In Newtown Preservation Society v. County of El Dorado (2021) 65 Cal.App.5th 771, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision to uphold El Dorado County’s adoption of a mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a bridge replacement project. In the published portions of the opinion, the court held that Petitioners failed to establish a “fair argument” that the project would have significant environmental impacts. Instead, Petitioners raised concerns regarding existing wildfire hazards that could impact residents near the project, but did not establish that the project may significantly impact the environment by creating or exacerbating wildfire hazards.
Factual and Procedural Background
The County, in preparing the MND, determined that the bridge replacement project could interfere with emergency response or evacuation plans and—as a result—expose people or structures to risk of loss or injury. However, the County also determined that these impacts would not be significant since a temporary evacuation route would be constructed to mitigate the risk. Such a route would only be used for emergency evacuation and, regardless of whether it was in place, any evacuation or emergency orders would be executed as the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services saw fit. Additionally, the County consulted with this office as well as the El Dorado County Fire Protection District in preparing the MND and both entities were comfortable with the document’s conclusions and assessments.
The County initially refrained from discussing the temporary evacuation route in detail in its mitigated negative declaration since it was concerned this would “lead people to believe that they should follow a certain evacuation route.” But, as a result of comments raised by one of the petitioners’ counsel and others regarding the possibility of a temporary evacuation route, the County’s responses to comments elucidated its plans and evacuation procedures in greater detail. It outlined several evacuation options given numerous emergency conditions depending on whether the temporary evacuation route was constructed.
After the County adopted the MND, Petitioners filed a writ a mandate, claiming the County failed to 1) properly consider the no-project alternative and 2) “adequately address the impact of closing the bridge without committing to construction of an evacuation route.” Petitioners claimed there was sufficient evidence in the record—including letters, correspondences, and hearing comments—supporting a fair argument that the bridge replacement project would significantly impact public safety. For example, a resident who lived on Newtown Road discussed past fire damage near her home; another resident complained that the County had not determined with finality whether a temporary route would be constructed; and another expressed concern about the effects of wind in the area on fire management; an aerial firefighter argued that recent history of wildfires demonstrated the danger in the County’s temporary evacuation route plans; Ms. Nagel, one of the petitioners, discussed her extensive firefighting experience; and Ms. Nagel’s attorney argued that the County’s MND violated CEQA by deferring important emergency management analysis.
The trial court, however, found that none of the petitioners’ arguments constituted substantial evidence, especially in light of explanatory testimony and responses to comments by the County and its experts, as well as the detailed evacuation options outlined in the MND. Instead, Petitioners’ letters and comments amounted to mere complaints and fears, backed up by speculation and unsubstantiated, non-expert opinion.
The Court of Appeal’s Decision
On appeal, Petitioners argued that the trial court erred in upholding the MND since “substantial evidence supports a fair argument of potentially significant impacts on resident safety and emergency evacuation.” The court noted that evidence supporting a fair argument can be substantial even though other equally compelling evidence may exist to the contrary. Still, the court concluded that Petitioners’ “framing of the fair argument test [was] erroneous. The question is not whether substantial evidence supports a fair argument that the proposed project will have significant impacts on resident safety and emergency evacuation. . . . [T]he question is whether the project may have a significant effect on the environment.” Yet Petitioners failed to identify any potentially significant effects the project might have on the environment and instead merely raised possible increased effects the environment might have on the community as a result of poorer evacuation procedures.
Furthermore, the Court of Appeal, like the trial court, pointed out that substantial evidence must be based on relevant information and facts; or at least reasonable inferences, assumptions, or expert opinion supported by facts. Unsubstantiated opinions, arguments, or speculations generally will not do. The court noted, however, that lay opinion may be considered substantial evidence where expertise is not necessary, which was not the case with the emergency evacuation issues raised by the Petitioners. The Court of Appeal explained again that Petitioners’ cited comments and letters were “mere speculation” and simply “dire predictions by nonexperts” and that they “fail[ed] to identify any factual foundation” for their assertions. Some comments were even directly contradicted by factual evidence in the record. Nowhere did Petitioners establish that any of the individuals whose testimony was cited were experts in evacuation planning. Thus, the court concluded that Petitioners’ claims did not constitute substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project may have a significant impact on the environment.
– Blake C. Hyde