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California Supreme Court Confirms Deferential Standard of Review Applies to CEQA Analysis of Changed Projects

The California Supreme Court has ruled that the deferential “substantial evidence” standard of review applies to a public agency’s decision about whether changes to a project require further environmental analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). By clarifying the standard of review, this new decision benefits developers and public agencies by bolstering the use of addenda for accelerated CEQA review of changed projects. (Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College Dist. (Sept. 19, 2016)).

The case arose from a community college district’s facilities improvement plan, which proposed demolition and renovation of various buildings. Years after the district approved that plan pursuant to a mitigated negative declaration, the plan changed to propose renovation rather than demolition of two buildings, and demolition of one building complex originally proposed for renovation. The district held that the revised plan did not require preparation of a subsequent or supplemental EIR, and instead approved the changed project through an addendum. The trial court and Court of Appeal held that the demolition project was a “new project” and thus required use of an initial study to evaluate whether the revised project required preparation of an EIR. The California Supreme Court reversed, holding that “whether an initial environmental document remains relevant despite changed plans or circumstances” is a predominantly factual question to be answered by the public agency. That decision is subject to judicial review pursuant to the “substantial evidence” standard, which defers to an agency’s expertise. The Court further ruled that this standard applies regardless of whether the original environmental document was an EIR or a negative declaration.

The Supreme Court’s decision resolves a long-standing divide in case law regarding the appropriate standard of review for an agency’s decision regarding the need for additional environmental review when a project is changed. The new ruling supports the common practice of using addenda for CEQA review of modified projects – often used by public agencies to provide streamlined environmental review of project changes that do not result in new significant environmental impacts.