GOLETA UNION SCHOOL DISTRICT, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. The REGENTS OF the UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, Defendant and Respondent.
A long range development plan for a university projects increased enrollment in a local elementary school district. A Supplemental Environmental Impact Report describes the impacts of the plan on the district and sets forth various mitigation measures, including the possibility of building permanent additional classrooms, to accommodate anticipated additional students. Must the report commit the university to provide funds to the district to build permanent classrooms? No.
The Goleta Union School District (District) appeals from the judgment of the trial court which ruled that the Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) prepared by respondent, the Regents of the University of California (Regents), for its 1990 Long Range Development Plan (the Plan) complies with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.) Because the SEIR provides all the information required by CEQA, we affirm.
In 1990, the Regents adopted a Plan to expand the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) over a fifteen year period. The District's elementary schools serve the area encompassed by UCSB. The District objected to the initial EIR for the Plan because it failed to provide relevant information and mitigation measures regarding significant environmental impacts the Plan might have on the District's elementary school enrollment.
In 1992, the trial court found evidence in the record of severe overcrowding of classrooms which it believed would eventually necessitate construction of new classroom facilities or additional busing of students. Because the initial EIR failed to consider such impacts, the trial court determined that it violated CEQA. The trial court issued a writ of mandate to compel the Regents to prepare a SEIR to gather and consider information on such significant physical impacts and to propose mitigation measures for them.
In March 1993, the Regents filed its return to the writ. In May 1993, the District objected to the return as being incomplete. The SEIR states that if the planned expansion of UCSB is fully completed, its cumulative effect would involve an increase of 192 new students in the District. It estimated that there would be a cumulative shortfall of 172 spaces at the Isla Vista School if the Plan is fully realized. The SEIR describes, considers and analyzes a variety of potential mitigation measures which might eventually be implemented. They include redistributing students to other facilities, beginning year-round schools, increasing the use of portable classrooms and building permanent new classroom facilities, among other measures. The SEIR states that mitigation is the responsibility of the District, but that the Regents agree to negotiate to contribute a fair share to the cost of such measures depending on what needs actually arise.
The District argued that the Regents were required to make a financial commitment in the SEIR to defray the costs of building permanent classrooms which is the most expensive possible mitigation measure. Building such classrooms is estimated to cost $1.6 million. The District has not formally committed itself by binding board action to any of the mitigation measures as part of a specific plan and it is unclear how much of the Regent's Plan will come to fruition. The Regents asserted that it fully satisfied the requirements of CEQA by identifying and considering the physical impact of the Plan on the District and by providing a spectrum of possible mitigation measures.
The trial court overruled the objections of the District and determined that the SEIR was in compliance with its writ and CEQA. It discharged the writ and the District appealed.
On appeal, the District maintains that the Regents failed to recognize that classroom overcrowding is a significant environmental impact, failed to propose adequate mitigation measures, failed to make any of the findings required by Public Resources Code section 21081 as to classroom overcrowding and failed to mitigate overcrowding.
The Regents maintain that they have no obligation under CEQA to mitigate increased classroom enrollment, per se, even though it has agreed to pay its fair share if such impacts of its Plan occur. They assert that increased classroom enrollment, in itself, is a socio-economic concern and not a physical environmental impact subject to CEQA. Because the SEIR identified and analyzed the environmental impacts which could result from future District actions to accommodate increased elementary school enrollment, and proposed mitigation measures to deal with such decisions, it contends that it fully satisfied the requirements of CEQA.
Usually “a public agency must prepare an EIR whenever substantial evidence supports a fair argument that a proposed project ‘may have a significant effect on the environment.’ [Citations.]” (Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of University of California (1993) 6 Cal.4th 1112, 1123, 26 Cal.Rptr.2d 231, 864 P.2d 502.) An EIR is an informational document whose purpose is to provide detailed information to the public and to responsible officials about the potential substantial effects on the environment of a proposed project. (Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of University of California (1988) 47 Cal.3d 376, 391–392, 253 Cal.Rptr. 426, 764 P.2d 278; Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of University of California, supra, 6 Cal.4th at 1123, 26 Cal.Rptr.2d 231, 864 P.2d 502.) It must contain substantial evidence on those effects and a reasonable range of alternatives, but the decision whether or not to approve a project is up to the agency. (Citizens of Goleta Valley v. Board of Supervisors (1990) 52 Cal.3d 553, 576, 276 Cal.Rptr. 410, 801 P.2d 1161; Carmel Valley View, Ltd. v. Board of Supervisors (1976) 58 Cal.App.3d 817, 822, 130 Cal.Rptr. 249.)
We do not conduct an independent review of the EIR. We consider whether the agency has abused its discretion by failing to proceed in the manner required by law, and we determine whether substantial evidence in the light of the whole record supports the agency's decision. (Pub. Resources Code, §§ 21168; 21168.5; Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of University of California, supra, 47 Cal.3d at p. 392, fn. 5, 253 Cal.Rptr. 426, 764 P.2d 278; Cal.Code Regs., tit. 14, § 15384, subd. (a), hereafter “Guidelines.” 1 )
We resolve reasonable doubts in favor of the administrative finding and decision. If the agency proceeds according to CEQA and includes the information on the environment it requires, the agency does not violate CEQA. The final decision on the merits of a project is within the hands of the agency. (Citizens of Goleta Valley v. Board of Supervisors, supra, 52 Cal.3d at p. 576, 276 Cal.Rptr. 410, 801 P.2d 1161; Rural Landowners Assn. v. City Council (1983) 143 Cal.App.3d 1013, 1021, 192 Cal.Rptr. 325.)
A “project” under CEQA means an activity that may cause either a direct physical change or a “reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change ” in the environment. (Pub.Resources Code, § 21065; emphasis added.) Public Resources Code section 21060.5, defines the environment as the physical conditions within an area. “Economic or social effects of a project shall not be treated as significant effects on the environment. An EIR may trace a chain of cause and effect from a proposed decision on a project through anticipated economic or social changes resulting from the project to physical changes caused in turn by the economic or social changes. The intermediate economic or social changes need not be analyzed in any detail greater than necessary to trace the chain of cause and effect. The focus of the analysis shall be on the physical changes.” (Guidelines, § 15131, subd. (a); emphasis added.)
Section 15382 of the state CEQA Guidelines states, in pertinent part, that a “ ‘[s]ignificant effect on the environment means a substantial, or potentially substantial, adverse change in any of the physical conditions within the area affected by the project including land, air, water, minerals, flora, fauna․ An economic or social change by itself shall not be considered a significant effect on the environment. A social or economic change related to a physical change may be considered in determining whether the physical change is significant.” (Emphasis added; see also Guidelines, § 15002, subd. (g); 15131; and 15358, subd. (a)(2); Marin Mun. Water Dist. v. KG Land California Corp. (1991) 235 Cal.App.3d 1652, 1661–1662, 1 Cal.Rptr.2d 767.)
The District argues that the Regents were required to consider classroom overcrowding, per se, as a significant effect on the environment and to commit funds for permanent classrooms on the basis of subdivision (w) of Appendix G to the Guidelines. Subdivision (w) states, in pertinent part, that “[a] project will normally have a significant effect on the environment if it will: ․ [¶] (w) [c]onflict with established ․ educational ․ uses in the area [.]” (Guidelines, § 15387.)
Such a conflict would occur within the meaning of CEQA only if physical changes are wrought by the Plan. (Pub.Resources Code, §§ 21060.5; 21100, subd. (d); 21082.2, subd. (c); and see Guidelines, § 15358, subd. (b)—effects analyzed under CEQA must be related to a physical change; Citizen Action to Serve All Students v. Thornley (1990) 222 Cal.App.3d 748, 758–759, 272 Cal.Rptr. 83; Marin Mun. Water Dist. v. KG Land California Corp., supra, 235 Cal.App.3d at p. 1661, 1 Cal.Rptr.2d 767; San Franciscans for Reasonable Growth v. City and County of San Francisco (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 1502, 1516, 258 Cal.Rptr. 267.)
The District opines that Guideline, section 15064, subdivision (f) establishes that classroom overcrowding constitutes a significant effect on the environment and mandates that the Regents provide the funding it seeks. Guideline, section 15064, subdivision (f) states, in pertinent part, that “[e]conomic and social changes resulting from a project shall not be treated as significant effects on the environment․ Where a physical change is caused by economic or social effects of a project, the physical change may be regarded as a significant effect․ Alternatively, economic and social effects of a physical change may be used to determine that the physical change is a significant effect․ If the physical change causes adverse economic or social effects on people, those adverse effects may be used as the basis for determining that the physical change is significant. For example, if a project would cause overcrowding of a public facility and the overcrowding causes an adverse effect on people, the overcrowding would be regarded as a significant effect.”
The Guideline merely points out that in some cases socio-economic effects may cause physical changes that significantly effect the environment. An example might be a five-fold increase in student enrollment. Such a large increase would likely necessitate the construction of additional classrooms. That is not the case here. Moreover, classroom overcrowding, per se, does not constitute a significant effect on the environment under CEQA. (Pub.Resources Code, §§ 21060.5; 21065; 21100, subd. (d); see El Dorado Union High School Dist. v. City of Placerville (1983) 144 Cal.App.3d 123, 131, 192 Cal.Rptr. 480; Citizen Action to Serve All Students v. Thornley, supra, 222 Cal.App.3d at pp. 758–759, 272 Cal.Rptr. 83; Marin Mun. Water Dist. v. KG Land California Corp., supra, 235 Cal.App.3d at p. 1661, 1 Cal.Rptr.2d 767.)
The SEIR was required here only because the trial court believed the project would ultimately require physical changes in the environment such as construction of new school facilities, new bus schedules and changed traffic patterns. (See Fullerton Joint Union High School Dist. v. State Bd. of Education (1982) 32 Cal.3d 779, 187 Cal.Rptr. 398, 654 P.2d 168, which concerned a proposal for unification of a school district, which was subject to future election. An initial threshold study was required because the unification might ultimately involve construction of a new high school. Fullerton was criticized on other grounds in Board of Supervisors v. Local Agency Formation Com. (1992) 3 Cal.4th 903, 917–919, 13 Cal.Rptr.2d 245, 838 P.2d 1198; also El Dorado Union High School Dist. v. City of Placerville, supra, 144 Cal.App.3d at p. 131, 192 Cal.Rptr. 480—although increased student enrollment and potential for overcrowding might not implicate CEQA per se, evidence of present overcrowding and projections of increasing enrollments which would likely necessitate constructing a new school, changing bus routes and altering traffic patterns is sufficient to require an EIR.)
The District opines that the findings in the SEIR are inadequate. Public Resources Code section 21081, subdivision (a) requires findings only for significant environmental effects. Because the projected increases in student enrollment here do not in themselves constitute a significant physical impact on the environment, no findings were required in the SEIR to show that the Plan alleviates increased enrollment. Similarly, the Regents had no responsibility to tell the District what it should do to increase capacity. (See Pub.Resources Code, § 21081, subd. (b).)
The SEIR provides the information required about potential physical impacts which may result by implementing the Plan. It states that if new school facilities or busing are required as a result of implementation of the Plan, the Plan would entail physical impacts on the environment which would require mitigation. It discusses a variety of mitigation options for these possible consequences, as required by CEQA, including the construction of new school facilities.
The District contends that the Regents suggested cheap means to resolve the potential problems that implementation of the Plan poses for the District. “CEQA establishes no categorical legal imperative as to the scope of alternatives to be analyzed in an EIR. Each case must be evaluated on its facts, which in turn must be reviewed in light of the statutory purpose.” (Citizens of Goleta Valley v. Board of Supervisors, supra, 52 Cal.3d at p. 566, 276 Cal.Rptr. 410, 801 P.2d 1161.) The scope of alternatives discussed in an EIR must be judged against the rule of reason. (Id. at p. 565, 276 Cal.Rptr. 410, 801 P.2d 1161.) The Regents properly set forth a wide range of alternatives to mitigate or avoid potential significant effects on the physical environment. These alternatives include increasing class sizes, instituting year-round schools, adding portable classrooms and building new classrooms, among others.
The District opines that under Murrieta Valley Unified School Dist. v. County of Riverside (1991) 228 Cal.App.3d 1212, 279 Cal.Rptr. 421, the Regents may be required under CEQA to commit funds in the SEIR to mitigate the potential effects of overcrowding. We disagree. In Murrieta, a school district challenged the failure of a county to state and consider any mitigation measures under CEQA for impacts that a general plan amendment would have on its school facilities. The county had taken the position that it could not impose any mitigation measures under CEQA; that it could only impose developer fees under Government Code sections 65995 and 65996 because the state preempted the field of school facilities financing.
The Murrieta court concluded, inter alia, that although the state preempted the field of school facilities financing by local agencies, the county could consider mitigation measures other than developer fees, under CEQA. (Murrieta Valley Unified School Dist. v. County of Riverside, supra, 228 Cal.App.3d at pp. at 1234–1235, 279 Cal.Rptr. 421; see Gov.Code, § 65995, subds. (a) and (e).)
The conclusion of the Murrieta court does not assist the District in the instant case. We may not require the Regents to make any particular decision on how to mitigate the potential physical effects of its Plan, much less socio-economic ones. We may only require a lead agency to inform the public and responsible officials about the impacts which a project may have on the physical environment and the ways in which those impacts may be mitigated. The SEIR is only an informational document.
Unlike Murrieta, the instant SEIR provides a range of possible mitigation measures related to potential physical impacts of the Plan. It also contains a statement of overriding considerations supported by substantial evidence, which supports its decision. In addition, although it was not incumbent upon the Regents to do so, the SEIR committed the Regents to provide its fair share of the costs of mitigation which may be required as a result of carrying out the Plan. (Cf. Murrieta Valley Unified School Dist. v. County of Riverside, supra, 228 Cal.App.3d at pp. 1234–1235, 279 Cal.Rptr. 421.)
Whether or not the proposed long range Plan will ever be completely carried out remains to be seen. Even if the Plan is carried out and the projected increase in student enrollment occurs, it remains unclear what changes the District might decide to make as a result. It is possible that no physical effects on the environment, as delineated by CEQA, will occur. Currently, any prognostication regarding the physical effects of the Plan is speculative. (See Marin Mun. Water Dist. v. KG Land California Corp., supra, 235 Cal.App.3d at pp. 1662–1663, 1 Cal.Rptr.2d 767.) Nonetheless, the SEIR provides the information required for the community to consider if physical changes, such as building new classroom facilities or busing, are ultimately needed. The District may be unhappy that the Regents have not agreed to provide complete funding for permanent state of the art classrooms, but CEQA does not require the Regents to do so. The Regents have agreed to negotiate its fair share of costs which may be needed in the future to mitigate the physical effects its Plan may have on the District. That is more than they are required to do in an EIR under CEQA.
The judgment is affirmed. Costs to respondent.
1. All references to the “Guidelines” are to the State CEQA Guidelines which implement CEQA at California Code of Regulations, title 14, section 15000 et seq. Courts afford great weight to the Guidelines, except when its provisions are clearly unauthorized or are erroneous under the statutory provisions of CEQA. (See Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. v. Regents of University of California, supra, 6 Cal.4th at p. 1123, fn. 4, 26 Cal.Rptr.2d 231, 864 P.2d 502.)
GILBERT, Associate Justice.
STEVEN J. STONE, P.J., and YEGAN, J., concur.