Tag: project description

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 UPHOLDS EIR FOR EL DORADO IRRIGATION DISTRICT’S “UPPER MAIN DITCH” WATER TRANSMISSION PIPELINE PROJECT

In a February 16, 2022 decision, the Third District Court of Appeal in Save the El Dorado Canal v. El Dorado Irrigation District (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 239, upheld the District’s approval of the Blair Road Alternative for the Upper Main Ditch piping project by finding that substantial evidence supported the District’s determination that the project and alternative would have less-than-significant impacts, and rejected petitioner challenges to the EIR’s project description, hydrological, biological, and wildfire impact analyses.

Background

The El Dorado Irrigation District operates a primarily surface-water system in El Dorado County, with more than 1,250 miles of pipe and 27 miles of earthen ditches that connect the system’s facilities and treatment plants. The Upper Main Ditch (UMD) is the system’s main conveyance feature consisting of a three-mile open and unlined ditch that connects the system’s Forebay Reservoir to its Reservoir 1 Water Treatment Plant (WTP). In June 2015, the District proposed to convert the UMD to a buried 42-inch pipeline that spanned the length of the existing ditch. The upstream end of the new pipeline would connect to the Reservoir and the downstream end would connect to a new metering and inlet structure at the WTP. The District would backfill around the pipe and reshape the ditch to allow for the passage of stormwater flows up to the current 10-year storm event capacity. Ultimately, the project would conserve more water by reducing seepage and evaporation, and improve water quality by reducing contaminant infiltration.

The District considered three alternatives, and ultimately approved the Blair Road Alternative, which would also convert the UMD into a buried pipeline but would instead place the pipe across District-owned property from the Reservoir to Blair Road, where it would continue until it reached the UMD crossing, then travel across private property to the WTP. The Blair Road Alternative would involve less construction activity near residents that the project and require the removal of fewer trees. It would also reduce the number of easements across private property.

In June 2018, the District circulated the draft EIR, which described the location of the UMD and the Blair Road Alternative’s setting and noted that, should it be adopted, the District would no longer use the existing ditch—instead reverting the land back to private landowners. After an extended public comment period, the District issued the final EIR in January 2019. After which, in April 2019, the Board of Directors certified the final EIR and approved the Blair Road Alternative. The Boar determined that, although the original project would achieve the desired objectives, it would have greater potential impacts to residents along the ditch from the resulting construction and eminent domain proceedings than the Alternative.

Thereafter, Save the El Dorado Canal filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging the approval and certification violated CEQA. The trial court denied each of Petitioner’s ten contentions. Petitioner timely appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, Petitioner re-alleged that the action violated CEQA because the EIR contained an inaccurate project description and failed to adequately analyze potential impacts to hydrology, biological resources, and wildfire hazards. Under an abuse of discretion standard, the Third District Court of Appeal rejected each claim, finding that substantial evidence supported the District’s determination and Petitioner failed to demonstrate otherwise.

Petitioner first alleged the EIR failed to adequately describe the project by omitting the “crucial fact” that the ditch that would soon be abandoned was the “only drainage system” for the watershed. Notwithstanding Petitioner’s “problematic” briefing errors, the court rejected this argument and found instead that the EIR provided a detailed description of the UMD’s size, history, and location, and explained how the UMD passively intercepts stormwater runoff that would otherwise naturally flow down slope. For the Blair Road Alternative, the EIR explained that the ditch would continue to passively receive and convey stormwater flows during storm events, even after the District abandoned its maintenance easement over it. The court concluded this was an adequate, complete, and good faith effort at full disclosure about the ditch and its relationship to the watershed’s drainage system, as well as the District’s intent to abandon the ditch should it adopt the Blair Road Alternative.

Petitioner then claimed the EIR inappropriately concluded that the Blair Road Alternative would not significantly impact watershed drainage because abandonment would permit “the underlying property owners to do with [the ditch] as they please.” Citing a comment letter submitted by the County, Petitioner claimed the EIR failed to mitigate foreseeable impacts to watershed drainage that would result from vegetation and debris clogging the abandoned ditch. The court disagreed. It found that the final EIR’s response explained that private action or inaction will ensure the abandoned ditch retains its current capacity to convey stormwater across private property thereby reducing any risk of significant flooding. Moreover, unlike the District, the County can regulate private fill activities via administrative and civil penalties to ensure such activities do not yield significant environmental effects. Thus, it would be too speculative to predict landowners’ particular actions or inactions and the ensuing potential effects to the ditch’s stormwater conveyance capacity.

Petitioner next alleged the EIR failed to mitigate impacts to riparian habitats and sensitive natural communities and conflicted with local resource protection ordinances. The court noted that the Blair Road Alternative would yield fewer potential impacts to biological resources because the pipeline would be laid in an existing road corridor that is devoid of natural riparian habitat. Because the affected waterbody is not naturally occurring, plant and wildlife species are not dependent on water in the current ditch. Nevertheless, any impacts to vegetation communities—including those resulting from tree removal—would be mitigated to less than significant levels through permit compliance. The Alternative would therefore be consistent with the General Plan’s biological resources management plan, the County’s tree mortality removal plan, and CALFIRE’s tree removal procedures.

The court was also unpersuaded by Petitioner’s claim that the EIR failed to adequately analyze and mitigate impacts to tree mortality. Relying on facts and expert opinion, the EIR explained that trees surrounding the project site are not native riparian species, and thus, not dependent on water conveyed through the ditch. To the contrary, most of the adjacent tree species are stress-tolerant and can withstand climatic variation and changes in water seepage. The court also found that because both the project and Alternative were specifically designed to avoid Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS), and that, in any event, mitigation would alleviate any impacts, regulatory requirements associated with WOTUS were met.

Lastly, the court rejected Petitioner’s contention that the EIR failed to adequately consider the project’s fire risks by only considering construction-related impacts. Petitioner asserted the project would have potentially significant impacts by removing a water source that could be used as a firefighting tool. The court disagreed by noting that the EIR specifically debunked Petitioner’s claim—the ditch supplies potable drinking water only, and water from the ditch has never been used to fight fires. Indeed, CAL FIRE’s Strategic Fire Plan did not identify the UMD as a potential firefighting resource.

– Bridget McDonald

In a Procedurally-Dense Opinion, First District Court of Appeal Clarifies that Real Parties in CEQA Cases Are Not Always Indispensable Parties

In Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods v. Regents of the University of California (2021) 70 Cal.App.5th 705, the First District Court of Appeal upheld a trial court’s determination that the developer and operator of a proposed campus expansion project were not indispensable parties to a lawsuit challenging the Regents of the University of California’s (Regent’s) approval of that project. In doing so, the court held that Assembly Bill No. 320 (AB 320) (2011–2012 Reg. Sess.)—which amended CEQA to require agencies to identify the recipients of project approvals on a project’s notice of determination (NOD) and to require CEQA petitioners to name and serve those persons or entities listed on the NOD—did not alter the court’s analysis of whether a party is “indispensable” to the lawsuit under Code of Civil Procedure section 389, subdivision (b) (CCP section 389(b)).

Background

The Regents approved a project to demolish an existing parking structure, construct student housing above a new parking structure, and develop a new academic building adjacent to the new residential building (project). The Regents prepared and certified a supplemental environmental impact report (SEIR) for the project. On May 17, 2019, the Regents filed an NOD, which identified American Campus Communities (ACC) and Collegiate Housing Foundation (CHF) as the parties undertaking the project. ACC is the developer for the project, and CHF is the ground lessee and borrower for the housing component of the project.

On June 13, 2019, petitioner Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking to vacate the Regents’ certification of the SEIR on the ground that the Regents violated CEQA. The petition named the Regents as a respondent, but did not name ACC or CHF as parties. Nor did petitioner serve ACC and CHF. On September 18, 2019, petitioner filed a first amended petition, which added ACC and CHF as real parties in interest. The amended petition acknowledged that ACC and CHF were listed as parties undertaking the project in the NOD, and thus were being named pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21167.6.5, subdivision (a), which requires the entities identified as recipients of project approvals on an NOD to be named as real parties in interest.

ACC and CHF filed demurrers to the first amended petition, asserting that petitioner failed to name them as parties within the applicable statute of limitations and that they are necessary and indispensable parties to the litigation, so the entire action should be dismissed. The trial court sustained the demurrers without leave to amend, but did not dismiss the lawsuit. The court held that ACC and CHF should have been named as real parties because they were listed on the NOD as the parties undertaking the project. Because petitioner had failed to amend its petition to name them as parties within 30 days after the Regents filed the NOD, petitioner’s challenge against ACC and CHF was time-barred under Public Resources Code section 21167. The court held, however, that the failure to timely name ACC and CHF as real parties did not justify dismissing the case because ACC and CHF were not indispensable parties under CCP 389(b).

ACC and CHF appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in concluding they were not indispensable parties. Petitioner filed a cross-appeal, arguing that the trial court erred in applying CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations to the lawsuit because, according to petitioner, the Regents’ NOD for the project – the filing of which triggered the 30-day statute of limitations – was defective. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s order sustaining the demurrer.

Discussion

Appealability

As a threshold matter, the appellate court considered whether the trial court’s order sustaining the demurrer was appealable. Petitioner argued that it was not because the appeal arose from an interlocutory (non-final) order and thus violated the “one final judgment” rule. Furthermore, petitioner argued, the issue of whether AOC and CHF are indispensable parties remained in the underlying action because that issue was also raised by the Regents, who remained a party to the action, so the court should not consider that issue yet. The court rejected these arguments. The court explained that in actions involving multiple parties, an order fully disposing all of the issues as to one party is appealable, even if those same issues remain as to the other parties. Accordingly, the appeal was proper.

Necessary and Indispensable Parties

The court next considered whether the trial court erred in determining that CHF and ACC were not indispensable parties. If CHF and ACC were indispensable parties, the lawsuit must be dismissed in full. If they were not indispensable, then petitioner’s lawsuit against the Regents could move forward. The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that CHF and ACC were not indispensable parties.

Assembly Bill 320 Did Not Alter a Court’s Analysis of Whether a Real Party is “Indispensable”

CEQA currently requires petitioners to name, as a real party in interest, any person or entity identified on an NOD as a recipient of the project’s approval. Prior to 2012, however, CEQA did not require the recipients of the project approvals to be identified on the NOD. CEQA did, however, require any recipient of a project approval to be named as a real party in interest. The phrase “any recipient of an approval” was not defined by the statute, leading to confusion in the courts.

In 2011, the Legislature passed AB 320, which amended CEQA to require agencies to identify the recipient of a project’s approval on the project’s NOD. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21108.) It also amended CEQA to require petitioners to name the entities identified on the NOD as real parties in interest and to serve the petition on those entities. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21167.6.5, subd. (a)). The AB 320 amendments also provided that the “failure to name potential persons, other than those real parties in interest described in Public Resources Code, § 21167.6.5, subdivision (a), is not a ground for dismissal pursuant to Section 389 of the Code of Civil Procedure.” (Pub. Resources Code, § 21167.6.5, subd. (d).)

ACC and CHF argued that AB 320 was intended to provide “finality and certainty” as to who must be joined in a CEQA action and, therefore, CCP 389(b), which provides an equitable balancing test for determining who constitutes an indispensable party, does not apply. The court rejected this argument, holding that the AB 320 did not alter judicial analysis of whether a party is indispensable.

ACC and CHF argued that the express language of Public Resources Code section 21167.6.5, as amended by AB 320, demonstrates that CCP 389(b) does not apply. Specially, subdivision (d) of that statute states: “Failure to name potential persons, other than those real parties in interests described in subdivision (a), is not grounds for dismissal pursuant to Section 389 of the Code of Civil Procedure.” (Italics added.) The court disagreed that this language indicates that CCP 389(b)’s equitable balancing test does not apply when the petition fails to name a real party. As the court explained, the statute does not explicitly state that CCP 389(b) cannot be applied in CEQA actions in which the real party has not been properly named and served. Rather, that statute only suggests that the failure to name a real party in interest may be grounds for dismissal, depending on the equitable factors set forth in CCP 389(b).

Turning to the Legislative intent, the court found that in enacting AB 320, the Legislature did not intend to prevent application of CCP 389(b). Rather, the bill was only meant to clarify who constitutes a real party in interest, as there had been confusion on that issue in the courts. Moreover, AB 320’s Legislative history suggests that rather than intending to limit CEQA actions, AB 320 was intended to “prevent the dismissal of important and meritorious CEQA cases.” Applying a blanket rule that the failure to timely name a real party in interest constitutes a ground for mandatory dismissal of a CEQA case would frustrate that intent.

Application of CCP 389(b)’s Equitable Factors

The court next considered whether the trial court erred in holding that ACC and HCF were not indispensable parties. Under CCP 389(b), if a necessary party cannot be joined, “the court shall determine whether in equity and good conscious the action should proceed among the parties before it, or should be dismissed without prejudice, the absent person being thus regarded as indispensable. The factors to be considered by the court include: (1) to what extent a judgment rendered in the person’s absence might be prejudicial to him or those already parties; (2) the extent to which, by protective provisions in the judgment, by the shaping of relief, or other measures, the prejudice can be lessened or avoided; (3) whether a judgment rendered in the person’s absence will be adequate; (4) whether the plaintiff or cross-complainant will have an adequate remedy if the action is dismissed for nonjoinder.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 389, subd. (b).)

Applying these factors, the trial court held that ACC and CHF were not indispensable parties. Among other things, ACC and CHF’s interests were closely aligned to that of Regents because ACC and CHF were undertaking the project for the Regents’ own use and benefit. Moreover, petitioner would have no way of challenging the SEIR if the case was dismissed. On the other hand, ACC and CHF were parties in a related case challenging the same SEIR and were thus unlikely to be harmed by a settlement.

On appeal, ACC and CHF argued that they had fundamentally different interests in the project than the Regents. The Regents’ interest was to add housing and academic space to the campus, whereas ACC and CHF’s interest was to develop and operate the project. The court disagreed, explaining that the Regents, like ACC and CHF, had a strong interest in moving forward with the project; the fact that the Regents might have different motivations for doing so was immaterial. Further, contrary to ACC and CHF’s assertion, the Regents had a strong economic interest in the project because the Regents would manage and operate the new parking structure and the new academic building and the Regents would regain ownerships of the project once the project’s debt was repaid. ACC and CHF had failed to cite any evidence that they had unique financial interests or would be more harmed by an adverse judgment than the Regents. Accordingly, the trial court properly concluded that ACC and CHF were not indispensable parties.

Petitioner’s Cross Appeal – Did the Trial Court Err in Applying CEQA’s 30-Day Statute of Limitations?

Turning to the cross appeal, the court held that the trial court properly applied CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations to the first amended petition. Petitioner argued that the statute of limitations should not apply because the Regents’ NOD for the project failed to accurately describe the project. In particular, the NOD did not explain that the project would result in an increase in student enrollment. The court disagreed that such information was required, holding that an increase in student enrollment was not a material component of the project. To the contrary, the NOD and SEIR indicated that the project was intended to accommodate the existing student body and planned growth, not necessarily to increase enrollment. Although it is possible that the project could result in an increase in enrollment, the record did not suggest that increasing enrollment was a component of project. Therefore, the trial court correctly held that the Regents’ filing of the NOD triggered CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations.

Implications

The Court of Appeal was unwilling to interpret AB 320’s amendments to CEQA as modifying judicial analysis of whether a party is indispensable in a CEQA case. Although Public Resources Code 21167.6.5, as amended, could be interpreted as implying that the failure to name a real party in interest is a ground for dismissal under CCP 389(b), as the court noted, the statute does not explicitly require such a result. Thus, where a CEQA petitioner fails to name all parties listed as approval recipients on an NOD (or a notice of exemption (NOE)), case law decided under the former statute is still relevant to the question of whether a party is indispensable. The case also clarifies that although a project might result in changes to the existing baseline (e.g., an increase in student enrollment), that change need not be described as a component of the proposed project in the NOD or NOE.

Second District Invalidates EIR’s Project Description For Failing to Provide Sufficient Detail and Certainty.

In Stopthemillenniumhollywood.com et al. v. City of Los Angeles et al. (2019) 39 Cal.App.5th 1, the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s conclusion that an EIR for a mixed-use development project proposed by Millennium Hollywood, LLC (Millennium) in the City of Los Angeles (City) violated CEQA as a matter of law, because it failed to provide an accurate, stable, and finite project description.

In 2008, Millennium filed an application—which the Court of Appeal described as detailed—with the City proposing a mixed-use development project (2008 Proposal) on 4.47 acres in multiple parcels straddling two sides of Vine Street, between Yucca Street and Hollywood Boulevard, in the Hollywood Community Plan area of the City. The 2008 Proposal described a mixed-use development with 492 residential units, a 200-unit hotel, 100,000 square feet of office space, a 35,000-square-foot sports club and spa, 11,000 square feet of commercial uses, and 34,000 square feet of food and beverage uses. In total, proposed square footage was 1,163,079. Two historic buildings on site, the Capital Records Tower and Gogerty Building, would be preserved. The development would consist of two low-rise buildings, one on each side of Vine Street, with three towers intended to “frame” the Capital Records Tower. The 2008 Proposal would have required a zone change to allow the sports club, as well as a variance to allow the proposed density. After the City informed Millennium that a variance from the General Plan Floor Area Ratio (FAR) requirement would also be necessary, the project was put on hold.

In 2011, Millennium filed a new application with a new project description for the same site (2011 Project). Millennium still proposed a mixed-use development with residential, hotel, and retail uses totaling 1,166,970 square feet and a FAR of 6:1. Though the same mix of uses were proposed, the 2011 Project was “designed to create an impact ‘envelope’ within which a range of development scenarios can occur.” Thus, the specific shape, size, location, use, and number of buildings to be constructed on the site were not described, other than that the existing historic buildings would be preserved. Instead, Millennium sought to enter into a development agreement with the City that would establish the permitted developable floor area, land uses, design guidelines, and development standards for the site. Additionally, the 2011 Project included a land use equivalency program (LUEP) allowing the transfer of floor area between parcels on the site. The EIR analyzed the maximum level of impacts that could occur under the development agreement, regardless of which of the several development scenarios was actually constructed in the future.

Commenters on the Draft EIR complained that the imprecise project description hindered meaningful public participation. Nevertheless, the City approved the development agreement, certified the EIR, adopted mitigation for the analyzed maximum level of impacts and adopted a statement of overriding considerations. Petitioners, Stopthemillenniumhollywood.com, Communities United for Reasonable Development, and George Abrahams (collectively, Petitioners) petitioned the Los Angeles Superior Court for a writ of mandate setting aside project approval and certification of the EIR. Petitioners alleged three causes of action relating to violations of CEQA. First, they alleged that the EIR failed to include an accurate, stable, and finite project description. The second cause of action asserted that the City abused its discretion by failing to study traffic impacts to the 101 freeway despite Caltran’s direction that the City do so. The third cause of action alleged that the City failed to consult with the California Geological Survey regarding potential seismic hazards on the site. The trial court granted the petition as to the first and second causes of action, but not the third.

On the first cause of action, the trial court found that the project description was not stable or finite, and that the use of the word “or” in a condition of approval allowed Millennium, or future developers, to choose any permitted use listed for the C2 zone in the LAMC for future development, not just the list of proposed uses in the development agreement. The trial court reasoned that, though there may be circumstances where a project description may disclose only the physical parameters and maximum potential environmental impacts, no such circumstances were present here. The trial court distinguished Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island v. City and County of San Francisco (2014) 227 Cal.App.4th 1036 (Treasure Island), on the grounds that that case dealt with a site contaminated by hazardous materials, and it was unknown when cleanup of the site would be completed. The trial court noted that the development in Treasure Island included both fixed elements (including the street grid) and conceptual elements that would “likely” be subject to supplemental CEQA review. The trial court concluded that neither element was present here.

The trial court also found that, by including an ambiguous project description, the EIR impermissibly deferred part of the analysis of environmental impacts. Specifically, the trial court found that, because no specific “concept” was analyzed, the EIR did not explain how exceedance of the maximum impacts would be avoided when the project was actually designed and built; nor was additional CEQA review contemplated by either the EIR or the development agreement. The trial court determined that, without knowing the “bona fide subject” of the EIR, it would be impossible for the public and decisionmakers to accurately weigh the “environmental price tag” of the proposal and decide if the benefits outweigh that price.

The City and Millennium appealed the trial court’s decision as to the first and second cause of action, while Petitioners appealed the decision on the third cause of action. The Court of appeal, after ruling on the first cause of action, determined that it need not reach the other issues raised by the parties.

In affirming the trial court, the Court of Appeal looked to County of Inyo v. City of Los Angeles (1977) 71 Cal.App.3d 185 (County of Inyo), and Washoe Meadows Community v. Department of Parks and Recreation (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 277 (Washoe Meadows). The Court cited County of Inyo for the proposition that, even where an inaccurate project description does not render invalid the analysis of environmental effects, it may nevertheless violate CEQA by interfering with “intelligent public participation.” The Court found further support for this position in Washoe Meadows, where the First District held that a failure to select or identify a specific project in the Draft EIR interfered with the public’s right to participate in CEQA review.

In the case before it, the Court found that the project description “fail[ed] to describe the siting, size, mass, or appearance of any building proposed to be built at the project site” and that the proposed development regulations imposed only vague and ambiguous limits on future construction choices. The Court held that, even if the analysis of maximum impacts were adequate—despite the project description, “CEQA’s purposes go beyond an evaluation of theoretical environmental impacts.” The Court determined that the project description violated CEQA as a matter of law.

In reaching its decision, the Court distinguished South of Market Community Action Network v. City and County of San Francisco (2019) 33 Cal.App.5th 321 (South of Market), on two grounds. First, the Court found that the only “uncertainty” at issue in South of Market was that the project description presented a choice of either a predominately office use or a predominately residential use, but the EIR did not select one or the other. Second, the Court found that the EIR in South of Market “included ‘site plans, illustrative massing, building elevations, cross-sections and representative floor plans for both options.”’ Because the EIR before it did not include these “technical characteristics” of the project, the Court concluded that it failed to comply with CEQA’s mandates. The Court also largely agreed with basis for the trial court’s distinguishing of Treasure Island, supra, 227 Cal.App.4th 1036, finding that no unusual circumstances were present in this case, and that future planning and development of the project would not be subject to additional environmental review. Lastly, the Court found the violation to be prejudicial because it interfered with public participation.

As stated above, the Court determined that it need not address the other issues raised by the parties. The Court dismissed an argument that Public Resources Code section 21168.9 required them to rule on each issue raised in a CEQA appeal. The Court found that section applied only to the trial court’s order on remand, which is to address only those mandates from the Court of Appeal that are necessary to comply with CEQA. The Court found that the trial court’s judgment was correct on at least one ground, so it was affirmed.

Nathan George

First District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Mixed-Use Development Project

In the first published decision to apply the standard of review articulated by the Supreme Court in Sierra Club v. County of Fresno (Friant Ranch), the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision upholding an EIR for a mixed-use development project in South of Market Community Action Network v. City and County of San Francisco (2019) 33 Cal.App.5th 321.

The project at issue is a mixed-use development that covers four acres of downtown San Francisco and seeks to provide office, retail, cultural, educational, and open-space uses for the property, to support the region’s technology industry and offer spaces for coworking, media, arts, and small-scale urban manufacturing. The city certified an EIR, which described two options for the project—an “office scheme” and a “residential scheme.” The office scheme had a larger building envelope and higher density than the residential scheme but all other project components were the same and the overall square footage was substantially similar. Several community organizations raised a variety of claims challenging the environmental review. The trial court denied relief and the petitioners appealed.

Applying the three “basic principles” set forth by the Supreme Court in Friant Ranch regarding the standard of review for the adequacy of an EIR, the First District held the EIR was legally adequate.

The court rejected the petitioners’ argument that the project description was inadequate because it presented multiple possible projects. The court found that the EIR described one project—a mixed use development involving retention or demolition of existing buildings and construction of new buildings—with two options for different allocations of residential and office units. The court also rejected petitioners’ argument that the final EIR adopted a “revised” project that was a variant of another alternative identified in the draft EIR—emphasizing that the CEQA reporting process is not designed to freeze the ultimate proposal in the precise mold of the initial project, but to allow consideration of other options that may be less harmful to the environment.

Petitioners alleged that the cumulative impacts analysis was flawed because the EIR used an outdated 2012 project list, developed during the “Great Recession,” which did not reflect a more recent increase in development. The court noted the petitioners did not point to any evidence to establish that the project list was defective or misleading or that the city had ignored foreseeable projects. Accordingly, the court held that the petitioners had not met their burden of proving the EIR’s cumulative impacts analysis was not supported by substantial evidence.

With respect to traffic, the petitioners argued the EIR was inadequate because it failed to (1) include all impacted intersections, (2) consider the impact of the Safer Market Street Plan (SMSP), and (3) adequately evaluate community-proposed mitigation measures and alternatives. The court rejected each argument in turn. First, the court found that the EIR’s explanation for selecting certain intersections and excluding others and the related analysis was supported by substantial evidence. The court further held that the city did not need to include the SMSP in the EIR because it was not reasonably foreseeable when the city initiated the EIR, nor was there evidence that the SMSP would have an adverse impact on traffic and circulation related to the project. Lastly, the court deferred to the city’s selection of alternatives because the petitioners had failed to meet their burden to show the nine alternatives evaluated in the EIR were “manifestly unreasonable.” Similarly, the court found the petitioners had failed to meet their burden to demonstrate their proposed alternatives were feasible and met most of the project objectives.

In addressing wind impacts, an argument petitioners failed to exhaust, the court found such impacts were appropriately addressed in the EIR. The court reasoned an alternative configuration was not required under the city’s comfort criterion for wind speed impacts because the exceedance of the comfort criterion did not establish significant impacts for CEQA purposes.

The court also rejected an argument that the project failed to provide onsite open space because the EIR explained that the project provided more space than the city code required and the impact related to demand on existing parks and open spaces would be less than significant.

The court further upheld the EIR’s shade and shadow analysis, finding no evidence in the record to support that sunlight on a park is not a “special and rare resource” warranting “special emphasis” under CEQA Guidelines section 15125.

The court also held that the city had made a good faith effort to discuss inconsistencies with the applicable general plans, noting that CEQA does not “mandate perfection.”

Finally, the petitioners claimed that the statement of overriding considerations was invalid because the city improperly considered the benefits of the project before considering feasible mitigation measures or alternatives. The court disagreed, emphasizing that the project was modified to substantially conform to the identified environmentally superior alternative and stating that the revised project would not have been adopted if there had been no consideration of mitigation measures or alternatives.