence supported the Department’s determination that the project’s impacts on steelhead smolt would be less than significant.
The court rejected CBD’s claims of flaws in the EIR’s analysis of impacts to the San Fernando Valley spineflower, which is listed as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) and is known to occur only in the project area and one other location in Ventura County. The Department issued an incidental take permit for spineflower, allowing take of 24% of the habitat within the Specific Plan area. The court found substantial evidence supported the mitigation plan for the spineflower. The Department had employed 43 biologists who conducted 21 surveys to identify the potential spineflower habitat. The Conservation Plan would dramatically expand the area for potential growth of the spineflower: from 13.88 acres of growth to 56.79 acres of core growth, 110.77 acres of buffer and 42.90 acres of expansion areas. The Plan would ultimately increase the preserve areas from two to five. The court also found that Department’s comprehensive monitoring plan did not constitute impermissible deferral of mitigation, but rather called for future research, which represented “sound ecological management.”
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, the court upheld the EIR’s greenhouse gas analysis. The Department employed a significance threshold for greenhouse gas emissions premised on the reduction target established under the California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) where GHG emissions would be significant if the project would impede achievement of a reduction in statewide GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The court held the Department had discretion to employ this threshold and concluded the threshold was appropriate. The court found the GHG analysis complied with CEQA because it was consistent with the requirements for such analysis set forth in CEQA Guidelines §15064.4(b)(1)-(3) and was supported by substantial evidence.