High Sierra Rural Alliance v. County of Plumas,  2018 Cal.App. LEXIS 1032.

While challenges facing California’s urban centers are the focus of most planning policy gatherings, the fact is that on a geographic basis, most of California is not urban.  Moreover, the economic engine which is responsible for creating new jobs and housing largely missed the off-ramp for California’s rural areas. Rural California has endured decades of job loss in the resource industries with no meaningful offsetting reinvestment strategy.  The scenario of flat line or negative growth poses an unusual fact pattern for how rural governments comply with CEQA when updating their respective general plans.  The most recent CEQA case considers how this played out in Plumas County, a rural mountain county located roughly 130 miles northeast of Sacramento.

Between 2000 and 2010, Plumas County lost population according to the U. S. Census Bureau, one of a limited number of California counties to do so.  In 2005, the County initiated an update of its 1984 General Plan.   In 2011, the Board of Supervisors adopted the project description for CEQA review of the updated general plan.  At the conclusion of the public review process in December 2013, the Board certified a programmatic EIR and adopted the updated general plan.  High Sierra Rural Alliance filed suit, challenging the general plan and EIR.  The trial court denied relief and High Sierra appealed, arguing four issues.

On appeal, the issue with the broadest potential interest involved allegations that the General Plan opened up significant rural areas to development, and that the EIR failed to assess that potential.   The evidence in the administrative record told a different story.  During the General Plan/EIR process, the County had considered its loss of population over the prior decade, the documented slow rate of building permit and parcel map activity in prior years along with the future year population estimates by Department of Finance and Caltrans  (0.7% annual population increase estimated through 2050.)  Actual and projected growth, coupled with the restrictive nature of the newly updated policies, formed the basis for the County’s conclusion that little growth was likely to occur outside of its existing communities.  Given this evidentiary foundation, CEQA did not obligate the County to consider a worst case growth scenario.  While the County recognized that second home development may occur in the future, those projects would be subject to separate CEQA reviews.   The first tier programmatic General Plan EIR was sufficient.

High Sierra also urged that the EIR be recirculated as a result of new information added to the final EIR.  However, the appellate court noted that the maps add to the EIR had been available to the public all during the planning process, and thus was not new information.  High Sierra also argued the addition of building intensity limitations after the public hearing necessitated re-circulation.   The appellate court concluded that High Sierra was mischaracterizing the effect of the add development standards.   The addition of limitations on new development had the effect of adding new restrictions, and did not have the effect of opening up areas for development.   Once again the appellate court noted that the County had a factual basis to conclude that the County expected limited rural development activity, and that the addition of additional building limitations did not create new impacts or substantially increase anticipated impacts.  The effect of the added height and building limitations did not warrant re-circulation of the EIR.

The appeal also included a challenge to the legal sufficiency of the new General Plan, arguing that policies conflicted with the California Timberland Productivity Act of 1982.  High Sierra argued that the General Plan’s determination that single family homes in TPZ were permitted uses was inconsistent with the requirements of the state Timberland statute limiting those structures as those necessary for timber management.    The administrative record reflected that the County’s amendment to the prior general plan text was to eliminate duplicative language found in the state code, and that required determinations under the state code were still operative.   There was no evidence in the record which reflected a practice of the County to act in contravention of the state Timberland statutes.

Finally, High Sierra argued that the Timberland Productivity Act compelled that the County follow discretionary CEQA review when making the required determinations, and that the General Plan, to the extent it did not allow for discretionary review violated state statute.  The appellate court disagreed, concluding that the Timberland Productivity Act did not compel that the statutory determination that the structure is necessary for the management of the timberland zoned property is an action which compels discretionary CEQA review. 

William W. Abbott is a shareholder at Abbott & Kindermann, Inc.  For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, Inc., 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.