• Court Makes Key CEQA Ruling Involving Baseline Analyses
  • April 23, 2012 | Author: Michelle Ouellette
  • Law Firm: Best Best & Krieger LLP - Riverside Office
  • In the most important decision under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) so far this year, the California Court of Appeal ruled that lead agencies can use future condition baselines to analyze impacts that may not materialize for years, such as traffic, as long as the use of a future condition baseline is supported by substantial evidence. This has the potential to free lead agencies from having to do purely hypothetical impact analyses against existing conditions, even though those impacts won’t arise until years in the future.

    Specifically, the Court in Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (Cal Ct. App. April 17, 2012) stated that the use of future conditions as a baseline may be appropriate to determine the environmental impacts of a project, such as with regard to traffic, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, when the baseline is supported by substantial evidence. This use of future conditions as a baseline is particularly important when a project will not be completed until several years after the final EIR is certified, such that the use of current conditions as a baseline would inaccurately reflect the project’s environmental impacts.

    In doing so, the Court rejected the conclusion that the use of hypothetical future conditions as the baseline for analyzing the environmental impacts of a project is a violation of CEQA, as held in Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (2010)  and Madera Oversight Coalition, Inc. v. County of Madera (2011) . The Court distinguished the holdings in Sunnyvale and Madera and found that the CEQA Guidelines should be construed to permit analysis of environmental impacts using a baseline based on future conditions because the objective of CEQA is to provide information that is relevant and that permits informed decision-making.

    Although this decision is an important victory for public agencies as it may allow greater use of future conditions as a baseline, the baseline must still be supported by substantial evidence, and the effectiveness of such a baseline must be determined on a case-by-case basis.