In a decision handed down shortly before the state Supreme Court opinion on California State University project impacts, an appellate court ruled that a San Diego community college district is responsible for off-campus traffic impacts caused by campus expansion.

Much like the state Supreme Court, the Fourth District Court of Appeal said the 20-year-old decision in San Marcos Water Dist. v. San Marcos Unified School Dist., (1986) 42 Cal.3d 154, was “inapplicable” because it involved a special assessment for capital facilities, not a school’s obligations under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

“We conclude that the district’s mitigation obligation under CEQA is not a prohibited special assessment, and the district’s claim that it lacks legislative authorization to mitigate its project’s significant adverse off-campus traffic impacts is unsupported by the administrative record or applicable law,” the court ruled.

At issue are a master plan and environmental impact report adopted in 2004 by the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District calling for an expansion and remodeling of the Cuyamaca College campus in Rancho San Diego. The various construction projects would permit student enrollment to grow from about 8,000 to 15,000 by 2015. As in the California State University, Monterey Bay, case, the community college district denied responsibility for off-campus traffic impacts and adopted a statement of overriding considerations because of the unmitigated impacts.

San Diego County sued, arguing that the traffic mitigations in the EIR were inadequate and that adoption of the statement of overriding considerations did not excuse failure to include mitigation measures. San Diego County Superior Court Judge Linda Quinn ruled for the college, but a unanimous three-judge panel of the Fourth District, Division One, overturned the lower court.

The community college district presented many of the same arguments that CSU made to the state Supreme Court. The community college district argued that mitigating traffic impacts was not feasible because the county has exclusive jurisdiction over the roads, the district cannot assure necessary road improvements would be implemented, construction is constrained by limited rights-of-way, and the district cannot “lawfully pay for the off-site traffic improvements.” The district contended that Education Code § 14020.1 prohibits community college districts from spending money for off-site street improvements.

The Fourth District, however, ruled that § 14020.1 constrains only a portion of state funds provided to the district. “[T]he district accepts its responsibility under CEQA to mitigate significant impacts on air quality, aesthetics and visual quality, biological resources, cultural resources, hydrology and water quality, paleontology and noise,” Justice Gilbert Nares wrote for the court. “The district does not explain how expenditure of funds to mitigate these project-related environmental impacts is permitted if, as it claims, the district is only authorized to spend funds on educational services.”

The court determined that other sections of the Education Code make clear that any funds available to the district may be spent to provide community college facilities — and that the district must comply with CEQA.

“In our view, expenditure of the district’s funds on off-campus road and intersection improvements designed to accommodate the increased volume of student and faculty vehicular traffic to and from the Cuyamaca College campus that the project will generate is implicitly authorized by § 81800 of the Community College Construction Act of 1980 and pertinent regulations. Specifically, the CEQA Guidelines are expressly adopted as part of the regulations promulgated to implement the Community College Construction Act of 1980,” Nares wrote.

The court found the district’s arguments based on San Marcos and subsequent legislation regarding capital improvement assessments on school districts (Government Code § 54999) to be “unavailing” because neither the court case nor the legislation makes any mention of CEQA.

The court further rejected the district’s claim that traffic mitigation is economically infeasible, because “the administrative record contains no estimate of the cost of the district’s proportional share of the off-campus traffic mitigation measures identified in the final EIR.”

Because it concluded the district’s handling of mitigation measures was inadequate, the court did not even consider the statement of overriding considerations. Instead, the court invalidated the EIR and master plan.

The Case:
County San Diego v. Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, No. D046728, 06 C.D.O.S. 6144, 2006 DJDAR 8939. Filed July 7, 2006.
The Lawyers;
For the county: C. Ellen Pilsecker, county counsel’s office, (619) 531-4860.
For the community college district: Kevin P. Sullivan, Stephenson, Worley, Garratt, Schwartz, Garfield & Prairie, (619) 696-3500.