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In Sierra Club v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (January 4, 2013) U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1628, the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of California granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, finding a proposed project’s alternatives analysis violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  The court ordered the defendants to delay construction until a legally adequate environmental document had been certified and the necessary findings under CEQA had been made.

The project would expand Homewood Mountain Resort (Resort), located on the west shore of Lake Tahoe in Placer County, from 25,000 square feet to over one million square feet.  Approval of the project required action by both Placer County and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), including several amendments to TRPA’s Regional Plan, adopted in 1987 (Regional Plan).  In January 2011, the two agencies issued a joint draft environmental impact report/environmental impact statement (EIR/EIS), pursuant to the requirements of CEQA and the Compact between California and Nevada establishing the TRPA, analyzing potential impacts of the project.

The plaintiffs first argued the EIR/EIS failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives because it did not consider an alternative that required no amendments to the Regional Plan.  The EIR/EIS explained that a “no-amendment” alternative would eliminate overnight lodging, making the alternative inconsistent with the Resort’s objective to transform Homewood into an overnight destination.  The court held that the agencies considered a reasonable range of alternatives, explaining an EIR is not rendered deficient merely because it does not address a particular alternative called for by petitioners.  Instead, an EIR need only consider a reasonable range of alternatives that would be capable of avoiding or substantially lessening any significant effects of a project.  Here, the EIR/EIS included six alternatives (besides the proposed project), which allowed the public and decision makers to compare the impacts of closing the Resort, reducing the size of the proposed project, and adjusting the proposed project in different ways to address environmental impacts. The court found that this range of alternatives allowed informed decision making, as required by CEQA.

The plaintiffs also argued that the EIR/EIS failed to provide enough reduced-size alternatives, arguing that although the EIR/EIS considered one such alternative, the impacts of another reduced-size alternative would have been substantially less.  The court again disagreed, explaining that CEQA does not require an EIR to consider “each and every conceivable variation of the alternatives stated.”

The plaintiffs next argued that the agencies’ findings of financial infeasibility for the reduced-size alternatives were in violation of CEQA.  The court held that the findings were not supported by substantial evidence because they failed to consider all of the Resort’s revenue streams, and not just income generated from the sale of ski lift tickets.  The court explained that, had the economic analysis considered all sources of revenue, it would have concluded that the reduced-size alternative would be less profitable, but not economically infeasible.  The plaintiffs also argued the agencies failed to adequately explain why the reduced-size alternatives were rejected as economically infeasible.  The court again agreed, explaining the failure to include information on how additional revenue streams would enable the ski resort to be financially viable in the future was misleading to the public because it suggests that ski lift ticket sales revenue is the only relevant factor in assessing the financial viability of the Resort.

The plaintiffs next challenged the EIR/EIS’s analyses of soil, water, and air quality impacts.  The EIR/EIS proposed several mitigation measures to reduce the impacts on these resources to a less than significant level.  The court rejected each of the Plaintiffs’ arguments, finding each mitigation proposal was based on substantial evidence.

The plaintiffs also unsuccessfully challenged the adequacy of the EIR/EIS analysis of construction noise impacts.  The EIR/EIS adopted both the County’s and TRPA’s noise ordinance as thresholds of significance.  Both of these ordinances exempted daytime construction noise from noise limitations, and plaintiffs therefore argued the noise analysis did not meaningfully consider noise.  However, the EIR/EIS also included a separate detailed analysis of the construction noise impacts.  The court therefore found substantial evidence existed to support the conclusion that the noise impacts were less than significant because the EIR/EIS did not rely on the exemption in the ordinance and evade doing a separate analysis of construction noise impacts.

Finally, the plaintiffs argued that the EIR/EIS failed to adequately analyze noise impacts associated with expanding the Resort’s snowmaking system.  A plan for the expanded system was submitted with the project, but that plan was not part of the approval granted by the agencies and any specific snowmaking expansion plan would require further approval from the county and TRPA.  The EIR/EIS therefore included a “worst case scenario” to assess and mitigate those impacts.  The court held the EIR/EIS did not improperly defer analysis of the snowmaking expansion’s noise impacts; rather, its program-level analysis provided sufficient detail to allow the public and decision makers to understand and meaningfully consider the impacts.

Written By: Tina Thomas, Amy Higuera and Andrea Lutge (law clerk)
For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

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