Many California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) disputes involve the proper scope of the project. Developers usually favor a narrow project scope; project opponents usually advocate for an expansive project scope.
In Tuolumne County Citizens for Responsible Growth v. City of Sonora, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2007 WL 2834230, Cal.App. 5 Dist., Oct. 2, 2007), a California Court of Appeal ruled that a road realignment was part of the project for a home improvement center, even though the lead agency had independently planned to realign the road before the project had even been proposed.
Lowe’s applied to the City of Sonora for permits to build a "home improvement center" retail store. The project encompassed a 111,200 square-foot building, 27,720 square foot garden center, and related parking on eleven acres.
The site was to be accessed by driveways connected to Old Wards Ferry Road. The road needed to be realigned in order to run into Greenley Road and create an intersection.
The City had contemplated realigning Old Wards Ferry Road to create an intersection for over twenty years. The realignment was depicted in the 1984 general plan as a regional road improvement.
The City adopted a mitigated negative declaration and approved the project. The project description in the mitigated negative declaration did not include the realignment of Old Wards Ferry Road. The project was conditioned on completion of the road realignment.
The plaintiff asserted that the realignment of the road should have been part of the project. The trial court disagreed and ruled in favor of the City and Lowe’s.
The court held that a road realignment is part of the project for CEQA purposes if the approval of the project is conditioned on the road realignment and the applicant commits to funding and completing the road realignment, even if the road realignment had been independently contemplated by the lead agency before the project had been proposed.
The court explained that under CEQA, a project does not consist of each separate government approval. Rather, "project" should be broadly defined to ensure that projects are not divided into smaller pieces which, individually, may have no environmental impacts.
Here, there was a strong connection between the road realignment and the home improvement center, the court observed. The approval of the home improvement center had been conditioned on completion of the road realignment. Lowe’s had committed to building the road realignment, and could not viably operate its store without it.
The court rejected the assertion that the road realignment was not part of the project because the City had independently planned to build the road before the project had been proposed. Merely because the need for an activity is not fully attributable to the project does not mean that the activity is not part of the project, reasoned the court.
The court also was not persuaded by the fact that the road realignment required a separate approval. Under CEQA, separate activities are considered one project if both activities are integral parts of the same project, the court concluded.