In Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line
Construction Authority, the California Court of Appeal for the
Second Appellate District ruled that, when supported by substantial
evidence, projected future conditions may serve as an appropriate
baseline for measuring a project's impacts under the California
Environmental Quality Act. The court disagreed with two prior
appellate decisions, Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Assn. v. City
of Sunnyvale, 190 Cal. App. 4th 1351 (2010), and Madera
Oversight Coalition v. County of Madera, 199 Cal. App. 4th 48
(2011), which both held that CEQA prohibits use of baseline
conditions that are projected to occur after certification of the
Environmental Impact Report.
The case involved an EIR certified by the Board of the Exposition
Metro Line Construction Authority for a light rail line connecting
downtown Los Angeles with Santa Monica. For traffic and air quality
impacts, the EIR used conditions projected to occur in 2030 as the
The court upheld that decision, noting that while an agency may not
use a future hypothetical scenario as the baseline, it
may, in appropriate circumstances, use a realistic
projection of future conditions. The court ruled that
nothing in CEQA requires the use of existing conditions, or
prohibits the use of future conditions, as the environmental
baseline. It recognized that the CEQA Guidelines state that the
environmental setting at the commencement of environmental review
"will normally constitute the baseline," but
emphasized that "to state the norm is to recognize the
possibility of departure from the norm." The court concluded
that "an agency's use of projected future baseline, when
supported by substantial evidence, is an appropriate means to
analyze the traffic and air quality effects of a long-term
infrastructure project" that is designed to serve a future
Applying these principles, the court observed that future
population growth in Los Angeles County over the next 20 years,
with its resulting effects on traffic and air quality, is not
hypothetical – "it is inevitable." The court
noted that since the project at issue would not even begin
operating until 2015 at the earliest, "its impact on
presently existing traffic and air quality conditions will
yield no practical information to decision makers or the
public." The 20-year planning horizon for the project also
supported the agency's decision to use conditions projected to
occur in the year 2030 as the CEQA baseline.
The court's opinion is part of a recent trend of cases showing
increased deference to the discretion of CEQA lead agencies.
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