Consolidated Irrigation District v. City of Selma (5th Dist. Feb. 28, 2012 [modified March 9th, 2012]) __ Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. 08CECG01591)
On February 8, 2012, the Fifth Appellate District ruled that a lower court properly found an irrigation district had standing to sue under CEQA and challenge a residential development approved by the City of Selma. The court also found the administrative record provided substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the proposed project would result in potentially adverse significant impacts, and therefore, a mitigated negative declaration was inappropriate and a full environmental impact report was required.
Factual and Procedural Background
Raven Development, Inc., proposed developing a 160-unit, single-family residential subdivision that would be annexed by the city. Water for the proposed subdivision would be provided by a private water company. The initial environmental study concluded that the project’s groundwater use would not be significant and would not interfere substantially with the recharge of the aquifer; therefore, no mitigation would be required for the project’s impacts on hydrology and water quality.
Petitioner Consolidated Irrigation District (CID) is an independent special district formed under the California Water Code. The district is located in southern Fresno County, and its boundaries enclose approximately 163,000 acres of land, the majority of which is irrigated agricultural land. The District delivers over 200,000 acre-feet of surface water for irrigation per year. The District also operates a groundwater recharge system that includes over fifty recharge basins.
An integrated regional water management plan was completed for the Upper Kings groundwater basin. The water management plan included findings that the Kings groundwater basin was in a state of overdraft that would continue to worsen through year 2030 based on projected conditions. The findings noted that between 2005 and 2030, the groundwater levels in the District’s urban areas will decline between an estimated five and ten feet.
The city prepared a mitigated negative declaration for Raven Development’s proposed subdivision. During the public review period, the District submitted letters stating the conversion of agricultural land to urban land was having an adverse and cumulatively significant impact on the groundwater basin, and the project potentially could have cumulative hydrology impacts as well. The District asserted that a full EIR was required. Despite these concerns, the city council adopted resolutions approving the project and adopting the MND.
CID filed a petition alleging that substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the project could result in significant impacts to the environment. CID requested that the city prepare the administrative record.
The city lodged a certified administrative record. Subsequently, CID filed a statement of issues. This included an allegation that mandatory portions of the administrative record had not been included. CID filed a motion to augment the record, claiming it did not contain four documents that CID had submitted to the city. The trial court ordered that the administrative record be augmented and ultimately found the city violated CEQA when it approved the project. The court determined that the city needed to prepare a full EIR to address the significant cumulative impacts attributable to the project, among other potential impacts. The city appealed.
The Appellate Court’s Decision
On appeal, the city argued the trial court erred when it allowed the challenged documents to be added to the administrative record. The city asserted the documents were not presented to a city decision-making body, and therefore, were not considered during the project approval process. The city further argued that the trial court erred in determining the district had standing. Finally, the court addressed the fair argument standard as applied to MNDs and issues of credibility of evidence submitted before an agency.
Order Augmenting the Administrative Record
The parties disagreed on the appropriate standard of review to be applied to the trial court’s decision to grant the motion to augment the administrative record. The city asserted de novo review of the trial court’s decision was the appropriate standard. The city argued this review should be limited to an examination of the administrative record. CID disagreed and claimed the only issue was whether the documents had been submitted to a decision-making body prior to the final approval of the project. Therefore, the trial court’s decision to augment the record with the contested documents should be upheld under the substantial evidence standard of review.
The court of appeal noted that the parties briefed the appeal before the court published its decision in Madera Oversight Coalition, Inc. v. County of Madera (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 48, which addressed numerous questions related to the scope of the administrative record. Relying on Madera Oversight, the court determined Public Resources Code section 21167.6, subdivision (e), governing the contents of administrative records, is mandatory, and the requirements thereof are not committed to the discretion of a trial court. Instead, the findings of fact made by the trial court in determining whether documents are part of the record are appropriately reviewed under the substantial evidence standard.
The trial court based its decision to augment the administrative record on conflicting evidence presented by the city and district. Testimony from a district representative indicated that the documents in question had been presented to the city planning commission at a public hearing. The planning commission had failed to maintain two files in its record that it later agreed should have been included. Further, while transcripts were not available for the hearing, minutes indicated that the district submitted three documents. Testimony from the district’s representative indicated that two documents had actually been submitted to the city as a single document. The appellate court determined these facts presented substantial evidence supporting the trial court’s order to grant the motion to augment the record.
Standing of a Public Agency
The city also argued the trial court erred when it determined CID had standing to bring an action under CEQA. The city asserted the water district could not claim public interest standing to bring a citizen suit under CEQA. The city reasoned that a public agency could not qualify for public interest standing because it is a governmental body. The court declined to address this argument after finding the district adequately met the usual “beneficially interested” standing requirement under Code of Civil Procedure section 1086.
The court determined the district was “beneficially interested” after citing Water Code section 22650, which states, “A district may commence and maintain any actions and proceedings to carry out its purposes or protect its interests…” The court determined “interests” in this section included all beneficial interests sufficient to satisfying standing requirements of Code of Civil Procedure section 1086. As a result, CID had authority under the Water Code to pursue CEQA litigation to protect its beneficial interests.
The court declined to adopt the city’s argument that a public agency only has a special interest or right, and therefore a beneficial interest, if the project affects a natural resource over which the agency has jurisdiction. The city attempted to support its argument by citing to CEQA Guidelines which limit the matters a public agency may comment on during environmental review. The court noted, however, that public agencies are authorized to submit comments to the lead agency on projects with impacts falling outside their legal jurisdiction if an affected resource is within an area of expertise of the agency. Therefore, the court concluded a public agency’s beneficial interests are not limited only to resources over which it has direct jurisdiction.
In this case, the district argued its operations, including that of numerous groundwater recharge basins, would be adversely affected by the project. The court found the operation of these recharge basins gave CID a special interest in the local groundwater. As a result, the district had a beneficial interest that could be adversely affected by the project. Therefore, the district satisfied the standing requirements necessary to file suit to enforce CEQA.
Application of the Fair Argument Standard
An agency’s decision to certify a negative or mitigated negative declaration is reviewed by courts under the fair argument test. If this test is met, then the declaration is overturned and the agency must prepare and certify an environmental impact report. A fair argument that a particular project may have a significant adverse effect on the environment must be supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record. The city argued the lead agency has discretion to determine whether evidence presented is actually substantial. The court disagreed and noted that whether an administrative record contains sufficient evidence to support a fair argument is a question of law. Instead, the court found deference to the agency appropriate only for limited issues of credibility.
To support rejecting evidence for lack of credibility, an agency must identify that evidence with sufficient particularity to allow a reviewing court to determine if there were actually disputed issues of credibility. The court determined this was an appropriate requirement to prevent post hoc rationalization by the agency. In this case, the city could provide no citations to the administrative record showing any decision-maker questioned the credibility of any evidence presented. Therefore, court declined to defer to the city when reviewing the record to determine if it supported a fair argument that the project would cause significant adverse impacts.
This case further illustrates the difficulty lead agencies can face in defending MNDs. It also indicates that it is important for agencies to identify and discuss the reasons they believe presented evidence may not be credible. If an agency fails to do this, a court is likely to dismiss subsequently presented credibility challenges as simply post hoc rationalization.
In addition, an agency’s beneficial interest in CEQA proceedings extends not only to just the natural resources over which the agency has direct jurisdiction, but also those which have some relation or connection to the jurisdictional resource areas.