Third District Upholds Plumas County’s General Plan EIR and Holds that a Local Government May Base Its Impact Analysis on Reasonably Foreseeable Levels of Growth and Development, as Opposed to Theoretically Possible Levels

On November 15, 2018, the Third District Court of Appeal certified for publication its decision in High Sierra Rural Alliance v. County of Plumas (2018) __ Cal.App.5th __ (Case No. C082315). Rejecting arguments that Plumas County violated the Timberland Productivity Act (Timberland Act) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when it adopted a general plan update, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s judgment in the County’s favor. The opinion is the first precedent to explore the intersections of CEQA and the Timberland Act. It is also the first CEQA precedent clearly holding that a local government, in preparing an EIR for a general plan update, may base its impact analysis on reasonably foreseeable levels of population growth and development, as opposed to theoretically possible levels.

In 2005, the County began efforts to update its 1984 General Plan. Over the next eight years, the County engaged in a robust community engagement and education process to create the 2035 General Plan Update (GPU) that reflected the County’s planning goals and values. In December 2013, the County’s Board of Supervisors certified the Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and adopted the GPU. High Sierra Rural Alliance (High Sierra) filed suit, arguing that the GPU conflicted with the Timberland Act and that the EIR for the GPU did not adequately analyze impacts of potential growth outside of designated planning areas. The trial court disagreed and denied the petition and complaint in its entirety.

The Third District’s opinion begins with a brief description contrasting the County’s large size with its small population. Although the County covers approximately 2,613 square miles or over 1.67 million acres, its vast lands supported only 20,007 residents in 2010. The court also highlighted the minimal expected population growth, with the Department of Finance estimating the County’s population to remain under 21,000 until 2025, at which point the population is expected to decline.

Turning to High Sierra’s Timberland Act claims, the opinion provides an overview of the Act and the GPU policies related to timberland production zone (TPZ) lands. The opinion then settles a heretofore unresolved question under the Timberland Act–– namely, whether any residence approved on land zoned for timberland production must be “necessary for” the management of the relevant parcel as timberland. The court agreed with the County’s interpretation of Government Code section 51104, subdivision (h)(6), as providing that any “residence” on TPZ lands must be “necessary for” and “compatible with” the management of land zoned as timberland production. The court also made clear that “section 51104 suffices to supply the restrictions on residences and structures on timberland production zone parcels,” and thus the County’s GPU did not conflict with the Timberland Act simply because it failed to recite the statutory language in Section 51104 in its relevant policies.

In discussing the Timberland Act arguments, the court explained that “the finding [required by the Timberland Act] that a residence or structure is necessary for the management of a timberland production zoned parcel is not an exercise of discretion as used in the CEQA context.” The court provides local agencies and legal practitioners with important guidance on this issue by citing and quoting the discussion in the Friends of Westwood, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 259, 272, which provides that an agency can exercise CEQA discretion only where it has “the power (that is, the discretion) to stop or modify” a project in a “way which would mitigate the environmental damage in any significant way.” Because the court concluded that “the Timberland Act affords the County no discretion to stop or request modification of the proposed residence or structure in order to mitigate environmental impacts,” the court rejected High Sierra’s argument.

Next, the court rejected High Sierra’s CEQA claims. High Sierra argued that the EIR failed to acknowledge and analyze the potential for rural sprawl. But the EIR explained that full build-out under the GPU would not occur for another three hundred years. Based on the substantial evidence in the record, the court concluded that the County could properly focus its analysis on the reasonably foreseeable growth occurring under the GPU through year 2035. The court also agreed with the County that historic land use data supported the conclusion that growth would occur almost exclusively within the planning areas. The court rejected High Sierra’s speculation that one of the GPU policies would open the floodgates to residential subdivisions on agricultural, timber, and mining lands. High Sierra’s reliance on a working paper about real estate markets in the Northern Rockies failed to persuade the court because the paper did not cite any data specific to Plumas County.

Finally, the court held that the County did not violate CEQA by failing to recirculate the EIR. The court was unconvinced by High Sierra’s argument that the inclusion in the Final EIR of building intensity standards and more accurate maps showing potential development outside of planning areas triggered recirculation.

 

RMM Senior Partner James G. Moose and Associate L. Elizabeth Sarine represented Plumas County.