In Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (filed August 5, 2013) (“Neighbors”), a majority of the California Supreme Court justices announced a new rule regarding the baseline agencies may use when conducting a CEQA analysis of a project’s environmental impacts. Specifically, the Court ruled that CEQA does not prohibit the exclusive use of projected future conditions provided that there is substantial evidence in the record that the use of an existing conditions baseline would “tend to be misleading or without informational value.” Although the Court majority held that the respondent agency in Neighbors used the wrong baseline under this standard, a plurality of the Court upheld the project approval on the ground that the agency’s error was not prejudicial.

Neighbors involved a CEQA challenge to the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority’s (“Authority”) approval of a light-rail project running from Culver City to Santa Monica. In December 2009, the Authority published its final Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) and, in February 2010, it certified the EIR’s compliance with CEQA. Subsequently, opponents of the project, Neighbors for Smart Rail (“Neighbors”), challenged the project’s compliance with CEQA. Both the superior court and appellate court upheld the project’s CEQA analysis. The Supreme Court accepted certioari on two questions: did the Authority’s EIR violate CEQA because (1) it exclusively analyzed future conditions as a baseline for assessing the project’s environmental impacts, and (2) it used an impermissible mitigation measure to offset the project’s environmental impacts?

Writing for the majority, Justice Werdegar resolved an appellate court split of authority concerning the exclusive use of future conditions as a baseline for assessing project impacts. On one side of the split were the appellate opinions in Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 1351 and Madera Oversight Coaliation, Inc. v. County of Madera (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 48, both of which held that the use of a single future condition baseline was a per se CEQA violation. The appellate court opinion in Neighbors, on the other hand, held that future conditions could properly be used as baselines so long as they were reliable, provided relevant information, and permitted informed decisionmaking.Continue Reading CEQA Baseline Analysis: Future Conditions Baseline Should Be the Exception Not the Rule When Agency Reviews Environmental Impacts, Says Divided California Supreme Court