A California appeals court today confirmed most of a 2014 decision that the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, failed to reduce climate pollution and assess public health risks of a transportation plan that invests heavily in freeways and subsidizes sprawl at the expense of public transit.
Although the California Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that SANDAG’s assessment of the plan’s long-term climate effects was lawful at the time, today’s decision emphasizes that planning agencies like SANDAG must now do more to consider both climate science and state policy goals.
The Court of Appeal also confirmed its prior conclusions that SANDAG failed to reduce climate pollutants, address public health effects, consider alternatives that reduce driving, and assess impacts to agricultural lands.
“The Court of Appeal’s published decision will go a long way in ensuring that regional planning agencies take steps to limit air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to the extent feasible,” noted Rachel Hooper with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, who represented Sierra Club California and Cleveland National Forest Foundation in this matter. “This is a significant win for the people of California.”
“This is a stark warning that California transportation planners must consider the huge climate threats of sprawl development and shortchanging public transit,” said Kevin Bundy, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “If we’re going to make the changes necessary to avoid global warming’s worst effects, our leaders must be honest about the long-term consequences of building more freeways. They simply can’t sweep the threat of climate disruption under the rug.”
Cleveland National Forest Foundation, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club challenged SANDAG’s 2011 approval of the transportation plan under the California Environmental Quality Act. The California Attorney General joined in the challenge on behalf of the People of the State of California.
In its 2014 decision, the Court of Appeal upheld the superior court’s ruling that SANDAG had failed to consider the plan’s long-term increase in climate pollution in light of the steep reductions demanded by both science and California climate policy. The case then went to the California Supreme Court, which concluded that although SANDAG had done enough in 2011 to inform the public that its plan was out of step with long-term scientific goals, SANDAG’s analysis might not pass muster today or in the future.
Today’s decision emphasizes the Supreme Court’s conclusion that agencies like SANDAG must evaluate their long-term projects for consistency with the climate pollution reductions that scientists and California policymakers agree are necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate disruption. The decision further requires agencies to take real, concrete steps to address climate impacts—not just “kick the can down the road,” as the superior court put it.
The Court of Appeal also republished portions of its prior opinion ruling against SANDAG on several other issues. For example, SANDAG failed to disclose available information about existing air pollution problems, failed to detail how the transportation plan’s increase in pollution from cars and trucks could harm people in neighboring communities, and failed to take meaningful steps to reduce that pollution.
In addition, the court faulted SANDAG for failing to consider any alternative to its plan that focused on reducing the number of miles that residents drive, even though SANDAG’s own Climate Action Strategy acknowledges the need to reduce driving. Finally, the court found SANDAG used incomplete and inaccurate data to assess the plan’s effects on agricultural land.
Although SANDAG updated its Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy in 2015, the court agreed with the petitioners that its prior conclusions remain relevant and should guide future regional planning updates.
SANDAG approved its $200 billion Regional Transportation Plan in October 2011. SANDAG’s plan was the first in the state to contain the Sustainable Communities Strategy required by SB 375, a state law intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — and combat climate disruption — through smarter land-use and transportation planning.
SANDAG’s plan, however, front-loaded the expansion and extension of freeways, inducing sprawl and reinforcing the region’s dependence on car-oriented transportation.
For information about the full history of this lawsuit, key documents and a link to an alternative, transit-oriented plan that was not considered by SANDAG in its planning process, go to http://www.transitsandiego.org/.
About the Petitioners
The Cleveland National Forest Foundation (www.cnff.org) is made up of private citizens who believe that action must be taken to protect the remaining undeveloped lands in the forest and that sound regional planning to build sustainable, quality urban communities is fundamental to saving the integrity of our wilderness areas.
The Center for Biological Diversity (www.biologicaldiversity.org) is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.5 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Sierra Club California (www.sierraclubcalifornia.org) represents the Club’s 13 local chapters and 160,000 statewide members and advocates to protect California’s natural resources and to improve the health and safety of Californians.
Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger LLP (www.smwlaw.com), whose attorneys are lead petitioners’ counsel in the case, specializes in government, land use, natural resource and environmental law. Since 1980, the firm has provided representation to public agencies and community groups throughout California.