California Supreme Court Issues Blow to Major So Cal Green Development

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court issued a disappointing decision in Center for Biological Diversity et al, v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife and The Newhall Land and Farming Company, further delaying a 2,587 acre southern California planned green community that proposes to house about 58,000 residents.  The project has been in the works for more than 15 years.

The Newhall Ranch project involves building nearly 20,000 homes and adding roughly 5 million square feet of commercial space to an area in dire need of both.  After years of a public planning process that involved dozens of federal, state and local agencies, environmental groups sued over the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project, charging that (1) the state and the developer failed to accurately assess future greenhouse gas emissions and (2) the EIR’s mitigation plan to use a long-standing process to relocate a protected species amounted to a “taking” under the endangered species act.

When the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and others sued the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Newhall Land and Farming Company, the trial court ruled in favor of CBD.  On appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court on all of the issues, upholding the EIR and holding, among other things, that the EIR’s analysis of greenhouse gas emissions complied with CEQA.  CBD petitioned the ruling to the California Supreme Court, which overturned the Court of Appeal’s ruling.  CalChamber filed an amicus curiae brief with the California Supreme  Court, underscoring the fact that Newhall’s EIR was solid and used appropriate methodology as required by CEQA.

While the Court appeared to take into account the arguments CalChamber and other amici presented, the Court ultimately concluded that the EIR, while it used an appropriate methodology in evaluating the project’s greenhouse gas emission impacts, did not provide substantial evidence to support the EIR’s determination that the project would not result in significant greenhouse gas emission impacts.  The Court also concluded that the Department was prohibited by the California Endangered Species Act from relocating a protected species, even where these actions could be justified as CEQA mitigation measures to protect the endangered species from harm.

Justice Ming Chin wrote the dissenting opinion, concluding that even though the EIR could be corrected, the major result of the court’s decision is even more delay.  Chin said, “Delay the project long enough and it has to meet new targets, and the perhaps new targets after that.  All this is a recipe for paralysis.  CEQA is not meant to cause paralysis.  Carefully planned green communities are needed to accommodate California’s growing population.  CEQA ensures informed planning, but it does not prohibit the planned communities.”

Staff Contact: Erika Frank, Anthony Samson

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