California Supreme Court Will Hear Appeal in S.B. 375 Land Use-Transportation Plan Case

April 28, 2015

The California Supreme Court agreed on March 11 to review an appeals court decision that invalidated a regional transportation and land use plan for the San Diego area for failing to adequately consider greenhouse gas emissions.

In November 2014, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District ruled the environmental impact report for the San Diego Association of Governments’ (SANDAG) 2050 transportation and land use plan was insufficient under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  The case, Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. San Diego Association of Governments, is the first legal challenge of a regional transportation and land use plan developed in response to California’s Communities and Climate Protection Act (S.B. 375).

S.B. 375 requires the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to set regional GHG emissions reduction targets for passenger vehicles.  In 2011, CARB set emissions reduction targets for 2020 and 2035 for SANDAG and the other 17 metropolitan planning organizations (MPO) in the state.  Each MPO is required to prepare a "sustainable communities strategy" proposing land use, housing, and transportation strategies to meet the regional emissions reduction goals.

In its November decision, the Court of Appeal found that SANDAG’s environmental impact report violated CEQA because it did not analyze whether the regional transportation plan was consistent with “the state's policy goals” reflected in the 2005 executive order (EO S-3-05) establishing the state’s GHG emissions reduction goals. Specifically, the environmental impact report did not properly analyze the SANDAG region’s post-2020 GHG emissions.  The Court found that the omission of this analysis “deprived the public and decision makers of relevant information” about the plan’s environmental impacts.  Additionally, the Court of Appeal found that the environmental impact report did not address the mitigation of the regional transportation plan’s GHG impacts.

The Court of Appeal’s split 2-1 decision upheld the 2012 ruling of the California Superior Court.  The original lawsuit was brought by the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and Center for Biological Diversity, and was joined by the California attorney general as intervenor. 

The pending California Supreme Court decision will be important because S.B. 375 does not independently contain an enforcement mechanism for regions not in compliance with the planning mandate. The state Supreme Court limited its review to the question of whether the environmental impact report for a regional transportation plan must analyze the plan's consistency with the GHG emissions goals of Executive Order No. S-3-05 in order to comply with CEQA.