A recent court decision upheld the use of multiple scenarios in a traffic analysis in an environmental impact report ("EIR") for a redevelopment project. On November 22, 2011, the Sixth District of the California Court of Appeal certified for publication its decision in Pfeiffer v. City of Sunnyvale City Council ("Pfeiffer"), Case No. H036310, which rejected, among other claims, a challenge to an EIR traffic analysis that used future baseline scenarios to evaluate impacts. The decision highlights and reinforces (1) the necessity of discussing existing conditions in addition to other scenarios that may provide more useful information regarding project impacts; and (2) the importance of substantiating a decision to deviate from existing conditions as the analytical baseline.

The traffic analysis in the EIR described four scenarios: "existing conditions," "background conditions" (future baseline), "project conditions" (future baseline plus project), and "cumulative conditions" (future baseline plus project plus General Plan build-out). The existing conditions were based on measured traffic levels at or around the time of publication of the Notice of Preparation ("NOP") of the EIR for the project. The other scenarios involved various modifications of the existing conditions--including the application of ambient growth factors, reasonably anticipated projects, and General Plan build-out--for each of which the EIR provided a detailed methodological discussion.

Notably, the project-level traffic analysis did not directly compare existing-plus-project conditions to existing conditions, but to a hypothetical future baseline developed from existing conditions (the "background conditions"). Similarly, the cumulative analysis used a 2020 General Plan build-out scenario that was constructed from existing conditions. The lead agency asserted that this was necessary because the "traffic conditions in the vicinity of the [project] could vary from existing conditions due to a forecast for traffic growth and the construction of already-approved developments." Thus, in contrast to the EIR at issue in Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association v. City of Sunnyvale ("Sunnyvale West"), 190 Cal. App. 4th 1351 (2010), which included no discussion of existing conditions, nor any evidence to support the use of a baseline other than existing conditions, the EIR in Pfeiffer included both. Moreover, the baseline condition for the project-level analysis in the Pfeiffer EIR was not projected beyond the anticipated date of certification of the EIR.

The court agreed with the lead agency, reiterating California Supreme Court decisions characterizing the concept of "baseline" in CEQA as flexible, especially "where conditions are expected to change quickly during the period of environmental review," for reasons other than implementation of the project under review. This is particularly true with traffic impact analysis, where an EIR "might necessarily take into account the normal increase in traffic over time," as the environmental review process can sometimes span several years.

The lessons? First, a lead agency truly does retain its discretion to deviate from existing conditions as the baseline for environmental analysis, though that deviation may not extend further into the future than the anticipated date of certification of the EIR. Second, the analysis must include a clear discussion as to why such a deviation is justified in the case at hand. Finally, substantial evidence in the record must substantiate the stated reasons for such a deviation.