United States of America
Santa Monica Baykeeper (Baykeeper), a non-profit corporation, appeals from the denial of its petition for writ of mandate. Its suit challenged the City of Malibu‟s (City) adoption of an environmental impact report (EIR) and approval of the Legacy Park project in Malibu, California. The suit was brought pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act. Baykeeper argues the EIR failed to adequately analyze: 1) construction-related water quality impacts; 2) the impact of using treated effluent from the adjoining Malibu Lumber Yard project on the project site; and 3) the cumulative groundwater impacts of the project. This decision includes three rulings on common issues in CEQA litigation: 1) whether claims are to be independently reviewed by a court or reviewed under the deferential substantial evidence test, 2) when CEQA claims are rendered moot by construction of the project, and 3) when an evaluation of cumulative impacts is required. Regarding the applicable standard of review, the Court found that the arguments of inadequate disclosure under CEQA here were substantial evidence questions. The Court cited prior case law holding that how a potential impact is disclosed, discussed and studied is a question that is reviewed under the substantial evidence standard, and courts should not engage in independent de novo review. The Court also noted the lines of case law holding that project opponents have the burden of proving the certified EIR is inadequate, and the local agencys certification of the EIR is presumed correct. The Court then considered whether Baykeepers claims regarding construction-related impacts were rendered moot because the project was fully constructed and operating. The Court held that such claims were moot, because the Court could not fashion any effective relief (had the court found any error) given that the construction process was over. The Court did consider, however, claims relating to ongoing operational impacts of the project. Finally, the Court rejected Baykeepers claims that the City improperly deferred analysis and mitigation of the cumulative impacts on groundwater mounding. The Court found that the groundwater mounding study requested by the Regional Water Quality Control Board was not improperly deferring review of the project because the project did not discharge anything to the groundwater; therefore, the study was not necessary for the City to conclude no cumulative analysis of groundwater impacts was required. The Court affirmed the trial court decision in its entirety.