In the latest skirmish in a longrunning battle, an appellate court has overturned a trial judge's decision to strike down the City of Watsonville's decision to "pre-zone" and annex 216 acres of land in a disputed agricultural and coastal area west of Highway 1. If it is eventually published, the court ruling could be an important step in establishing the credibility of "tiered" environmental impact reports. The unpublished ruling by the Sixth District Court of Appeal in San Jose gives Watsonville a leg up - at least for now - over environmentalists who are seeking to stop the city from expanding across Highway 1 toward the coast. The so-called Riverside property, which would be the site of a new industrial park, is one of two parcels west of Highway 1 that the city is seeking to promote for development. The city is also promoting residential development on the 600-acre Tai property nearby, while environmentalists are also disputing a decision by the Pajaro Unified School District to locate a new high school in the same area. (See CP&DR Local Watch, December 1997, and CP&DR School Watch, August 1997.) In the court case, the Sixth District overturned a trial judge's ruling that Watsonville could not "tier" its environmental review based on the city's previously existing general plan environmental impact report. "It would be unfortunate if agencies abandoned the use of program EIRs when adopting or amending general plans in anticipation of carrying out a later series of activities pursuant to the plan or plan amendments," the court wrote. "The program EIR is tailor-made for such situations ... Accordingly, we hold that a program EIR could be and was used as the General Plan EIR in this case." Watsonville "pre-zoned" the Riverside property and adjacent property west of Highway 1 for industrial development in August of 1996. The city issued a draft EIR for the Tai property, but concluded that it could rely on the general plan EIR for the Riverside property. Although the general plan had not taken account of potential development of the Tai property, it did contemplate industrial development of the Riverside property. The city then pursued annexation, but was caught up in a major dispute at the Santa Cruz County Local Agency Formation Commission. In late 1997, the LAFCO laid down strict rules by which Watsonville could annex property and added part of the Riverside property to the city's sphere of influence. Meanwhile, however, local environmentalists sued Watsonville over the pre-zoning, arguing that the city had not addressed the environmental impacts of the decision. Among other things, the environmentalists argued that an SEIR should have been done for the Riverside property and also claimed that the city's environmental review did not cover all the environmental impacts, especially the cumulative impact when combined with the Tai project. The trial judge ruled in favor of the environmentalists, ordering the city to withdraw certification of environmental review and approval of the prezoning until the city examined the environmental impact of annexing property in the area. The city rescinded the prezoning and annexation, certified the final supplemental EIR, and then approved the prezoning and annexation again. The environmentalists claimed these actions rendered the appeal moot but the appellate court disagreed and ordered that the appeal move forward. On appeal, the city asked the appellate court to overturn the trial judge's ruling by arguing that the city did appropriately rely on the general plan EIR in prezoning and seeking annexation for the Riverside property - even though the general plan EIR had not contemplated development of the Tai property. The environmentalists continued to argue that development of the Tai property altered the overall development pattern of the area in a way that was not contemplated by the general plan EIR, and this altered impact should have been taken into account in the environmental analysis for the Riverside Drive prezoning and annexation. The appellate court agreed with the city. The environmental analysis on the Riverside property, the court said, "concluded that the General Plan EIR had previously identified the loss of agricultural land as the only significant and unavoidable impact of implementing the General Plan. Since the study revealed no new information that would alter the EIR's conclusions, the EIR adequately evaluated the anticipated annexation of the Riverside Drive site." The appellate court also concluded that, if development of the Tai property had cumulative environmental impacts, they should have been addressed in the city's supplemental EIR for inclusion of the Tai property inside the city's sphere of influence. "It had no effect on the prezoning and annexation of the Riverside Drive site, an impact considered in the General Plan EIR," the court wrote. To continue to create new environmental documents with every altered situation, the court added, "would produce a never-ending cycle of redundant EIRs anytime a city wished to issue an SEIR." The appellate court also reversed the trial judge's decision because the environmentalists had not raised all issues during administrative hearings, and because the appellate court found "substantial evidence" that all potential impacts of development on the Riverside Drive site were raised in the general plan EIR. Perhaps most important, the appellate court concluded that the general plan EIR was, in fact a "program" EIR and therefore the city appropriately used "tiering" for environmental analysis on the Riverside Drive site. The environmentalists argued that the general plan EIR was a "first-tier EIR" - thus implicitly requiring a second-tier EIR at the project level - because a general plan EIR is mandatory under the CEQA Guidelines, whereas a program EIR is optional. The court disagreed. The Case: South County Coalition for Intelligent Planning v. City of Watsonville, No. H016569 (unpublished Sixth District, issued September 17, 1998). The Lawyers: For South County Coalition: For City of Watsonville: Steve Kostka, McCutchen Doyle, (510) 937-8000.