The California Supreme Court handed down its latest California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) decision, Friends of the College v. San Mateo Community College District, on September 19, 2016. The decision is a major victory for agencies, including K-12 and community college districts, considering changes to a previously approved project that required environmental review.
Friends of the College arose from changes in the San Mateo Community College District's 10-year-old plan to modernize its campuses by renovating some existing buildings, constructing new ones, and demolishing others. The District had determined, years before the case arose, that the environmental impacts of the original modernization plan could be mitigated to insignificance and adopted a declaration to that effect, i.e., a mitigated negative declaration (MND). Because of funding issues arising years after the District's adoption of the MND, the District decided to demolish a building originally slated for renovation and renovate two other buildings initially slated for demolition.
The District concluded that these changes to the original plan would have no greater environmental impact than the original plan itself and that the changes did not require the preparation of a supplemental environmental impact report (EIR), which calls for a public review and comment period. Therefore, the District approved an addendum to the original MND, a process that does not require a public review and comment period.
The trial court and the Court of Appeal held that the changes to the original plan constituted a new project under CEQA. The Supreme Court unanimously overturned this conclusion. The Supreme Court ruled that an agency that proposes changes to a previously approved project that required CEQA review must determine whether the previous environmental document retains any relevance in light of the proposed changes and, if so, whether the changes are substantial and will require major revisions to the previous environmental document due to the involvement of new significant environmental effects or a substantial increase in the severity of previously identified significant effects. The agency, and not the courts, makes these determinations. The courts' job is not to weigh conflicting evidence and determine which party has the better argument. Courts are limited to deciding whether an agency's determination is supported by substantial evidence.
The California Supreme Court unequivocally stated that it expects occasions when a court finds no substantial evidence to support an agency's decision to proceed under CEQA's subsequent review provisions – i.e., occasions when a court finds no substantial evidence to support an agency's decision that the previous environmental document retains some relevance in light of the proposed changes – will be rare. Finally, the Supreme Court found that CEQA establishes a presumption against requiring supplemental review of a previously approved project, whether that approval is based on an EIR or a negative declaration.