Tuesday, April 17, 2012

New Appellate Case Reins In The Sunnyvale Restrictions Against Using Future Baselines for Infrastructure Projects

Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (April 17, 2012) No. B232655 available at CourtWebsite

California's 2nd Appellate District for the Courts of Appeal has just issued a decision that rejects a line of cases in the 5th and 6th Appellate Districts stemming from Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (2010) 190 Cal. App. 4th 1351, 1383 -- a line of cases based on Sunnyvale's conclusion that a project's baseline that is used for analyzing the significance of impacts cannot be based on conditions existing after the anticipated time of project approval.

This new case involved a railway project that would run from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, but would not begin to operate until 2015 at the earliest. The court found that using existing conditions as a baseline for analyzing the project's impacts would have been wrong for the project, because it would rest the EIR's analyses on a false hypothesis that everything would remain the same many years later when the project was actually completed. Thus, the court found that using an appropriate projected future baseline (instead of existing conditions), when supported by substantial evidence, is an appropriate means to analyze the traffic and air quality effects of a long-term infrastructure project. Thus, contrary to the Sunnyvale line of cases, the court found that using a future baseline, even after the date of project approval was reasonable -- especially for long-term infrastructure projects (e.g., large-scale railway, highway, and water supply projects, etc.) where the project will not be completed, and thus the impacts from the project will not be realized, for decades to come.

This case is groundbreaking. It brings sweeping reform to the baseline selection process pursuant to CEQA. However, it is important to note that there is now a disagreement between the courts in California, and because of the conflict between appellate courts, even further changes in the selection of appropriate baselines could come if the Supreme Court weighs in.