Court Upholds Use of Future Baseline Under CEQA
In Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority, the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District ruled that, when supported by substantial evidence, projected future conditions may serve as an appropriate baseline for measuring a project's impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act. The court disagreed with two prior appellate decisions, Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Sunnyvale, 190 Cal. App. 4th 1351 (2010), and Madera Oversight Coalition v. County of Madera, 199 Cal. App. 4th 48 (2011), which both held that CEQA prohibits use of baseline conditions that are projected to occur after certification of the Environmental Impact Report.
The case involved an EIR certified by the Board of the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority for a light rail line connecting downtown Los Angeles with Santa Monica. For traffic and air quality impacts, the EIR used conditions projected to occur in 2030 as the baseline.
The court upheld that decision, noting that while an agency may not use a future hypothetical scenario as the baseline, it may, in appropriate circumstances, use a realistic projection of future conditions. The court ruled that nothing in CEQA requires the use of existing conditions, or prohibits the use of future conditions, as the environmental baseline. It recognized that the CEQA Guidelines state that the environmental setting at the commencement of environmental review "will normally constitute the baseline," but emphasized that "to state the norm is to recognize the possibility of departure from the norm." The court concluded that "an agency's use of projected future baseline, when supported by substantial evidence, is an appropriate means to analyze the traffic and air quality effects of a long-term infrastructure project" that is designed to serve a future population.
Applying these principles, the court observed that future population growth in Los Angeles County over the next 20 years, with its resulting effects on traffic and air quality, is not hypothetical – "it is inevitable." The court noted that since the project at issue would not even begin operating until 2015 at the earliest, "its impact on presently existing traffic and air quality conditions will yield no practical information to decision makers or the public." The 20-year planning horizon for the project also supported the agency's decision to use conditions projected to occur in the year 2030 as the CEQA baseline.
The court's opinion is part of a recent trend of cases showing increased deference to the discretion of CEQA lead agencies.
© 2012 Perkins Coie LLP