Court Invalidates EIR's Use Of A Baseline Predicated On Future, Post-Approval Conditions For Analysis Of Project's Impacts


Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Sunnyvale City Council, No. H035135 (6th Dist., December 16, 2010)

In Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Sunnyvale City Council ("Sunnyvale"), the California Court of Appeal, Sixth District (the "Court") invalidated the use of a baseline consisting of future, post-project approval conditions to analyze a project's impacts in an Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”). This decision may have widespread effects because the use of a future baseline has become a widespread industry practice particularly for analysis of traffic and circulation impacts.

The California Environmental Quality Act, Public Resources Code Section 21000 et seq. ("CEQA") generally requires preparation and certification of an EIR on any proposed project that may have a significant effect on the environment before the project is approved. The EIR must include, among other things, a detailed statement setting forth all significant effects on the environment of the proposed project. The State CEQA Guidelines, 14 California Code of Regulations Section 15000 et. seq. (the "Guidelines") implementing CEQA state with regard to an EIR's description of a proposed project's environmental setting: "An EIR must include a description of the physical environmental conditions in the vicinity of the project, as they exist at the time the notice of preparation is published, or if no notice of preparation is published, at the time environmental analysis is commenced, from both a local and regional perspective. This environmental setting will normally constitute the baseline physical conditions by which a lead agency determines whether an impact is significant." Guidelines, § 15125(a).

In Sunnyvale, the EIR for the proposed Mary Avenue Extension Project ("MAE") used projected traffic conditions in the year 2020, based on expected growth under the City of Sunnyvale's general plan and in neighboring communities, as its baseline to evaluate the MAE's traffic and related impacts. The EIR did not consider the MAE's traffic and related impacts on the existing environment. The superior court granted a peremptory writ of mandate compelling the City of Sunnyvale City Council ("City Council") to set aside its approval of the proposed MAE and its certification of the Final Environmental Impact Report.

The City Council appealed, arguing that the EIR's use of 2020 conditions as a baseline offers the most accurate and informative portrayal of the environmental impact of the MAE. Respondents, Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association and named individuals, maintained that the impacts of the project must be measured against current, existing physical conditions and a comparison against a baseline as it might exist in 2020 cannot substitute for a comparison with current, existing conditions. The Court affirmed.

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