Court holds future projected conditions may be appropriately used under CEQA as baseline for long-term infrastructure projects

Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority, 204 Cal. App. 4th 1480 (2012)

April 17, 2012

B232655 (2nd Dist., Div. 8)

This case involves a CEQA challenge to the second phase of a light rail connection from downtown LA to Santa Monica. Several citizens groups challenged the environmental impacts assessment premised on baseline conditions in 2030, which was the 20-year planning horizon considered by the Expo Authority Board. Instead, petitioners argued the Board should have considered conditions between 2007, when the notice of preparation of the project was filed, and 2010, when the Board certified the EIR.

The trial and appellate courts both sided with the Board and held that CEQA does not preclude consideration of future conditions in the right circumstances. CEQA is silent on the point, and CEQA Guidelines section 15125 only requires that an EIR describe “the physical environmental conditions in the vicinity of the project,” which “will normally constitute the baseline physical conditions by which a lead agency determines whether an impact is significant.”

The Supreme Court and appellate decisions have generally required a comparison of a project’s impacts with existing conditions. The Court distinguished the Supreme Court CBE case where “hypothetical allowable” conditions were disallowed. In CBE, the total possible emissions of all four permitted polluting boilers, which had never run at the same time, could not be used as a baseline. But, here, the Court reasoned, because the light rail would not begin to operate until at least 2015, its impact on presently existing traffic and air quality would yield no practical information to the agency or public. Further, population continues to increase along with traffic and air pollution regardless of the project.

Therefore, this Court concluded, as a matter of law, that CEQA does not preclude consideration of projected conditions, and that such conditions may be an appropriate way to gauge environmental impacts of a long-term infrastructure project.

Prepared by John Reaves

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