California Court Upholds CEQA Traffic Baseline Composed of Existing and Predicted Conditions

A California appellate court has extended the recent series of decisions providing guidance on the CEQA baseline. The court in Pfeiffer v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 1552 upheld an environmental impact report for a medical campus expansion where the traffic baseline used both existing and predicted traffic conditions. The court rejected concerns that the baseline relied in part on predicted traffic conditions.

The City of Sunnyvale's EIR evaluated a number of traffic scenarios as part of its baseline analysis of the expansion project. These included existing traffic conditions based on actual traffic counts, "background" conditions (representing existing conditions, plus predicted traffic volumes from approved but un-built developments), "project" conditions (background conditions, plus the project's traffic contributions), and cumulative conditions (year 2020 projections).

Neighboring homeowners challenged the EIR's partial reliance on a predicted traffic baseline. They argued that, under CEQA Guidelines section 15125(a), the baseline was confined to actual traffic conditions that existed at or before project approval. The inclusion of predicted conditions, they claimed, represented precisely the type of "hypothetical" baseline analysis that was rejected in Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 1351.

The court rejected the neighbors' strict approach, favoring the more flexible rule articulated by the California Supreme Court in Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management District (2010) 48 Cal.4th 310. Citing Communities, the court explained that CEQA lead agencies had discretion to select a baseline that realistically measured the existing physical conditions, and that "predicted" conditions could be an appropriate way to describe the baseline where existing conditions vary, as is the case with traffic. Thus, the use of predicted conditions was not clearly defective.

The court also rebuffed claims that the baseline was controlled by Sunnyvale West, and found that case distinguishable. The court explained that the traffic baseline that was rejected in Sunnyvale West was limited to projected future conditions in 2020. The court emphasized that the baseline at issue was not limited to future projections, but also relied on actual existing conditions based on traffic counts at intersections in the vicinity of the project.

The Pfeiffer decision builds on the recent court opinions in Communities and Sunnyvale Westand is significant for preserving lead agencies' flexibility to include predicted conditions as one component of the baseline, provided that actual, existing conditions are appropriately considered.

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