- Associated Press - Thursday, December 17, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The California Supreme Court on Thursday limited the scope of the state’s environmental review law, saying public agencies generally don’t have to evaluate the impact of air pollution and other existing environmental problems on residents of a proposed development.

But the court created an exception in cases where the development could exacerbate existing environmental hazards.

The mixed ruling allowed both developers and environmentalists to claim victory.

“The court rejected the relatively more absolutist positions of both sides and instead kind of hewed to a middle ground which gives something to each side and probably totally satisfies neither,” said Richard Frank, an environmental law professor at the University of California, Davis.

Builders had argued that a requirement to consider the existing environment’s impact on a development could force them into expensive mitigation measures to protect residents from environmental conditions. Environmentalists and air quality groups said such a requirement was needed to ensure developments were not located in areas that will expose residents to toxic air or chemicals.

At issue in the ruling was the scope of the California Environmental Quality Act. The state Supreme Court agreed with builders that the act is focused on a proposed development’s impact on the environment, not the environment’s impact on occupants of the development.

“In light of CEQA’s text, statutory structure, and purpose, we conclude that agencies subject to CEQA generally are not required to analyze the impact of existing environmental conditions on a project’s future users or residents,” Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar wrote for the unanimous court.

The state Supreme Court, however, said in cases where the project could exacerbate existing environmental hazards, the public agency would have to evaluate how future occupants would be affected by the exacerbated conditions.

The issue in Thursday’s ruling came up in a lawsuit by the California Building Industry Association against the Bay Area Air Quality Management District over air-quality thresholds the district developed to help agencies assess the impact of locating new developments near toxic air contaminants.

The building association said requiring an assessment of existing environmental conditions on residents could open the door to analysis of countless environmental problems such as blight for which builders are not responsible. The state Supreme Court agreed, saying such a requirement would “encompass nearly any effect a project has on a resident or user” and “complicate a variety of residential, commercial, and other projects beyond what a fair reading of the statute would support.”

“We are pleased the Court ruled that CEQA generally does not require a project to evaluate and mitigate impacts that the existing environment has on the project,” Nick Cammarota, general counsel for the building industry association, said in a statement. “That will help to keep CEQA to its original mission - evaluating the impacts that a project has on the environment.”

The air district had argued that it would make no sense to require agencies to analyze the health impacts of a new freeway near residents, but then ignore the same impacts when a new development goes up near a freeway.

Brian Bunger, counsel for the district, said almost any new development will contribute to air pollution, so the ruling will still require an analysis of air quality on residents.

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