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Case Law Updates on the Environment (CLUE)

Case Law Update Details

Case Title

Center for Biological Diversity v. California DOT

Case No.

2013 WL 6698740

Court

U.S. District Court - California

State

California

Date

12/19/2013

Project

Willits Bypass Project

Project Type

Highway

Project Description

This project involved the proposed construction of a bypass around Willits, California. The project’s purpose was to “to reduce delays, improve safety, and achieve a ‘C’ Level of Service for interregional traffic on U.S. 101” around the city. Caltrans and FHWA prepared an EIS for the project, which was issued in 2006. The EIS eliminated a two-lane alternatives based on a finding that it would not meet the purpose and need. The Record of Decision approving the project was issued in December 2006. Construction was delayed due to lack of funding. Caltrans later decided to phase the construction of the project, and in 2010, it prepared a reevaluation to examine phasing as well as some design changes to the project. The 2010 reevaluation stated that Caltrans would construct the project in two phases: in Phase I, a two-lane facility would be constructed; in Phase II, it would be expanded to four lanes, when funding becomes available. (Note: The reevaluation was prepared by Caltrans, not FHWA, because Caltrans had been assigned FHWA’s responsibilities pursuant to a delegation program in 23 USC 327).

In 2010, Caltrans applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a Section 404 permit for the project. Initially, the Corps denied the Section 404 permit based on a finding that the project would cause “significant degradation” to waters of the United States. In 2012, the Corps issued a Section 404 permit for the project. The permit covered the full project, but gave allowed Caltrans to proceed only with Phase I; it required Caltrans to obtain a second approval from the Corps before proceeding with Phase II (widening to four lanes).

Case Summary

The plaintiffs challenged Caltrans’ compliance with NEPA, alleging that Caltrans was required to prepare a Supplemental EIS rather than a reevaluation. The plaintiffs also challenged the Corps’ approval of the Section 404 permit, claiming that the Corps (1) rejected less damaging practicable alternatives; (2) failed to independently select the “LEDPA”; and (3) relied on and approved an inadequate wetlands mitigation plan. The court rejected all of the plaintiffs’ arguments and upheld the federal agencies’ decisions.

Key Holdings

NEPA

Supplemental EIS.  The plaintiffs claimed that a supplemental EIS - rather than a Reevaluation - should have been prepared to assess certain impacts that had changed since the FEIS was issued, including (1) rare plants, (2) wetlands, (3) a threatened species of fish, and (4) agricultural lands.  The court found that Caltrans had addressed each of these issues in the Reevaluation and noted that some impacts had in fact increased since the FEIS.  Despite the increased impacts, the court found that Caltrans had properly determined that the changes in impacts were not “significant,” taking into account the context and intensity of the impacts.  Therefore, the court upheld the decision not to issue a Supplemental EIS.   

Clean Water Act

“Overall Project Purpose”.  The plaintiffs claimed that the Corps inappropriately defined the “overall project purpose” by adopting the Purpose and Need as defined by Caltrans in the NEPA process.  The court found that “[t]he Corps did accept Caltrans’ view of the purpose and need for the Willits Bypass Project. However, there is nothing inherently improper in that conclusion, i.e. the Corps was not relying on factors that Congress did not intend it to consider.”  The court also noted that the Corps initially rejected Caltrans’ application, and accepted a key element of Caltrans’ Purpose and Need - the  need to achieve Level of Service C - only after receiving additional traffic studies from Caltrans.  The court held that “Although Plaintiffs disagree with this conclusion, they do not point to anything in the record to suggest that Caltrans’ stated ‘purpose and need’ was not genuine or legitimate. Thus, the Corps had a duty to consider that purpose.”

LEDPA Determination - Reliance on Traffic Forecasts.  The plaintiffs claimed that, in making its LEDPA determination, the Corps relied on flawed traffic forecasts provided by Caltrans as the basis for finding a need for a four-lane road.  The court reviewed the plaintiffs’ objections and concluded that “Plaintiffs have not pointed to anything in the record that would suggest that the Corps’ conclusions regarding Caltrans’ updated traffic studies ran contrary to the evidence before it or are so implausible that they could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise.”  Therefore, the court upheld the Corps’ LEDPA determination.

Mitigation Plan.  The plaintiffs challenged the wetlands mitigation and monitoring plan, arguing that it did not adequately address the potential for flooding due to increased sedimentation in some streams.  The court upheld the plan because “[t]he records shows that the Corps has made a genuine effort to develop a detailed mitigation plan, and ‘the mere fact that one aspect of the plan is not yet finalized [does not] lead to the conclusion that the Corps’ decision was arbitrary and capricious.’”  The plaintiffs also argued that the mitigation plan was not adequate because it did not include mitigation for Phase II (the widening to four lanes).  The court noted that the permit specifically required the mitigation plan for Phase II to be developed and approved by the Corps before Phase II proceeded to construction.  With that condition, the court found it acceptable for the Corps to defer the development of the Phase II mitigation plan.

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