In Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2013) __Cal.4th__ (Case No. S202828) (slip op., August 5, 2013), a majority of the California Supreme Court held that a lead agency only has the discretion to completely omit analysis of the project impacts on existing conditions if it can justify its decision to exclusively use a future conditions baseline by showing an existing conditions analysis would be misleading or without informational value. On this basis, the majority found a light-rail project’s EIR deficient for exclusively using year-2030 conditions as the baseline and for failing to provide an existing conditions analysis. Although the lead opinion by Justice Werdeger and the concurrence by Justice Baxter provided different rationales for upholding the EIR, the six justices joining in these two opinions did agree to affirm the appellate court’s judgment that upheld the EIR and denied the petition for writ of mandate.
Facts and Procedural Background
In 2007, the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (Expo Authority) issued a notice of preparation for an EIR for the Exposition Corridor Transit Project (Expo Phase 2), which would construct a light-rail transit line running from a station in Culver City to a terminus in Santa Monica. The Expo Phase 2 project was designed to provide high-capacity transit service between the Westside area of Los Angeles and Santa Monica, creating an alternative to the area’s congested roadways. The Expo Authority certified a final EIR and approved the Expo Phase 2 project in 2010.
Subsequently, Neighbors for Smart Rail filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging that the approval of Expo Phase 2 violated CEQA. The superior court denied the petition, and the Court of Appeal affirmed. The Neighbors filed a petition for review with the California Supreme Court, raising two issues: (1) the propriety of the EIR’s exclusive use of a future conditions baseline for assessment of likely impacts on traffic congestion and air quality, and (2) the adequacy of mitigation measures for potentially significant spillover parking effects in areas near planned transit stations.
California Supreme Court’s Decision
The Court issued one lead opinion and two concurring and dissenting opinions. Justice Werdeger, joined by Justices Kennard and Corrigan, wrote the Court’s lead opinion. Justice Baxter, joined by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Chin, wrote a concurrence and dissent that differed from the lead opinion on the baseline issue. Justice Liu wrote a separate concurrence and dissent that differed from the lead opinion on the question of whether the EIR’s failure to use existing conditions as the baseline was prejudicial. All justices agreed that the Neighbors’ contentions regarding mitigation for spillover parking effects should be rejected. Otherwise, the Court split along different lines on both the baseline and prejudice analyses. Nonetheless, there was a majority of four justices on every issue except the prejudice question, and six justices agreed the EIR should be upheld.
Justice Werdeger’s lead opinion tackled the baseline issue first. In an overview of leading CEQA cases that discuss the use of a future conditions baseline, the lead opinion paid special attention to Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management District (2010) 48 Cal.4th 310, and Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 1351. Expressing the majority’s view, the lead opinion concluded that unusual aspects of a project or surrounding conditions can justify a departure from the “default” use of an existing conditions baseline that CEQA Guidelines section 15125, subdivision (a), prescribes. In other words, the Court held that while lead agencies have the discretion to “omit an analysis of the project’s significant impacts on existing environmental conditions and substitute a baseline consisting of environmental conditions projected to exist in the future, the agency must justify its decision by showing an existing conditions analysis would be misleading or without informational value.” The Court explicitly disapproved Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association, supra, 190 Cal.App.4th 1351, and Madera Oversight Coalition v. County of Madera (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 48, insofar as they hold the exclusive use of a future conditions baseline may never be employed.
Having established the appropriate standard for analyzing the baseline issue, the Court proceeded to conduct a factual assessment of the Expo Authority’s use of projected conditions in the year 2030 as a baseline. After a brief review of the EIR’s discussion of traffic congestion, air pollution, and baseline choice, the Court found that the administrative record did not contain substantial evidence to support the Expo Authority’s decision to omit an analysis of project impacts on existing conditions. This conclusion was joined by Justice Liu and represents the majority view.
Nonetheless, the three justices in the lead opinion proceeded to find that the EIR’s failure to use an existing conditions baseline did not have a prejudicial effect and did not deprive decision makers or the public of substantial information relevant to the project’s potential impacts. In part II.B.5, the lead opinion provides its prejudice analysis and explains how the EIR’s extensive analysis of year 2030 project impacts demonstrated “the lack of grounds to suppose the same analysis performed against existing . . . conditions would have produced any substantially different information.” But Justice Werdeger’s opinion is carefully worded to limit the lead opinion’s conclusion– that the EIR’s failure to analyze the project’s effects on existing traffic and air quality conditions had no prejudicial effect– to “these particular factual circumstances.” As footnote 2 explains, the prejudice analysis in part II.B.5 does not represent the view of the majority. In fact, Justice Liu based his dissent on the prejudice issue, and Justice Baxter’s concurrence brings up Justice Werdegar’s prejudice analysis only to support the assertion that the EIR’s assessment of Expo Phase 2’s impacts did adequately inform decision makers and the public.
The lead opinion closes with a short discussion of the adequacy of mitigation measures for spillover parking effects. The Expo Authority and Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) had adopted a series of measures proposed by the EIR, including: monitoring of on-street parking, Metro’s financial and administrative assistance with appropriate permit parking programs, and Metro’s commitment to work with local jurisdictions to decide on other options (time-restricted, metered, or shared parking arrangements) if necessary. The Court rejected Neighbors’ reliance on Federation of Hillside & Canyon Associations v. City of Los Angeles (2000) 83 Cal.App.4th 1252, 1260-62, finding that case to be factually distinguishable. While acknowledging that the Expo Authority and Metro “cannot guarantee local governments will cooperate to implement permit parking programs or other parking restrictions,” the Court found that the record supported the conclusion that local municipalities can and should cooperate. This portion of the opinion is the only part that enjoys the support of all seven justices.
Justice Baxter’s concurring and dissenting opinion disagreed with the lead opinion’s baseline analysis. Rejecting the new standard articulated by the majority, Baxter’s opinion proposed a new rule in which “an agency retains discretion to omit an analysis of a project’s likely impacts with an existing conditions baseline, so long as the selected alternative of a projected future conditions baseline is supported by substantial evidence and results in a realistic impacts analysis that allows for informed decisionmaking and public participation.” Using this alternative rule, Baxter’s opinion concluded that the agency “did not abuse its discretion in forgoing an existing conditions baseline in favor of a 2030 baseline” because substantial evidence did support the 2030 baseline as a realistic baseline for analyzing the project’s impacts. According to Baxter’s opinion, the EIR should be upheld because it was not deficient and, therefore, there was no need to address the question of whether the alleged baseline error was prejudicial. Finally, Baxter’s opinion asserts two main criticisms of the majority’s analysis: (1) the majority’s restrictions are not supported by CEQA or CEQA Guidelines, (2) the majority’s analysis creates uncertainties regarding CEQA compliance, increasing project costs and delays.
[RMM Partner Tiffany K. Wright and Associate Amanda R. Berlin represented Real Parties in Interest Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority]