Are transportation impact analyses stuck in the middle? The Third District Court of Appeal considered that and more when upholding the City of Sacramento’s 2035 General Plan

Environmental/Land Use Alert (January 22, 2020)

In March 2015, the City of Sacramento certified the environmental impact report (EIR) for its 2035 General Plan and adopted the General Plan. Citizens for Positive Growth (Citizens) challenged both actions. In Citizens for Positive Growth & Preservation v. City of Sacramento (Case No. C086345), the Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District affirmed the trial court’s ruling upholding the City’s compliance with the Planning and Zoning Law and CEQA.

On appeal, Citizens first argued the General Plan was invalid on its face because the introductory paragraph gives the City “unfettered discretion” to approve projects that are inconsistent with the General Plan. The language at issue states “the City may use its discretion [when determining whether a proposed project is consistent with the General Plan] to balance and harmonize policies with other complementary or countervailing policies in a manner that best achieves the City’s overall goals.” After describing the two distinct stages where consistency concepts arise in the General Plan context (i.e., once during preparation of the General Plan and once during presentation of specific projects for consideration and approval), the Court determined the General Plan is not internally inconsistent because “[n]othing in the introductory language precludes the City from administering the 2035 General Plan in a lawful and valid manner,” finding no inconsistency between policies in the General Plan as written and the referenced verbiage.  

Citizens next argued the City failed to properly analyze and mitigate traffic impacts relating to increased traffic congestion. The Court declared Citizens’ argument moot, citing changes in the CEQA framework for traffic/transportation analysis. More specifically, in December 2018, CEQA Guidelines section 15064.3 was approved, providing that vehicle miles traveled, not level of service, is the appropriate measure of the significance of transportation impacts. Although this measure applies prospectively (beginning July 2020), Public Resources Code section 21099 states that, once the aforementioned Guideline section was certified, level of service will no longer be considered a significant impact on the environment. The Court therefore determined Citizens’ argument was moot because it focused on traffic congestion (i.e. level of service), which is no longer a significance criterion. At this point, one may legitimately ask: What is the appropriate criterion for transportation if not yet vehicle miles traveled, but no longer level of service?

Citizens also claimed the City should have recirculated the EIR after it made supplemental changes because these changes created significant new information. Significant new information requiring recirculation includes information of a new environmental impact or increased severity of an existing environmental impact. The City’s changes to the final EIR included deleting three mobility policies and one land use policy. The City explained the deletions would not change development assumptions or development activity, and thus would not cause or change any physical impact to the environment. The Court agreed and concluded recirculation was not required.

Lastly, Citizens challenged the EIR’s analysis of greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, cyclist safety, and the “no project” alternative. The Court found each argument meritless and unsupported because Citizens failed to provide sufficient analysis or include citations to the record.

Having rejected Citizens’ arguments, the Court upheld the City’s adoption of its 2035 General Plan and certification of the General Plan’s EIR.

[This case 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.]