Recent CEQA Decisions Test Concept of “Limited” or “Focused” EIRs

Farmland Protection Alliance v. County of Yolo

Save the Field v. Del Mar Union School District

Two recent appellate decisions tackle the question of how a CEQA lead agency may construct an EIR following a successful challenge to a prior negative declaration, where there are few potentially significant impacts.

The first, Farmland Protection Alliance v. County of Yolo (2021) 71 Cal.App.5th 300, was decided in late 2021. There, a county prepared a negative declaration to approve a bed and breakfast project. Opponents sued, claiming several CEQA violations. The lower court rejected most of them, but found the potential for significant impacts to certain species. As a remedy, the lower court directed the county to prepare an EIR analyzing only the potential impacts to species. On appeal, the court held that such a “limited” EIR was not permitted by CEQA and was beyond a court’s authority to order. According to the third appellate district, if an EIR is required at all, it must be prepared for the entire project.

In September 2022, the fourth district addressed a similar problem in Save the Field v. Del Mar Union School District, 2022 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5869. A school district adopted a negative declaration for a school rebuild project. The lower court found defects in the district’s traffic, noise and biological resources analyses and allowed the district the remedy of preparing a “focused” EIR. The district prepared a focused EIR analyzing the defects, then certified that EIR along with – crucially – the initial study and a mitigation monitoring and reporting program. On appeal, opponents asserted that Farmland Protection Alliance compelled reversal. The appellate court disagreed, holding that the focused EIR and initial study together formed “a single EIR document” meeting CEQA’s substantive requirements.

Collectively, these decisions provide an interesting study of how CEQA might be satisfied for projects with few impacts. It is often observed (with regret) that EIRs have grown dramatically in size since the legislature adopted CEQA in 1970. Though unpublished, Save the Field reminds us that CEQA’s informational mandate may, in an appropriate case, be discharged in a perfunctory way. As the court observed, the initial study was at 23 pages facially sufficient to cover most of the topics that CEQA requires agencies to consider.

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Sean Hungerford is a Partner at Harrison, Temblador, Hungerford & Guernsey LLP in Sacramento, California.

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