The Claremont Canyon Conservancy v. Regents of the University of California (2023) 92 Cal.App.5th 474.

The Regents certified an EIR for a project aimed at reducing wildfire risk at UC Berkeley’s Hill Campus, located in the East Bay Hills.  Environmental organizations filed suit, contending, relevant here, that the EIR included an inadequate project description.  The groups generally contended that the EIR should have detailed the precise quantity of trees to be removed.  The trial court sided with the groups, concluding the project description was “uncertain and ambiguous.”  The First District Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the project description included sufficient information to allow the public to understand the project’s environmental impacts. 

CEQA Guidelines § 15124 requires that a project description include: the precise location and boundaries of the proposed project on a detailed map; a general description of the proposed project’s objectives, including the project’s underlying purpose; a general description of the project’s technical, economic, and environmental characteristics; and a brief description of the EIR’s intended uses.  The First District held the project description satisfied Guidelines § 15124 in that the EIR included: a sufficiently detailed map, a sufficient description of the project’s objectives, which stated the project’s underlying purpose as “reduc[ing] the amount and continuity of vegetation that increases wildland fire hazards, including highly flammable invasive plant species” while explaining why vegetation removal was required in the included areas; provided sufficient descriptions of the vegetation found in each project area, while listing “objective removal criteria” and a summary of “the methods used to remove vegetation;” and included a sufficient description of the EIR’s intended uses.

Moreover, regarding the groups’ displeasure with the EIR not specifying the exact number of trees that would be removed during the project, the court concluded the “princi8ples of density thing and objective criteria listed” in the EIR was sufficient.  Guidelines § 15124 states that project descriptions “should not supply extensive detail beyond that needed for evaluation and review of the environmental impact.”  Here, the appellate court concluded that the EIR included a stable project description along with a sufficient level of detail.  The EIR included a description of the iterative decision-making process to be employed in the field by arborists and professional foresters.  The site-specific evaluation would take into consideration site-specific issues such as fuel mix, density terrain, tree height, and canopy cover.  Given the potential for vegetation changes between EIR certification and project implementation, the appellate court agreed with the Regents that it was not feasible to do more at the time of EIR certification, as EIRs do not require “technical perfection,” “scientific certainty,” and “exhaustive analysis,” but rather, require only “adequacy, completeness and a good-faith effort at full disclosure.”

Also relevant is the court’s apparent endorsement of the Regents’ usage of fire models to predict fire behavior on the Hill Campus.  “The modeling considered factors including flame length, rate of spread, crown fire activity, and maximum spotting distance, along with the vegetation in a particular location—e.g., oak-bay woodland, eucalyptus forest, and coniferous forest. The EIR contains figures showing vegetation and fuel distribution in the project areas and the predicted crown fire activity under certain weather conditions.”  In its recently released guidance concerning best practices for wildfire risk mitigation under CEQA, the state Attorney General ‘s office recommended the use of fire modeling in quantifying wildfire risk, stating models should include a variety of plausible scenarios.

Bill 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.