Our Power, Our Choice

Landmark Lawsuit Against SANDAG Ends With a Victory for Clean Air

Excerpted from the San Diego Free Press, April 11, 2018

The San Diego County Superior Court has formally ordered the San Diego Association of Governments to decertify its defective Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for it's 2011 Regional Transportation Plan. SANDAG has also agreed to cover attorney’s fees in the amount of $1.7 million for the petitioners in this public interest case. It has taken six long years to reach this point, with the lawsuit going to the California Supreme Court. The two precedent-setting court opinions arising from this case will guide SANDAG and other agencies in addressing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and public health impacts of regional transportation planning.

“The people of San Diego and all of California won a major victory as a result of this litigation,” stated Rachel Hooper of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, attorney for the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and the Sierra Club. “This case sends a clear message to regional planning agencies throughout the state that they must take their responsibility to combat climate change seriously.”

The Cleveland National Forest Foundation, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and two community groups all filed suit against SANDAG in 2011 over its faulty environmental review of a state-mandated Regional Transportation Plan. The people of the State of California, represented by the Attorney General, intervened in support of the petitioners. The petitioners succeeded on the vast majority of their legal claims in this hard-fought case: A trial court ruled in late 2012 that SANDAG had not adequately addressed the plan’s long-term climate impacts. In a 2014 ruling, the California Court of Appeal agreed, finding SANDAG’s EIR deficient on numerous other grounds as well. The California Supreme Court took up one narrow issue in the case in 2017; their ruling confirmed that agencies like SANDAG must stay current with climate science and pay attention to California’s long-term goals for reducing emissions.

Following the Supreme Court’s review, in November 2017 the California Court of Appeal confirmed and republished most of its 2014 decision invalidating the EIR for the regional transportation plan. The Court of Appeal decision held SANDAG responsible for failing to analyze how the transportation plan’s increase in pollution from cars and trucks could harm people in neighboring communities and 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 acknowledged the need to reduce driving. Finally, the court found SANDAG used incomplete and inaccurate data to assess the plan’s effects on agricultural land.

SANDAG’s $200-billion plan was supposed to identify opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a coordinated approach to transportation and land use. However, the plan front-loaded the expansion of freeways, which induce sprawl and reinforce the region’s dependence on car-oriented transportation. SANDAG then failed to fully account for the climate, air pollution, health and agricultural impacts that the freeway expansions and increased driving would have on the community.

“Californians will breathe cleaner air because future plans must reject the old model of building more highways and encouraging polluting sprawl development,” said Aruna Prabhala, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

These court rulings establish an important legal precedent, ensuring regional planning agencies must take all necessary steps to limit air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions stemming from land use and transportation plans. In the end, SANDAG must decertify its defective EIR for the 2011 plan; more importantly, it must also abide by the court’s precedent in all of its future planning activities and approvals.

“The end of this battle is just the beginning of a brighter future for all San Diego County residents,” said Jana Clark, Cleveland National Forest Foundation Board member. “With this case resolved, SANDAG must now do what it should have done in the first place: plan for a more sustainable future for our region so that we can avoid the worst effects of climate change.”