By Michael B. Wilmar

In Endangered Habitats League v. County of Orange, 131 Cal. App. 4th 777 (2005), the California Court of Appeal rejected a development plan in Orange County. The court did so on the grounds that the specific plan approved by the County conflicted with its general plan, and that the County compiled an inadequately detailed environmental impact report (EIR).

The case re-emphasizes the importance of the general plan consistency requirement under California law and the significance thresholds under the State CEQA Guidelines.

The facts run as follows:

The Orange County Board of Supervisors approved area plans for two adjacent rural sites as consistent with the County’s general plan. The Board also voted to certify an EIR as reflecting the plan’s compliance with CEQA. Several interest groups, including the Sierra Club and lead plaintiff Endangered Habitats League sought a writ of mandate invalidating the site plan. The trial court denied the writ, finding the plan to accord with all relevant regulatory requirements.

But the California Court of Appeal disagreed, citing numerous independent bases for reversal. The court found the site plan to be inconsistent with the County’s general plan. First, the general plan required the County to assess a project’s impact on traffic volume using the methodology of the Highway Capacity Manual (HCM). But the County employed an alternative methodology, the “volume/capacity ratio” (V/C) method. The court held that using the alternative method brought the project into conflict with the County’s general plan. Id. at 783. As a result, the trial court had ruled arbitrarily and capriciously in allowing the project to go forward.

Second, the court disapproved of the “balancing provision” incorporated into the specific plan. Whereas the general plan enumerated various “mandatory provisions,” the specific plan permitted the County to “balance” the assorted goals of the specific plan. This balancing technique gave the developers room to emphasize some goals of the general plan at the expense of others in the hopes of piecing together a project that had the overall flavor of compliance, even if the project failed to satisfy some of the mandatory provisions. Id. at 785. This, the court ruled, gave the County room to approve a project that violated policies of the general plan.

Third, the court rejected the amendment to the specific plan. This amendment, the court found, exempted the project from assorted environmental regulations. Id. at 789. This exemption flatly conflicted with the “general plan policy that all new development must comply with all specific plan policies.” Id. As a result, the court ruled, the trial court’s approval should be set aside as arbitrary and capricious.

Also, the court found that the agency established an “impermissibly lenient” legal standard for identifying the environmental impacts to be addressed in the EIR. Id. at 793. The agency limited its “significant effect” analysis regarding biological resources to only those actions that would cause a species or a native plant or animal community to drop below self perpetuating levels on a statewide or regional basis, or would cause a species to become threatened or endangered. Id. at 792. The CEQA Guidelines, however, define as mandatory “significant effects” of a project those effects that would substantially reduce the habitat of a fish or wildlife species, cause a fish or wildlife population to drop below self-sustaining levels, threaten to eliminate a plant or animal community, or restrict the range of an endangered, rare or threatened species?a considerably broader standard. Id.; see 14 C.C.R. § 15965. The court deemed the certification of an EIR using the more lenient, narrower standard erroneous, and found that use of this limited analysis, where a broader analysis of all significant environmental effects is required by law, amounted to a prejudicial abuse of discretion. Id. at 793.

For more information please contact Michael Wilmar. Michael B. Wilmar is special counsel in the Real Estate, Land Use and Natural Resources Practice Group in the firm’s San Francisco office.