In Chawanakee Unified School District v. County of Madera (— Cal.Rptr.3d —-, Cal.App. 5 Dist., June 21, 2011), a Court of Appeal considered whether impacts to the physical environment that do not directly impact school facilities must be considered in an environmental impact report (“EIR”) and mitigated under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). The Court held a project’s indirect impacts “on parts of the physical environment that are not school facilities are not excused from being considered and mitigated.”
In 1983, a Court of Appeal established that CEQA requires mitigation measures when a residential development project results in increased impacts on schools. In response, the Legislature enacted a statutory scheme to govern the imposition of school facilities fees on developers who seek government approval for residential development. As a result of the legislation, “the capped school facilities fees became the sole measure for mitigating the impacts of increased enrollment.” However, Courts of Appeal interpreted the legislation to mean developers who sought rezoning or approvals of general plan or specific plans amendments were not protected by the limitation of mitigation measures to the capped school facilities fee. The Legislature reacted to the decisions by enacting the Leroy F. Greene School Facilities Act of 1998, also known as SB 50. SB 50 “set forth exclusive methods of considering and mitigating impacts on school facilities which occur or might occur as a result of any legislative or adjudicative act by any state or local agency involving, but not limited to, the planning, use, or development of real property or any change of governmental organization or reorganization.”
The Chawanakee Unified School District (“District”) filed a petition for writ of mandate to challenge the approval of a development project by the County of Madera (“County”) alleging the EIR failed to comply with CEQA because it did not consider and analyze the significant environmental effect on school services. The trial court denied the District’s petition.
SB 50 modified Government Code section 65996, subdivision (a) to provide that, the capped school facilities fee and certain interim urgency measures “shall be the exclusive methods of considering and mitigating impacts on school facilities that occur or might occur as a result of any legislative or adjudicative act … involving [the approval of the] development of real property.’” District claimed that SB 50 did “not eliminate the requirement under CEQA for full disclosure of significant environmental effect on school services.” In response, County asserted “SB 50 strictly limits consideration, as well as mitigation, of school-related impacts.” County alleged SB 50 “expanded the scope of the prohibition to include any impacts on a school district’s ability to accommodate enrollment (i.e., overcrowding, interim facilities, permanent facilities and all other physical and financial aspects).” In other words, County argued the statutory limitation on consideration of school-related impacts covers indirect impacts as well as direct impacts.
The Court of Appeal held the indirect impacts of the project “on parts of the physical environment that are not school facilities are not excused from being considered and mitigated.” The Court held that an impact on traffic, even if it relates to the students’ trips to and from school, is not an impact on school facilities and therefore must be considered in the EIR. The question of construction of additional school facilities “at an existing site is not as clear cut as the traffic issue because of the causal connection between the overcrowding created by the project’s students and the construction to alleviate the overcrowding.” The Court concluded that “the reasonably foreseeable impacts of that construction on the non-school physical environment are not ‘impacts on the school facilities’ and are not excluded from consideration in the EIR.” Examples of “impacts on the non-school physical environment that might result from the construction include dust that degrades air quality and noise caused by the construction activity.” The Court held “these types of impacts to the non-school physical environment are caused indirectly by the project and should be considered in the EIR.”
As such, the appellate court issued its decision directing the trial court to grant a petition for writ of mandate that compels Madera County to set aside its approval of a development project, and to revise the project’s EIR with regard to analysis of indirect environmental impacts on the non-school physical environment.
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