California Court Rejects Piecemealing Argument Where Different Projects Share Common Access Road

Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach

(2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 1209

In Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 1209, a California court rejected claims that a city "piecemealed" its CEQA review for an upcoming development project when the city first approved a park project that would share a key access road with the adjacent development.

In 2009, the City of Newport Beach announced that it would prepare an EIR for the Banning Ranch Project, which would convert roughly 400 acres of mostly vacant land into a major residential and commercial development, and would require a new "arterial" roadway. Two months later, the city began a separate EIR for an 18.9-acre park next to Banning Ranch. Importantly, the park would require a new access road, and an 850-foot segment of that road would also serve as the alignment for the Banning Ranch arterial, albeit with significant widening and improvement to accommodate higher traffic flows. The city issued the draft EIR for the park project before completing the Banning Ranch EIR, prompting opponents to contest the park EIR on the ground that the city was "piecemealing" the CEQA review.

The court upheld the EIR, finding that the city could, and would, build the park project irrespective of the Banning Ranch proposal. It reasoned that the projects had different purposes and could be implemented separately: "one provides recreational opportunities for existing residents, the other develops a new neighborhood." The court also recognized that, although the park road certainly "eas[ed] the way" for Banning Ranch construction, the fundamental question was the degree to which the first project would inextricably lead to the second:

What remains is that key word: consequence. While the [Banning Ranch] project may make reasonably foreseeable changes to the scope and nature of the park project (at least to the access road), we must determine whether "it is a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the initial project."

On this point, the court emphasized that the park project was only a "baby step" towards the Banning Ranch development, and that improving the park access road to serve any future Banning Ranch development still required a major undertaking. The court also relied on the fact that the park was shown on the city's General Plan, indicating that the city's long-range plans called for the park even if Banning Ranch failed to materialize.

The decision is arguably the latest incarnation of the "independent utility" concept, which allows related projects to be evaluated separately if each has substantial utility irrespective of the other's approval. (See Planning and Conservation League v. Castaic Lake Water Agency (2009) 180 Cal.App.4th 210, 237.)

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