A general plan requirement that placed a one-mile buffer on private land around a landfill in Placer County was supported by evidence in the record even though there appeared to be no scientific basis for it, the Third District Court of Appeal has ruled.
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, the Third District concluded that the county did not have to recirculate the draft general plan environmental impact report after choosing an alternative scenario that focused on concentrating development around existing communities, rather than creating four new towns away from existing communities.
In an unusual twist, the lawsuit challenging the county's actions under the California Environmental Quality Act was actually brought by four developers who had hoped to build the new towns originally called for in the plan. The county's general plan proposals, developed in 1992 and 1993, included an infill scenario; an alternative in which most growth was accommodated adjacent to existing communities; and a "new town" scenario, in which most new growth was accommodated in four new towns located away from the existing communities.
The county circulated a draft EIR on these scenarios and eventually chose the infill alternative. The county then prepared a final EIR on the infill scenario and adopted the general plan.
Three development companies owning land in the new town areas – Placer Ranch Partners, Placer Ranch 160, and Stanford Ranch Inc. – then sued. They claimed, among other things, that the county's final scenario was so different from the scenarios originally proposed in the draft EIR that the draft should have been recirculated. They also challenged the imposition of a one-mile buffer around a landfill, which affected their property. After losing in the trial court, they appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento.
The Third District issued a published opinion only on the landfill issue. The court acknowledged the developers' point that no scientific evidence existed on the record to support a one-mile buffer. However, the court noted that the county had presented other evidence. Among other things, the landfill could be viewed from a distance, and encroachment toward it might reduce its period of usefulness. Also, residents up to two miles away argued for the one-mile buffer.
"[D]ifferent witnesses had different opinions about the proper size of the landfill," the appellate court wrote. "While no scientific evidence was introduced to support a one-mile buffer, other substantial and relevant evidence supports the county's decision." The court also referenced Stubblefield Construction Co. v. City of San Bernardino, 32 Cal.App.4th 687 (1995), which, the court claimed, validated the opinions of nearby residents as an appropriate factor in making land-use decisions.
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, the court rejected the developers' claim that the draft EIR should have been recirculated after the "four new towns" option was rejected. In essence, the developers complained that the draft EIR was not specific enough on the impact of the infill alternative that was eventually selected. "This claim is predicated on a misperception of the project at issue," the court wrote. "The EIR was not for a project to develop the four new towns; it was an EIR for a general plan update." Because a general plan is conceptual, "The EIR prepared in conjunction with that plan is not required to speculate about the effects of possible future development projects," the court wrote.
In another unpublished section, the court rejected a variety of other alleged defects in the EIR.
Placer Ranch Partners v. County of Placer, C032561, 01 C.D.O.S. 7657, 2001 DJDAR 9481. Issued July 30, 2001. Partially published August 29, 2001.
For Placer Ranch Partners and other developers: Maria Hummer and Donna Black, Manatt, Phelps, & Phillips, (310) 312-4121.
For Placer County: Scott Finley, Deputy Council Counsel, (530) 889-4044.
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