In Martis Camp Ruling, Subsequent Review Under CEQA Hinges on the Right EIR

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In an opinion published on August 17, 2020, the Third Appellate District in Martis Camp Community Association v. County of Placer ruled that Placer County had violated CEQA by adopting an addendum to support abandonment of a roadway. Despite the statutory presumption against subsequent review under CEQA, the Third District determined that the County had abused its discretion in relying on the wrong EIR as a basis for analysis.

Martis Camp and Northstar Retreat Subdivision EIRs and Later Unauthorized Use of Mill Site Road

In January 2005, Placer County had certified an EIR for the Martis Camp Project, a residential project not too far from the Northstar Ski Resort. In February 2005, shortly after approving the Martis Camp Project, the County certified an EIR for the Northstar Retreat Subdivision, another residential project closer to the Northstar Ski Resort. The EIRs for both projects assumed that Mill Site Road—a connecting road between Martis Camp Project, the Retreat Subdivision, and the Northstar Ski Resort—would be used for the Retreat Subdivision and emergency access and public transit vehicles only, and not for private vehicle trips to and from the Martis Camp Project.  Nevertheless, Martis Camp property owners began using the road for regular ingress and egress in about 2010, after the road was constructed. In a first round of lawsuits, the Retreat Homeowners sought unsuccessfully to preclude use of the Mill Site Road by Martis Camp owners.

After that first unsuccessful effort, the Retreat Subdivision owners in 2014 filed an application requesting that the County partially abandon the public road easement rights in Mill Site Road and bar Martis Camp residents from using it. Finding that abandoning Mill Site Road was a modification to the Martis Camp Project, the County Board of Supervisors approved the abandonment in November 2015 based on an addendum to the Martis Camp EIR (not the Retreat Subdivision EIR). The Martis Camp owners filed suit in Placer County Superior Court, alleging improper noticing under the Brown Act and failure to comply with CEQA (among other claims). In 2018, the trial court denied the writ and entered judgment against the Martis Camp owners.

CEQA Limits Subsequent Review

As the Third Appellate District notes in its opinion, “Once a project has been approved, the lead agency’s role in project approval is completed, unless further discretionary approval on that project is required.” (Guidelines, § 15162(c).) Even then, there is a statutory presumption against additional environmental review under CEQA. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21166; Guidelines, § 15162.) Under Section 21166, public agencies are prohibited from imposing additional environmental review except under specified circumstances—e.g., when there are substantial changes in the project or circumstances that require “major revisions” to the EIR. The presumption against further CEQA review under Section 21166 comes into play “precisely because in-depth review has already occurred” and “[t]he question is whether circumstances ‘have changed enough to justify repeating a substantial portion of the process.’” (Opinion, at 19, quoting Bowman v. City of Petaluma (1986) 185 Cal.App.3d 1065, 1073 [“Bowman”].) An addendum is one way to “document an agency’s determination that a subsequent EIR or a supplemental EIR is not required.” (Opinion, at 20, citing Friends of Coll. of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo Cty. Cmty. Coll. Dist. (2016) 1 Cal.5th 937, 946 [“San Mateo Gardens”]; Guidelines, § 15164(a).)

Third Appellate District Finds Addendum to Martis Camp EIR Invalid

On review of the Martis Camp Addendum and the issues arising under Section 21166 and Guidelines section 15162, the Third Appellate District here settled on three important conclusions. First, in a brief but somewhat tortured analysis, the Court found that the County had prepared an addendum to the wrong EIR. The Martis Camp Addendum was improper, according to the Court, because the County’s abandonment of Mill Site Road constituted a change to the Retreat Subdivision Project and not a change to the Martis Camp Project. In particular, the Martis Camp Project in its conditions of approval had already prohibited Martis Camp residents from using Mill Site Road. Since abandonment of the road was already prohibited under the Martis Camp Project, it could not qualify as a change to that project. This error was prejudicial, the Court said, because the County had failed to consider whether major revisions to the Retreat Subdivision EIR were necessary.

Second, the Court concluded that the County had failed to evaluate whether the abandonment of Mill Site Road would require “major revisions” to the Retreat Subdivision EIR. Plaintiffs had argued that a Subsequent EIR was required because abandonment of Mill Site Road would result in “new and more severe environmental impacts by forcing Martis Camp residents to use SR 267 to reach Northstar, increasing vehicles miles traveled (VMT) and associated harmful emissions and pollutants.” (Opinion, at 22.) Without concurring in this technical argument, the Court nevertheless found that the County had based its review on the “legally flawed premise that the effects of abandoning Mill Site Road can be compared against the environmental impacts analyzed in the Martis Camp EIR.” (Id.)

Third, Plaintiffs had argued that, in addition to using the wrong EIR as a base for analysis, the addendum had used an improper baseline to assess environmental impacts arising from the County’s abandonment of Mill Site Road. Specifically, Plaintiffs contended that the addendum should have updated the baseline to reflect Martis Camp residents use of the road. In throwing the County at least one lifeline, the Court disagreed, finding instead that Plaintiffs were “conflating the rules governing initial review of a project under section 21151 with supplemental review under section 21166.” (Opinion, at 22, citing Bowman, supra, 185 Cal.App.3d at 1073 and Benton v. Bd. of Supervisors (1991) 226 Cal.App.3d 1467, 1477.) On review of whether to prepare a subsequent EIR under Section 21166, the lead agency must determine whether the previous environmental document for that project retains relevance despite changes to the project or its surrounding circumstances. (Opinion, at 23, citing San Mateo Gardens, supra, 1 Cal.5th at 944, 952-953.) And under Section 21166, the lead agency is “specifically authorized to limit its consideration to effects not considered in connection with the earlier project.” (Opinion, at 22, citing Sierra Club v. City of Orange (2008) 163 Cal.App.4th 523, 543.) On the merits of this question, the Court declined to express any opinion. Instead, the Court remanded the matter so that the County can determine whether the Retreat Subdivision EIR has maintained its relevance in light of the County’s decision to abandon Mill Site Road.

While invalidating the addendum, the Court did rule in favor of the County on all remaining grounds, including the Brown Act, inverse condemnation, and procedural claims related to the abandonment proceedings.

This case highlights the importance of choosing the right basis and method of analysis for subsequent environmental review, as well as the hazards of relying on the wrong EIR when there is more than one to choose from.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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