Tuesday, December 1, 2015
S.C. Rejects EIR for Massive Newhall Ranch Project
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Department of Fish and Wildlife must reconsider its conclusion that greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the proposed Newhall Ranch development in the Santa Clarita Valley will not significantly impact the environment, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar said the department was correct in concluding that the impact of the development should be measured against statewide emission reduction goals. “[B]ut the report’s finding that the project’s emissions would not be significant under that criterion is not supported by a reasoned explanation based on substantial evidence,” the jurist wrote for a five-member majority.
The high court reached the same conclusion that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones did when she sided with environmental groups in a 2012 ruling. The groups, led by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, argued the EIR on the 20,000 home development was inadequate in several respects.
Div. Five of this district’s Court of Appeal disagreed, saying the greenhouse gas analysis was adequate under the deferential standard of review applicable to lead agency decisions under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Newhall Land & Farming Co. is seeking to build housing for nearly 60,000 persons and 5 million square feet of office space over more than 2,500 acres along Highway 126 west of the Golden State Freeway, or Interstate 5. The project—which would take 30 years to complete—was first conceived in the 1980s, and environmentalists have been fighting it ever since.
Werdegar explained yesterday that the department based its analysis on the “business as usual” model in the California Air Resources Board’s 2008 “climate change scoping plan.” That plan called for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels “by cutting approximately 30 percent from business-as-usual emission levels projected for 2020, or about 15 percent from today’s level.”
Estimated statewide emissions for 1990 were 427 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. In the scoping plan, the CARB estimated that 469 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent were emitted annually from 2002 to 2004.
Projecting that number forward, and taking estimate population and economic growth into account, the plan forecast there would be 596 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted in 2020 absent affirmative reduction measures. Thus, according to CARB, if emissions were reduced to 1990 levels, the 30 percent reduction goal would be met.
While consistency with the 30 percent reduction goal is a reasonable means of measurement, Werdegar explained, the EIR for Newhall Ranch was deficient, “because the administrative record discloses no substantial evidence that Newhall Ranch’s project-level reduction of 31 percent in comparison to business as usual is consistent with achieving A.B. 32’s statewide goal of a 29 percent reduction from business as usual….”
In doing so, the justice said, “[t]he EIR simply assumes that the level of effort required in one context, a 29 percent reduction from business as usual statewide, will suffice in the other, a specific land use development.” Based on the record, Werdegar insisted, “we cannot say that conclusion is wrong, but neither can we discern the contours of a logical argument that it is right.”
Werdegar was joined by Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Goodwin H. Liu, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra R. Kruger.
Justices Ming Chin and Carol A. Corrigan, in separate opinions, argued that the EIR was adequate.
Chin said the DFW and the other state and federal agencies that reviewed the project have “far greater expertise than this court in judging the merits of the proposal….”
The jurist warned:
“This court should be cautious about overturning the considered judgment of these eight agencies. California’s environmental laws are not intended to prevent development that is needed to accommodate the state’s growing population. Instead they are designed to encourage planned development by ensuring that decisions regarding how to accommodate the state’s growing population while protecting the environment are informed. The instant project is very thoroughly planned, and the detailed and careful EIR has fully informed the decision makers.”
Corrigan said “the level of detail the majority demands from this EIR is contrary to both our deferential standard of review and our approval of the methodology used to assess greenhouse gas significance.”
The case is Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (Newhall Land and Farming Company), 15 S.O.S. 5641.
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