November 18, 2016

Appellate Court Rejected EIR That Found Insignificant Traffic Impacts, Despite Consistency With Infill-Promoting General Plan Policy

Holland & Knight Alert
Genna Yarkin


  • The Court of Appeal of the State of California, Third Appellate District, overturned an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for an urban, residential infill project, rejecting the threshold of significance the City of Sacramento used to determine that traffic impacts were less than significant at two busy intersections.
  • The appellate court held that consistency with an infill-promoting general plan mobility element policy alone does not constitute substantial evidence that there is no significant impact, even where the policy is intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using flexible standards to measure traffic impacts in central city areas.

East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City v. City of Sacramento et al., No. C079614 (Cal. Ct. App. 3rd Dist., Nov. 7, 2016)

The Court of Appeal of the State of California, Third Appellate District, overturned an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) prepared under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The appellate court rejected the EIR's determination that traffic impacts at intersections in downtown Sacramento would be less than significant based on general plan mobility element policies aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by allowing some traffic congestion to encourage infill development and the promotion of public transit. Slip Op. at 2-3, 22.

On April 29, 2014, the City of Sacramento (City) certified the EIR for and approved the McKinley Village Project, a 336-unit, urban infill residential development with a community recreation center and three parks (Project). The EIR found no project specific or cumulative impacts that could not be mitigated to a less than significant level.

Following certification, a local group called the East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City (ESPLC) filed a lawsuit contending that the City violated CEQA and the City's general plan. The trial court denied all claims. On appeal, the ESPLC contended that 1) the Project description is defective, 2) there was illegal piecemealing of the Project, 3) the EIR failed to analyze significant health risks, 4) the EIR ignored significant traffic impacts, and 5) the EIR failed to disclose or mitigate methane migration. Slip Op. at 2.

The Court of Appeal found merit in only the fourth contention, explaining that compliance with a general plan policy does not conclusively establish there is no significant environmental impact, and that the City failed to adequately explain why it found none in this circumstance. Slip Op. at 2-3.

Court Finds Consistency With General Plan Mobility Element Policies Insufficient Threshold of Significance

The EIR analyzed traffic impacts using the level of service (LOS) method, using a scale of LOS A (free-flowing traffic) to LOS F (congested, "stop and go" traffic). Under General Plan Mobility Element Policy M 1.2.2, the City allows for flexible LOS standards in certain situations. LOS F conditions are acceptable during peak hours in the core, transit-oriented area of Sacramento bounded by C Street, the Sacramento River, 30th Street and X Street (downtown and midtown). They also may be acceptable to further the achievement of other goals provided there are improvements to the overall system or promotion of nonvehicular transportation. Slip Op. at 19. Relying on this general plan policy, the EIR found no significant impact at the intersections of 28th and E Streets as well as 29th and E Streets. Ibid.

The EIR concluded LOS F at some Project intersections under cumulative plus project conditions was insignificant, while concluding that similar impacts in East Sacramento outside the Project site were significant and require mitigation. Slip Op. at 22. The Court of Appeal concluded that the EIR failed to explain why such increases in traffic in the core area are not significant impacts, other than by reliance on the mobility element policy, which treats core areas differently than East Sacramento. Ibid. While the Court of Appeal recognized that CEQA grants agencies the authority to develop thresholds of significance, it also explained that a determination of insignificant impact must meet the substantial evidence standard. Slip Op. at 20; Pub Res. Code §21168.5; CEQA Guidelines §15064, subd. (d). The fact a particular environmental effect meets a particular threshold cannot be used as an "automatic determinant" that the effect is or is not significant, and the Court of Appeal emphasized the general plan alone does not constitute substantial evidence that there is no significant impact. Slip Op. at 21-22.

Because it concluded the EIR failed to explain or provide substantial evidence to support the finding of no significant traffic impact at the intersections, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's denial of ESPLC's petition for a writ of mandate, and remanded the case for issuance of a writ directing the City to set aside its certification of the EIR. The City must correct the deficiency in the EIR before considering its recertification. Slip Op. at 23.

Notably, the Court of Appeal expressed its support for infill development, and reiterated the California Supreme Court's holding in California Building Industry Assn. v. Bay Area Air Quality Management Dist. (2015) 62 Cal.4th 369 (CBIA) that CEQA does not require agencies to analyze the impact of existing environmental conditions on a project's future users or residents unless a proposed project risks exacerbating those environmental hazards. Slip Op. at 13-15. Ultimately, however, the Court of Appeal declined to accept the City's threshold for significance in its traffic analysis. 

Information contained in this alert is for the general education and knowledge of our readers. It is not designed to be, and should not be used as, the sole source of information when analyzing and resolving a legal problem. Moreover, the laws of each jurisdiction are different and are constantly changing. If you have specific questions regarding a particular fact situation, we urge you to consult competent legal counsel.

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