In Trisha Lee Lotus v. Caltrans (Jan. 30, 2014), the First District Court of Appeal reversed a Humboldt County Superior Court decision, and ruled that a California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) environmental impact report (EIR) failed to adequately analyze the significance of the project’s impacts to old-growth redwood root systems in a state park.
Caltrans prepared the EIR for the realignment of a 1-mile segment of U.S. Route 101 that passes through Richardson Grove State Park, which is home to old growth California redwoods. The project’s goal is to accommodate standard-sized trucks that have been restricted from using the road due to its size and configuration. Petitioners-appellants, including the Environmental Protection Information Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (jointly, “Lotus”), challenged the adequacy of the EIR on several grounds, and won on appeal on one issue.
The court found the EIR failed to identify or apply a standard to evaluate the significance of the project’s potential impacts on redwood root systems. Moreover, the court noted that without the significance analysis, it was impossible to determine the effectiveness of proposed mitigation measures, or evaluate whether other measures should be considered. In addition, the EIR failed to make the mitigating construction techniques enforceable mitigation measures. The court ordered Caltrans to set aside the certification of the EIR and “correct the deficiencies we have identified before considering recertification of the EIR.” (Slip opin. at 18.)
On Lotus’ other claims, the court found the EIR complied with CEQA. The EIR adequately described the project’s environmental setting and the scope of the project. In particular, the court disagreed with Lotus’ contention that the EIR should have included technical detail on how Caltrans used software to design the project. The court noted that CEQA requires a “general description” of the project, without extensive detail beyond that needed for evaluation of environmental impacts. Lastly, the court found the discussion of cumulative traffic impacts was adequate, given that the record demonstrated that the project would not increase commercial truck traffic on Route 101 and other Caltrans improvement projects in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties would also have insignificant impacts on traffic.
This case demonstrates that while the design of a project may help to inherently mitigate potential environment impacts, an EIR must nevertheless analyze the significance of any potential impacts.