A new Court of Appeal case, San Francisco Tomorrow v. City and County of San Francisco, 214 Cal App Lexis 735 lends support to A.B. 32 as a standard of significance for GHG impacts and to the use of an air district metric approach as an alternative standard.
The case involved renovation and expansion of a 152-acre parcel near Lake Merced, partly surrounded by San Francisco State University. The property was developed in the 1940s to develop "affordable, middle-income housing" and involved several distinguished architects and designers of the time. The new proposal would expand the property from 3221 residential units over the course of 20 to 30 years to a total of 8900 units. This being avant-garde San Francisco, it would also be connected to light rail transit, significant affordable housing, day care facilities, a new organic farm, and community gardens.
In an extensive CEQA discussion, which the court regretfully chose not to publish, the court first distinguished between project design features in mitigation measures, holding that a tenant relocation plan did not require discussion as mitigation. "The tenant relocation program is not a mitigation measure. Rather it is one of the project sponsor's objectives in part of the project description..." (Italics in original). And if the project description includes certain project features which are based on assumptions, these are "actually integral portions of the proposed project. If they fail to become reality (e.g. if the transportation corridor is not built), we are dealing with a different project." This discussion is one of the rare court descriptions of the differences between project design features in mitigation measures and how they should be treated in the EIR.
Petitioners argued that any increase in GHG emissions before 2020 must be deemed significant, based on the target goal set forth in A.B. 32. The court replied that "there is no requirement that a lead agency must find a project causes a significant impact simply because it may not result in decreased GHG emissions by 2020." The choice of a standard of significance is left to the lead agency's discretion in San Francisco. It also implemented binding and enforceable programs to reduce GHG omissions, which were applicable to the proposed project, and must have had measured success in reducing GHG commission impacts. The EIR could rely on A.B. 32 to make the determination that such a program would have a less-than-significant impact.
Moreover, the court also approved the so-called metrics approach, in which there emissions are evaluated based on a determination of emissions levels per service population, per year, rather than the percentage approach used in A.B. 32 - even if the applicable air district has not finalized the metric guidelines: "Because the proposed project-related operational emissions would be less than the [Bay Area Air Quality Management District] draft guideline level of 4.6 MTCO2E per service population per year, project related GHG emissions would result in a less than significant impact on climate change. No mitigation is required."
Given the significance of the project and its location, as well as the significant issues discussed, a petition to publish this portion of the decision seems warranted.