City’s Decision to Not Prepare an EIR Upheld Under Substantial Evidence Standard
Earlier this month, in Latinos Unidos De Napa v. City of Napa, the California Court of Appeals upheld the city of Napa’s determination that it did not have to prepare an environmental impact report (EIR) under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when enacting minor changes to its general plan and zoning ordinances.
Napa prepared a program EIR prior to adopting its comprehensive update of its general plan in 1998. The general plan set forth Napa’s future plans for development through the year 2020. The program EIR analyzed the impacts of future projected growth within the city through the same time period. Although the future housing element was not updated at that time, the program EIR analyzed the impacts of the existing housing elements.
In 2009, Napa began the process of updating its housing element and prepared an initial study under CEQA. Among other things, the initial study analyzed the extent to which the changes contemplated by the adoption of the housing element could result in new or different environmental impacts not already analyzed with respect to the general plan. Based on this review, the city determined that the project was within the scope of the program EIR and required no further environmental review.
Petitioner, Latinos Unidos de Napa, brought a challenge contending that the city did not comply with CEQA because a new EIR was needed in connection with its adoption of the housing element. The court applied the substantial evidence test and determined only whether the administrative record as a whole provided substantial evidence to support the city’s determination that the changes in the project or its circumstances were not so substantial as to require major modifications to the EIR. The court found that Napa’s determination was supported by substantial evidence because no aspect of the project involved approval of any actual development or other activity. The project merely consisted of limited amendments to the housing element and land use element of the general plan and minor amendments to the city’s zoning ordinance. In finding that Napa’s decisions were supported by substantial evidence, the court reiterated that it is the petitioner that bears the burden and must cite to all relevant evidence.
Given the expense that an EIR can be for a city to conduct, this case helps define instances in which such an expense can be saved. The case also highlights the importance for cities to support its decisions not to prepare an EIR in the administrative record, since that will be the focus of the court’s analysis.