City Council Erred in Certifying Environmental Impact Report that Utilized Projected Traffic Conditions in the Year 2020 as a Baseline to Evaluate a Proposed Roadway Project's Environmental Impacts

January 7, 2011 | Bulletin No. 960143.1

In Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association v. City of Sunnyvale City Council, (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 6 Dist., December 16, 2010), a court of appeal considered whether a city council should be required to set aside its approval of a roadway project and its certification of a final environmental impact report (“FEIR”) because the FEIR used projected traffic conditions in the year 2020 as a baseline to evaluate the roadway project’s environmental impacts. The court of appeal held that the city council must set aside its approval of the project and its certification of the FEIR because it did not consider the project’s impacts on the existing environment by using existing traffic conditions as the baseline.

Facts

The Mary Avenue Extension Project ("Project") proposed a four-lane northerly extension of Mary Avenue in Sunnyvale, California. A draft environmental impact report ("EIR") discussed impacts in 12 categories including air quality, transportation, and noise. The draft EIR also addressed the growth-inducing and cumulative impacts of the Project. The draft EIR primarily utilized a 2020 scenario to analyze the impacts of the Project. Traffic volume was analyzed under the 2020 scenario and comparisons were made regarding what would occur in 2020 if the Project was completed and what would occur if the Project was not completed. The draft EIR also analyzed noise impacts based on 2020 traffic volumes both with and without the Project.

During a peer review, an environmental planner expressed concern that the EIR had not adequately evaluated Project's impacts as they related to existing conditions. The planner stated that the use of the 2020 scenario could underestimate Project's impacts, especially if the Project was constructed before 2020. She also stated that "[p]roject impacts should be more correctly shown in relation to current day conditions, especially as related to noise, air quality, and traffic." Jack Witthaus ("Witthaus"), the Transportation and Traffic Manager in the City of Sunnyvale's Department of Public Works, responded that Project's traffic impacts "were evaluated against future 'background' conditions in accordance with the procedure's in [Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's] Transportation Impact Analyses Guidelines (2004)." Witthaus explained that the year 2020 was chosen because that would be the year that the Project, if approved, was estimated to be open to the public. Witthaus noted there was currently no funding for the Project and that when funding becomes available, it would take several years to design and construct the Project.

The City of Sunnyvale City Council ("City Council") certified the FEIR and approved the Project. The Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association filed a petition for writ of mandate in which it alleged that the FEIR for the Project was "deficient because it used a 2020 'baseline' for assessing the project's impacts" rather than existing traffic conditions. The superior court granted a peremptory writ of mandate which compelled the City Council to set aside its approval of the project and its certification of the FEIR.

Decision

The California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) requires preparation and certification of an EIR which addresses any significant effect that a proposed project may have on the environment before a project may be approved. The EIR must contain “a detailed statement setting forth ‘all significant effects on the environment of the proposed project.’” Environment is defined by CEQA as “‘the physical conditions which exist within the area which will be affected by a proposed project, including land, air, water, minerals, flora, fauna, noise, objects of historic or aesthetic significance.’”

The CEQA Guidelines provide that an EIR for a project must “identify and focus on the significant environmental effects of the proposed project.” When assessing the environmental impact of a proposed project “‘the lead agency should normally limit its examination to changes in the existing physical conditions in the affected area as they exist at the time the notice of preparation is published, or where no notice of preparation is published, at the time environmental analysis is commenced.’” Furthermore, the “[d]irect and indirect significant effects of the project on the environment shall be clearly identified and described, giving due consideration to both the short-term and long-term effects.”

California case law has made clear that an EIR for a project “must focus on the impacts to the existing environment, not hypothetical situations.” The baseline for a “CEQA analysis must be the ‘existing physical conditions in the affected area’ . . . that is, the ‘real conditions on the ground.’” The California Supreme Court has recognized that there is some flexibility for determining baseline conditions. “[A]n agency enjoys the discretion to decide, in the first instance, exactly how the existing physical conditions without the project can most realistically be measured, subject to review, as with all CEQA factual determinations, for support by substantial evidence.” Because environmental conditions may vary from one year to the next, a baseline might take into consideration the different conditions that have presented over a range of time. However, the court of appeals noted that the “Supreme Court never sanctioned the use of predicted conditions on a date subsequent to EIR certification or project approval as the ‘baseline’ for assessing a project’s environmental consequences.”

The baseline for assessing a project’s impact is ordinarily the existing physical conditions in the area affected by the project. Here, the approval date of the project was October 28, 2008. The lead agency for the Project, however, did not use the conditions existing in 2008 to measure the impacts of the Project, but instead used projected conditions in the year 2020 as a baseline against which to assess the traffic and other related impacts of the Project. The court found that the use of the 2020 conditions as a baseline to evaluate the Project’s environmental impact was improper.

The court acknowledged “that comprehensive regional transportation planning must look at the big picture and take a long view.” However, “[o]nce a specific roadway project is proposed and becomes the subject of an EIR under CEQA . . . a straightforward assessment of the impacts produced by the project alone on the existing environment is the foundational information of an EIR even where secondary analyses are included.” An EIR may examine the beneficial impacts of a project over time if those impacts are reasonably foreseeable. However, “it must be remembered that the purpose of an EIR is to avoid or lessen each significant environmental effect of a proposed project whenever feasible.”

The court found that because an improper baseline was used to determine the Project’s impacts, the decision makers and the public lacked complete information. The court held that the City failed to proceed in the manner required by law. The EIR did not consider the Project’s traffic and related impacts on the existing environment. The court of appeal affirmed the decision of the superior court that the City Council must set aside its approval of the Project and its certification of the FEIR.

Questions

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Mona G. Ebrahimi | 916.321.4500