By Cori M. Badgley

The court in Chawanakee Unified School District v. County of Madera (2011, No. F059382) ____ Cal.App.4th ____ faced the difficult task of interpreting an amendment to the School Facilities Act and how it interacts with CEQA as an issue of first impression. The specific provision at issue restricts the “methods of considering and mitigating impacts on school facilities” to the fees provided in the School Facilities Act. (Gov. Code, § 65996(a).) The court held that although this provision obviated the need to discuss direct impacts on school facilities in the CEQA document, the provision did not apply to indirect impacts, such as traffic or construction.

The School Facilities Act establishes a method by which school districts can impose a school impact fee on any construction within the boundaries of its jurisdiction. (Gov. Code, § 65995 et seq.) The Act also provides a maximum fee, which school districts cannot surpass. Under the former version of the Act, Government Code section 65996(a) (at issue in this case) read as follows: “[the provisions of the School Facilities Act] shall be the exclusive methods of mitigating environmental effects related to the adequacy of school facilities when considering the approval or the establishment of conditions for the approval of a development project.” The courts interpreted this provision to only apply to adjudicatory actions, such as a use permit, and not legislative actions, such as a specific plan. In reaction to the narrow judicial interpretation, the legislature amended the language in Section 65996(a) to state: “[the provision of the School Facilities Act] shall be the exclusive methods of considering and mitigating impacts on school facilities that occur or might occur as a result of any legislative or adjudicative act…

In this case, the court grappled with the following two terms in the amended provision: “considering” and “impacts on school facilities.”

Interestingly, this was the only portion of the case that was published. “Published” means that it can be cited in court as legal authority. “Unpublished” portions of cases should not be cited in court, or if they are, they are only considered potentially persuasive but not legally binding. In this case, the majority of the case dealing with the application of the court’s interpretation of the School Facilities Act to the specific facts at issue was not published and cannot be cited as legal authority in court.

The published portion of the court’s opinion began by determining the meaning of “considering.” According to the school district, amended Section 65996(a) still required a full, detailed analysis of the impacts on schools, despite the limitation on mitigation. After dissecting the word “considering,” the court disagreed with the school district. The court found that the term “considering” means “viewing attentively, examining carefully, studying,” and applying this definition to Section 65996(a), the legislature clearly meant to obviate the requirement to analyze “impacts on school facilities.” Therefore, the court held that an EIR does not need to contain a description and analysis of a development’s impacts on school facilities.

On the other hand, the court found that the term “on” narrowed the application of the statute to direct impacts only. The court found that “the use of the term ‘on’ indicates a direct relationship between the object (i.e., school facilities) and the impact and excludes impacts to other parts of the physical environment.” The County of Madera had argued that “impacts on school facilities,” included both direct and indirect impacts. Applying what it determined to be the correct interpretation of “on,” the court held that although the EIR did not have to discuss or analyze direct impacts on school facilities, the EIR was required to analyze the indirect impacts, such as traffic from increased busing and construction impacts from building new schools.

Based on this interpretation, the court went on to hold in the unpublished portion of the opinion that the County was required to go back and analyze traffic and constructions impacts arising from the increased number of students in the school district.

It is unknown yet whether either party will file a petition for review with the Supreme Court. Abbott & Kindermann, LLP will continue to monitor the issue and provide updates as they occur.

Cori Badgley is an attorney 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, or 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.