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Sierra Club and Friends of West Shore v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency

United States District Court, E.D. California

April 7, 2014



JOHN A. MENDEZ, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore's (collectively "Plaintiffs") Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. #25) and Defendant Tahoe Regional Planning Agency's ("TRPA") ("Defendant") Cross Motion for Summary Judgment and Opposition (Doc. #36). Plaintiffs opposed Defendant's cross motion (Doc. #41) and Defendant replied (Doc. #45). Oral argument on these motions was held before the Court on March 26, 2014.


In 1968, California and Nevada entered into the Tahoe Regional Planning Compact (the "Compact") to protect the Lake Tahoe Area Basin ("LTAB"). Defendant's Response to Plaintiffs' Statement of Undisputed Facts ("DRUDF") (Doc. #36-3) ¶ 18. The Compact created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency ("TRPA" or "Defendant") to serve as the land use and environmental resource planning agency for the region. DRUDF ¶ 18. In 1980, Nevada and California extensively amended the 1969 Compact. DRUDF ¶ 19. The amended Compact requires TRPA to develop environmental threshold carrying capacities, and to ensure that all planning and development in the LTAB region is consistent with achieving and maintaining these thresholds. DRUDF ¶ 20. A "threshold" is "an environmental standard necessary to maintain a significant scenic, recreational, educational, scientific, or natural value of the region or to maintain public health and safety within the region." Compact, Art. II(i). In 1987, TRPA enacted the Regional Plan, which has guided all land-use planning and development within the LTAB region. Plaintiffs' Response to Defendant's Statement of Undisputed Facts ("PRUDF") (Doc. #41-1) ¶ 26. The TRPA Code of Ordinances ("Code"), which implemented the 1987 Regional Plan, was adopted in May 1987.

Under the Code, TRPA may not amend the Regional Plan unless it finds that the Plan, "as amended, achieves and maintains the thresholds." Code § 4.5, at AR668. Article VII of the Compact requires TRPA to prepare and consider a detailed Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS") before approving or carrying out any project that may have significant effect on the environment. Compact, Art. VII(a)(2). The EIS must include the project's significant environmental impacts, any significant adverse environmental effects that cannot be avoided if the project is implemented, alternatives to the project, and mitigation measures that "must be implemented to assure meeting standards of the region." Compact, Art. VII(a)(2).

On December 12, 2012, TRPA certified the Final EIS for the Regional Plan Update ("RPU") and approved the RPU. PRUDF ¶ 1. Key components of the RPU include TRPA's adoption of a Regional Transportation Plan and the incorporation of Lake Tahoe's Total Maximum Daily Load ("TMDL"). PRUDF ¶ 2. The TMDL is "a water quality restoration plan" that "quantifies the source and amount of fine sediment and nutrient loading from various land-uses and outlines an implementation plan to achieve... existing water quality standards." PRUDF ¶ 52. Plaintiffs and Defendant characterize the RPU differently. Plaintiffs contend that the RPU's "central strategy... is to loosen development restrictions and incentivize redevelopment in urban core areas, while removing existing development in sensitive outlying areas, on the theory that this would enable more environmentally sensible development and land-use overall." Plaintiffs' Statement of Undisputed Facts ("PSUF") (Doc. #25-2) ¶ 33. Defendant contends that the RPU "achieves Threshold Standards by incorporating contemporary planning principles, current science, and... focusing on redevelopment incentives to convert substandard legacy development into modern, environmentally beneficial, visually attractive, walkable, bikeable communities." Def.'s Cross-Mot. at 5. Defendant emphasizes "TMDL's science-based regulatory approach, " rather than the 1987 Plan's focus on limiting "impervious surface coverage." Id.

On February 11, 2013, Plaintiffs filed their Complaint (Doc. #1) in this Court. The Complaint includes the following causes of action: (1) "Delegation of TRPA's project approval and review duties in violation of the Compact;" (2) "Failure of Regional Plan to establish and ensure compliance with minimum regional standards;" (3) "Failure to properly make threshold findings pursuant to the Compact and Code sections 4.5 and 4.6;" and (4) "Failure to adequately analyze significant impacts in violation of the Compact." In a June 14, 2013 Order (Doc. #18), the Court dismissed Plaintiffs' state law claims with prejudice and dismissed Plaintiffs' first cause of action without prejudice, on ripeness grounds.


A. Standard of Review

Under the Compact, the standard of review for legislative actions is "whether the act or decision has been arbitrary, capricious, or lacking substantial evidentiary support or whether the agency has failed to proceed in a manner required by law." Compact, Art. VI(j)(5). Review under the Compact largely mirrors review of agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"). League to Save Lake Tahoe v. Tahoe Reg'l Planning Agency , 739 F.Supp.2d 1260, 1267 (E.D. Cal. 2010) aff'd in part, vacated in part, remanded, 469 F.Appx. 621 (9th Cir. 2012).

Under the APA, an agency decision will be set aside only if it is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." 5 U.S.C. § 706(s)(A). "Review under the arbitrary and capricious standard is narrow, and the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the agency." Earth Island Inst. v. U.S. Forest Serv. , 442 F.3d 1147, 1156 (9th Cir. 2006). Rather, the Court "will reverse a decision as arbitrary and capricious only if the agency relied on factors Congress did not intend it to consider, has entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, or offered an explanation that runs counter to the evidence before the agency or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise.'" Id.

The National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA") does not directly apply to TRPA. See Glenbrook Homeowners Ass'n v. Tahoe Reg'l Planning Agency , 425 F.3d 611, 615 (9th Cir. 2005) (explaining that NEPA regulations do not apply to the Compact). However, cases interpreting NEPA may "inform interpretation of the Compact... where those cases rest on language analogous to that used in the Compact." League to Save Lake Tahoe , 739 F.Supp.2d at 1274. Similarly, cases interpreting the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") may provide persuasive authority. See League to Save Lake Tahoe , 739 F.Supp.2d at 1276 (noting that "like CEQA and NEPA, the Compact serves to inform the public and to protect the environment in a general sense").

B. Disposition at the Summary Judgment Stage

Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("FRCP") provides that "a court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." A factual issue is "genuine" when the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Villiarmo v. Aloha Island Air, Inc. , 281 F.3d 1054, 1061 (9th Cir. 2002).

In this case, each party submitted its own statement of undisputed facts as well as a response to the opposing party's statement of undisputed facts. However, both parties agree that disposition at the summary judgment stage is appropriate, given that this is an administrative record case. The parties disagree on which legal conclusions should be drawn from the administrative record, but do not ...

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