Court Ruling Sides With Regional Officials Over Statewide Climate Goals

The California Supreme Court sided with the San Diego Association of Governments on July 13 in the first court case to decide how regional planning agencies must meet state-required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

3 minute read

July 17, 2017, 12:00 PM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

"A highly anticipated ruling by the state Supreme Court on Thursday sided with San Diego County’s regional transportation agency over the state attorney general and some environmental groups, which had sued to lessen spending on freeways and increase funding for mass transit," writes Joshua Emerson Smith, environmental reporter for the Union-Tribune.

Green groups have argued for years that the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, has underfunded public transit in favor of a car-centric approach to regional planning.

The Cleveland National Forest Foundation — with support from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris — sued the agency in 2011 over the environmental impact report for a $214 billion, long-range transportation funding blueprint.

SANDAG was the first of California's 18 metropolitan planning organizations to comply with a landmark law, the "Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008," aka SB 375, to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated from transportation "through coordinated transportation and land use planning with the goal of more sustainable communities," according to the California Air Resources Board, which administers the climate law. Transportation accounts for 39 percent of the state's GHG emissions.

Environmentalists, led by the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, which has also launched Transit San Diego, charged that the environmental impact report on their regional transportation plan and sustainable communities strategy was insufficient, and that SANDAG needed to consider former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's executive order of 2005 that required GHG emission requirements to the year 2050.

Environmentalists prevailed in superior court in 2012 and two years later, won at the state appellate court level after SANDAG appealed.

In a 6-1 ruling [pdf] last Thursday, the state's highest court reversed one critical aspect of the appellate court ruling, and also ruled on the applicability of the 2005 executive order, concluding that "SANDAG properly conducted the greenhouse gas analysis in the environmental review of its 2050 Regional Transportation Plan, finding that the agency 'sufficiently informed the public, based on the information available at the time, about the regional plan‘s greenhouse gas impacts,'" notes the SANDAG press release.

“We are very pleased with today’s outcome,” SANDAG Chair and County Supervisor Ron Roberts said. “Rulings by the lower courts left local governments confused about how they should analyze greenhouse gas emissions; should we follow state law as established by the Legislature, or follow executive orders issued by the governor?"

However, U-T's Smith writes that the decision was limited, "leaving the appellate-court decision largely intact, plaintiffs said. The full impact of the appellate court’s decision is unclear, with more proceedings expected in coming months."

In response to charges made by the plaintiffs, "SANDAG officials have said that while sprawling, car-centric planning currently has negative environmental impacts, technologies such as electric vehicles may make such concerns largely irrelevant in the future," adds Smith.

Kevin Bundy, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, hopes for a better outcome, according to the group's press release.

“We disagree with the court’s narrow ruling, but this decision will clearly push transportation planners to better evaluate the massive greenhouse pollution generated by decades of sprawl development and neglect of public transit,” said Bundy.

Hat tip to Michael Momeni, Sierra Club California Committee on Transportation and Sustainable Communities.

Thursday, July 13, 2017 in The San Diego Union-Tribune

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