Environmental Impact Statement

Communities challenging, or considering a challenge, to the noise and other impacts from low-flying aircraft, enabled in new flight paths and altitudes by the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) NextGen Initiative, may find some comfort in the knowledge that they are not alone. Communities from coast to coast, even including communities that are themselves airport proprietors, have recently joined the group of communities that earlier brought legal action against FAA to vindicate their citizens’ interests, some of which suits are only now approaching decision.

First chronologically, the City of Los Angeles, owner and operator of Los Angeles International Airport (“LAX”), brought suit in December 2019, in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, challenging a southerly shift in flight tracks of departing aircraft from Bob Hope (Hollywood-Burbank) Airport, City of Los Angeles v. FAA, Case No.19-73164, alleging FAA either failed to review the revised flight paths under NEPA, or failed to take action required by law to ensure reasonable compliance with assigned flight tracks. In its opposition, FAA first argued that it is not responsible for the divergence from established flight tracks, but, rather, it is due to “Acts of God,” such as wind, weather, and flocks of birds. It was only months later, when FAA realized that excuse wouldn’t “fly,” that it assumed responsibility by claiming the need to “vector” aircraft off established flight tracks for safety purposes. After Court-supervised mediation efforts were unsuccessful, briefing was completed in September 2020, but no decision has been made by the Court to date. That case is not by any means the end of the story.


Continue Reading Communities Challenging NextGen Are In Good Company

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. 
 


Continue Reading Appellate Court Grants Wide Discretion to Newhall Land and Farming Project Proponents in the Determination of the Significance of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Under CEQA

In what might be a surprising decision in any other Circuit, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling in Barnes v. U.S. Dept. of Transportation, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Case No. 10-70718, August 25, 2011, which, while narrow, begins the process of eroding both the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) long held position that “aviation activity . . . will increase at the same rate regardless of whether a new runway is built or not,” Barnes, at 16285, and the Federal Court’s traditional deference to it. City of Los Angeles v. FAA, 138 F.3d 806, 807-08, n. 2 (9th Cir. 1998).


Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Calls FAA to Task on Environmental Impacts of New Runway

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