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On October 2, after waiting over three-and-a-half years, the California Supreme Court finally heard oral arguments in Sierra Club et al. v. County of Fresno et al. (Case No. S219783).  This case, which challenges an EIR prepared for the Friant Ranch retirement community in Fresno County, raises far-reaching and consequential CEQA questions, namely, the standard of review for the adequacy of an EIR’s discussion of required CEQA topics and the level of analysis needed to identify a project’s effect on human health.

In 2005, Friant Ranch LLC began planning a 2,500 unit master-planned retirement community located on a 942-acre site in north central Fresno County.  Fresno County approved the final EIR for Friant Ranch in February of 2011 and the approval was subsequently challenged by a number of nonprofit environmental and civic action groups, including the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters of Fresno.  The trial court upheld the Friant Ranch EIR, but the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court.  Importantly, the appellate court held, in part, that the sufficiency of an EIR’s discussion of required CEQA topics presents a question of law subject to independent judicial review (as opposed to the more deferential substantial evidence standard) and that the EIR inadequately set forth how the project’s air quality impacts would impact the health of neighboring residents.  Real Party in Interest Friant Ranch appealed and the California Supreme Court granted review in October of 2014.

At oral argument, Justices Liu and Cuéllar took the lead, with a focus on the feasibility of an EIR analysis that can identify a project’s localized effect on human health.  Justice Liu questioned whether it is, in fact, “conceptually possible” to do the health impact analysis called for by the Friant Ranch opponents and noted that the Friant Ranch opponents must demonstrate “what can be done [with respect to a correlation analysis between the project’s air pollutants to human health consequences]” in order for the Court to write an opinion that the EIR is insufficient.  Justice Corrigan continued Justice Liu’s reasoning by asking the desired end point for the health impact analysis, i.e., whether a project must consider the air pollution impacts at “Corner and Main” and for individuals with “pre-disposed genetic conditions.”

Taking a different tack, Justice Cuéllar, suggested that, to the extent that a localized human health analysis is infeasible, an agency may still have the responsibility to say “this is the closest we can get and provide that information.”  Counsel for the Friant Ranch project opponents affirmed that line of reasoning and argued that the EIR’s impact analysis must, to “the greatest extent feasible,” discuss regional and local health impacts and provide an explanation when this level of analysis is not possible.  In support, Judge Ronald Robie (sitting pro tempore) mentioned that an agency’s compliance could be evaluated based on a “reasonableness and informed decision-making [standard].”  None of the Justices asked questions about the propriety of an independent versus abuse of discretion legal standard of review for a claim challenging whether an EIR’s discussion sufficiently complies with CEQA information disclosure requirements.

The parties’ closing arguments highlighted the broader, competing policy considerations at stake in this matter.  The Friant Ranch project opponents emphasized CEQA’s overarching goal to compel informed decision and the vital importance of CEQA planning documents that inform citizens of the “degree and magnitude of potential health impacts” caused by proposed projects.  The Friant Ranch project proponents, on the other hand, raised California’s “massive housing shortage” and warned that an independent judgment standard of review on highly technical planning topics will result in a great deal of uncertainty over the adequacy of planning documents, thus impacting the viability of housing, transportation, and infrastructure projects needed throughout the State.

A ruling from the California Supreme Court is due by the end of December 2018.  After ruling on Friant Ranch, and after years with multiple CEQA cases pending on its docket, the Court will have only one remaining – Union of Medical Marijuana Patients, Inc. v. City of San Diego, which addresses whether the enactment of a zoning ordinance is a “project” within the meaning of CEQA.  Stay tuned.