Piecemeal Review of Projects Under CEQA
The California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA") requires that an environmental impact report (“EIR") be prepared for any project a public agency plans to approve or carry out that may have a significant impact on the environment.
As the 4th District Court of Appeal recently noted in _ Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach_ (12/12/12), “CEQA forbids ‘piecemeal’ review of the significant environmental impacts of a project. (Citation omitted) Agencies cannot allow ‘environmental considerations [to] become submerged by chopping a large project into many little ones — each with a minimal potential impact on the environment — which cumulatively may have disastrous consequences.’"
This was a key issue in Banning Ranch, with the court holding that a park project, which included an access road, did not receive improper piecemeal review, as plaintiffs contended. The plaintiffs argued that the EIR should have covered not only the park and access road, but an adjacent residential and commercial development that was also planned.
But the court held that the residential and commercial development was a separate project with different purposes (recreational opportunities for existing residents vs. development of a new neighborhood) and that it was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the park project, even though the project itself was reasonably foreseeable and “will likely change the scope or nature of the initial project or its environmental effects."
It was important to the court that the City’s general plan called separately for construction of a new road to serve the residential and commercial development. As such, plaintiffs’ contention that no roads would be built across the park if it was acquired for open space was not correct.
In analyzing whether the two projects at issue were being considered piecemeal (in violation of CEQA) the test set out by the California Supreme Court was followed, which requires “that an EIR must include an analysis of the environmental effects of future expansion or other action if: (1) it is a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the initial project; and (2) the future expansion or action will be significant in that it will likely change the scope or nature of the initial project or its environmental effects." [_ Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of University of California_ (1988) 47 Cal.3d 376.]
Key to the decision was the court’s determination that the residential and commercial development was not a “consequence" of the park project.
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