Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Court Affirms Agency Discretion in Selection of Project Baseline Under CEQA

Pfeiffer v. City of Sunnyvale, a November 28, 2011, decision by California's Sixth District Court of Appeals, has added to the ongoing debate over the proper baseline from which to analyze project impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Several recent cases involving challenges to traffic analyses had suggested that a lead agency must use existing conditions as the baseline in all circumstances. In Pfeiffer, however, the Sixth District reaffirmed that lead agencies have some discretion to select the baseline or baselines, so long as the selection is supported by substantial evidence and furthers CEQA's goal of providing accurate environmental impact analysis and full public disclosure. Importantly, the case also reaffirms CEQA's requirement that challengers must do more than simply attack the chosen baseline method as flawed by providing evidence and explanation for why the selected baseline could distort the analysis of a proposed project's environmental effects. This should end the cookie-cutter baseline challenges that have been increasing since the new line of CEQA cases suggested that only existing conditions may serve as the baseline.

Pfeiffer also found that the lead agency's use of several baselines to represent current and future conditions was not erroneous because it provided the best assessment and disclosure of the full traffic impacts of the proposed project, and the lead agency had clearly explained its choice. In upholding the lead agency's choice, the court injected some reasonableness into what had begun to appear to be a rigid and inflexible approach to CEQA baseline selection. Such an inflexible approach was unsuited for particularly complex, unique, or other novel circumstances. CEQA practitioners should still be wary when selecting a baseline that differs from existing conditions.  Nonetheless, Pfeiffer provides support for selection of a different method when circumstances warrant, so long as that selection is explained, supported in the administrative record, and designed to lead to a full and accurate analysis and disclosure of the potential impacts of a project.

The court's opinion may be found here.

For more information regarding this matter, please contact Hanspeter Walter or the KMTG attorney with whom you normally consult.

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