Land Use Development: Supreme Court Clarifies Baseline to be Used in Assessing Environmental Impacts of Projects

August 6, 2013

On August 5, 2013, the California Supreme Court released an important decision concerning the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) and an interpretation of CEQA Guideline section 15125(a) on the “baseline” from which potential impacts would be measured in the matter entitled Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority et al. (Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority et al.).

In this case, Petitioner/Plaintiff Neighbors for Smart Rail (“Neighbors”) argued that the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (“Expo Authority”) violated CEQA by using an improper “baseline” for analyzing the potential impacts of a proposed light rail line on traffic, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.  As a general matter, in order for an agency to determine whether a potential impact is significant or not, it must compare the impact to a “baseline.”  Although CEQA does not specifically define the term “baseline,” CEQA Guideline section 15125(a) explains that the environmental setting upon which an agency will determine the significance of potential impacts will normally be “the physical environmental conditions in the vicinity of the project, as they exist at the time the notice of preparation is published, or if no notice of preparation is published, at the time environmental analysis is commenced, from both a local & regional perspective.” 

Neighbors claimed Expo Authority had improperly evaluated the significance of the traffic and air quality environmental impacts by solely using baseline conditions that would exist in the future, the year 2030, when the project had been completed.  Neighbors argued the Expo Authority should have used conditions sometime between 2007 (when the Notice of Preparation was filed) and 2010 (when the Expo Authority certified the EIR).  The Expo Authority acknowledged that the existing physical environmental conditions would normally constitute an appropriate baseline.  (Indeed, they used this in analyzing most of the environmental areas, but not for traffic and air quality.) 

However, the Expo Authority elected to use a future baseline for traffic and air quality finding that “the existing physical environmental conditions (current population and traffic levels) do not provide a reasonable baseline for the purpose of determining whether traffic and air quality impacts of the Project are significant.”  The Expo Authority found that it was necessary to evaluate future projected traffic and air quality conditions “so that the public and the decision makers may understand the future impacts on traffic and air quality of approving and not approving the project.”  Neighbors argued that use of this hypothetical future condition as the sole basis for analyzing the environmental impacts violated CEQA. 

The trial court denied Neighbors’ Petition, affirming the Expo Authority’s decision to use a 2030 baseline, and the Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court.  The California Supreme Court granted Neighbor’s request for review in order to analyze whether under CEQA a public agency is required to evaluate a project’s potential traffic and other impacts using a baseline consisting of the existing physical conditions in the affected area during the period of environmental review, or whether the agency may elect to evaluate the impacts of a project only against projected future conditions.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court agreed with Neighbors that the EIR failed to comply with the mandates of the CEQA by relying exclusively on an anticipated baseline in the year 2030 to evaluate potential traffic and air quality impacts.  The Court cautioned:  “[p]roject future conditions may be used as the sole basis for impacts analysis if their use in place of measured existing conditions – a departure from the norm stated in Guideline section 15125(a) – is justified by unusual aspects of the project or the surrounding conditions.”   Here, the Expo Authority had failed to provide substantial evidence in the record that use of existing conditions would have been uninformative or misleading to decision makers and the public. 

Notwithstanding this finding, the Court concluded that the abuse of discretion in respect of the future baseline was nonprejudicial because under the facts of this case the analysis did not deprive the agency or the public of information on the potential traffic and air quality impacts. The Court, therefore, affirmed the rulings of both the Court of Appeal and the trial court denying the writ of mandate.

If you are in the process of preparing an EIR for a project or have already prepared one, this case may impact the findings contained therein.  If you have any questions about the potential application of the Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line case, please contact Craig Beam or Greg Regier of JDTP’s Land Use Development Service Group.

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