SDSU Must Pay Share of Expansion Congestion

     (CN) – California State University must pay its share of off-site environmental impacts caused by a proposed expansion to San Diego State University, the California Supreme Court ruled.
     In an effort to 10,000 more students at San Diego State, the CSU board of trustees planned several expansions at the campus, including additional housing, a research facility and a hotel.
     The board prepared an environmental impact report for the project that found that the expansions would significantly increase off-campus traffic congestion. Claiming that it could not help pay for infrastructure improvements with state money, the board declared the traffic impacts significant and unavoidable and certified the EIR in 2005.
     San Diego immediately challenged the board’s conclusion.
     At trial, the board made similar claims as in City of Marina v. Board of Trustees of California State University concerning expansions to its Monterey Bay campus, but the California Supreme Court in that case “rejected the board’s arguments against fair payments for mitigation,” the ruling said.
     In light of that decision, the trial court vacated the EIR and ordered the board to prepare a new study that complied with the California Environmental Quality Act.
     The board issued a new EIR in 2007 that identified several streets, intersections and freeway segments that would be significantly impacted by the project. Though it calculated its fair-share costs at $10.5 million, it claimed it could not supply that money without legislative approval and certified the EIR on the grounds that the “anticipated benefits of campus expansion” far outweighed traffic impacts.”
     San Diego and its co-plaintiffs challenged the new EIR in December 2007, but the trial court denied their petitions.
     An appellate court found the board erroneously used Marina to determine that off-site mitigation was infeasible and ordered the 2007 EIR vacated, leading the board to appeal to the state’s high court.
     On Monday, a unanimous high court sided with San Diego, finding that Marina does not support the board’s claim that it cannot fairly share costs of off-campus mitigation measures without legislative approval.
     While the board had claimed Marina justified its position not to contribute without appropriated funds by holding that “a state agency’s power to mitigate its project’s effects through voluntary mitigation payments is ultimately subject to legislative control,” it ignored the fact that the Marina ruling does not actually mention earmarked funds and overlooks the many powers it can use to mitigate environmental impacts without such funds, such as changing project components, Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the court.
     CEQA does not allow a state agency to shirk mitigation duties just because it cannot secure appropriated funds, the ruling said.
     Arguments that the board need not mitigate off-site environmental impacts because they occur beyond the SDSU campus boundary also failed because CEQA clearly requires lead agencies to extend mitigation measures to the surrounding environment, Werdegar wrote.
     Adopting the board’s belief that off-site mitigation can only be funded with earmarked funds or ignored without the funds logically leads to several “unreasonable consequences,” such as forcing the Legislature to decide which projects could proceed despite unmitigated off-site impacts; burdening local governments with the cost of improving infrastructure; and allowing projects to go forward without adequate mitigation, according to the ruling.
     “In conclusion, we reject the board’s assumption that the feasibility of mitigating its project’s off-site environmental effects depends on a legislative appropriation for that specific purpose,” Werdegar wrote for the court. “The erroneous assumption invalidates the board’s finding of infeasibility because the use of an erroneous legal standard constitutes failure to proceed in a manner required by law.
     “The error also invalidates the board’s statement of overriding considerations,” because CEQA does not allow agencies to proceed with a project despite unmitigated environmental effects unless mitigation measures are truly infeasible, Werdeger wrote.
     As for paying its fair share of off-site mitigation costs, arguments that forcing the board to allocate money for mitigation would interfere with its core educational function fell flat because mitigating the environmental impacts of its projects is its core function as a public agency under CEQA, the ruling said in affirming the appellate court’s decision to vacate the 2007 EIR.
     San Diego City attorney Jan Goldsmith applauded the ruling.
     “This is an important decision which treats the CSU system like any other developer. It must come to the table and negotiate its fair share in a way that protects the environment and protects the city’s taxpayers,” he said in a statement.
     The board did not immediately respond to comment requests Tuesday.
     Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Ming Chin, Carol Corrigan, Goodwin Liu, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra Kruger joined Werdergar’s opinion.
     California State University is the largest four-year public university system in the nation, enrolling 447,000 students across 23 campuses.
     San Diego State currently has over 33,000 students enrolled at its 280-acre campus eight miles from downtown San Diego.

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