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Fourth District Court of Appeal Rejects Challenge to EIR Based on Limited Baseline Traffic Analyses

July 24, 2015

California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal’s recent decision upholding of a supplemental environmental impact report (“Supplemental EIR” or “SEIR”) for the expansion of a jail facility in Orange County reinforces the deference courts give to local agency baseline determinations under CEQA.

Background

In City of Irvine v. County of Orange (June 12, 2015, G049527) __ Cal. App. 4th __, certified for publication on July 6, 2015, the Court of Appeal addressed the most recent attempt by the City of Irvine to challenge an expansion of the James A. Musik Jail Facility, a project that originally was proposed by the County of Orange in the mid-1990’s. The County certified the initial EIR for the project in 1996, and the Court of Appeal overturned a trial court decision finding the EIR to be inadequate for CEQA purposes.

Notwithstanding the Court of Appeal’s validation of the project at that time, the project languished for years in the face of funding constraints within County government. It was revived in 2012, when the County applied for newly available state funding and issued an SEIR. The scale of the project considered in the SEIR was substantially the same as that addressed in the original EIR, although there were some changes made in the physical configuration of the facility and in the use of adjacent undeveloped land (from agricultural use to open space).

The City filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the SEIR on a variety of CEQA grounds, and the trial court denied the petition in November 2013. The Court of Appeal sustained the trial court’s decision in all respects.

Analysis of Traffic Impacts

 Of particular note in the Court of Appeal’s decision is its treatment of potential traffic impacts. The 2012 SEIR relied on a traffic study that considered projected level of service (“LOS”) impacts on various intersections in the vicinity of the project; however, it only analyzed those impact for two years –2014 (the “interim year”) and 2030, when the project was expected to be fully built out (to a planned 7,854 beds).

The City argued that taking into account the significant delays that had occurred in moving forward with the project, continued use of the year 2014 as an “interim” year was misleading. It noted that construction on the project was at that point not expected to even begin until 2015; indeed, the County itself had conceded that the earliest true “interim” year given delays in the project would be 2018, when an initial total of 1,024 beds would be added. The City contended that this discrepancy resulted in a “fatally unstable” project description for CEQA purposes, relying primarily on City of Santee v. County of San Diego (1989) 214 Cal. App. 3d 1438 [finding an EIR’s project description to be fatally uncertain for failure to address impacts associated with a temporary county jail expansion, particularly where the record reflected the possibility that temporary facilities might continue to be needed over a longer period].

The Court of Appeal rejected the City of Irvine’s contention. According to the Court, the City’s argument “confuses the need for a stable project description with the task of ascertaining the interim traffic impacts of project construction as that construction takes place – on a timeline that cannot be predicted with certainty.” Unlike circumstances in the City of Santee case, the project description in this case was unaffected by potential delays in project construction, and therefore updated projections of traffic impacts adjusted to account for those delays was not required.

The Court of Appeal also distinguished the California Supreme Court’s decision in Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2013) 57 Cal.4th 439 (Metro Line). In Metro Line, a project EIR was found to be deficient because it used a baseline date for evaluating environmental conditions that was many years in the future. The City of Irvine had argued that Metro Line was relevant to its own situation, since it demonstrated the need for decision makers and the public to know the “short- and medium-term environmental costs” of achieving a given improvement, rather than just conditions at completion in the future. (See Metro Line, 57 Cal. 4th at p. 455.)

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the City’s analysis, however. It noted that Metro Line simply stood for the proposition that “existing conditions” should as a general rule provide the default baseline for measuring environmental effects. Nothing in that decision required “multiple, intersection-by-intersection, studies of traffic impacts on all nearby intersections on a year-by-year basis, plugging the multiple variable of not only the completion of the project itself, but of any nearby projects.”

Conclusion

It may be tempting to view the Court of Appeal’s treatment of Metro Line as somewhat cavalier. The main point of the Supreme Court’s decision is that existing conditions prior to the commencement of a project should be ascertainable in most cases and provide the best baseline for evaluating project impacts, whether those impacts are associated with a project as completed some years in the future and with interim phases of the project while under construction. The City in City of Irvine had a fair point to make in complaining that baseline conditions had become a moving target for evaluating project impacts for the County’s expanded jail facility. But the bottom line here, as in many CEQA case, was that the County had broad discretion in defining baseline conditions for its own project, and in the absence of a clear abuse of that discretion, its decision was unlikely to be overturned on appeal.