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California Court of Appeal Rejects CEQA Challenges to County of Riverside’s Approval of Master-Planned Development Project

In a lengthy opinion certified for publication on March 15, 2017, the Court of Appeal for the Fourth District affirmed a lower court’s holding denying a petition for writ of mandate filed by Residents Against Specific Plan 380 (appellant) challenging the County of Riverside’s decision to approve a master-planned community development project. [Residents Against Specific Plan 380 v. County of Riverside, 9 Cal.App.5th 941 (4th Dist. 2017).]

Factual Background

The appellant’s challenge argued that the county violated various procedural, substantive and informational requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The project at issue is a master-planned development with residential, mixed use, commercial and open space components on approximately 200 acres of land in the French Valley region of Riverside County. The project as approved by the county, included a general plan amendment, change of zone and Specific Plan.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Appellant argued that the county’s Notice of Determination (NOD) was inadequate because it did not accurately describe the approved project. Although the parties agreed that the NOD provided a project description with errors, the court nevertheless rejected that CEQA was violated. Under the substantial compliance doctrine, an NOD is reviewed for “actual compliance in respect to the substance essential to every reasonable objective of the statute,” even though there may be technical imperfections. Here, the court concluded that the NOD’s errors did not justify unwinding the project approval because the NOD substantially complied with CEQA’s informational requirements. Moreover, appellant could not point to any prejudicial errors in the NOD.

The court also rejected appellant’s contention that the county abused its discretion by failing to revise and recirculate the final EIR after making changes to the plan, noting the rule that recirculation is not mandated when new information merely clarifies or amplifies the previously drafted EIR, but is required when it reveals a new substantial impact or a substantially increased impact on the environment. Here, the differences between the approved plan and the plan described in the final EIR did not raise any significant environmental impacts because the project’s footprint did not change and the revisions pertained to details of the project’s allocation and arrangement of uses. Therefore, the county had an adequate basis for determining that the project’s changes did not require recirculation of the EIR.

Appellant also objected to changes in the project and argued that the county did not adopt all feasible mitigation measures for air quality impacts. The court rejected this contention by concluding that the county’s stated reasons for not adopting proposed additional mitigation measures was sufficiently detailed to support the county’s determination that the measure would not be useful.

Finally, the court noted that the county was not required to respond to appellant’s comments which were submitted more than 14 months after the comment period had ended.

Conclusion and Implications

Although the court’s ruling did not create any new law or establish new CEQA precedent per se, the decision provides useful guidance on addressing various CEQA challenges and the proper standard. Importantly, this decision solidifies the highly deferential substantial evidence standard that will be used in evaluating CEQA challenges.

The case may be accessed at:

(Nedda Mahrou)