California Changes the Test of Significance for Traffic Impacts Under CEQA

Taking its queue from the legislature (see Senate Bill 743 [Steinberg 2013]), the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (“OPR”) published, on August 6, 2014, a preliminary discussion draft of revisions to OPR’s California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) Guidelines, which serve as regulations implementing CEQA, Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21000, et seq.,  “Updating Transportation Impacts Analysis in the CEQA Guidelines” (“Update”).  The Update revises existing CEQA Guidelines § 15064.3 to comport with Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21099(b)(1) which establishes new criteria for determining the environmental significance of surface traffic impacts such as traffic delay and increased emissions resulting from a proposed project.  The purpose of both the amended statute and the Update is to shift the focus of the CEQA analysis of significance from “driver delay” to “reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, creation of multi-modal  networks and promotion of mixed land uses.”  Update, page 3.  

 
The change is effected through a change in the metric for determining environmental significance Level of Service (“LOS”), which measures delay at intersections, to vehicle miles traveled (“VMT”), which is a measure of the number of automobile trips resulting from the project.  The stated rationale underlying the change is that the use of LOS encourages mitigation aimed at reducing delays by increasing traffic flow, including expanded roadways, construction of more lanes and other automobile traffic facilitation measures; which theoretically leads to “induced demand,” i.e., more capacity at intersections allowing additional cars to use them; and, ultimately, to more air quality and greenhouse gas impacts from those additional cars.  As the story goes, a standard of environmental significance based on VMT will encourage the use of mitigation measures such as increased bicycle paths, accommodations for pedestrians, and other measures that will reduce automobile ridership in the long term.  The problem is that the theory underlying the Update is made up more of holes than of cheese. 
 
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Appellate Court Grants Wide Discretion to Newhall Land and Farming Project Proponents in the Determination of the Significance of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Under CEQA

The California Court of Appeal last week reversed a lower court decision that would have indefinitely delayed the development by Newhall Land and Farming Company of 21,308 residential units, 629 acres of mixed use development, 67 acres of commercial use, 249 acres of business park, and 1,014 acres of open space in northwestern Los Angeles County over the next 25-30 years (“Project”).  The lower court’s decision had originally granted the Petition for Writ of Mandate brought by, among others, the Center for Biological Diversity (“Respondents”), challenging, among other actions by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (“DFW”) (“Appellant”), the revised Joint Federal/State Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report (“EIS/EIR”) for the Project.

While the Appellate Court’s 112 page decision addressed numerous causes of action brought by Respondents in the trial court, one of the most unique and far reaching was its disposition of Respondents’ claim that the EIS/EIR’s baseline for assessing the cumulative impacts of the Project’s Greenhouse Gas (“GHG”) emissions is a procedural issue properly evaluated under the “failure to proceed in a manner required by law” standard, applicable to procedural actions, and that, employing the correct standard, the EIS/EIR’s analysis was predicated on an illusory baseline.  In a decision that is likely to be adopted in the adjudication of other California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) actions challenging the evolving state and federal GHG standards, the Appellate Court firmly disagreed. 
 

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Legislature Asked to Grant CEQA Relief for Rail Projects

Following in the footsteps of his colleagues, on January 6, 2012, Assemblyman Mike Feuer introduced legislation that would give rail projects the same type of relief from California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) requirements that were received in the last session by the proposed NFL stadium in Los Angeles, and some renewable energy projects. Notably, the CEQA amendments enacted for the NFL stadium include a very short time frame of 175 days for resolution of CEQA issues. While current CEQA litigation may extend to two years or more, depending on the complexity of the project and workload of the court, it stands to reason that issues surrounding local projects such as the stadium, with local traffic, noise and air quality impacts, may potentially be resolved within the 175 day timeframe. Rail projects are of far different scope, geographic extent, and are subject to a different set of laws.

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CEQA and the Law of Unintended Consequences

On September 27, 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 292 and Assembly Bill 900, both of which are aimed at expediting, or “fast-tracking,” the litigation of lawsuits brought under the California Environmental Quality Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 (“CEQA”). SB292 is basically an earmark that will “fast-track” CEQA challenges to the Farmer’s Field National Football League Stadium proposed for downtown Los Angeles, next to the Los Angeles Convention Center and Staples Center, by requiring that such challenges be brought directly in California Courts of Appeals and be heard within 175 days. AB900 reaches more widely, “fast-tracking” all projects costing $100 million or more.

The stated intentions of the Bills’ sponsors are, on their faces, noble ones --- to provide more job opportunities, and spur increased spending and attendant tax revenue for the State, matters which seem urgent in light of the State of California’s economy. The problems raised by the Bills are less immediate, but no less important.
 

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Don't Procrastinate: Make Your Comments on Environmental Analyses Early and Often

Recent appellate cases have once again brought to the fore the critical importance of the “exhaustion of administrative remedies” for any potential challenger to an agency action based on noncompliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) and other laws meant to protect the environment and public.

In California, as example, public projects such as road construction, airport development, and power facilities, as well as private projects such as shopping centers are challenged on the basis of the failure to exhaust administrative remedies, or to present the alleged grounds of noncompliance “to the public agency orally or in writing . . . during the public comment period provided by this division or prior to the close of the public hearing . . .” Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21177.

All too often, individuals, environmental organizations and public agencies wait to make their decisions to challenge the analysis of a project’s environmental impacts until their frustration peaks, and the time for filing a legal challenge arrives. [The usual time for filing a CEQA challenge is very short – 30 days from the filing by the agency of its Notice of Determination (“NOD”) which marks the final agency action in the CEQA process. NEPA is normally 60 days from the signing of the Record of Decision (“ROD”).] By that time, however, it is too late, because “exhaustion of administrative remedies is a jurisdictional prerequisite to maintenance of a CEQA action.” Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control v. City of Bakersfield, 124 Cal.App.4th 1184, 1199 (2004).
 

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LAX/American Airlines Commuter Facility Project Avoids Environmental Review

Yet another project at Los Angeles International Airport (“LAX”) has skated under the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). The project, the “American Airlines Commuter Facility Improvement Project,” allegedly constitutes a mere replacement of the facilities once occupied by United Airlines. Not exactly. The project actually includes, but is not limited to: (1) more than doubling the size of the passenger terminal/administration building to add passenger accommodations and office space; (2) addition of an almost 10,000 square foot building for baggage handling, office space and storage; and (3) replacement of a remote gate, accessed by foot or bus, with an enclosed contact gate such as those which are used inside the main terminals.

Despite the expansionary nature of the project, Los Angeles World Airports (“LAWA”), the Department of the owner, City of Los Angeles, responsible for operating LAX does not give so much as a passing nod to compliance with CEQA. If the project could simply be described as “new lease with American Airlines,” as a recent “Transmittal for Review of LAX Tenant Improvement Project” would have the public believe, the omission to conduct environmental review might be justified by a categorical exclusion from CEQA, 14 Cal. Code Regs. section 15301. That exclusion, however, does not apply here. The project, far from being “negligible” in scope, clearly constitutes a massive expansion of the previous passenger hold room and other passenger serving facilities.
 

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The California Supreme Court Clarifies Environmental Review Baselines Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)

The California Supreme Court recently weighed in on the critical issue of the proper baseline to be used in assessing the environmental impacts of a proposed project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). [Agencies must use a “baseline” from which to determine whether a project’s environmental effects will be “significant.”]  In Communities For a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management District, et al., 48 Cal. App. 4th 310 (2010), ConocoPhillips Company argued that the proper baseline for environmental analysis of a project at a petroleum refinery employing existing equipment should be the maximum permitted operating capacity of the equipment, even if the equipment is operating below those levels at the time the environmental analysis is commenced. The Court rejected that argument, holding that the baseline for CEQA analysis must be the “existing physical conditions in the effected area” (i.e., “real conditions on the ground”), rather than the level of development or activity that “could” or “should” have been present according to a plan or regulation. This confirms the California CEQA Guidelines requirement that the baseline consist of the physical environmental conditions in the vicinity of the project as they exist at the time the notice of preparation of the EIR is published or at the time the environmental analysis begins. 14 Cal. Code Regs. §15125(a).
 

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Proposed Project to Close "710 Gap" Will Require Environmental Review

On Thursday, May 27th, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will consider approving the preparation of a comprehensive State Route 710 corridor study, which will include alternatives and environmental impacts of a project that would close the 4 mile gap in the Long Beach (710) Freeway between Alhambra and Pasadena. Alternatives will include improvements to surface streets, construction of a surface freeway and a series of tunnels. The project would be subject to environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The 710 Freeway Project would also have to comply with the Clear Air Act, Clean Water Act and Historic Preservation Act. The tunnels alternative[s] will present unique issues concerning groundwater, contaminated soils and active fault lines.

The 710 Freeway was originally planned to extend from Long Beach to Pasadena. The Long Beach to Valley Boulevard segment was opened in 1965. However, since that time the segment between Valley Boulevard and Pasadena has been stalled by public controversy and court actions, resulting in the “710 gap.” Opponents argued that completion of the Valley View to Pasadena segment would require destruction of hundreds of homes and some historic properties. Residents in other areas complained about noise and air pollution caused by heavier traffic on other freeways and surface streets because of 710 gap, and supported completion of the freeway. In 1999 a U.S District Court Judge ruled that the project, as then proposed, violated the Clear Air Act, NEPA and the Historic Preservation Act. Rather than remedy the violations, the Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) rescinded its Record of Decision (ROD) and the California Transportation Commission withdrew its Notice of Determination.