In Lotus v. Department of Transportation, 2014 Cal. App. LEXIS 97, the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, reversed the trial court’s denial of appellants’ petition for writ of mandate challenging the adequacy of the EIR for a highway realignment project.
The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) sought to realign and widen portions of Highway 101 traversing Richardson Grove State Park in Humboldt County. The existing highway could not accommodate industry standard-sized trucks. Caltrans noted that this lack of access affected the competitiveness and profitability of Humboldt County businesses. The primary environmental impact from the highway realignment identified in the EIR was the removal of redwoods and the excavation and filling within in the root zone of old growth redwoods.
In the published portion of its decision, the court held the EIR was inadequate in that it failed to properly evaluate the significance of impacts on old growth redwoods from the excavation and filling operations within the trees’ root systems. The fundamental problem with the EIR was that it failed to include a clearly defined significance threshold for these potential impacts. Instead, the EIR merely identified a series of special construction techniques that were treated as part of the project (rather than mitigation) and the EIR concluded that in consideration of the special construction techniques all potential impacts, including impacts to the trees’ root system, would be less than significant. The court was very critical of this approach. Because Caltrans had not identified a standard for measuring the significance of impacts and had not explained what impacts would occur in the absence of mitigation measures, it was impossible to know which of the mitigation measures identified were necessary to avoid significant impacts or whether alternative measures might be more effective.
The court observed that “[b]y compressing the analysis of impacts and mitigation measures into a single issue, the EIR disregards the requirements of CEQA.” Caltrans, for example, appears not to have adopted a formal monitoring or reporting program as required by CEQA because Caltrans treated the proposed special construction techniques as part of the project. The trial court questioned whether this was proper but concluded the record demonstrated that Caltrans had a method to track the project specific environmental commitments and that the special construction techniques would also be incorporated into contract plans and specifications. While the trial court found this to be sufficient, the First District Court of Appeal disagreed finding that notwithstanding these commitments Caltrans failure to fully comply with CEQA could not be considered harmless. Therefore, the court reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded.
In three unpublished portions of the opinion, the court rejected appellants’ other challenges to the EIR’s sufficiency. First, the court found the EIR provided an adequate description of the project’s environmental setting. The EIR described the redwoods as the predominant plant community in the park and included tables setting forth the size and type of individual trees, as well as a map depicting the location of these trees and the proposed realignment of the highway. Second, the court determined the project’s scope was adequately described. The technical information sought by appellants relating to the software used in the project’s design would have constituted “extensive detail beyond that needed for evaluation and review of the environmental impact,” contrary to the directive of CEQA Guideline 15124. Lastly, the court held that a cumulative traffic impacts analysis was unnecessary here. Various studies supported Caltrans’ conclusion that the project would not divert traffic from I-5 and would not lead to a significant increase in commercial truck traffic in Humboldt County, even factoring in other regional highway realignment projects.
Significance thresholds must be clearly defined for all potential impacts analyzed in an EIR. It is not uncommon for project features to play a role in mitigating potential impacts of a project. However, where project features resemble mitigation measures it would be prudent to treat them as such including listing them in an adopted monitoring or reporting program as required by CEQA.