Superior Court Finds EIR’s Conclusions Related to Emergency Evacuation Unsupported by Substantial Evidence

Center for Biological Diversity v. County of Lake
(Case No. CV421152)

On January 4, 2022, the County of Lake Superior Court issued its Ruling and Order on Petitions for Writ of Mandate in Center for Biological Diversity v. County of Lake, Case No. CV421152.  As a trial court decision, the ruling and order are not citable legal precedent.  However, the decision is relevant because it arises from one of several cases where the California Attorney General has intervened in pending California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuits, primarily to advance arguments relating to wildfire and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

As background, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the County of Lake’s certification of an environmental impact report (EIR) for what is described by the trial court as a “luxury resort” project in Guenoc Valley, California.[1] The petition argued the EIR for the project was deficient under CEQA on multiple grounds, including emergency evacuation, wildfire risk, greenhouse gas mitigation, water supply, special status plants, and alternatives. The Attorney General intervened in the case, filing its own petition challenging the project EIR on largely similar grounds. Ultimately, the superior court agreed with petitioners on one claim – emergency evacuation.

For context, the project is located is Guenoc Valley, an area in Northern California that was substantially impacted by the 2020 LNU Lightning Complex fires. Hence, although the decision does not specifically mention the LNU Lightning Complex fires, it is no surprise fire issues were a main concern.

The trial court found the EIR failed to properly analyze how the project might exacerbate existing community evacuation risks. The EIR concluded, based on opinions from traffic engineers and fire and law enforcement personnel, that the project’s impacts to existing evacuation plans would be less than significant. The court found two issues with the evidence this conclusion was based on. First, the court found the EIR’s conclusion was more concerned with whether the project’s residents could safely leave the project in the event of a wildfire instead of whether evacuation of residents in the nearby area would be affected by the evacuation of the project’s residents during a wildfire. The court was persuaded by argument advanced by petitioners that a “significant number of wildfire related deaths … occur during attempts to evacuate.”  It linked that concern to the number of new residents the project would bring to the area and underscored the corresponding congestion and delay that would follow on the “same limited routes” used during evacuation.

Second, the court found that the traffic engineers and fire and law enforcement personnel opinions “were not based on any identifiable facts.” The court explained that, although expert opinion supported by facts may constitute substantial evidence, unsubstantiated opinion does not. For these reasons, the court found the EIR’s conclusions regarding emergency evacuation were not supported by substantial evidence.

The court also addressed petitioners’ concerns that the project EIR improperly compressed its analysis of wildfire impacts by wrongly incorporating mitigation measures into the project description.  Specifically, petitioners argued that design elements included in the project’s Wildfire Prevention Plan, such as vegetation management and maintenance of firebreaks, should have been considered separately as mitigation measures, not as project design features. The court disagreed. Instead, the court found the measures were properly considered as design elements because they were not intended to rectify any impacts to the environment caused by the project, rather, they were “meant to avoid impacts to the environment in the first place.”

The petitioners also challenged the use of a carbon credit program as mitigation, arguing the mitigation was ineffective and did not include sufficient safeguards ensuring the offsets would be real, permanent, verifiable, and enforceable as required under Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego (2020) 50 Cal.App.5th 467. However, the carbon credit program was added as an additional mitigation measure for the project through an errata to the Final EIR. The errata explained the conclusions reached in the EIR would not be affected by the inclusion of this additional mitigation measure. Thus, the court found there was no prejudicial error; even if the program failed CEQA standards, there was no error because inclusion of the measure did not “deprive the public and decision makers of substantial relevant information about the Project’s likely adverse impacts.”

Finally, the court upheld the EIR’ analysis of water supply, special status plants, alternatives, and the County’s finding that recirculation of the EIR was not required.

In closing, this opinion is consistent with other actively pending CEQA cases and recently issued CEQA decisions seen in the last few months, in that there is: (1) increasing emphasis on and controversy surrounding the adequacy of wildfire and evacuation impact analyses, and (2) increasing involvement from the State Attorney General. Perhaps though, the silver lining of this decision is that it is narrowly tailored to a singular deficiency – the adequacy of the wildfire evacuation analysis for community-wide impacts – identified by the court.

[1] A more fulsome description from the County’s EIR refers to the project’s development of up to 400 hotel rooms, 450 resort residential units, 1,400 residential estates and 500 workforce co-housing units.  See

[This alert does not constitute legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is created by viewing or responding to this alert.  Legal counsel should be sought for answers to specific legal questions.]