In Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (PDF) (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 1351, a Court of Appeal in California has ruled that a project’s impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) must be measured against existing conditions—even when the project will not be built and the project’s impacts will not be felt for a number of years after environmental review.  

In the case, the City of Sunnyvale prepared an environmental impact report for a new road that was projected to open in 2020.  To analyze the project’s traffic impacts, the city compared projected traffic conditions in 2020 without the project and the projected traffic conditions in 2020 with the project.  The EIR also described the existing traffic conditions; but it did not actually analyze the project’s traffic impacts against the existing traffic levels, and nowhere did it add together just (1) the existing traffic levels and (2) the project’s traffic.

The Sunnyvale court acknowledged earlier case law holding that lead agencies have discretion in selecting the baseline against which they measure a project’s environmental impacts.  But, emphasizing that the baseline, however it is calculated, must reflect existing conditions, the court held that the city committed a legal error by selecting a baseline that was years in the future.  In the court’s words:

The statute requires the impact of any proposed project to be evaluated against a baseline of existing environmental conditions, which is the only way to identify the environmental effects specific to the project alone.

Most projects in California, including renewable energy projects, must comply with CEQA, the California analogue to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  And, as evidenced by the League of California Cities’ submission of an amicus brief (PDF) in the case, this opinion will likely change the way a number of lead agencies conduct their environmental analyses under CEQA.  Wind, solar, and other renewable energy developers with projects in California should be aware of this case and make sure the environmental impact reports for their projects comply with it.