Tag: Recirculation

Fourth District Court of Appeal Upholds Reliance on Mitigated Negative Declaration and Approval of Construction of School

The Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision denying a challenge to the City of San Diego’s approval of construction of a secondary school and associated adoption of a mitigated negative declaration. (Clews Land and Livestock, LLC v. City of San Diego (2017) ___Cal.App.5th ___ (Case No. D071145).)

The City of San Diego adopted an MND and approved a project to build the 5,340-square-foot Cal Coast Academy, a for-profit secondary school, on property adjacent to the plaintiffs’ (Clews Land and Livestock, LLC, et al. [“CLL”]) commercial horse ranch and equestrian facility. CLL filed a petition for writ of mandate and complaint alleging the project would cause significant environmental impacts relating to fire hazards, traffic and transportation, noise, recreation, and historical resources. CLL also argued that CEQA required recirculation of the MND, that the project was inconsistent with the applicable community land use plan, and that the City did not follow historical resource provisions of the San Diego Municipal Code. The trial court determined that CLL had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, and ruled in favor of the City on the merits. CLL appealed and the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s determinations.

Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

The court first held that CLL failed to exhaust its administrative remedies. The San Diego Municipal Code appeal process provides for two separate procedures—one for appeal of a hearing officer’s decision to the Planning Commission, and one for appeal of an environmental determination to the City Council. Because CLL filed only an appeal of the hearing officer’s decision, the court determined that CLL failed to exhaust its administrative remedies with respect to adoption of the MND. CLL argued that the City’s bifurcated appeal process violated CEQA, but the court found the process was valid. CLL also argued that the City had not provided proper notice of the appeal procedures under Public Resources Code section 21177, subdivision (a), thereby excusing CLL’s failure to appeal the environmental determination. The court explained, however, that section 21177 did not apply because CLL’s failure to appeal was not a failure to raise a noncompliance issue under that section. Where, like here, a public agency has accurately provided notice of a public hearing, but it misstates the applicable procedures to appeal the decision made at that hearing, the only available remedy is to prevent the public agency from invoking an administrative exhaustion defense through equitable estoppel. CLL had pursued a claim for equitable estoppel in the trial court and was unsuccessful, and CLL did not challenge that determination with the Court of Appeal. Therefore, the court found, CLL’s failure to exhaust could not be excused on an equitable estoppel basis.

Adoption of the MND

Notwithstanding its determination that CLL failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, the court also considered the merits of CLL’s claims. The court determined that CLL did not make a showing that substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the project may have a significant effect on the environment. In making its determination, the court emphasized that the project is “relatively modest” and located on already-developed land.

CLL argued that the City was required to prepare an EIR due to potentially significant impacts on fire hazards, traffic and transportation, noise, recreation, and historical resources. The court rejected each of CLL’s arguments. In part, the court was unpersuaded by CLL’s expert’s comments because they were “general” and did not have a specific nexus with the project, they focused on the effects of the environment on the students and faculty at the school rather than on the effects of the school on the environment, and they were conclusory and speculative. In addition, quoting Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 684, the court noted that “dire predictions by nonexperts regarding the consequences of a project do not constitute substantial evidence.” The court also found that a possibility that noise from the project would impact the adjacent business’s operations was insufficient to require an EIR under CEQA. The court explained that the question is not whether the project would affect particular persons, but whether the project would affect the environment in general. In addition, the court explained that the fact that a project may affect another business’s economic viability is not an effect that must be analyzed under CEQA unless the project may result in a change in the physical environment, such as by causing urban decay.

Recirculation of MND

CLL argued that by adding a shuttle bus plan and describing the school’s intent to close on red flag fire warning days after circulation of the MND, the City substantially revised the MND and was required to recirculate the draft prior to certification. The court rejected these contentions, explaining that the added plans were purely voluntary, and thus could not constitute mitigation measures. In addition, the court explained, CLL did not show that the plans were added to the project to reduce significant effects on the environment. According to the court, all revisions to the MND were clarifying and amplifying in nature and did not make substantial revisions to the project, and therefore, did not warrant recirculation.

Historical Resource Regulations

CLL argued that City did not follow its historical resource regulations and guidelines. The court explained that the City relied on an exemption contained within the regulations, but CLL did not address the substance of that exemption, nor did CLL show that the City was actually required to apply the specific procedures contained in the regulations. Instead, CLL simply critiqued the City’s reliance on the exemption as a post hoc rationalization; the court found this was not enough to meet CLL’s burden to show failure on the part of the City.

Consistency with Neighborhood Plan

CLL argued that the project conflicted with the Carmel Valley Neighborhood 8 Precise Plan because the plan designates the site as open space. CLL’s argument was two-fold. First, CLL argued the site could not be developed because of the plan’s open space designation. Second, CLL argued the plan’s designation was in conflict with the multifamily residential zoning at the project site.

With respect to the plan’s open space designation, the court held that CLL failed to meet its burden to show that the City’s consistency finding was an abuse of discretion. The court explained that the standard is whether no reasonable person could have reached the conclusion made by the City. In making its determination, the City relied on the fact that the property was already developed—the school would be sited at the location of a previously-capped swimming pool, and the project would not impact or be developed on undisturbed open space. The court found that the City’s determination was reasonable, and that CLL did not address the City’s reasoning or explain how the City abused its discretion. With respect to the site’s zoning, the court explained that consistency of the zoning ordinance with the plan was not at issue—instead, the issue was whether the project is consistent with the Precise Plan’s open space designation.

The court affirmed the judgment of the lower court and upheld the City’s determinations regarding the project and the associated MND.

Elizabeth Pollock

First Circuit Finds Environmental Review Under Certified Regulatory Program Inadequate

In Pesticide Action Network North America v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation (2017) 16 Cal.App.5th 224 (republished as modified) the First Appellate District reversed the Alameda Superior Court and found that environmental documents prepared by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, regarding amended labelling for two pesticides, inadequately analyzed potential impacts on honeybees. The court held that the Department was required to analyze the environmental baseline, alternatives, and cumulative impacts in documents promulgated under CEQA’s exemption for certified regulatory programs (CRP).

The Department of Pesticide Regulation registers all pesticides in California, after evaluating their efficiency and potential for impacts to human health and the environment. The Department has a continuing obligation to reevaluate pesticides, and may cancel a prior registration. Since 2006, there has been a documented widespread collapse of honey bee colonies in the United States. One suspected factor is exposure to pesticides such as dinotefuran, the active ingredient in pesticides sold by the real parties. For this reason, in 2009, the Department initiated the still-ongoing process of reevaluating dinotefuran’s registration. Simultaneously, in 2014, the Department issued public reports for a proposal to amend labels for pesticides containing dinotefuron. The amended labels would allow the pesticides to be used on fruit trees, and in increased quantities. The reports concluded that the use of each pesticide in a manner consistent with the new labels would have no direct or indirect significant adverse environmental impacts, and therefore the Department did not propose alternatives or mitigation measures. The Department issued a final approval of the label amendments in June 2014. Pesticide Action Network filed a petition for writ of mandate in Alameda Superior Court and after a lower court finding for the Department, this appeal followed.

The Department’s pesticide program falls under the CEQA section 21080.5 exemption for CRPs. This exemption permits a state agency to rely on abbreviated environmental review documents, which are the functional equivalent of CEQA documents. Here, the Department issued the functional equivalent of a negative declaration. The standard of review is whether there was a prejudicial abuse of discretion, which is established if the agency did not proceed in a manner required by law, or if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence.

First, the court rejected the Department’s assertion that because it operates a CRP, its functionally-equivalent environmental review documents are otherwise exempt from CEQA’s substantive requirements. The court found that section 21080.5 is a “limited” exemption, and environmental review must otherwise comply with CEQA’s policy goals, substantive requirements, content requirements stated in section 21080.5, and any other CEQA provisions, as well as the Department’s own regulations.

Second, the court found that the Department’s report was inadequate under CEQA because it failed to analyze alternatives and cumulative impacts, and did not describe the environmental baseline. With respect to alternatives, contrary to the Department’s assertion, a functionally-equivalent document prepared under a CRP must consider alternatives, as required by both CEQA and the Department’s own regulations. The Department argued that it did not need to consider alternatives because it concluded there would be no significant environmental impacts. The court explained that the standard for a CRP for determining whether an adverse impact may occur is the same as the “fair argument” standard under CEQA. Furthermore, the content requirements for environmental review under a CRP require that a state agency provide proof–either a checklist or other report–that there will not be adverse effects. The court found that the Department did not produce or consider such evidence.

The court also held that the substantive requirements and broad policy goals of CEQA require assessment of baseline conditions. The Department argued that it had acknowledged and assessed baseline conditions, but the court disagreed. The Department’s baseline discussion was based on one statement that “the uses are already present on the labels of a number of currently registered neonicotinoid containing products.” The court found that this general statement was not sufficient.

The court found that the Department also abused its discretion when it failed to consider cumulative impacts. In its report, the Department simply stated that the cumulative analysis would be put off until the reevaluation was complete. The court found that this one-sentence discussion lacked facts and failed to provide even a brief explanation about how the Department reached its conclusion.

Finally, the court found that the Department is required to recirculate its analysis. Recirculation is required when significant new information is added to an environmental review document, after notice and public comment has occurred, but before the document is certified. The court explained that, in light of the Department’s required reevaluation, its initial public reports on the amended labeling were so “inadequate and conclusory” that public comment on them was “effectively meaningless.”

Pesticide Action Network provides important guidance regarding environmental compliance under a CEQA-exempt CRP. The court emphasized that unless specifically exempt from a CEQA provision, even functionally-equivalent CRP documents must comply with CEQA’s substantive requirements and broad policy goals. Also notable was the court’s application of the “fair argument standard” to the analysis of whether an impact would be significant under the functional equivalent of a negative declaration.

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.

 

Fourth District Court of Appeal Holds Wal-Mart Project Inconsistent with General Plan Renewable Energy Requirements; CEQA Required City to Recirculate the EIR based on 350-Pages of New Analysis

In Spring Valley Lake Association v. City of Victorville (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 91, Division One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the San Bernardino County Superior Court’s decision in part, agreeing with the petitioner that revisions to impact analyses after the Draft EIR had been circulated for review constituted significant new information triggering recirculation, and that the Subdivision Map Act required the respondent city to adopt affirmative findings prior to approving a parcel map. The court also held that the project—a commercial retail development anchored by a Wal-Mart—was inconsistent with the city’s general plan.

Subdivision Map Act

The Court of Appeal held that the City of Victorville violated the Subdivision Map Act by failing, in approving the proposed parcel map associated with the project, to make the findings addressing the issues enumerated in Government Code section 66474, subdivisions (a) through (g). On its face, this section seems only to require that a local agency deny approval of a proposal parcel map if it makes any one of the specified findings. The section does not explicitly address what findings must be made in approving a proposed parcel map. The court held, however, that section 66474 does apply in the latter situation, and requires city and county legislative bodies, in approving parcel maps, to make affirmative findings on each matter addressed in subdivisions (a) through (g) of that section. In reaching this conclusion, the court relied on the following: (i) a related provision of the Subdivision Map Act (Government section 66473.5), which requires local legislative bodies, in approving parcel maps, to affirmatively find that such maps are consistent with the governing general plan and any applicable specific plan; (ii) a 1975 opinion from the Attorney General concluding that section 66474 requires affirmative findings for parcel map approvals as well as parcel map denials; and (iii) case law and secondary sources supporting the Attorney General’s broad interpretation of section 66474.

Consistency with General Plan

The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court’s decision that the city’s finding that the project was consistent with the general plan’s requirement for on-site generation of electricity was not supported by substantial evidence. The general plan requires that all new commercial projects generate on-site electricity to the maximum extent feasible. As part of the project approvals, however, the city did not require the project to generate on-site electricity. In doing so, the city effectively found that generation of on-site electricity was infeasible. In support of this outcome, the EIR stated that there were many factors considered in determining whether the use of solar panels is cost effective, and described the project as being “solar ready.” But the EIR provided no discussion of those factors or how they applied to the project. Nor did the EIR discuss the feasibility of other alternatives such as wind power. The appellate court therefore held that the city’s finding that the project complied with the general plan requirement that commercial projects generate electricity on-site to the maximum extent feasible was not supported by substantial evidence. It is not clear why the court applied the substantial evidence standard to petitioner’s general plan consistency claims, rather than the traditional arbitrary and capricious standard.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision that the EIR failed to adequately address the project’s impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In concluding the project would have no significant impacts on GHG emissions, the city relied on the project’s compliance with the general plan policy to exceed the Title 24 Building Energy Efficiency Standards for Residential and Nonresidential Buildings by 15 percent. The appellate court determined that this conclusion was not supported by the record. First, the court pointed out inconsistencies in the EIR. In one place, the EIR stated that the project would achieve a minimum of 14 percent increased efficiency over Title 24 Standards. In other places, including the technical reports, the EIR stated the project would only be a minimum of ten percent more efficient than Title 24 Standards. Second, in responding to comments, the city acknowledged that the EIR was “currently not in conformity” with the general plan policy that the project would comply with the new energy efficiency standards at the time of construction, and stated that “several of the project’s current energy efficient measures likely meet the 15 percent requirement.” The court found that, at most, the record showed that the project may comply, but not that it would comply with the general plan policy. Therefore, the city’s conclusion that the project would have no significant air quality impacts from GHG emissions was not supported by substantial evidence.

Recirculation under CEQA

Finally, the appellate court also held that the city’s revisions to analyses of certain impact topics constituted “significant new information” triggering recirculation of portions of the Draft EIR. First, the city added to the Final EIR information analyzing the project’s consistency with general plan air quality policies that had inadvertently been omitted from the Draft EIR. Noting that the public did not have a meaningful opportunity to comment on this information, the court found this information disclosed a substantial adverse effect, and therefore triggered the obligation to recirculate the draft EIR. Second, after the city circulated the draft EIR, the applicant substantially revised the project’s storm water management plan. Although no new impacts were identified, the final EIR included 350-pages of new water quality and hydrology analysis. The court held the new information triggered the duty to recirculate. As the court reasoned: “Given their breadth, complexity, and purpose, the revisions to the hydrology and water quality analysis deprived the public of a meaningful opportunity to comment on an ostensibly feasible way to mitigate a substantial adverse environmental effect.” Notably, the court reached these conclusions without attempting to relate its reasoning to the four examples within CEQA Guidelines section 15088.5, subdivision (a), of situations requiring recirculation.

 

Beverly Hills Unified School District v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Beverly Hills Unified School Dist. v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (2015) 241 Cal.App.4th 627

The court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the Beverly Hills Unified School District’s (“School District”) and City of Beverly Hills’ (“City”) petitions. The court found substantial evidence supported the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (“Metro”) decision not to recirculate the EIS/EIR; that the EIS/EIR adequately discussed air pollution and public health impacts; and that Metro did not violate statutory requirements in conducting its transit hearing, the City received a full and fair hearing, and substantial evidence supported Metro’s decision and findings. RMM attorneys Whit Manley, Tiffany Wright and Laura Harris represented Metro.

Factual and Procedural Background

Metro developed a draft EIS/EIR for a new subway line connecting the Westside of Los Angeles and Downtown. The EIS/EIR analyzed two potential stations in Century City at an equal level of review: the Santa Monica station and the Constellation station. The EIS/EIR found that the Santa Monica station would be compromised by its close proximity to the Santa Monica fault, and that the Constellation site would have a lower seismic risk because it was farther away. The Constellation site was also more centrally located and accessible.

After the end of the comment period on the EIS/EIR, during which Metro received nearly 2,000 comments, Metro’s Board directed that both the Santa Monica and Constellation station options be carried forward for further study. Metro then conducted a tunneling safety investigation that concluded tunneling could be safely carried out beneath Beverly Hills High School and residential neighborhoods using closed-face tunnel boring machines. Metro also conducted additional seismic and geophysical studies that ruled out the Santa Monica station due to its proximity to an active fault zone. The final EIS/EIR therefore recommended that the Century City station be located at the Constellation location.

Three days before the board was scheduled to approve the project and certify the EIS/EIR, the City requested a transit hearing under the Public Utilities Code. Metro held the hearing, at which it submitted documentary evidence to the City and gave the City the floor to speak. The City argued there had not been sufficient investigation and facts for the board to make its siting decision. At its next meeting Metro adopted the findings for the transit hearing and approved the project and certified the EIS/EIR. The City and School District sued.

Court of Appeal Decision

On appeal, the School District contended Metro abused its discretion by refusing to recirculate the EIS/EIR because the final version contained significant new information regarding seismic risks and environmental issues arising from tunneling under the high school. The City challenged the procedural validity of the transit hearing, and also argued that Metro was required to recirculate the EIS/EIR because of significant new air quality impacts disclosed in the final EIS/EIR, and that the EIS/EIR’s analysis of localized air quality and health impacts was inadequate.

The court disagreed. Giving substantial deference to Metro in its decision not to recirculate, the court found the EIS/EIR’s designation of the Santa Monica station as the “base” station and the Constellation station as the “option” immaterial, given that the agency had evaluated both locations equally. The court also found the EIS/EIR had discussed the potential environmental impacts of both stations, including the impacts of tunneling under the high school, and the public had been given an opportunity to comment on those impacts. The elimination of the Santa Monica station in the final EIS/EIR was not “significant new information,” but rather eliminated a potential source of seismic hazard.

The City did not cite to any law supporting its assertion that the EIS/EIR was required to include analysis showing how the actual construction emissions would specifically impact public health. The court also rejected the City’s argument that the EIS/EIR had to be recirculated because of the originally-reported increase in emissions. Metro had already adopted an addendum to the final EIS/EIR that corrected the original overstatement.

The court also rejected contentions related to the alleged unlawfulness of the transit hearing. The court noted that the decision on the station location and alignment was legislative, not adjudicative, and that the City did not need to cross-examine Metro’s witnesses because the dispute pertained to the information contained in the submitted documents. No right to cross-examine Metro witnesses existed after the hearing. Furthermore, the documentary evidence was not hearsay as it was not used as proof of the matter asserted, but simply to show that the evidence existed.

First District Holds Timber Management Plan Does Not Violate CEQA

The court held that a Nonindustrial Timber Management Plan (NTMP) approved by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) authorizing logging on 615 privately owned acres in Mendocino County did not violate CEQA. Center for Biological Diversity v. Cal. Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection (Dec. 30, 2014) ___ Cal.App.4th ___, Case No. A138914.

Timberland use in California is primarily governed by the Forest Practice Act and Forest Practice Rules. An NMTP is a long-term plan for sustained yield timber production utilized by owners of less than 2500 acres of timberland and whose focus is not manufacturing forest products. Though Cal Fire’s approval of timber operations is generally subject to CEQA, the Forest Practice Act’s regulatory scheme is a certified regulatory program. An NTMP functions as the equivalent of an EIR.

In October 2008, the Bower family submitted a proposed NTMP to Cal Fire seeking authorization for timber harvesting activities northeast of Gualala. Petitioners took issue with the fact that Cal Fire approved, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) did not object to, logging activity on a 17-acre section that DFW identified as a Late Succession Forest Stand (LSFS). This LSFS was considered a potential functional nesting habitat for a threatened seabird, the marbled murrelet. At the same time, there was no known history of any actual murrelet nesting in the LSFS.

Following a preharvest inspection of the Bowers’ property, a forester asserted the LSFS had only marginal potential for marbled murrelet occupation. A revised NTMP submitted in 2009 required retention of several large-diameter trees to benefit wildlife. Cal Fire issued responses to public comments on the NTMP and approved the document, concluding that large wildlife trees were being preserved, and species largely dependent on late seral habitat features would not be adversely impacted. DFW did not submit a nonconcurrence.

Petitioners filed a petition for a writ, complaint for breach of public trust, and request for injunctive relief. Petitioners contended that Cal Fire, in approving the NTMP, had failed to comply with CEQA and the Forest Practice Rules. They insisted the cumulative impacts of the proposed logging would eliminate enough large trees in the LSFS to render the stand unsuitable for murrelet nesting. Petitioners also argued the NTMP violated the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) by authorizing logging that would be adverse to nesting habitat essential for the survival and recovery of the murrelet.

Reviewing Cal Fire’s approval under the substantial evidence standard, the court denied the petition. It characterized petitioners’ contentions as disagreements over the evidence—parties drawing “dramatically differing conclusions from the same record.” The calculations and comparisons petitioners attempted to make, even if accurate, did not offer a complete description of the resulting environment, the court stated. Furthermore, Cal Fire was entitled to choose between differing expert opinions. Petitioners failed to affirmatively show that there was no substantial evidence in the record to support Cal Fire’s findings. The court also rejected petitioners’ claims that the NTMP did not analyze a reasonable range of alternatives.

Petitioners also claimed the NTMP should have been recirculated based on “significant new information” added prior to certification. They cited to a 2009 one-page memorandum from a Cal Fire biologist recommending additional protective measures for large tree retention. Each of the biologist’s recommendations were addressed in additional mitigation measures. The court found that the memo disclosed no new environmental impacts nor any substantial increase in the severity of an impact. The mitigation measures added in response to the memo were discussed in a second review, in which petitioners participated, and were accepted eight days prior to the close of the public comment period.

Petitioners’ CESA claims failed because Cal Fire found that implementation of the plan, as mitigated, would not result in take, jeopardy, or adverse modification of habitat in violation of the CESA. That finding was supported by substantial evidence.

Petitioners’ claim against DFW also failed. Petitioners cited no authority for the proposition that an NTMP is subject to review through traditional mandamus under CCP section 1085, particularly when the petition is not directed to the agency with authority to approve or reject the project. DFW’s decision not to actively oppose Cal Fire’s decision was merely an exercise of agency discretion.

Third District publishes opinion in South County Citizens for Smart Growth v. County of Nevada

On November 13, 2013, the Third District Court of Appeal published its decision in South County Citizens for Smart Growth v. County of Nevada (Case No. C067764). We discussed this opinion previously, when it was issued in October.  The opinion is now citable precedent.

The opinion provides very helpful guidance on when a new “potentially feasible” alternative, proposed after the draft EIR has been circulated for public review, triggers the need for recirculation.  This decision is important because it carefully explains the burden of proof and the elements of proof for a challenge brought under CEQA Guidelines section 15088.5, subdivision (a)(3).  In essence, the petitioner has the burden to demonstrate that no substantial evidence supported the agency’s decision not to recirculate the EIR.  To demonstrate an abuse of discretion, a petitioner must show that no substantial evidence supports any of the following express or implied “negative findings” by a CEQA lead agency: the alternative was not actually feasible; the alternative was not “considerably different from” alternatives already analyzed in the EIR; and the alternative would not “clearly lessen the significant environmental impacts” of the project as approved. (Whether the project proponent has declined to adopt the alternative – another relevant element under subdivision (a)(3) – should be a comparatively more straightforward factual issue.)

 

 

First District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Marin Desalination Plant

On May 21, 2013, the First District Court of Appeal issued its decision in North Coast Rivers Alliance v. Marin Municipal Water District (2013) __ Cal.App.4th __ (Case No. A133821, A135626). The case involved a challenge to an EIR prepared for a desalination plant in Marin County.  The trial court had found that the analysis in the EIR was inadequate in several areas and that new information added to the EIR required recirculation.  The Court of Appeal reversed.

Background

In August 2003, the District proposed building a desalination plant in San Rafael. The District circulated a draft EIR for the project in November 2007 and released the final EIR in December 2008.  The final EIR included a new Alternative 8, which discussed water conservation and diverting water from the Russian River as an alternative to desalination. The District certified the final EIR in February 2009 and approved the project in August 2009.  In September 2011, the trial court ruled the EIR was inadequate in various respects, and adequate in others.  The District appealed.

Aesthetic Impacts

The court began with a discussion of the EIR’s analysis of aesthetic impacts caused by three proposed water tanks—one on Tiburon Ridge (“Ridgecrest A tank”) and two on San Quentin Ridge. The EIR concluded that the intervening topography and existing vegetation would prevent the Ridgecrest A tank from having a significant effect on scenic vistas. The EIR included a detailed discussion of potential aesthetic impacts of development of the Ridgecrest A tank, including the size and shape of the tank, satellite image analysis from several directions, visual simulation and impacts on vistas from homes, hiking trails and the highway.  The court held that the analysis constituted substantial evidence to support the conclusion that the tank’s impact would be less than significant.  The court noted that distinguishing between substantial and insubstantial adverse environmental impacts was a policy decision that must be made by the lead agency based, in part, on the setting.  The Alliance’s disagreement with the EIR’s conclusions did not mean those conclusions were deficient.

The EIR further concluded that, unlike the Ridgecrest A tank, the two San Quentin Ridge water tanks would have a significant aesthetic impact and proposed a mitigation measure that required the District to work with a landscape architect and the nearby cities of San Rafael and Larkspur to create a landscaping plan to “soften” the view of the water tank. The landscaping plan “would identify success metrics such as survival and growth rates for the plantings.” The Alliance argued, and the trial court had agreed, that the mitigation measure was improperly deferred and indefinite. The Court of Appeal disagreed.  It held that the mitigation measure was acceptable in this situation because the mitigation was known to be feasible and practical considerations prevented the District from establishing more specific standards early in the process.   The measure was sufficient because it committed the District to mitigation and set out a standard for the landscaping plan to follow:  to reduce and soften the visual intrusion of the tanks.  Although the specific details of how mitigation would be achieved under the plan were deferred until the construction phase, the EIR gave adequate assurance that visual impacts would be mitigated by the selection and location of appropriate plantings.

The Alliance’s third argument regarding the water tanks was that the EIR failed to address whether Ridgecrest A tank was inconsistent with the Countywide Plan. The court found the analysis was supported by substantial evidence. Under CEQA, only inconsistencies with plans require analysis and here, the EIR analyzed the one inconsistency (with the plan’s open space designation) and mitigated it. The court held that the trial court’s ruling, which faulted the District for not mentioning each of the specific elements or policies in the Countywide Plan that could be affected, was tantamount to requiring the EIR to provide a detailed discussion of the Project’s consistency with the plan. The court noted that CEQA includes no such requirement.

Seismology

Turning next the EIR’s seismology analysis, the court held that the EIR adequately analyzed liquefaction and health and safety impacts related to earthquakes.  The EIR’s seismology analysis provided detailed information on geologic conditions in the area, and considered the potential for seismic hazards including ground shaking and liquefaction.  The EIR also considered seven potential impacts associated with seismic risks.  Moreover, the EIR required project features and components to be built to withstand seismic activity and in compliance with applicable standards in the Building Code.  The court therefore, held that the EIR’s analysis of seismic impacts was adequate.

Hydrology and Water Quality Impacts 

The next issue addressed by the court was the hydrology and water quality impacts of the project. The trial court had ruled that the EIR did not contain an adequate discussion of the frequency of shock-chlorination treatments and that it lacked substantial evidence to support the District’s conclusion that untreated chlorinated water would not be discharged into the Bay. The Court of Appeal disagreed here as well and found that the analysis was adequate.  The EIR described the shock-chlorination process, its frequency, and wastewater disposal and evaluated whether wastewater produced by the project could impact water quality.  It further explained that testing conducted for the project supported the conclusion that shock-chlorinating chemicals would not cause water quality impacts in receiving waters.  The court held that this explanation was sufficient.  Because the District had determined that the project impact was insignificant, the EIR did not need to include a more detailed analysis.

Biological Resources 

Holding that the EIR’s analysis of biological impacts was adequate, the court rejected the Alliance’s arguments regarding entrainment, the environmental baseline, and pile driving.  Regarding entrainment, the trial court had concluded that the evaluation methodology used for the EIR’s analysis of entrainment was inadequate because it did not follow the recommendations of the California Department of Fish and Game and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries to conduct monthly source water sampling. The District explained in the EIR that, instead of monthly sampling, it chose peak abundance periods to conduct the sampling to overestimate the impacts. The District also responded to NOAA Fisheries and CDFG’s requests for additional data by explaining that further sampling was impractical.  The court held that the mere difference of opinion regarding sampling methods was not enough to invalidate the EIR.

The court held the baseline was appropriate because the District used project specific studies and decades of CDFG data and did not base the description solely on two months of water sampling, as the Alliance had alleged.   The EIR considered the various species of fish that may be affected by the project.  The court found that the description of the environmental setting was more than adequate.

The EIR had also found that there would be a potential significant impact on the environment from the reconstruction of a pier, which would require driving up to 175 concrete piles into the Bay. In order to mitigate this impact, the District adopted a mitigation measure that required the District to consult with NOAA Fisheries to find appropriate measures and to monitor the area during the pile-driving activities. Moreover, the District was required to comply with the Endangered Species Act section 7 consultation requirement. The trial court found that these mitigation measures were not sufficiently specific. Once again, the appellate court disagreed.  Finding that the mitigation was adequate, the court noted that a condition requiring compliance with environmental regulations is a common and reasonable mitigating measure.

Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The trial court had ruled that the EIR’s discussion of energy impacts was inadequate because it did not discuss a particular alternative­­—the use of green energy credits to mitigate energy impacts. The appellate court held, however, that because the EIR had found that the energy impacts would be insignificant, there was no requirement to discuss mitigation measures. The court also upheld the EIR’s greenhouse gas emissions analysis, which concluded that “the Project would not interfere with achieving a 15 percent reduction in GHG emissions,” satisfying Marin’s Cities for Climate Protection campaign. Additionally, the District voluntarily committed to purchase only renewable energy for the project. The Alliance argued that this was a vague and unenforceable policy.  But the court held that no mitigation was required for GHG emissions because there was no finding of significant impact. Even so, the court went on to find that the EIR contained substantial evidence showing the feasibility of adhering to this commitment.

Recirculation 

The final argument discussed by the court was whether the EIR needed to be recirculated when Alternative 8 was added to the final EIR. The trial court had found that Alternative 8 represented a significant new feasible solution to the project objectives, and therefore, recirculation was required. The appellate court, however, found that Alternative 8 was neither feasible nor significantly “new” enough to warrant recirculation. Alternative 8 was infeasible because it would not provide reliable potable water in a drought year – one of the project objectives.  That was because the alternative relied in part on increased imports from the Russian River, and there was substantial uncertainty regarding whether such increases would ever be allowed.  The alternative was not sufficiently new because there was an alternative in the draft EIR that discussed conservation as an alternative to the project. Given these facts, the District had substantial evidence to support its decision not to recirculate the EIR. Recirculation, the court emphasized, is an exception rather than the general rule.

Whit Manley of Remy Moose Manley, LLP, Chris Butcher of the Thomas Law Group, and District General Counsel Mary Casey represented MMWD.

 

Second District Orders Publication of Additional Sections of Opinion in Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 552

On May 9, 2012, the Second District published parts 5-8 of its opinion in Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 552. These sections featured Petitioner’s claims of inadequate CEQA analysis for cumulative impacts, mitigation measures, alternatives, and recirculation. In each case, the court found in favor of Respondent Metro. Parts 3 and 4 of the opinion remain unpublished.

Cumulative impacts

Petitioner argued that the cumulative traffic analysis in Metro’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was inadequate because it failed to consider traffic impacts of related projects. Under CEQA, an EIR must discuss cumulative impacts of a project if the project’s incremental effects are cumulatively significant, that is, if the project’s effects are significant when considered together with related effects of past, current, and probable future projects. Metro’s EIR did not separately assess cumulative traffic impacts since the discussion of the traffic impacts of the project itself was already cumulative, in that it was based on a combination of existing and future conditions with and without the project.

The court held that in analyzing cumulative impacts, the agency’s discussion should note the severity of the impacts and likelihood of their occurrence, but need not provide the same level of detail as is provided for the effect of the main project. Thus, for example, Metro’s “summary of [project] projections” did not need to include analyses specific intersections that were not under environmental review when the draft EIR was circulated.

Mitigation

Petitioner also argued that Metro failed to provide adequate mitigation measures and improperly deferred mitigation for parking, noise, safety, and construction.  The court found that the EIR’s mitigation measures were not uncertain, speculative, or infeasible, and found no evidence that the measures would be ineffective, unfunded, or not implemented.

To address spillover parking, Metro adopted a measure to monitor parking activity and work with local jurisdictions to create permit parking programs where necessary. The EIR noted that Metro would reimburse local jurisdictions for these programs. The agency included alternative mitigation options such as metered parking where a permit program would not suffice. Petitioner argued that Metro could not assure formation or effectiveness of the permit program, and that such a program would be inadequate unless it retained residents’ current ability to park in their neighborhoods. The court disagreed. The court distinguished this case from Gray v. County of Madera (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 1099, where a mitigation measure proposing to provide bottled water to compensate for a decline in water levels “defie[d] common sense” and was not substantially similar to residents’ pre-project conditions. In contrast, residents here would still have street parking, making their situation substantially similar to pre-project conditions. Additionally, the court refused to assume that simply because Metro could not require local jurisdictions to adopt the permit program, the mitigation measure was inadequate. The mitigation set for the a specific performance standard in the form of monitoring parking activity to determine if the light rail activity would increase parking utilization to 100 percent and, if so, requiring Metro to work with local jurisdictions regarding permit parking programs. Citing the second prong of Section 21081(a), which allows an agency to make a finding regarding a significant effect that changes lie within another agency’s jurisdiction, the court noted that the feact that Metro could not require a local jurisdiction to adopt a permit program, did not make the mitigation measure inadequate.

Metro’s EIR addressed removal of street parking with measures that included replacement parking and revised parking designs, such as diagonal parking. Petitioner contended a lack of evidence that such measures were feasible, given high land costs, or would actually be implemented. Unlike in Federation of Hillside & Canyon Associations v. City of Los Angeles (2000) 83 Cal.App.4th 1252, there was no acknowledgement by Metro of any “great uncertainty” as to whether mitigation would ultimately be funded or implemented. The court also noted Petitioner’s failure to challenge the EIR’s financial evaluation of Metro’s ability to build the project, which included allowance for mitigation measures. Since the mitigation explicitly stated that property would have to be acquired for replacement parking, and identified parcels for that purpose, the court found the mitigation measures were not uncertain or speculative and petitioner failed to meet its burden to identify any deficiency.

In anticipation of noise and vibration effects from the project, Metro’s mitigation measures included installation of sound walls alongside the rail line. The agency added that where those walls would not suffice, it would provide for sound insulation of residences to meet the applicable noise threshold. Petitioner again argued that the measure lacked evidence of feasibility, and did not include details on how such improvements would be provided. The Court rejected Petitioner’s arguments, finding that CEQA does not require a lead agency to detail how it will actually carry out the proposed mitigation measure, so long as it commits to satisfying specific performance criteria. Metro was also not required to restore residents to their original position and eliminate noise and vibration completely; the agency merely had to minimize impacts to less-than-significant levels.

Metro included mitigation measures to address safety impacts, such as coordination with affected cities and encouragement of emergency response updates, which had been successfully implemented on other Metro rail lines. Though Petitioner repeated its argument of lack of proof of effectiveness and actual implementation, the Court saw no reason to conclude that cities would fail to update their emergency response procedures as other municipalities had done in the past.

Finally, the EIR identified possible closure of lanes in major streets during project construction, and proposed providing alternative lanes on cross streets in cooperation with the cities, as well as limiting construction to nights and weekends. Petitioner argued that these measures improperly deferred mitigation and did not include performance standards. The Court countered that limiting street closure to weekend and evening hours was an acceptable performance standard. Moreover, Metro’s required compliance with traffic control plans formulated in cooperation with affected jurisdictions and in accordance with specified manuals offered additional performance standards.

Alternatives

Petitioner claimed that Metro’s failure to include a detailed examination of grade separation in a particular segment of the project resulted in an inadequate consideration of project alternatives. The court disagreed, finding the EIR evaluated a reasonable range of alternatives and no inadequacy in the EIR’s failure to include a detailed examination of the suggested alternative. Detailed analysis of the suggested alternative was neither required, since the proposed project on its own would decrease environmental impacts to a less-than-significant level, and the suggested alternative would not have offered substantial environmental advantages over the proposed project.

Recirculation

Finally, Petitioner argued that the Final EIR reflected major changes to the project made after circulation of the draft, requiring recirculation of the EIR for further public comment. Such changes included new information on grade separation at various intersections; signal phasing at one intersection; parking; and noise impacts. CEQA requires recirculation of an EIR when significant new information is added, such that the public is deprived of a meaningful opportunity to comment upon a substantial adverse environmental effect. The court found that the added information did not disclose a new substantial environmental impact or a substantial increase in severity of one of the project’s impacts. The court highlighted the fact that Petitioner did not identify how the new information would undermine Metro’s less-than-significant-impact conclusions. Thus, Metro’s decision not to recirculate was supported by substantial evidence.

 

The summary of the baseline portion of this decision can be read here:

http://rmmenvirolaw.flywheelsites.com/2012/04/second-district-upholds-agency-use-of-projected-future-condition-for-environmental-baseline/