Court Questions Use of “Modified” Baseline Approach in Transportation Improvement EIR


The City of Sunnyvale failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when it analyzed the potential impacts of a major street extension by comparing them to traffic, noise, and air conditions that were projected to exist without the street extension in 2020 (the expected completion date for the project), ruled the California Court of Appeal, Sixth District in a recent decision. The court’s decision, Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association v. City of Sunnyvale City Council, concluded that under the facts of the case, the use of such a future or “modified” baseline approach to assess the project’s impacts did not fulfill CEQA’s requirement that an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) determine whether a project would significantly impact the existing environment.

Under the CEQA Guidelines, the baseline is “normally” the physical conditions as “they exist at the time the notice of preparation [NOP] is published, or if no notice of preparation is published, at the time environmental analysis is commenced.” The EIR in the Sunnyvale case used a baseline for traffic and related impacts that assumed 2020 traffic levels and conditions based on a full build-out of the City’s General Plan and other planned road improvements. This approach was consistent with the guidelines of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) for conducting such analyses, as the VTA is Santa Clara County’s Congestion Management Agency. Nonetheless, the court concluded that the use of such assumptions “made it impossible for decision makers and the general lay public to readily grasp the traffic and related impacts of the project itself on the environment as it presently exists.” Based on this, the court invalidated the City’s modified baseline approach as a matter of law.

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