First District Court of Appeal Finds CalTrans’ EIR Deficient For Failure To Properly Evaluate Impacts to Redwood Trees Adjacent to Highway 101

by Rick McNeil and Colin Higgins

In Lotus, the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) proposed to adjust and upgrade the roadway alignment of a one-mile stretch of Route 101 that passes through Richardson Grove State Park, home to 300 feet tall and thousands of years old redwood trees. The purpose of the project was to adjust the design of the road, which presented potential safety issues and prevented certain types of large trucks from using the roadway. CalTrans prepared and certified an EIR and thereafter approved the project.

Plaintiffs (environmental groups and individuals) challenged the EIR through a petition for a writ of mandate that alleged, among other things, that the EIR was insufficient because it failed to properly evaluate the significance of impacts to the root systems of certain redwood trees bordering the roadway. The petition was denied by the trial court.

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, finding that the EIR failed to properly evaluate the significance of the environmental impacts on the root systems of the redwood trees adjacent to the proposed construction. The court noted that the EIR contained information regarding the overall impacts on the redwoods trees as a whole, including cut and fill depths for each redwood tree in the project area, but did not include information that allowed a reader to evaluate the significance of the impacts. The court directed CalTrans to correct these deficiencies prior to considering the recertification of the EIR.

Basic Facts:

The California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) proposed to adjust the roadway alignment of a one-mile stretch of Route 101 that passes through Richardson Grove State Park, home to 300 feet tall and thousands of years old redwood trees. CalTrans sought to adjust the roadway alignment because the narrow, windy road did not meet current design standards, which presented potential safety issues and prevented certain types of large trucks from using the roadway. The restriction on these trucks, according to CalTrans, hurt competition and profits for businesses in Humboldt County. CalTrans prepared and certified an EIR and thereafter approved the project.

The EIR described the proposed project as involving “minor road adjustments including realignments, curve corrections, and shoulder widening” and “culvert improvements and repaving the roadway.” The main environmental impacts included tree removal and potential damage to tree roots caused by excavation and fill over the tree roots. The EIR stated that six redwoods would be removed and about forty other trees in the park might have fill place over their roots.

The EIR identified measures to minimize these impacts, including restorative planting and invasive plant removal. The EIR concluded the project would not result in any significant environmental impacts with the implementation of these “special construction techniques.”
The plaintiffs (environmental groups and individuals) challenged the EIR through a petition for a writ of mandate and request for injunctive relief that alleged, among other things, that the EIR was insufficient because it failed to properly evaluate the significance of impacts to the root systems of certain redwood trees bordering the roadway. The petition was denied by the trial court.

Appellate Decision (Reversed)

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, finding that the EIR failed to properly evaluate the significance of the environmental impacts on the root systems of the redwood trees adjacent to the proposed construction.

Adequacy of EIR

The court noted that “CEQA requires that an EIR include, among other things, a detailed statement setting forth all significant effects on the environmental of the proposed project and mitigation measures proposed to minimize significant effects on the environment.” The court further explained that “[f]or each significant effect, the EIR must identify specific mitigation measures; where several potential mitigation measures are available, each should be discussed separately, and the reasons for choosing one over the others should be stated.”
Applying these legal principles to the case, the court noted that the EIR contained information regarding the overall impacts on the redwoods trees as a whole, including cut and fill depths for each redwood tree in the project area. The EIR did not, however, include information that allows a reader to evaluate the significance of the impacts.

CalTrans argued that the proper measure of significance of the impacts is found in a state parks handbook, which discussed information for safeguarding protected trees when planning for construction. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument for two reasons. First, the court explained that the EIR did not reference the handbook or apply the standards discussed in the handbook. Second, the EIR failed to identify or apply a standard of significance, which was compounded because CalTrans incorporated mitigation measures into its project description and concluded that any potential impacts would be less than significant. The court explained that “[b]y compressing the analysis of impacts and mitigation measures into a single issue, the EIR disregards the requirements of CEQA.”
Thus, the court held that the EIR failed to separately identify and analyze the significance of the impacts to the root zones of the redwood trees before proposing mitigation measures. In this regard, the court stated:
“Absent a determination regarding the significance of the impacts to the root system of the old growth redwood trees, it is impossible to determine whether mitigation measures are required or to evaluate whether other more effective measures than those proposed should be considered. Should Caltrans determine that a specific tree or group of trees will be significantly impacted by proposed roadwork, that finding would trigger the need to consider a range of specifically targeted mitigation measures, including analysis of whether the project itself could be modified to lessen the impact.”

Based on the foregoing, the court directed CalTrans to correct these deficiencies prior to considering the recertification of the EIR.

Lotus v. Department of Transportation
223 Cal.App.4th 645, 167 Cal.Rptr.3d 382, 14 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 1155 (Cal.App. 1 Dist.) (January 30, 2014)

Trial Court Judge:

Dale A. Reinholtsen, Humboldt County Superior Court

Appellate Panel:

Judge Pollak
Judges McGuiness, Jenkins concurring

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