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A Solid Administrative Record is the Key to Successfully Defending a Challenge to an EIR

In Cherry Valley Pass Acres v. City of Beaumont, 2010 WL 4705953 (2010), the plaintiffs challenged the adequacy of an environmental impact report (“EIR”) for a project to convert a large egg farm to suburban residential development under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).

The plaintiffs claimed the EIR relied on an improper baseline, failed to demonstrate sufficient water supplies would be available for the project and other uses long term, failed to adequately consider mitigation measures for the loss of agricultural lands, and made findings of overriding considerations not supported by substantial evidence. The trial court denied the petition and the Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that CEQA does not require a local agency to make the least environmentally impactful decision, it requires it to make an informed decision based on substantial evidence as the City did in this case.

The City used existing water rights for the property at issue as the baseline against which to measure the water supply and availability impacts of the proposed project, even though the egg farm had not utilized their full water rights for the preceding two years. Plaintiffs argued that the much lower amount of water currently used at the property was the proper baseline, not the water right. The Court found the City’s approach to be reasonable because the baseline number was based on existing, enforceable rights to use of water for this particular property and because the landowner had utilized a portion of its water rights nearly equal to the baseline amount as recently as 2001 (two years prior). The Court found that the City could have chosen a different baseline figure, including the current water usage on site, but determined that the number it chose was realistic and supported by substantial evidence.

In evaluating whether the City’s analysis of water supply for the project was adequate, the court relied heavily on the California Supreme Court decision, Vineyard Area Citizens for Responsible Growth, Inc. v. City of Rancho Cordova (2007) 40 Cal.4th 412. The EIR contained an extensive analysis of water supplies that would be available for the project as well as other sources of water that would likely be available as well, each of which would more than satisfy the water supply needs. The Court found the City had met its obligations under Vineyard to demonstrate that sufficient water would be available to meet the project’s needs, rejecting plaintiff’s argument that the EIR had to establish that sufficient water would be available to meet all projected regional water needs, not just the needs of the project.

The EIR concluded that long-term agricultural uses were no longer feasible in the Cherry Valley and Beaumont areas due to the change in land uses and increase in property values. The court found there was substantial evidence in the record to support this conclusion and the conclusion that offsite mitigation measures such as land purchases, agricultural easements, Williamson Act contracts and other similar measures were also infeasible. Plaintiffs argued that these mitigation measures were feasible and should have been analyzed and incorporated because they could be paid for with profits realized from the project. The court disagreed, explaining that infeasible mitigation measures do not become feasible simply because the net profits from the project could cover the costs. Since all potential mitigation measures were infeasible, the court found that the City acted properly when it declined to analyze them in any detail because CEQA only requires consideration of feasible mitigation measures.

Each of these issues could have been fatal to the EIR if the administrative record had not contained substantial evidence to support the City’s decisions. This opinion affirms that while CEQA requires agencies to take all reasonable steps to make informed decisions taking into consideration the reasonable range of environmental impacts that may result from the project and various alternatives, it does not require an encyclopedic analysis of every possible impact and/or mitigation measure, nor does it require absolute certainty as to future events. If an agency has satisfied this standard and the record in support of its decision contains substantial evidence supporting that decision, the EIR will likely be upheld.

Meyers Nave’s Land Use Group provides advice on local land use, subdivision, zoning, environmental impact reviews and CEQA issues. For more information about the Group, or the legal issues discussed in this alert, contact our attorneys at 800.464.3559.