Farmland Protection Alliance v. County of Yolo
(2021) (Case No. C087688)
In a recent opinion, the California Court of Appeal (Third Appellate District) issued an important clarification on the remedies available when a court finds noncompliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In short, the “heart” of CEQA is the requirement to prepare an environmental impact report (EIR) if a project may cause a significant effect on the environment. If any aspect of a project triggers the need for an EIR, a full EIR must be prepared “for the proposed project.” Courts do not have the option to order preparation of a “limited” EIR covering only those aspects of the project that may cause a significant environmental effect.
Farmland Protection Alliance involves a project in Yolo County to operate a bed and breakfast and commercial event facility, supported by onsite crop production. The County’s Board of Supervisors adopted a mitigated negative declaration (MND) and issued a conditional use permit approving the project. The plaintiffs filed suit against the County to challenge the decision, asserting that the project approval violated CEQA (among other issues that are not part of the published Court of Appeal opinion). The trial court granted plaintiffs’ petition in part. The trial court found that under CEQA, an EIR was required because the project may have a significant impact on three species — the tricolored blackbird, the valley elderberry longhorn beetle (beetle), and the golden eagle. Accordingly, the trial court ordered the County to prepare an EIR limited to addressing only the project’s impacts on the three species. The effect of the trial court’s ruling was to “split” the project’s impact analysis between the previously approved MND, and the court-ordered “limited” EIR covering only the challenged aspects of the MND.
The Court of Appeal held that the trial court erred in ordering the County to prepare a “limited” EIR that only addressed the three potentially impacted species. The Court relied on CEQA’s “three-tiered” environmental review process. Under this process, when CEQA applies to a proposed project, public agencies must decide whether to prepare a negative declaration (ND) or MND on the one hand — or, an EIR on the other hand. If there is no substantial evidence that a project or any of its aspects may cause a significant effect on the environment, or the effects would be avoided/mitigated, the agency prepares an ND or MND, respectively. But, if substantial evidence supports a “fair argument” that any aspect of the project may cause a significant effect on the environment, the agency must prepare a full EIR.
The Court of Appeal in Farmland Protection Alliance held that nothing in CEQA or the cases interpreting CEQA suggest that a project’s impact analysis may be divided such that some impacts are analyzed in an ND/MND, and others are analyzed in an EIR. To the contrary, the Court cited precedent from 1999 stating that even when only certain aspects of an MND are successfully challenged in court, a “full EIR” should be prepared — the court-ordered EIR should not be “limited to or focused on” only the challenged aspects of the MND (citing San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society v. Metro. Water Dist. (1999) 71 Cal.App.4th 382, 402 & fn. 11). Thus, when CEQA applies, the environmental review process is “mutually exclusive” — CEQA requires public agencies to prepare either an ND/MND or an EIR.
Farmland Protection Alliance also held that CEQA’s remedies provision, Public Resources Code section 21168.9, does not authorize trial courts to “split” the environmental review by ordering a “limited” EIR. Section 21168.9 was enacted to provide trial courts with flexibility in fashioning remedies to ensure CEQA compliance — it does not authorize trial courts to circumvent CEQA’s mandatory provisions. Given that CEQA compliance requires either an ND/MND or an EIR “for the project,” a “limited” EIR is not an available remedy under section 21168.9.
In conclusion, Farmland Protection Alliance makes clear that the analysis of a project’s environmental impacts may not be “split” across two types of environmental review documents. And, where substantial evidence supports a “fair argument” that any aspect of a project may cause a significant effect on the environment, a full EIR is required covering the whole of the project.
 In repeatedly using the term “full,” the Court cross-referenced Public Resources Code section 21061, which contains basic definitional parameters and content requirements for an EIR. While the term “full” could be interpreted in any number of ways, we do note that the Court did not place any limits on the continued use of pre-existing procedures for narrowing the scope of an EIR, such as through the initial study process.
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