Third District Court of Appeal Determines County Prepared CEQA Addendum for Wrong Project EIR

The Third District Court of Appeal published its holding in the case Martis Camp Community Association v. County of Placer (2020) 53 Cal.App.5th 569 on August 17, 2020. This case involved a challenge to Placer County’s approval of a partial abandonment of a public road easement.

Background

The public road in question connected the residential subdivisions known as the Retreat at Northstar and Martis Camp. These developments were approved in 2005, and the CEQA documents for both projects assumed that this connecting road would be for emergency access and public transit vehicles only. The approval for the Retreat EIR included conditions of approval regarding the emergency access road. In 2007, the County prepared an addendum to the Martis Camp EIR for a ski lift connection. This addendum again assumed that private vehicle use of the connecting road would not occur. However, private use of the connecting road by Martis Camp residents began around 2010.

In 2015, the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved a request by the Retreat at Northstar for a partial abandonment of the public easement for the connecting road. This approval limited use of the connecting road to Retreat property owners and emergency and transit vehicles, consistent with the prior CEQA documents. The County also approved an addendum to the Martis Camp EIR in support of the decision. Petitioners, representing Martis Camp and individual property owners, filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging violations of the Brown Act, statutory requirements for public road abandonment, and CEQA. The Third District upheld the trial court’s ruling that no Brown Act violation occurred, no violation of statutory requirements for abandonment of a public road occurred, and that the inverse condemnation claim was properly dismissed. However, the Third District reversed and remanded the trial court’s ruling on the CEQA claim.

Third District’s Holding on the CEQA Claims

On appeal, the Third District considered whether the County violated CEQA by failing to prepare a subsequent or supplemental EIR and instead relying on an addendum to the Martis Camp EIR, and whether the County used an improper CEQA baseline.

The court explained that, in this case, substantial evidence did not support the county’s determination that abandonment of the connecting road was a modification to the Martis Camp project. That project prohibited private use of the connecting road, and the abandonment did not change that. Instead, the court concluded that the abandonment was actually a modification of the Retreat project. The court found this error to be prejudicial, because it prevented the County from considering whether major modifications would be required to the Retreat EIR, thereby triggering a subsequent or supplemental EIR under section 21166. Pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21166, a lead agency will only be required to prepare a subsequent or supplemental EIR if certain conditions are met, such as substantial changes are proposed in a project which would require major revisions to the EIR.

The Third District rejected the petitioner’s CEQA baseline argument. Petitioners argued that the supplemental review baseline should have reflected conditions on the date of environmental analysis. These conditions included use of the connecting road by Martis Camp residents. However, the court explained that petitioners confused the CEQA baseline rules for initial review with the rules for subsequent review. For initial environmental review, the baseline must usually reflect existing conditions on the ground. However, in subsequent review cases, the previously approved project serves as the baselines. The court explained that subsequent CEQA review compares the effects of the proposed project changes to the effects of the previously analyzed and approved project.

Takeaway

This is a fact-intensive case with fairly unique circumstances (i.e., two closely-situated and similar projects referencing the same road and approved one moth apart). The County prevailed on most claims, and the loss on the CEQA subsequent review claim feels harsh. It seems the lead agency generally complied with the law and the spirit of CEQA, and the prejudicial CEQA error identified by the Third District reads like a technicality. Without having the benefit of reviewing the record, it’s unclear how subsequent or supplemental review would be triggered for the Retreat EIR, especially when both projects assumed private use of the connecting road.

Despite this, the court provides a helpful published explanation regarding the distinction between baseline for initial review under section 21151 and baseline for subsequent/supplemental review under section 21166. This is a subtle but very important distinction that lead agencies often struggle with, especially when project opponents object to proceeding with a project-as-approved baseline in supplemental/subsequent review circumstances.