By Cori Badgley

In CEQA cases, the courts evaluate whether the agency proceeded in the manner required by law and whether substantial evidence supports the agencies decision.  In other words, did the agency act reasonably in its analysis.  This is the crux of City of Long Beach v. Los Angeles Unified School District (2009) 176 Cal.App.4th 889, in which the City of Long Beach (“City”) challenged the adequacy of an EIR for the construction of a high school in the City.  Finding that the school district acted reasonably in its analysis of all the issues challenged by the City, the court upheld certification of the EIR.

The project at issue was the construction of a high school to eliminate the overcrowding at two other area high schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District.  The City’s challenges to the EIR on appeal fell into three broad categories: failure to properly analyze impacts and alternatives, inadequate response to comments and failure to properly analyze cumulative impacts.

Failure to Properly Analyze Impacts and Alternatives

The City asserted that the EIR’s analysis of truck traffic impacts on air quality, potential hazardous materials impacts from railroad activity, pedestrian safety, adequate parking, general plan consistency and alternatives was inadequate.  Overall, the court found that the EIR provided a reasonable analysis of all the impacts as well as a reasonable explanation of why the impacts were less than significant before or after mitigation, depending on the impact.  The court also chastised the petitioner in a few instances for failure to present any evidence supporting its assertions.  As petitioner, the City had the burden of showing that the school district’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence or that the school district failed to proceed in the manner required by law. Simply stating that the school district improperly deferred mitigation, without any supporting analysis or evidence, “is legally insufficient.”  In light of the EIR’s reasoned analysis, the court held that the EIR’s analysis of impacts was adequate.

Inadequate Responses to Comments

The City argued that the responses to comments related to air quality, and more specifically, truck traffic impacts on air quality were inadequate.  The comments related to the mitigation measures requiring certain setbacks and filtration systems to reduce the risk of respiratory illness and the failure of the EIR to address truck traffic impacts on air quality.  The responses pointed to different sections of the EIR, including appendices, that supported the EIR’s conclusion of a less than significant impact after mitigation.  The court found that the response adequately addressed the comment.  The court stated that “[t]he level of detail required in a response to a comment depends on factors such as the significance of the issues raised, the level of detail of the proposed project, the level of detail of the comment and the extent to which the matter is already addressed in the DEIR.”  The court held that the school district responded sufficiently responded to all of the City’s comments in light of the level of detail in the City’s comments as well as information already existing within the EIR.  Therefore, the responses were adequate.

Failure to Properly Analyze Cumulative Impacts

In addition to its other air quality arguments, the City asserted that the cumulative impacts discussion of truck traffic impacts on air quality was insufficient.  According to the City, the EIR omitted any discussion of cumulative impacts on air quality as it related to truck traffic and its impacts on staff and students and improperly limited the geographic scope of the cumulative impacts discussion.  The court began by stating that the EIR “must identify the significant effects on the environment of a project … not the impact of the environment on the project.”  Thus, the EIR was not required to address the impacts of air quality on the staff and students that would attend the school.  Next, the court stated that it was within the lead agency’s discretion to choose the geographic scope for cumulative impacts.  In this case, the court found that the EIR provided a reasonable explanation of how the geographic scope was chosen and then proceeded to sufficiently analyze the cumulative impacts resulting within that geographic scope.  Therefore, the court held that the cumulative impacts analysis of air quality was adequate.

As with all CEQA cases, the focus is on whether the agency acted arbitrarily or capriciously and whether the agency’s conclusions are supported by substantial evidence. In this case, even if the City presented other options for how the school district could have proceeded, the way in which the school district proceeded was reasonable and therefore sufficient under CEQA.  A reviewing court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the lead agency, and the lead agency’s actions must be upheld if reasonable.

Cori M. Badgley is an associate at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP.  For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.