Bay Area Citizens v. Association of Bay Area Governments (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 966

Why It Matters: The adequacy of the first Sustainable Communities Strategy (Plan Bay Area) adopted by the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments (together, the Agencies) was upheld by the Court of Appeal. The court rejected Petitioner Bay Area Citizens' (Citizens) CEQA challenge to the EIR, concluding that it was premised on a misinterpretation of SB 375's requirements, and holding that the EIR correctly excluded state-mandated emissions reductions in developing strategies to meet SB 375's emissions targets.

Facts: On July 18, 2013, the Agencies adopted Plan Bay Area, the updated regional transportation plan and first sustainable communities strategy for the nine-county Bay Area region, and certified the Plan Bay Area EIR. Plan Bay Area was adopted pursuant to SB 375, enacted in 2008, which created a framework to link transportation and land use planning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicle trips, and directed the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to set regional targets for reducing GHG emissions for each of the state's regional planning agencies. In 2008, CARB issued its Scoping Plan, and in 2010, issued its GHG reduction targets for the Bay Area region. Plan Bay Area establishes a plan for reducing GHG emissions through combined land use and transportation strategies believed to meet the required per capita percentage reductions (7 percent by 2020 and 15 percent by 2035, as compared to emissions in 2005). The strategies, prepared in consultation with CARB and to be implemented by individual cities and counties, included land use intensification around transit corridors.

The Plan Bay Area EIR evaluated the Plan's ability to meet regional targets, anticipated changes in GHG emissions by 2040, and compliance with Executive Orders S-3-05 (calling for an overall reduction of GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050) and B-16-2012 (outlining benchmarks for 2015, 2020 and 2025 related to getting zero-emission vehicles on the road, and establishing a goal of an 80 percent reduction of GHG emissions from the transportation sector in California by 2050 as compared to 1990 levels). The EIR's analysis of the Plan's ability to meet the regional targets excluded any benefits from legislation requiring state-mandated emissions reductions from new passenger vehicles, light-duty trucks and non-commercial vehicles sold in California, or from low carbon fuel requirements.

Citizens filed a petition challenging the certification of the EIR, arguing that it failed to adequately identify the Plan's basic objectives, failed to adequately assess a "No Project" alternative by relying on an "obviously outdated baseline," failed to include a reasonable, feasible alternative to Plan Bay Area, and failed to respond to Citizens' proposed alternative plan. Citizens asserted that the Agencies imposed unnecessary land use plans on the Bay Area in order to meet the Board's 2020 and 2035 emissions reduction targets and improperly ignored the GHG emissions reductions expected from statewide mandates. Citizens argued that the Agencies should have adopted, or at least considered, an alternative plan so as to avoid Plan Bay Area's "draconian" and "unnecessary" land use and transportation strategies.

The Decision: In affirming the trial court's judgment upholding Plan Bay Area and the EIR, the Court of Appeal rejected all of Citizens' arguments as being premised on the mistaken position that SB 375 requires regional agencies to include GHG emission reductions expected to occur from legally mandated statewide vehicle technology improvements and the low carbon fuel standard in developing their plans to meet regional targets set by CARB. At the outset, the court summarized its decision as follows:

Citizens relies on the premise that the Legislature, via SB 375, launched a major new climate protection initiative requiring regional agencies to develop regional land use and transportation strategies through an elaborate planning process that in the end would be superfluous because the agencies could meet [CARB's] regional emissions reduction targets simply by invoking reductions already expected from pre-existing statewide mandates. This interpretation makes no sense. And it is contradicted by SB 375's emphasis on regional innovations, the Legislature's declarations and findings, and the Board's contemporaneous construction of the statute. Further, even apart from the regional focus of SB 375 and the Legislature's declarations and findings, the Legislature conferred on the Board broad discretion to develop targets and require regional agencies to meet them through regional planning. It was within the Board's discretion to require regional agencies to achieve emissions reductions entirely through regional planning strategies so as to produce regional emissions reductions beyond those produced by statewide mandates.

The opinion provides a lengthy and detailed discussion of the statewide mandates leading up to SB 375, California's GHG emissions reductions laws and regulations and the Agencies' development, environmental review, and adoption of Plan Bay Area. However, the primary issue was whether SB 375 allowed the Agencies, in developing their regional plans and in determining whether they met CARB's regional targets, to rely on emissions reductions already expected from preexisting statewide mandates to fulfill their statutory obligation, rather than adopting regional strategies to reduce emissions beyond those already expected from the statewide mandates. The court concluded the Agencies correctly declined to rely on the expected reductions. Thus, the EIR's description of Plan Bay Area's basic objectives adequately disclosed its goals, including its limitation to considering GHG emissions reductions achieved through the plan's combined land use and transportation pattern, not the statewide mandates.

With respect to Citizens' argument that the EIR did not adequately assess a "No Project" alternative, the EIR's climate change impact analysis included consideration of the statewide mandate under a "Criterion 2" (whether the Plan will cause a net increase in direct and indirect GHG emissions in 2040 compared to existing conditions) and a "Criterion 3" (whether the plan would substantially impede attaining GHG goals under specified executive orders). The court concluded that the Agencies' consideration of the statewide mandates in this manner was entirely appropriate. The EIR's failure to incorporate updated modeling to account for more recent technical changes in the state mandates was not feasible and did not implicate a core aspect of Plan Bay Area and was "legally irrelevant to meeting the Board's SB 375 targets."

The court further concluded that Citizens' proposed alternative, the "Bay Area Citizens Transportation and Housing Alternative," was not feasible under SB 375. Citizens' proposed alternative relied heavily on greenhouse gas emissions expected from the statewide mandates. Because this way of meeting SB 375 targets did not comply with SB 375, it was infeasible and the Agencies were not required to consider it. Citizens also failed to establish that the Agencies abused their discretion in responding to its comments, which were also based on a misinterpretation of SB 375. Judged against a rule of reason, the EIR's analysis of the "No Project" and three other alternatives was sufficient.

Finally, the court affirmed the trial court's judgment based on separate and independent grounds argued by the Attorney General as amicus curiae. The court held that while Citizens ostensibly challenged the Agencies' CEQA methodology for failing to sufficiently consider the statewide mandates, they did not explain why, given the extensive disclosures and analyses contained in the EIR, the Agencies were required to further discuss the statewide mandates in order to comply with CEQA. Regardless of SB 375's and CARB's requirements, the EIR provided sufficient disclosures about the Agencies' methodologies, their consideration of the statewide mandates, the environmental impacts of Plan Bay Area, project alternatives and more. The court agreed with the Attorney General that Citizens' arguments amounted to a substantive attack on the wisdom of Plan Bay Area itself, and that "while Citizens 'may think it is unwise to take an ambitious approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through regional and local efforts, rather than relying primarily on projected reductions expected from statewide measures, that disagreement is not the basis of a CEQA challenge when the Agencies conducted appropriate analyses and disclosed them in the EIR.' "

Practice Pointers:

  • This decision affirms that regional agencies may not rely on projected emissions reductions from preexisting statewide mandates in order to meet CARB's regional greenhouse gas emissions targets when preparing plans required under SB 375.
  • To the extent that Citizens' chief complaint is with the substance of the plan, the decision affirms that CEQA litigation is not an appropriate avenue to address or challenge legislative policies.