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Two Recent Cases Provide Guidance on Agency Examination of Alternatives, Other Issues, in CEQA Documents

Two recent cases have provided public agencies with important guidance concerning the selection and evaluation of alternatives in Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”s) prepared under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), as well as on other important issues.

The first case, Tracy First v. City of Tracy (“Tracy First”), was originally certified only for partial publication, but was recently ordered fully published. In the newly published portions of the Tracy First decision, the court found that the City of Tracy, in examining the impacts of a new shopping center development, had: adequately selected a reasonable range of alternatives; properly examined the energy consumption impacts of the project; and properly examined and mitigated extraterritorial impacts. Regarding the issue of the selection of alternatives, petitioners had argued that the City had erred by failing to select and examine a reduced project alternative. The court, noting that the intent of the alternatives analysis was to examine alternatives to the project that would actually reduce or avoid the significant impacts of the project, rejected petitioner’s argument, and held that there was no evidence that a reduced project alternative would actually reduce or avoid any of the project’s significant impacts. Next, the court rejected petitioners’ arguments that the EIR’s examination of the project’s energy consumption impacts was inadequate. Specifically, the court upheld the City’s reliance on state building code energy efficiency standards in determining whether the project would have energy efficiency impacts. In the final, newly published portion of Tracy First, the Court found that the City had not erred in failing to require the developer to pay fair share fees to mitigate traffic impacts to intersections within the County’s jurisdiction where the County had no plans for the improvement of these jurisdictions. The Court held that nothing in CEQA would require the payment of fees for extra-territorial impacts where there was no plan for the mitigation of those impacts.

In the second case, California Native Plant Society v. City of Santa Cruz, the court examined in detail the City’s alternatives analysis for a master plan for a City-owned greenbelt that included provisions for a multi-use trail. Importantly, the court explained that the question of the feasibility of project alternatives needs to be examined twice during the CEQA process, and under different standards. First, the court held, that the lead agency must select and examine alternatives in the EIR that are potentially feasible. Second, in certifying and EIR and approving a project, the lead agency must determine whether the alternatives examined in the EIR are actually feasible. The court held that the lead agency’s finding that the alternatives examined were not actually feasible did not mean that the agency had erred in the selection of alternatives for examination in the first place. Moreover, the court reiterated that the selection of alternatives for examination in the EIR was governed by the “rule of reason” and, so long as the alternatives selected are not “manifestly unreasonable” and would achieve most, but not necessarily all of the project objectives, the range of selected alternatives would be upheld. Next, the court held that the selection of an off-site alternative was not required. Finally, the court held that the City’s findings that the alternatives were infeasible were supported by substantial evidence. Critically, the court upheld the City’s decision to reject certain alternatives on policy grounds because, in the opinion of the City, those alternatives would not achieve what the City viewed as the most important objectives of the project.

For more information about Environmental Impact Reports, CEQA and other land use matters please contact Amrit Kulkarni or Ed Grutzmacher.