Placer County did not violate state law by including two projects in one environmental impact report, the Third District Court of Appeal has ruled. The county did not abuse it discretion by covering a 31-lot subdivision and a large church — which started out as two parts of the same project — in one EIR, the court held.
In 1997, Elliott Homes submitted an application for development of 31 residential lots on 174 acres and for a church on a separate 34-acre parcel located nearby on Sierra College Boulevard in the unincorporated community of Granite Bay. The church was proposed as a two-phase project totaling 173,000 square feet of buildings and 1,700 parking spaces. In March 1999, the county issued a draft EIR for both the Cavitt Ranch Estates subdivision and the Bayside Covenant Church.
When it came time for the county Planning Commission to consider the EIR and project application, the commission considered only the subdivision. The commission certified the EIR and approved the subdivision, but denied a requested variance, in July 2000. Elliott appealed, and two months later the Board of Supervisors approved the variance and certified the EIR.
While Elliott's appeal was pending before the Board of Supervisors, Bayside filed a separate project application for the church. The county then issued a "Reprinted Environmental Impact Report" for the church project. The document was the same as the final EIR certified for the subdivision, including responses to comments given for the March 1999 draft EIR.
The Planning Commission rejected the proposed church, finding its size inconsistent with the Granite Bay Community Plan. The commission took no action on the environmental document.
Bayside appealed to the Board of Supervisors. During the board hearing, Bayside reduced the size of the project nearly by half. Supervisors then approved a conditional use permit for the church and certified the EIR.
A group of area residents called Neighbors of Cavitt Ranch sued, alleging that the county committed a number of CEQA violations and that its approval of the conditional use permit conflicted with the Granite Bay Community Plan and the county general plan.
Placer County Superior Court Judge James Garbolino ruled for the county, finding the county's CEQA process "novel" but neither unauthorized nor unfair. The residents appealed, but a unanimous three-judge panel of the Third District upheld the lower court.
The appellate panel published only the portion of its decision regarding the court's standard of review in the case and the question of including two projects in one EIR. The bulk of the decision went unpublished.
The court ruled that it only needed to determine whether the county had prejudicially abused its discretion, a standard of review that grants deference to the county's actions. "The Neighbors urge us to ‘set a bright-line rule that the procedural irregularities of the type that occurred in this case are a per se violation of CEQA.' We decline the invitation," Justice Connie Callahan wrote for the court.
What matters is that the county made "an objective good faith effort" to comply with CEQA, the court ruled. "We accord more deference to agency decisions on substantive questions and ‘resolve reasonable doubts in favor of the administrative finding and decision,'" Callahan wrote, citing Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of the University of California, (1988) 47 Cal.3d 376.
As for the question of two projects/one EIR, Callahan noted that the residents cited no provisions in CEQA or the CEQA Guidelines that prohibited inclusion of distinct projects in a single environmental document. Nor did the residents argue that the projects, which are situated on the same road and separated by only a 4-acre parcel, would have different impacts.
"At worst, the inclusion of both elements in a single DEIR resulted in too much information regarding environmental effects, not too little," the court ruled.
In the unpublished portion of the opinion, the court held that the county did not have to recirculate the EIR for the church project because it contained no "significant new information" that was not in the certified EIR for the subdivision. The court also ruled for the county on a number of other issues, including CEQA notices, the project description, evaluation of project impacts, and consistency with local land use plans.
Neighbors of Cavitt Ranch v. County of Placer, No. C040450, 2003 DJDAR 2725. Filed March 7, 2003.
For the neighbors: George E. Murphy, Farmer, Murphy, Smith & Alliston, (530) 484-3500.
For the county: Valerie Flood, deputy county counsel, (530) 889-4044.
For Bayside Covenant Church: J. Michael Stusiak, Morrison & Foerster, (916) 448-3200.