Sierra Club v. Cnty. of Fresno

Decision Date24 December 2018
Docket NumberS219783
Citation431 P.3d 1151,6 Cal.5th 502,241 Cal.Rptr.3d 508
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties SIERRA CLUB et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. COUNTY OF FRESNO et al., Defendants and Respondents; Friant Ranch, L.P., Real Party in Interest and Respondent.

Law Office of Sara Hedgpeth-Harris, Sara Hedgpeth-Harris ; Brandt-Hawley Law Group and Susan Brandt-Hawley for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Chatten-Brown & Carstens, Jan Chatten-Brown, Douglas P. Carstens and Amy C. Minteer for Association of Irritated Residents, Medial Advocates for Healthy Air and Coalition for Clean Air as Amici Curiae on behalf of Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Michael W. Graf for Center for Biological Diversity as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Law Offices of Stephan C. Volker, Stephan C. Volker and Daniel P. Garrett-Steinman for North Coast Rivers Alliance as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Ashley E. Werner and Phoebe S. Seaton for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Kevin B. Briggs, County Counsel, and Bruce B. Johnson, Principal Deputy County Counsel, for Defendants and Respondents.

Remy Moose Manley, James G. Moose, Tiffany K. Wright and Laura M. Harris for Real Party in Interest.

Catherine T. Redmond and Annette Ballatore-Williamson for San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Defendants and Respondents and Real Party in Interest.

The Sohagi Law Group, Margaret M. Sohagi and Philip A. Seymour for League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties, California Special Districts Association and Association of California Water Agencies as Amici Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest.

Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and Lisabeth D. Rothman for California Building Industry Association and Building Industry Legal Defense Foundation as Amici Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest.

Best Best & Krieger, Jason M. Ackerman and Fernando Avila for California Association of Environmental Professionals and American Planning Association California Chapter as Amici Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest.

Kurt R. Wiese and Barbara Baird for South Coast Air Quality Management District as Amicus Curiae.

Justice Chin authored the opinion of the court, in which Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Corrigan, Liu, Cuéllar, Kruger, and Robie* concurred.


We granted review to determine whether an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), issued as part of a master plan to develop a partial retirement community in Fresno, California, violates the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for failing to include sufficient information on topics the Act requires. ( Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq. )1 Our task is to review specific challenges to the final EIR2 that defendant County of Fresno (County) and its Board of Supervisors adopted, and the trial court approved. As we explain, we affirm in part and reverse in part the Court of Appeal's judgment.


The Friant Ranch project (Project) consists of real party in interest Friant Ranch, L.P.'s (real party) planned development of the Central Valley's first master-planned "pedestrian friendly" community on a 942-acre site (formerly zoned agricultural) that sits adjacent to the unincorporated community of Friant in north central Fresno County, just south of the San Joaquin River. The County is the local governmental entity that acted as the lead agency for the CEQA review and for preparation of the Project's EIR.

The Project includes the Friant Ranch Specific Plan (Specific Plan), which contemplates the construction of approximately 2,500 single and multi-family residential units that are age restricted to "active adults" age 55 and older, other residential units that are not age restricted, a commercial village center, a recreation center, trails, open space, a neighborhood electric vehicle network, and parks and parkways. The Project also includes 250,000 square feet of commercial space on 482 acres and the dedication of 460 acres to open space. An additional Friant Community Plan Update expands the Specific Plan area and adds policies that are consistent with the Specific Plan and the County's General Plan. The Project's construction is divided into five phases with an estimated 10-year build-out.

Through its Board of Supervisors, the County received written comments to the draft EIR, held a public hearing, and prepared responses to the comments. After making the findings required under section 21081, subdivision (a), for each significant effect noted in the draft, the County issued a Statement of Overriding Considerations (Statement) that is required in CEQA approved projects to show that the Project's significant environmental effects have been identified, and avoided or mitigated, or that unmitigated effects will be outweighed by the Project's benefits. (§§ 21002, 21002.1, 21081; Guidelines, §§ 15091-15093.) The Statement noted: "The Project implements and furthers important plans and public policies adopted and endorsed by the County related to urban growth." The Statement also observed that the County "made a reasonable and good faith effort to eliminate or substantially mitigate the environmental impacts resulting from the Project by requiring implementation of the environmentally superior alternative—Project Alternative No. 3: Northeast Development Configuration and the Beck Property alternative wastewater treatment plant location—and various mitigation measures, goals and policies identified in the EIR, General Plan, the proposed Friant Community Plan Update, and the proposed Friant Ranch Specific Plan."

On February 1, 2011, the County's Board of Supervisors approved Project Alternative 3, certified the EIR, and approved a version of the Specific Plan that prohibited the discharge of treated effluent into the river from the wastewater treatment plant. The County also adopted a Mitigation Monitoring Program (MMP), which noted in part that compliance with the mitigation measures would be "enforced through subsequent conditions of approval for future discretionary actions," including use permits and tentative subdivision maps for the Specific Plan area. By petition for writ of mandamus filed in the trial court, plaintiffs Sierra Club, Revive the San Joaquin, and League of Women Voters of Fresno (collectively, plaintiffs) challenged the County's certification of the EIR, alleging that it violated CEQA in several respects. ( Code Civ. Proc., § 1094.5 [challenge to public agency's determination based on alleged CEQA noncompliance requires administrative mandamus proceeding].) The trial court rejected plaintiffs' challenges and approved the Project, noting in its judgment that in reviewing CEQA decisions, "it may not exercise its independent judgment on the evidence, but must determine only whether the act or decision is supported by substantial evidence." In reviewing the EIR, the court agreed with County's findings on traffic impact, biological resources, wastewater treatment, and air quality impact, among other considerations. It stated that the court "does not pass on the correctness of any EIR's environmental conclusions, but instead determines whether the EIR is sufficient as an informational document. All conflicts in the evidence and reasonable inferences must be resolved and drawn in favor of the agency's decisions and findings. The reviewing Court does not reweigh the evidence."

The court's judgment also observed that regarding air quality impacts, the County explained why the EIR's mitigation measures would reduce the Project's greenhouse gas emissions. The court agreed with the County that plaintiffs did not cite to the record in sufficient detail to show any error.

At the end of its judgment, the court noted that it retained jurisdiction to allow the County a reasonable amount of time to circulate a Park Impact analysis on the Project's effect on adjoining parks, including Lost Lake Park and Millerton Lake. This analysis is not at issue here. Otherwise, the court denied all of plaintiffs' claims and entered judgment in favor of real party.

Plaintiffs appealed the judgment before the County could implement the mitigation measures. They claimed in relevant part that the Project's EIR failed to comply with CEQA because its discussion of air quality impacts was inadequate.

The Court of Appeal agreed with plaintiffs' contentions involving the EIR's consideration of the Project's air quality impacts on the following grounds: "(1) the EIR was inadequate because it failed to include an analysis that correlated the [P]roject's emission of air pollutants to its impact on human health; (2) the mitigation measures for the [P]roject's long-term air quality impacts violate CEQA because they are vague, unenforceable and lack specific performance criteria; and (3) the statement that the air quality mitigation provisions will substantially reduce air quality impacts is unexplained and unsupported. These defects must be cured by the preparation of a revised EIR." The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's judgment on those grounds only.3

We granted real party's petition for review on the issues concerning the Court of Appeal's reversal of the trial court judgment upholding the air quality impact findings and conclusions in the EIR's chapter 3 (discussing air quality impacts). The scope of our review concerns how courts should determine the adequacy of an EIR's discussion, including: What standard of review a court must apply when adjudicating a challenge to the adequacy of an EIR's discussion of adverse environmental impacts and mitigation measures, and whether CEQA requires an EIR to connect a project's air quality impacts to specific health consequences. We must also decide whether a lead agency impermissibly defers mitigation measures when it retains the discretion to substitute later adopted...

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