Tag: Responses to Comments

Responses to Comments on a Draft EIR Carry the Day in Challenge to Oil Refinery EIR

On March 20, 2018, the First District ordered published its decision in Rodeo Citizens Association v. County of Contra Costa, which involved a challenge to an EIR prepared for a propane and butane recovery project. Specifically, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s air quality, greenhouse gas (GHG), and hazards analyses.

Background

Phillips 66 Company (Phillips) owns two refineries, one near Santa Maria, the other near Rodeo. The Santa Maria refinery processes heavy crude oil, then sends it via pipeline to the Rodeo refinery where the product is finalized into petroleum products. The Rodeo refinery is able to process both heavy and light crude oil into petroleum products. In addition to the Santa Maria refinery, the Rodeo refinery receives crude oil from a variety of domestic and foreign crude sources delivered via ship. The final products are shipped by rail from the refinery for sale.

In June 2012, Phillips applied to Contra Costa County for a permit to modify the existing Rodeo facility and add new facilities to enable Phillips to recover butane and propane and ship it by rail for sale.

In June 2013, the County released a Draft EIR for the Project. A Final EIR was released in November 2013. Based on comments from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Board of Supervisors ordered staff to prepare a Recirculated EIR (REIR) addressing the air and health issues raised by the Air District. After circulating the Draft REIR, in early 2015, the County published a Final REIR and approved the project.

Rodeo Citizens Association (Citizens) filed a petition for writ of mandate, alleging the EIR’s project description was inaccurate; the EIR failed to address the increased risks of accidents from train derailments or explosions caused by the project; and the EIR insufficiently addressed the project’s impacts to public health, air quality, climate change, and cumulative impacts. The trial court found certain deficiencies in the air quality section of the EIR, and issued a writ of mandate requiring the County to reconsider that section, but rejected the remainder of Citizens’ arguments. Citizens appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Citizens argued the EIR’s project description incorrectly defined the project to include only the recovery and sale of propane and butane from refinery fuel gas. According to Citizens, the real purpose of the project was to allow Phillips to process increased amounts of non-traditional crudes, including imported tar sands and Bakken crudes, which contain higher levels of dangerous chemicals and result in worse air pollution during the refining process. Citizens contended the EIR’s project description violated CEQA for not disclosing the true scope of the project, which, in turn, caused the EIR to understate the project’s impacts. The court found, however, that substantial evidence supported the REIR’s project description. In particular, the Final EIR included a master response directly addressing the “project description,” which presented substantial evidence that the refinery would use its existing fuel gas stream to extract propane and butane, and the project is not dependent on new sources of crude oil feedstock. Citizens “only weakly” contested the accuracy of the master response and failed to demonstrate the County lacked substantial evidence for the project description.

Turning to the EIR’s GHG analysis, Citizens contended the analysis violated CEQA because it failed to consider GHG emissions resulting from the combustion of propane and butane by downstream users. The EIR addressed the issue of downstream users, but concluded that due to the lack of data and changing market conditions, it was not possible to determine to which uses purchases of the propane and butane would be put. In many instances, a switch to propane actually reduces GHG emissions as compared with gasoline and diesel. Indeed, California has adopted a program to encourage companies to switch from gasoline/diesel to propane. Ultimately, the EIR concluded that it would be too speculative to reach a conclusion regarding the significance of the Project’s GHG impacts resulting from downstream users. The Court of Appeal held that substantial evidence, including comments from the Air District, supported this conclusion.

Regarding the project’s public and environmental health hazards impacts, Citizens argued that the EIR failed to assess the impacts of the project on a child care center located approximately 500 feet from the rail lines on which the propane and butane would be transported from the refinery. The court first observed that this argument was “arguably barred” by the exhaustion doctrine, because Citizens failed to raise it prior to the County’s approval of the project. In any event, although the EIR did not specifically address how the transport of the project’s hazardous materials might impact the child care center, the EIR disclosed that the risk zone for rail transport under the project was 262 feet from the tracks. At around 500 feet away, the child care center is safely beyond this distance.

Finally, Citizens contended the EIR’s cumulative hazards analysis was inadequate because it failed to consider sufficiently the cumulative risk of rail accidents. The Final EIR’s response to comments on this issue explained that most of the projects cited by the commenters are located a substantial distance from the refinery and do not involve the transport of liquid propane gas by rail. On appeal, Citizens argued this response was inadequate because “CEQA does not require a nexus between projects or that they be of a similar type to be included in a cumulative impact analysis.” The court found, however, that the County’s explanation for why a cumulative analysis for transportation hazards was not included was not unreasonable, which is all that CEQA requires.

Conclusions and Implications

Because the court applied the deferential “substantial evidence” standard of review to Citizens’ claims, the burden was on Citizens to show that the County lacked substantial evidence to support the EIR’s factual conclusions. Here, the County had taken care to respond in detail to the substantive issues raised in comments on the Draft REIR, thereby providing a road map of the evidence supporting the EIR’s analyses and conclusions. The case thus highlights how thorough responses to comments can “save the day” in litigation.

Second District Finds for Respondents on All Counts, Upholding EIR for “Iconic Gateway” Project in West Hollywood

In Los Angeles Conservancy v. City of West Hollywood (2017) ­18 Cal.App.5th 1031, the Second Appellate District upheld the trial court’s denial of a petition for writ of mandate, finding that the EIR’s treatment of alternatives was sufficient and that the city adequately responded to comments.

In 2014, the city certified an EIR for a mixed–use development in the Melrose Triangle section of West Hollywood. The project was the product of city incentives to redevelop the area in order to create a unified site design with open space, pedestrian access, and an iconic “gateway” building to welcome visitors and promote economic development. The EIR concluded that a significant and unavoidable impact would result from the demolition of a building eligible for listing as a California historic resource.

One alternative would have preserved the building in its entirety, by reducing and redesigning the project. The preservation alternative was ultimately rejected as infeasible because it was inconsistent with project objectives, and would eliminate or disrupt the project’s critical design elements.

After circulating the draft EIR, the project’s architects developed a site design which incorporated the building’s façade and mandated this design as a condition of approval. Furthermore, a subsequent fire destroyed 25 percent of the building, but left the façade intact. The final EIR and conditions were approved in 2014. Petitioners immediately filed suit.

In the court below, petitioner argued that the EIR’s analysis of the preservation alternative was inadequate, the city did not respond to public comments, and that the city’s finding that the alternative was infeasible was not supported by substantial evidence. The respondents prevailed on all claims and petitioner appealed.

Finding for respondents, the court reiterated the Laurel Heights standard that an analysis of alternatives does not require perfection, only that the EIR provide sufficient information to support a reasonable range of alternatives. The court rejected petitioner’s contention that the EIR was required to include a conceptual drawing of the preservation alternative. Furthermore, the EIR’s statement that preservation of the building would preclude construction of other parts of the project was self-explanatory and did not require additional analysis. The EIR’s use of estimates to calculate how the preservation alternative would reduce the project’s footprint did not create ambiguities that would confuse the public. Such imprecision is simply inherent in the use of estimates.

The court also found that the city’s responses to the three comments cited by the petitioner were made in good faith and demonstrated reasoned analysis.  The court reiterated that a response is not insufficient when it cross-references relevant sections of the draft EIR, and that the level of detail required in a response can vary. Here, the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance and the President of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles opined in comments that the building could be preserved while achieving the project’s objectives. The city adequately responded to these comments by referencing, and expanding upon, the EIR’s analysis of the preservation alternative, where this option was considered. The last comment was of a general nature, so the city’s brief, general response was appropriate.

Finally, the court found sufficient evidence to support the city’s finding that the preservation alternative was infeasible. An alternative is infeasible when it cannot meet project objectives or when policy considerations render it impractical or undesirable. An agency’s determination of infeasibility is presumed correct and entitled to deference, if supported by substantial evidence in the record. The court found that the city’s conclusion that the alternative is infeasible was supported by substantial evidence in the record. Development plans, photographs, and testimony from senior planning staff support the city’s conclusion that retaining the building and reducing the project would not fulfill the project objectives of creating a unified site design, promoting pedestrian uses, and encouraging regional economic development.  That another conclusion could have be reached did not render the city’s decision flawed.

A consistent theme underlying the court’s decision was the city’s clear goal of revitalizing the entire site, in order to create a functional and attractive gateway for West Hollywood. Critical to the project’s success was removing the specific building that the petitioner sought to preserve. The court appeared reluctant to overcome such a strong mandate by flyspecking the EIR’s analysis of this acknowledged significant impact.

Sixth District Court of Appeal Upholds a City’s Economic Infeasibility Basis for Rejecting Alternatives Involving Retaining Ownership of a Mansion

The Flanders Foundation v. City of Carmel-by-the-Sea (2012) 202 Cal.App.4th 603

The Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled that, in a project involving restoration and sale of an historic mansion, the city had a sufficient basis for rejecting as economically infeasible alternatives involving retaining ownership of the mansion. 

The Flanders Mansion is an historic, 1920s-era Tudor Revival residence.  The City of Carmel-by-the-Sea owns the mansion.  The site is surrounded by a 35-acre nature preserve, also owned by the city.  The city certified an EIR and approved the sale of the mansion in view of the substantial cost of implementing necessary repairs.  The Foundation sued.  The trial court granted the petition.  Both sides appealed.

First, the Foundation argued the EIR did not contain an adequate analysis of potential future uses of the mansion in light of the Surplus Lands Act.  Under that statute, when a local agency wishes to dispose of surplus property, the agency must offer to sell or lease the property to other agencies for use as affordable housing or for park purposes before the property can be sold to a private party.  The EIR recognized the sale of the property would be subject to the act.  The Foundation argued, and the trial court agreed, that the EIR was deficient because it did not analyze the impacts of potential uses for the property authorized under the act.  That was so because an agency buying under the act would not be subject to mitigation measures or conservation easements adopted by the city when it approved the sale.  The Court of Appeal disagreed, holding that the city had authority to require, as conditions of sale, adherence to these measures and easements.  Moreover, the city did not have to analyze the impacts of using the mansion as affordable housing because the record supported the city’s conclusion that this use was not reasonably foreseeable in view of the high cost of rehabilitating the mansion and complying with adopted mitigation measures.

Second, during the CEQA process, a commenter asked the city to consider reducing the size of the parcel sold with the mansion.  The Court ruled the Final EIR’s response was inadequate.  Reducing the size of the parcel would also reduce one of the project’s significant and unavoidable impacts:  a reduction in public parkland.  The Final EIR had not provided a complete response to this proposal.

Third, the Foundation argued the city erred by failing to include an economic feasibility analysis in the EIR.  That analysis was prepared by a real-estate consultant to address the economic feasibility of the various alternatives analyzed in the EIR.  The Court ruled the city could rely on information in the record in making its feasibility determinations, regardless of whether that information appeared in the EIR itself.

Fourth, the EIR analyzed alternatives focusing on restoring and leasing the mansion for residential or non-residential use, or doing nothing (no project).  All these alternatives were environmentally superior to the proposed project.  The city rejected them, however, as economically infeasible, citing the consultant’s feasibility report.  The issue for the Court was whether this report constituted substantial evidence supporting the city’s decision.  The Court ruled that it did.  The report estimated that restoration would cost $1.4 million, and lease payments would not enable the city to recoup this cost for many years.  Selling the mansion would recover these costs, however, because the appraised value of the restored mansion was estimated at $4 million.  Doing nothing meant the city would incur ongoing maintenance costs, with no revenue to cover them.  Under such circumstances, the city acted within its discretion in rejecting these alternatives.

Finally, the Court ruled that substantial evidence supported the city’s adopted statement of overriding considerations.  The city acted within its discretion in deciding to sell the mansion, subject to mitigation measures and easements requiring its sensitive restoration.  Although the city could have retained ownership of the restored the building (alternatives the city rejected as infeasible), that did not mean the city could not cite restoration in its list of project benefits, even if the city intended to sell the restored mansion.

Sixth District Court of Appeal Holds that an EIR Need Not Consider All Possible Future Uses for Property Sold Under the Surplus Lands Act

The Flanders Foundation v. City of Carmel-by-the-Sea, et al. (2012) 202 Cal.App.4th 603

On January 4, 2012, the Sixth District Court of Appeal held that the City of Carmel-by-the-Sea did not violate CEQA by failing to analyze in its EIR all potential uses of a property that was to be sold under the Surplus Lands Act (the Act), even though the uses were specifically mentioned in the Act. Continue reading