Environmental Council of Sacramento v. County of Sacramento (2020) 2020 Cal.App. LEXIS 175

The County of Sacramento approved a master planned community, a feature of which was a proposed university. Opponents filed a CEQA challenge arguing: (1) the uncertainty over whether the university would be constructed invalidated the project description and impact analyses for traffic, air quality and climate change; (2) the project was inconsistent with the local Sustainable Communities Strategy; and (3) the agency’s failure to adopt feasible mitigation measures. The trial court and court of appeal upheld the master plan approval, addressing several issues:

Project Description.  The appellants argued that uncertainty regarding the university resulted in an improper project description. The original development application reflected a California State University as the future education facility, but the Board of Trustees withdrew. The project was approved without an educational commitment. The project was conditioned to freeze the university campus site for 30 years, and the developer was required to fund a university escrow account. The administrative proceedings included communications speaking to the need for additional educational facilities and the desirability of this location for this purpose. Based upon these facts, the court held that it was not unreasonable for the County to include the university as part of the project description. Stated another way, it was not reasonably foreseeable that a substitute land use would occur in lieu of the university, and an EIR is only required to evaluate reasonably foreseeable activities. Thus, the opponents failed to present “credible and substantial evidence” that the university was an illusory land use.

Air Quality.  The appellants made a related argument that as the university was illusory, certain impact analyses and conclusions were necessarily erroneous. Regarding air quality, the mitigation measures had been revised to achieve the same air quality mitigation levels even in the event of a change in land use for the university, thus there was no substantial increase in impact levels (and no recirculation required).  Moreover, the project impact was already determined to significantly exceed the threshold of significance levels that a reduction in mitigation would not ultimately lead to a substantial increase in severity of the impact. Finally, the court noted that in any case the resultant reduction in the level of mitigation is not equivalent to an increase in impacts for recirculation purposes.

Climate Change.  As with air quality, the planning documents were amended to carry forward the metric tons per capita limit for GHG emissions, with or without the university.  Thus, the environmental document remained valid even in the absence of the university component.

Traffic.  Appellants also challenged the traffic analysis in the event the university was not developed.  However, the court held that this was adequately addressed in the FEIR as a response to comment which noted that non-automotive trips associated with the university had only limited effect on overall mode share and that elimination of the university would reduce daily trips by approximately 9,000.

Sustainable Community Strategies.  The appellate court rejected the inconsistency argument on the basis that appellants failed to exhaust administrative remedies and nothing in SB 375 required consistency review as part of the CEQA process.

Feasible Mitigation Measures.  Appellants argued that phasing the project would be a feasible mitigation measure. This was interpreted by the trial court as not building some, or all of the project until a university was built. The Board had adopted findings that suggested mitigation measures not incorporated into the project were rejected in part because the measures would interfere with attaining the economic, social and other benefits of the project which the “Board finds outweighs the unmitigated impacts of the Project.” The appellate court concluded that the appellants had failed to meet their burden of demonstration the feasibility of the phasing mitigation measure.

 William Abbott is Of Counsel 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.