In High Sierra Rural Alliance v. County of Plumas (2018) 29 Cal.App.5th 102, the Third District Court of Appeal held a general plan update and EIR were valid where evidence in the record supported the County of Plumas’ (County) determination that there was no “reasonably foreseeable development” outside the planning area. The Court also held that adding building intensity standards and a comprehensive map to the EIR did not require recirculation after close of the comment period where the specific zones were not likely to be developed and the map information was otherwise available during the public comment period.
The County certified a final EIR and approved a general plan update (Project) in December 2013. The update focused on new population growth and housing construction in the “planning area” in order to preclude urban sprawl and degradation of natural resources. The planning area boundary encompassed the existing developed land area and the potential expansion area directly surrounding it. In contrast, rural areas were those “defined as having little to no public infrastructure and services.” High Sierra Rural Alliance (High Sierra) filed suit alleging that the County violated CEQA by failing to consider growth and subdivision development outside the planning area and failing to recirculate the final EIR once adding maps and building intensity standards after the close of the public comment period.
The trial court held that the EIR was a “reasonably crafted…first-tier environmental document that assesses and documents broad environmental impacts of a program with the understanding that a more detailed site-specific review may be required to assess future projects.” Further, substantial evidence supported that the County’s policies and mitigation measures contained in the EIR were sufficient to reduce the severity of any environmental impacts of future projects. Lastly, the addition of building intensity standards and cumulative maps, while possibly in error, was not prejudicial error under CEQA meriting recirculation. High Sierra timely appealed.
The Appellate Court confirmed that its role is not to determine “the correctness of the EIR’s environmental conclusion, but only its sufficiency as an informative document.” Applying these principles, the Court affirmed the judgment.
The Court first addressed High Sierra’s claim that the EIR was functionally deficient for failing to assess the impacts of development, especially subdivision development, outside of the planning area. The Court clarified that CEQA only required the County to address “reasonably foreseeable development” within the County. It is of no consequence to the Court’s determination if this excludes rural areas within the County.
The record showed that the County consulted population and economic data from the Department of Finance and CalTrans and determined that the County growth rate over the planning period would be minimal. This data supported the County’s determination that all reasonably foreseeable growth was to occur almost exclusively in the planning area. Further, sections of the general plan specifically provided restrictions on development in rural areas by requiring adequate, independent fire protection for each new development. Finally, the EIR specifically provided that the minimal amount of development that may occur will be best addressed in a site-specific manner. Thus, the EIR was a proper first-tier environmental document. The Court held that the County adequately addressed development outside of the planning area.
The Court then turned to High Sierra’s argument that the County failed to recirculate the EIR. The Court confirmed that recirculation is required when “significant new information is added…in a way that deprives the public of meaningful opportunity to comment upon a substantial adverse environmental effect.” (CEQA Guidelines 15088.5.)
High Sierra alleged that the County violated CEQA by failing to recirculate the EIR after adding maps and building intensity standards to the final EIR. The Court held that evidence in the record showed that the addition of comprehensive maps to the final EIR was not “significant new information” as the public had access to maps with land use designations for the County throughout the comment period. Further, the addition of building intensity standards for certain rural zones did not constitute “significant new information” where the additions did not change the scope of the Project. Also, the record supported a finding that even fewer structures in those zones would be built during the planning period than the small number in the past decade. Thus, the building intensity standards were nearly inconsequential and not “significant.” Considering these findings, the Court held that the scope of the Project did not change between the draft EIR and final EIR in a manner that requires recirculation.
The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment and upheld the EIR.
A general plan EIR is only required to address “reasonably foreseeable development,” supported by evidence in the record, outside of the planning area to be sufficient under CEQA.
“Significant new information” meriting recirculation of an EIR does not include maps whose information was available elsewhere during the comment period nor standards that did not change the scope of the project.