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CA Supreme Court Reverses Decision To Broaden CEQA

Los Angeles

The California Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision that would have required developers to not only analyze a project’s impact on the environment, but also how existing environmental risks could affect a project. The court, however, agreed with the California Natural Resources Agency’s interruption of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when the safety of occupants would be impacted.

Bisnow caught up with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips attorney in Sacramento Kristina Lawson to find out how this ruling could affect projects going forward.

“Human health and safety is the underlying issue,” she tells us. “We had expected the court to broaden the reach of CEQA, but the court’s decision continues to be status quo."

As a result, she says it's unlikely to have any significant effect on processing projects or what goes into a CEQA analysis. This ruling in California Building Industry Association (CBIA) v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) reversed a Court of Appeals judgment two years earlier to uphold an interruption of the law, known as “CEQA-in-Reverse,” which would have required developers to analyze how existing environmental conditions—fire, flooding, pollution, noise—could impact a project’s future occupants and/or receptors.

The CBIA initiated the legal challenge after the BAAQMD had adopted significant new CEQA thresholds for air pollutants, greenhouse gases and certain particulate matter. The CBIA contended the new thresholds were invalid because CEQA does not require analysis of the impact existing hazardous conditions will have on a new project's occupants.

The California Supreme Court unanimously reaffirmed CEQA requires analysis of a project’s impact on the environment, not the environment’s impact on a project.

This ruling should provide a sense of relief for the build industry, but curiously the Court left the door open for CEQA-in-reverse analysis in the future. It noted that while reverse analysis is not generally required, CEQA does not prohibit agencies from considering how existing conditions could impact a project’s users or residents.