California Supreme Court to Local Agencies: Hypothetical Future Baselines in CEQA are not per se Improper in All Cases, but likely are Improper in the Vast Majority
by Neill Brower
An August 5, 2013, the California Supreme Court provided some additional flexibility to local agencies in deciding what conditions properly constitute the "baseline" for analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA"). The decision, Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority ("Neighbors"), Case No. S202828, narrowly upholds the environmental impact report ("EIR") prepared for phase 2 of the Exposition Corridor Transit Project ("Expo Phase 2") and strikes a middle ground among previous decisions regarding the use of various future baselines. The court ruled, among other things, that although an agency may, in very limited circumstances, evaluate project impacts on the basis of conditions anticipated to exist at the time of certification of an environmental impact report ("EIR") for the project, or on a hypothetical longer-term future baseline, these cases remain the exception, rather than the rule. If using only a hypothetical future conditions and omitting existing conditions as a baseline, an agency must demonstrate that an analysis based on existing conditions "would detract from an EIR's effectiveness as an informational document" by providing an uninformative or misleading analysis. In most cases, an agency must still evaluate the impacts of a project in comparison to existing conditions, though nothing prevents additional analysis of long-term impacts, particularly in the context of a cumulative analysis or a "no project" alternatives analysis.