Break Out the Crystal Ball—But Only If You Have the Evidence to Support It: California Supreme Court Affirms Agency Discretion to Utilize Baseline of Projected Future Conditions

In a highly anticipated decision published today, the California Supreme Court affirmed that the use of a future baseline for analyzing certain environmental impacts is appropriate when supported by substantial evidence. The decision, Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (Case No. S202828, August 5, 2013) (Neighbors), confirms that, under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a public agency may choose, in some circumstances, to evaluate the impacts of a potential project against a baseline consisting solely of projected future conditions. However, the agency’s choice must be justified by substantial evidence that an analysis based on existing conditions would be misleading or without value to EIR users. This CEQA baseline approach contrasts with the conventional baseline analysis that assumes the existing physical conditions in the affected area during the period of environmental review.

The decision confirms that while the use of existing conditions is the “normal baseline” under CEQA, in limited circumstances (particularly for large-scale, long-term development projects), factual circumstances may justify an agency relying on future conditions in order to “prevent misinforming or misleading the public and decision makers.” What is crucial is to make sure the administrative record supports the decision to adopt a different baseline approach.

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