In Sierra Watch v. County of Placer (2021) 69 Cal.App.5th 86, the Third District Court of Appeal found that the EIR for a resort development project in Olympic Valley violated CEQA because it contained an inadequate description of the environmental setting and failed to adequately consider the project’s potential air quality, water quality, and noise impacts on Lake Tahoe and the surrounding Basin.
FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
In 1983, Placer County adopted the Squaw Valley General Plan and Land Use Ordinance to guide development and growth within the Olympic Valley (formerly Squaw Valley) area. The 4,700-acre area lies a few miles northwest of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
In 2011, Real Party in Interest Squaw Valley Real Estate LLC proposed the first project under the general plan and ordinance—the Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan—which included two components to be built over a 25-year timeframe: (1) an 85-acre parcel that included 850 lodging units, approximately 300,000 square feet of commercial space, and 3,000 parking spaces (“the Village”); and (2) an 8.8-acre parcel that included housing for up to 300 employees (“the East Parcel”).
The County approved the project and certified its associated EIR in 2016. Following the County’s approval, Sierra Watch filed a petition for writ of mandate, alleging the County violated CEQA in numerous ways. The trial court rejected Sierra Watch’s claims. Sierra Watch appealed.
COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION
In the published portion of the opinion, the Third District considered whether the EIR sufficiently described the project’s environmental setting and adequately considered water quality, air quality, and noise impacts.
EIR’s Description of the Environmental Setting
The court first considered whether the EIR’s discussion of the environmental setting adequately addressed Lake Tahoe and the Lake Tahoe Basin, particularly with respect to the settings for water and air quality.
Water Quality Setting
As to water quality, the Court of Appeal agreed with Sierra Watch’s assertion that the EIR’s hydrology and water quality analysis failed to adequately describe the regional setting specific to Lake Tahoe. Though the Draft EIR explained that the project would be “located within the low elevation portion of the approximately eight square mile Squaw Creek watershed, a tributary to the middle reach of the Truckee River (downstream of Lake Tahoe),” it concluded that VMT generated by the project would not exceed TRPA’s cumulative VMT threshold, and thus, would not affect the Lake’s water quality. The court rejected this rationale by noting that the EIR’s description failed to discuss the importance of the Lake’s current condition or the relationship between VMT and the Lake’s water clarity and quality, thereby depriving the public of an ability to evaluate and assess impacts on the Lake.
Air Quality Setting
As to air quality, the court found that the EIR’s description of the air quality setting and baseline was more substantial, and thus, adequate. The EIR properly explained the applicable air quality standards and presented data on the current concentrations and sources of criteria air pollutants in the area.
EIR’s Analysis of Impacts
Air Quality Impacts
The court agreed with Sierra Watch’s assertion that the EIR failed to meaningfully assess the project’s traffic impacts on Lake Tahoe’s air quality. The EIR concluded the project would not exceed TRPA’s cumulative VMT threshold but acknowledged it would likely exceed TRPA’s project-level VMT threshold for basin traffic. Nevertheless, the EIR ultimately concluded that TRPA’s VMT significance thresholds did not apply because the project was not located in the Tahoe Basin. The court found this rationale “provided mixed messages.” Rather than summarizing and declaring TRPA’s VMT thresholds as inapplicable, the court held that the EIR should have determined whether the Project’s impacts on Lake Tahoe and the Basin were potentially significant.
The court also agreed that the EIR underestimated the Project’s expected cumulative VMT in the Basin by failing to consider expected VMT from other anticipated projects. Even though the County addressed this issue in post-FEIR responses to comments, the court held that the public was denied an opportunity to “test, assess, and evaluate the newly revealed information and make an informed judgment as to the validity of the conclusions to be drawn therefrom.”
Construction Noise Impacts
The court rejected Sierra Watch’s initial assertion that the EIR failed to adequately disclose the duration of construction noise at any specific location, particularly at the Village parcel. The EIR properly explained that that portion of the Project would be constructed over 25 years based on market conditions, and thus, it would be too speculative to identify specific noise levels for every single receptor.
The court agreed, however, with Sierra Watch’s assertion that the EIR failed to analyze the project’s full geographic range of noises by ignoring activities occurring farther than 50 feet from sensitive receptors. The court reasoned that a “lead agency cannot ignore a project’s expected impacts merely because they occur…’outside an arbitrary radius.’” The EIR only considered impacts to sensitive receptors within 50 feet of construction—yet, according to the court, “ignore[d] potential impacts to a receptor sitting an inch more distant[,] even though the noise levels at these two distances would presumably be the same.” Though the County explained this analysis was standard practice, the court contended that an agency “cannot employ a methodological approach in a manner that entirely forecloses consideration of evidence showing impacts to the neighboring region [and] beyond a project’s boundaries.”
Finally, the court agreed that mitigation requiring “operations and techniques … be replaced with quieter procedures where feasible and consistent with building codes and other applicable laws and regulations” was too vague because “in effect, [it] only tells construction contractors to be quieter than normal when they can.” The court concluded that the measure improperly deferred which construction procedures can later be modified to be quiet but did not explain how these determinations are to be made.
– Bridget McDonald
*RMM Attorneys Whit Manley, Andee Leisy, Chip Wilkins, and Nathan George represented Real Party in Interest Squaw Valley Real Estate LLC in this litigation.