It’s a common error in logic to suppose that because two things are in spatial or temporal proximity, one must be the cause of the other – a confusion of cause and affect.  A line of CEQA cases – beginning with Baird v. County of Contra Costa (1st Dist. 1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 1464, and continuing with the recently published decisions in Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, et al. v. City of Los Angeles (2d Dist., Nov. 9, 2011) 201 Cal.App.4th 455 and South Orange County Wastewater Authority v. City of Dana Point (4th Dist. 2011) 196 Cal.App.4th 1604 – exposes this basic logical error in the CEQA context, and in doing so, clarifies CEQA’s fundamental scope and limits.

The rule can be simply stated:  CEQA is concerned with analyzing the impacts of the proposed project on the existing environment and not the impacts of the existing environment on the proposed project.  In other words, CEQA requires an analysis of (and mitigation for) significant adverse changes in the existing environment that will be caused by the project, not vice versa.  (E.g., Baird, supra, 32 Cal.App.4th at 1468 [“Adverse environmental changes are not contemplated here.  The purported contaminations are preexisting (or do not exist at all).”].)

In the seminal Baird case, an addiction treatment facility was approved with a negative declaration for construction in the vicinity of existing sewage and soil contamination of various kinds.  Project opponents argued CEQA required the County to prepare an EIR to study the impacts of the existing pollution on the future project residents.  The court rejected the argument because “[t]he purpose of CEQA is to protect the environment from proposed projects, not to protect proposed projects from the existing environment”; nothing in the record supported any claim that the project’s construction would in any way expose, worsen or spread the existing environmental contamination.
Continue Reading From Baird to Ballona Wetlands: CEQA’s Logical Limits