The Los Angeles Unified School District has successfully defended against a City of Long Beach lawsuit that challenged numerous aspects of a new high school's environmental impact report.
Long Beach contended that the report's analysis and proposed mitigation measures for the high school's project-level and cumulative environmental effects were inadequate, and that its study of alternatives was insufficient. But the court found that the school district complied with the California Environmental Quality Act in every instance.
While Long Beach has its own school district, the boundaries of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) extend into a portion of the city. The proposed high school would accommodate approximately 1,800 students on 13.7 acres in the northwest corner of Long Beach adjacent to Carson. The district, which certified a final EIR in 2007, broke ground for the campus in October 2008. The school is intended to relieve overcrowding at Carson and Banning high schools.
Long Beach filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court and lost. It appealed, and a unanimous three-judge panel of the Second District Court of Appeal, Division Three, affirmed the lower court's decision.
Long Beach's challenges fell into six areas: health and safety issues; air quality; traffic impacts; land use compatibility; cumulative impacts; and project alternatives.
The city contended that the final environmental impact report was flawed because it did not adequately evaluate the school site's possible effects on students' health or provide any support for its conclusion that there would be no significant impact. In making its case, the county pointed to truck traffic and diesel emissions from the nearby Long Beach Freeway and a rail line bordering the future campus.
But the court expressed satisfaction with the report, which included a health-risk assessment that considered potential long-term exposure to hazardous emissions generated within one-quarter mile of the school site by the freeway, locomotives, trucking terminals and a gas station. The report concluded that with a setback on one boundary and use of an enhanced heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, there would be less-than-significant effects on the health of students and employees.
Long Beach also argued that LAUSD did not adequately address cumulative effects on air quality and traffic, nor the cumulative effects on staff and student health. On the second point, the court made clear that the purpose of an EIR is to address a project's effects on the environment, "not the impact of the environment on the project, such as the school's students and staff." On the first point, the court dismissed Long Beach's argument that the school district conveniently chose to ignore projects such as expansion of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and related railroad facilities – all located several miles from the school site. The court said the school district explained its geographic boundaries for the cumulative impact study.
"[T]he FEIR analyzes every project within the delineated geographic areas for each subject, and so it does not ‘cherry-pick' the projects, despite Long Beach's contention otherwise," Justice Richard Aldrich wrote for the court.
The city further argued that the FEIR should have analyzed the types of chemicals carried by Union Pacific trains on the line adjacent to the school site to determine the potential harm to students and staff caused by possible spills. The report addressed – and included mitigation measures for – the "very low" likelihood of a train accident or derailment, but it did not provide specific information about materials carried in rail cars. Still, the court said the FEIR went far enough.
"Describing and analyzing each specific chemical the trains might theoretically carry in the future would be speculative and infeasible, and hence not required in this circumstance," Aldrich wrote.
One of the biggest issues for the community is parking because LAUSD approved the school without providing for a student parking lot. The district projected a need for 400 student parking spaces but determined that more than 1,000 on-street spaces nearby would suffice. Here is the court's summary:
"Long Beach describes parking in the area as ‘scarce' and the spots as ‘coveted.' It cites its comment that ‘school-generated parking demands in the residential area west of the project site could lead to parking restrictions that would force most student and visitor parking into the adjacent industrial area.' But substantial evidence includes ‘facts, reasonable assumptions predicated upon facts and expert opinion supported by facts.' Long Beach provided no facts to support its hypothesis that parking is scarce. But LAUSD did. As noted in its response, the consultants found more than three times the needed space available within one-fourth mile of the school site, Long Beach's supposition is unfounded."
The city contended that the school district should have studied the new high school's consistency with the Long Beach general plan, which designates the site for light industry. But the court noted schools are permitted in the applicable zoning district and, anyway, the school district had exempted itself from the city's zoning authority.
The court also upheld the list of project alternatives, even though LAUSD declined to consider potential sites in Carson, from which nearly all of the school's students will come.
The Case: City of Long Beach v. Los Angeles Unified School District, No. B207721, 2009 DJDAR 12197. Filed July 16, 2009. Ordered published August 17, 2009. The Lawyers; For the city: Steven Kaufmann, Richards, Watson & Gershon, (213) 626-8484. For LAUSD: Fernando Villa, Pircher, Nichols & Meeks, (310) 201-8900.