Sunday, November 27, 2011

New Sunnyvale Case Highlights Discretion to Agencies for Selecting Baselines

Pfeiffer v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (Cal. Ct. App. 6th Dist filed Oct. 28, 2011) (cert. for publ. Nov. 22, 2011) No. H036310 available at CourtWebsite

In a case that carves away exceptions to the baseline selection holdings of Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Ass’n v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 1351 (“Sunnyvale West”), Pfeiffer v. City of Sunnyvale City Council provides important guidance and discretion to agencies for selecting baselines to analyze project impacts.

This case involved the expansion of a medical facility and the creation of a waste management and parking facility on various single-family residential lots. Neighborhood opponents sued, alleging -- among other arguments -- that the traffic analysis used an illegal “hypothetical” baseline rather than assessing impacts based on existing conditions.

Rejecting this argument, the court noted that CEQA does not require baselines only use currently existing conditions and that “predicted conditions may serve as an adequate baseline where environmental conditions vary.” The EIR’s traffic analysis outlined the following four traffic scenarios:

1. Existing conditions based on 2007 traffic counts.
2. Background conditions based on existing conditions multiplied by a growth factor based on the city’s travel demand forecasting model, plus traffic from “approved but not constructed developments in the area.”
3. Project conditions based on background conditions, plus anticipated traffic from the project (i.e., the net increase of 71,700 sf of medical office space).
4. Cumulative conditions based on existing conditions multiplied by a growth factor based on a comparison of the traffic projections for the General Plan, as well as cumulative scenarios from the city’s forecasting model and the Moffet Park Specific Plan.

The court noted that, based on the “existing conditions and the predictions for traffic conditions generated by factors other than the [project], including already-approved developments” (i.e., predicted background conditions), the EIR concluded that the project would not result in significant near-term traffic impacts. The court endorsed the use of multiple baselines -- stating that the EIR’s “traffic baselines . . . were not limited to projected traffic condition[s] in the year 2020, but also included existing conditions and the traffic growth anticipated from approved but not yet constructed developments.” The court also noted that the EIR included charts comparing the traffic data from each scenario that allowed foreseeable impacts to be understood and weighed. Finding no evidence that the analyses were inadequate, the court rejected the petitioners’ claim that the baseline selection was incorrect.

The case’s holdings are notably different from, but consistent with, Madera Oversight Coalition v. County of Madera (Sept. 13, 2011) 199 Cal. App. 4th 48, in which an EIR’s baseline selection was found inadequate for a mixed-use development project. There, the EIR only labeled one of its three traffic scenarios as a “baseline” related to predicted year 2025 conditions. However, the court could not determine if existing conditions were also used as a baseline because, although three traffic scenarios were provided (existing 2007, predicted 2025 without the project, and predicted 2025 with the project), there was no explicit statement or analysis showing that existing conditions were used as a baseline. The Madera case was similar to Sunnyvale West, which similarly only used “projected traffic conditions in the year 2020” as a baseline and did not consider traffic impacts on the existing environment.

This new Sunnyvale case is especially important, because it shows that these cases can be distinguished, and that predicted conditions, if used properly, can serve as a baseline.

Disposing of the other arguments, the court also found no merit in challenges to the EIR’s general plan consistency discussion or traffic and construction noise impacts analyses. The court stated that the EIR was adequate and its responses to comments related to general plan conformity contained an appropriate level of detail and demonstrated a good faith analysis. The court made similar "baseline" conclusions related to traffic noise, finding the EIR properly concluded that noise increases attributable to the project would not be significant. Finally, the court concluded that the EIR presented sufficient information regarding construction noise and feasible mitigation that the foreseeable impacts of pursuing the project could be understood and weighed.