As the state's public disclosure statute, the California Environmental Quality Act directs lead agencies to disclose the likely impacts associated with agency approval of projects. And while legal caution dictates that more disclosure is preferable to less disclosure, lead agencies have to recognize that there are two notable exceptions to this practice: information relating to cultural resources, as outlined in Government Code section 6254, CEQA Guidelines section 15120(d), and trade secrets, per CEQA Guidelines section 15120(d). A recent decision in Valley Foundation v. City of Rocklin, in which the integrity of Native American cultural resources hung in the balance, explores how a lead agency can navigate the conflicting requirements of disclosure and confidentiality.

The facts involve Clover Valley, a small rural valley located in Rocklin, part of the great Sacramento urban area. A developer prepared an environmental impact report for purposes of annexation and an updated land plan for a area originally zoned for 974 homes. This EIR was certified in 1997. In early 1998, the developer and city entered into a development agreement, under which the developer made a substantial contribution to the city for a public recreation facility. Starting in 2000, the developer submitted a large lot map, and the city processed another EIR, tiered to the original annexation EIR. The DEIR was released in 2002, and through subsequent reviews, the project was reduced from 933 to 558 lots. Following certification of the later tiered EIR, the city approved the downsized project in 2007.

Community opponents of the project then filed suit, challenging the sufficiency of the EIR. The trial court ruled for the city and developer. 

On appeal, the appellate court first addressed the contradictory aspects of the CEQA full disclosure requirement with the obligation to protect the integrity of cultural resources by not disclosing specific information. In Valley Foundation, the resources in question were Native American archeological sites and artifacts. The city did not want to reveal their exact location for fear that would-be looters could seize upon the information. Claimants, however, argued that this lack of disclosure was a violation of CEQA. 

As a result of a decision made in 2002 by the Army Corps of Engineers and the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), a section 106 consultation was undertaken. That consultation resulted in the development of a historic properties management plan. 

The management plan was kept as a confidential document by the Corps and SHPO. Generalized information regarding cultural resources was included in the EIR, and the appellate court ruled that the lead agency had provided the right level of accommodation of disclosure and confidentiality. On a related topic, the appellate court also ruled that the information added to the FEIR by the city regarding certain cultural resources did not trigger recirculation. Turning to growth-inducing impacts, the appellate court upheld the city's discussion of the growth-inducing impacts of a sewer line extension, whereby the EIR documented that the line would provide service to additional homes, but that those future homes were already analyzed in the Rocklin general plan and related EIR, and would not constitute unplanned growth.

In upholding the adequacy of the EIR, the appellate court addressed a number of other common claims. Facing a claim that the construction of a road in a potentially sensitive area was inconsistent with a specific general plan requirement, the appellate court followed the more flexible rule in general plan interpretation articulated in Sequoyah Hills Homeowners Association v. City of Oakland (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 704. 

With respect to a challenge to the infeasibility of mitigation for address scenic impacts, the court found the evidence in the record regarding conflict with rights granted under the previously approved development agreement and potential secondary impacts to other resources to be sufficient to uphold the city's conclusions. Finally, the court upheld the city's reliance on a commitment letter issued by the Placer County Water Agency as sufficient, even though the actual future delivery of water was subject to later regulatory steps and hurdles, all of which was reflected in the EIR.

The Case: 

Valley Foundation v. City of Rocklin (2011) 197 Cal.App. 4th 200. C061808

The Attorneys: 

Kenyon Yeates, Charity Kenyon, Bill Yeates, and Christina Morkner Brown for Plaintiffs and Appellants Clover Valley Foundation and Sierra Club

Russell A. Hildebrand; Jarvis, Fay, Doporto & Gibson andRick W. Jarvis for Real Parties in Interest and Respondents

William W. Abbott is a partner in the law firm of Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, of Sacramento.