Earlier this week, the Second District Court of Appeal in California issued its final opinion in Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority, et al. (Case No. B232655), a closely watched case involving a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) challenge to Phase 2 of the Expo rail line planned to bring commuters from Culver City to Santa Monica. The final opinion, issued in substantially the same form as a tentative opinion released by the court last month, directly conflicts with recent California appellate court opinions issued by the Sixth and Fifth Districts dealing with how lead agencies are supposed to analyze potential traffic impacts under CEQA. Neighbors for Smart Rail may give public agencies fresh hope so that they can assess a development project’s potential traffic impacts against conditions expected to exist upon project buildout, not against existing conditions during the project approval process, which will inevitably be different by the time the project has been constructed and is operational.
The Neighbors for Smart Rail opinion states: “in a proper case, and when supported by substantial evidence, use of projected conditions may be an appropriate way to measure the environmental impacts that a project will have on traffic.” The court elaborated in applying its reasoning, stating that an “analysis of the environmental impact of the project on conditions existing in 2009, when the final EIR was issued . . . would only enable decision makers and the public to consider the impact of the rail line if it were here today.” Such an analysis of the “project’s impacts on anachronistic 2009 traffic and air quality conditions would rest on the false hypothesis that everything will be the same 20 years later.”
This approach presents a stark departure from the recent line of three appellate court opinions issued from December 2010 to November 2011 (i.e., the Sunnyvale line of cases).1 Those three opinions upended the way many public agencies across California long analyzed proposed development projects’ potentially significant traffic impacts under CEQA, sending many cities, counties and project applicants into a frenzy of activity to change long-held practices to conform to the sudden shift in the case law. Read together, those three cases indicated that while a lead agency retains discretion when selecting the baseline against which to compare a project’s traffic impacts, that agency must conduct a primary CEQA traffic assessment that analyzes the project’s traffic impacts against existing conditions as they exist no later than the date of anticipated project approval.
With the recent evolution in the case law resulting from Sunnyvale and its progeny now becoming unsettled, this new split between the Districts may ultimately have to be addressed by the California Supreme Court.2