Why it matters: The EIR prepared for the long-term renovation and development of Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay was upheld despite the lack of detail regarding future uses of the site. The court’s decision provides guidance for long-term master-planned projects where flexibility is needed to respond to changing conditions and unforeseen events.

Facts: Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island (CSTI) argued that the City and County of San Francisco (City) failed to certify a legally adequate EIR for the Treasure Island/Yerba Buena Island Project (Project) in violation of CEQA. The Project is a comprehensive plan to redevelop the former naval station in the San Francisco Bay. The Project includes up to 8,000 homes, up to 240,000 square feet of new commercial, retail and office space, 500 hotel rooms, public utilities, a ferry terminal, and 300 acres of parks, playgrounds and open space, and is scheduled to take 15 to 20 years to complete. The existing site is characterized by aging infrastructure, environmental contamination from former naval operations, and deteriorated and vacant buildings. In July 2011, after more than a decade of planning, study and community input, the City’s Board of Supervisors approved the Project by a vote of 11-0, amending the City’s general plan, plan code maps and text, and approving policies and standards for the Project. CSTI filed for a petition of writ of mandate challenging the City’s decision to certify the EIR; the trial court denied the petition in its entirety and CSTI appealed.

Decision: The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision and dismissed each of CSTI’s arguments regarding the sufficiency of the EIR. The Court began by finding that the issues raised on appeal were properly reviewed under the substantial evidence standard because they involved the sufficiency of the information provided to the public and to the decision makers. CEQA requires an EIR to demonstrate a good faith effort at full disclosure; it does not mandate perfection, nor does it require an analysis to be exhaustive. Thus, the absence of information in an EIR will normally rise to a failure to proceed in the manner required by law only if the analysis in the EIR is clearly inadequate or unsupported.

Program versus Project EIR. CSTI’s principal argument was that the City should have prepared a program EIR, not a project-level EIR, given that the EIR constituted program-level CEQA analysis and anticipated later environmental review on specific projects.1  

The Court found that CSTI’s argument improperly focused on the EIR’s title rather than its substance; the fact that an EIR is labeled a project rather than a program EIR matters little for purposes of its sufficiency as an information document. The level of specificity of an EIR is determined by the nature of the project and the rule of reason, rather than any semantic label accorded to the EIR. The Court found that the EIR analyzed the environmental impacts of the Project with a degree of specificity consistent with the underlying activity being approved through the EIR and contained all of the required elements of an EIR found in the CEQA Guidelines. The Court did not detect any attempt to circumvent supplemental review, nor did the project EIR designation create any shortcut around the environmental review process as it applies to future site-specific approvals. The EIR provided the decision makers with sufficient analysis to intelligently consider the environmental consequences of the Project.

Adequate Project Description. CSTI claimed that the project description was inadequate, arguing that the Project — a 20-year, long-range development plan — was nothing more than a conceptual land use map. The Court found that the EIR made an extensive effort to provide meaningful information about the Project, while providing for the flexibility needed to respond to changing conditions and unforeseen events that could possibly impact the Project's final design. The creation of a special use district (SUD) and design for development (D4D) document provided concrete information about planning/design specifications that CSTI claimed were lacking. The Court acknowledged that many Project features would be subject to future revision and quite likely supplemental environmental review before implementation of the final design. However, the EIR was not faulted for not providing details that simply did not exist. Viewed as an informational document, the EIR’s Project Description provided sufficient information about the Project to allow the public and reviewing agencies to evaluate and review its environmental impacts, and also described the required main features of the Project.

Analysis of Hazardous Substances. With regard to the remediation of hazardous materials, CSTI argued that the EIR did not contain adequate discussion of the presence and remediation of hazardous substances; again, the Court disagreed. The EIR featured exhaustive information on the presence of hazardous materials and the ongoing cleanup efforts by the Navy, while also providing the standards, techniques, and oversight to be used in the event another party assumed responsibility for future remediation.

New Information. CSTI argued that new information added to the EIR required the City to recirculate the draft EIR. During the comment period, the Coast Guard commented on future building designs and potential vessel traffic service concerns. The City met with the Coast Guard, conducted additional technical studies to determine potential impacts, and created a binding consultation process between the Coast Guard and building developers to address potential future impacts. This did not require recirculation.

Historic Preservation. The Court dismissed CSTI’s claims relating to the preservation of two historic buildings because the EIR included binding design standards that would apply to future architectural design proposals. These required the historic resources be rehabilitated in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings.

Tidelands. Lastly, CSTI argued that the Project failed to analyze potential impacts of the Project on land subject to the Tidelands Trust. This argument failed because the EIR explicitly required conformance with the legal requirements of the Trust and noted what the use restrictions would be for the Tidelands.

Practice Pointers:

  • Courts analyze the substance of an EIR, not the semantic label applied to the EIR.
  • Not all details of a final project are required—an EIR will likely be upheld if it makes an extensive effort to provide meaningful information about the main features of a project, but also provides flexibility needed to respond to changing conditions and unforeseen events that could possibly impact the project’s final design.
  • Ensure EIRs articulate when future environmental review processes may be necessary for a project, including the applicable standards and regulatory oversight that will be used.