In an unpublished opinion, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled that in adopting a climate action plan, San Diego County violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not following the mitigation measures the county laid out in the general plan process.

The ruling is a significant victory for environmentalists and could portend future rulings from the Fourth District in the facing environmental plaintiffs, especially in the pending environmental challenge to the sustainable communities strategy adopted by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). The ruling might also influence the pending City of San Diego Climate Action Plan, in which many of the same issues are at play. (Disclosure: As most CP&DR readers know, the author was until recently the planning director for the City of San Diego and as such was in the middle of the debate on this very issue.)

San Diego County adopted its general plan in 2011. The general plan's environmental impact report contained a mitigation measure requiring the county to adopt a climate action plan that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from county operations by 17% between 2006 and 2020 and community emissions by 9% between 2006 and 2020. The county also agreed to adopt significance thresholds to implement the CAP.

However, the appellate court found that the actual climate action plan, adopted by the county in 2012, did not fulfill this promise. "[W]hen it approved the CAP and Thresholds project, the County stated that the CAP does not ensure the required GHG emissions reductions," wrote Justice Gilbert Nares for a unanimous three-judge panel. "Rather, the County described the strategies as recommendations."

The court also concluded that, in the general plan EIR and mitigation monitoring and reporting program (MMRP) adopted with it, the county agreed to follow the "trajectory" called for in Executive Order S-3-05, issued by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 but did not do so in the CAP. EO S-3-05 requires state agencies to pursue a goal of reducing GHG emissions by 80% by 2050. Its application to SANDAG's SCS via the environmental review process is also an issue in the SANDAG case.

The county's defense consisted largely of an argument that the statute of limitations had passed by the time the Sierra Club filed the lawsuit because the Sierra Club should have challenged the general plan EIR, not the CAP. The court rejected this argument and in so doing gave the county a stern lecture for attempting to consider the CAP, as well as adoption of significance thresholds associated with the CAP, as part of the same "project (for CEQA purposes) as the general plan itself.

On this point, the court relied heavily on the Second District's decision in Lincoln Place Tenants Assn. v. City of Los Angeles (2007) 155 Cal.App.4th 425, 443-444 (Lincoln Place II). In that case, the court rejected the City of L.A.'s argument that a tenants' association could not sue to enforce mitigation measures resulting from a tentative vesting map approval because the 180-day window for suing under the Permit Streamlining Act had closed.

Although the court concluded that both the CAP and the significance thresholds were separate projects – and relied on that conclusion to strike down the County's defense – it did not order the County to prepare a CEQA analysis for other one.

Nor did the court explain in detail its conclusion that the general plan and its EIR committed the county to meeting the "trajectory" of EO S-3-05. Although the EIR provides a description of EO S-3-05, it acknowledges that AB 32, the state statute calling for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, sets no targets past 2020. Furthermore, the MMRP makes no mention of EO S-3-05 or targets past 2020. AB 32 does contain general language saying that emissions reduction efforts should continue past 2020, and the court does cite general language in the EIR about the ongoing risk of climate change.

The court apparently based its conclusion on the idea that, in adopting the CAP and the significance thresholds as plan-level documents, the county sought to truncate or eliminate environmental review based on GHG emissions past 2020, even though the county staff acknowledged that GHG emissions might increase after 2020. In the ruling, the court noted that in appearances before the Board of Supervisors the county staff stated that because EO-S-3-05 was an executive order and not a statute, the county was not required to follow it.

The Fourth District's ruling in the county case could portend a similar ruling in the SANDAG case. The environmentalists were successful at the trial level in using this argument, though the case involves a different kind of plan produced by a different type of government agency operating under a different state law (SB 375 as opposed to the general plan law). Judge Taylor's ruling was issued almost two years ago. The case is still pending in the Court of Appeal, though oral arguments occurred in August and a ruling is expected soon.

Environmentalists have been aggressive in promoting the same set of arguments during the development of the City of San Diego's CAP. Recent press reports suggest that Mayor Kevin Faulconer and environmentalists are on the same page regarding the proposed CAP, although the post-2020 targets have become softer in recent drafts.

The case is Sierra Club v. County of San Diego, D064243, at