United States: Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment Upheld Under CEQA

In Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento (2019) ___ Cal.App. 5th ___, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the City of Sacramento's use of a sustainable communities environmental assessment ("SCEA") pursuant to the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (SB 375), rather than a more traditional CEQA document (i.e., an environmental impact report or mitigated negative declaration), when it approved the Yamanee development (the "Project") as a transit priority project ("TPP"). The mixed-use Project comprised one floor of commercial space, three levels of parking, 134 residential condominiums and one floor of residential amenities, for a total of 177,032 square feet on a 0.44-acre site. The Project also included inconsistencies with the City's general plan density and building intensity standards. The court rejected arguments that the City improperly utilized a regional transportation and greenhouse gas ("GHG") reduction plan in approving the SCEA; or that the SCEA should have further analyzed the Project's cumulative impacts, and not relied on tiering off past EIRs. The holding further affirms the innovative and beneficial use of SCEAs in streamlining environmental review for qualifying TPPs.

In addressing the Project inconsistencies with the general plan's Urban Corridor Low land use designation and related zoning code standards, the City utilized general plan provision LU 1.1. Under its novel theory, the City determined it was authorized to approve projects with greater building intensities so long as the project provided a "significant community benefit." The City found that the Project-derived benefits included contribution to the goal of building 10,000 new residential units by 2025 and a reduction in dependency on personal vehicles resulting in decreased carbon emissions. Per the City's Project approval, these significant community benefits outweighed the land use plan inconsistencies. The court determined that this did not violate equal protection and due process protections.


In order to help local governments meet climate change reduction goals, SB 375 authorizes a lead agency to utilize an SCEA to streamline environmental review of TPPs. As a part of SB 375, the California Air Resources Board ("CARB") was directed to provide regional emissions targets for automobiles and light trucks. These emissions targets are achieved through sustainable communities strategies ("SCS") provided in regional transportation plans approved by the regional councils or associations of governments – here, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments..

A TPP is defined as a project that includes at least 50% residential uses, a minimum density of 20 dwelling units per acre and must be located within one-half mile of a major transit stop of transit corridor. If a TPP (1) "is consistent with the general use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies specified for the project area" in the strategy; and (2) incorporates all feasible mitigation measures, performance standards, and criteria set forth "in the prior applicable environmental impact reports" and which were adopted as findings, then the local agency may review the project's environmental effects in a streamlined manner1 using an SCEA. (Pub. Res. Code §§ 21155 (a), 21155.2(a), (b).) The court upheld the determination that substantial evidence showed the Yamanee project qualified as a TPP, validating the City's choice to prepare an SCEA in lieu of a more traditional CEQA document.

In upholding the use of the SCEA, the court rejected Petitioner's claim that the SCS's lack of specific density and building intensity standards made it insufficient to evaluate the Project. Instead, the court found the SCS was never intended to provide project level specificity for development standards. Rather, the SCS provides general locations of uses, residential densities, and building intensities on a regional scale. Based on this regional breakdown, the SCS then forecast how future development could help achieve the targeted emissions reductions. The court held, therefore, SB 375 authorized the City to utilize an SCEA for the Project because it was consistent with the SCS's forecast and there was substantial evidence in the record supporting this consistency. The court further opined that any issue with the form of streamlined environmental review permitted by SB 375 was a legislative one.

The court also recognized, pursuant to SB 375, an SCEA is not required to address growth inducing impacts or any project specific or cumulative impacts from cars and light duty truck trips on global warming or the regional transportation network. If the lead agency determines that a cumulative effect has already been adequately addressed and mitigated, that cumulative effect is not cumulatively considerable and no further environmental review is necessary. (Pub. Res. Code § 21155.2(b)(1).)

Here, as authorized under CEQA, the Project's SCEA relied on the EIRs of the general plan and SCS to address the Project's effects, including cumulative effects. Substantial evidence demonstrated the Project would not exceed the SCS's forecasts of new homes in the central city subarea when added to other entitled projects. Specifically, the EIR for the SCS reviewed the effects of building more housing on a regional basis, which included more than 27,000 new residential units in central Sacramento. Thus, the cumulative effect studied in the SCS EIR was more than a sufficient cumulative analysis for the 134 new units proposed by the Project.

Land Use and Zoning

In rejecting the argument that the City's reliance on LU 1.1.10 violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the California Constitution, the court determined equal protection "does not require zoning uniformity where, as here, the different treatment is rationally related to a legitimate government purpose."

First, the court found that the City exercised its ability to enact comprehensive land use and zoning laws – also referred to as its inherent police power – in adopting LU 1.1.10. In approving the Project, LU 1.1.10 was rationally related to the City's legitimate purpose of providing high quality infill development in Midtown Sacramento.

Second, the court held that LU 1.1.10 does not constitute an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority. Specifically, the general plan (including LU 1.1.10) was approved by the Sacramento City Council and provides sufficient direction for the policy to be implemented by the planning department. Per the court, the phrase "significant community benefit" is not unconstitutionally vague and provides enough direction to be implemented.


1 An SCEA provides streamlined CEQA review because it is not required to discuss growth inducing impacts, project-specific or cumulative impacts on global warming or the regional transportation network, or analyze offsite alternatives or a reduced residential density alternative regarding the effects of car and light-duty truck trips. (Pub. Res. Code §§ 21155.2(c)(2); 21159.28(a), (b).)

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