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Washoe Meadows Community v. Department of Parks and Recreation

California Court of Appeals, First District, Fifth Division

November 15, 2017

WASHOE MEADOWS COMMUNITY, Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF PARKS AND RECREATION et al., Defendants and Appellants.

         Alameda County Superior Court, No. RG-12619137, Evelio M. Grillo, Judge.

          Attorneys General, Kamala D. Harris and Xavier Beccara; Senior Assistant Attorneys General John A. Saurenman; Acting Supervising Deputy Attorneys General Jennifer W. Rosenfeld and Andrew M. Vogel; Deputy Attorney General, Wyatt E. Sloan-Tribe, counsel for Defendants and Appellants.

          Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group, Jason Robert Flanders, Amanda M. Prasuhn for Plaintiff and Respondent.

          John P. Rose, Aruna Prabhala for The Center for Biological Diversity and The Sierra Club as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Respondent.

          NEEDHAM, J.

         The environmental impact report (EIR) is the “heart” of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA; Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.). (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 14, § 15003(a) [cited hereafter as Guidelines].) To ensure informed public participation in the CEQA process, agencies are required to circulate a draft EIR for public comment. The draft EIR in this case did not identify a proposed project, but described five very different alternative projects then under consideration. Consequently, the public was not provided with “an accurate, stable and finite” project description on which to comment. (County of Inyo v. City of Los Angeles (1977) 71 Cal.App.3d 185, 192-193 (County of Inyo).) We affirm the trial court's order granting the petition for writ of mandate filed by respondent Washoe Meadows Community (Washoe), directing appellants the California Department of Parks and Recreation (the Department) and the California State Park and Recreation Commission (the Commission) to set aside their approvals of the “Upper Truckee River Restoration and Golf Course Reconfiguration Project.” (Pub. Resources Code, § 21168.5.)

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Department controls and maintains the State's park system and has the authority to “administer, protect, develop, and interpret the property under its jurisdiction for the use and enjoyment of the public.” (Pub. Resources Code, §§ 5001, 5003.) The Commission is located within the Department (Pub. Resources Code, § 530) and has responsibility for establishing “general policies for the guidance of the director [of the Department] in the administration, protection, and development of the state park system” (Pub. Resources Code, § 539) and setting “comprehensive recreational policy” for the state (Pub. Resources Code, § 540).

         In 1984, the State of California acquired 777 acres of land encompassing a 2.2-mile stretch of the Upper Truckee River in the southern section of the Lake Tahoe Basin. The parcel was divided into two units: 608 acres designated as Washoe Meadows State Park (State Park), whose purpose was to preserve and protect a wet meadow, plus acreage designated as the Lake Valley State Recreation Area (Recreation Area), to allow for the continuing operation of a preexisting golf course. The division was necessary because golf courses are not allowed in state parks. (See Pub. Resources Code, § 5019.53.)

         Since at least the 1990's, erosion of the river bed of the Upper Truckee River has raised concerns about the habitat for wildlife, the maintenance of the water table, and the depositing of sediment into Lake Tahoe. Studies commenced in 2003 identified the portion of the river that runs through the State Park and Recreation Area as one of the two worst contributors to the sediment running into the lake. The layout of the golf course inside the Recreation Area was of concern because it had altered the course and flow of the river, which in turn contributed to a deterioration of the habitat and water quality.

         CEQA review commenced on the “Upper Truckee River Restoration and Golf Course Reconfiguration Project, ” with the Department acting as the lead agency and the Commission acting as a responsible agency.[1] Public scoping was conducted after the issuance of a scoping notice identifying four alternatives for the project: Alternative 1, no project; Alternative 2, river restoration with reconfiguration of the 18-hole golf course; Alternative 3, river restoration with a nine-hole golf course; and Alternative 4, river stabilization with continuation of the existing 18-hole golf course. Alternative 2, which would relocate some of the holes of the golf course to areas then inside the State Park and which would necessitate a corresponding adjustment in the State Park/Recreation Area boundary, was specified as the preferred alternative.

         In August 2010, the Department prepared and circulated a draft environmental impact report (DEIR). (Guidelines, §§ 15084-15088, 15120-15131.)[2] The stated purpose of the proposed project was “to improve geomorphic processes, ecological functions, and habitat values of the Upper Truckee River within the study area, helping to reduce the river's discharge of nutrients and sediment that diminish Lake Tahoe's clarity while providing access to public recreation opportunities in the State Park and [Recreation Area].” The DEIR described the four alternatives identified in the scoping process as well as a fifth alternative, Alternative 5, calling for the restoration of the ecosystem and the decommissioning of the golf course. The DEIR did not identify a preferred alternative, stating: “Five alternatives are being considered and are analyzed at a comparable level of detail in the environmental document. A preferred or proposed alternative has not yet been defined. Following receipt and evaluation of public comments on the draft EIR/EIS/EIS, the lead agencies will determine which alternative or combinations of features from multiple alternatives will become the preferred alternative. A discussion of the decision will be included in the final EIR/EIS/EIS.”

         The DEIR analyzed each of the five alternatives in considerable detail. Information meetings, a public site tour, and a public open house were held, and a public review and comment period was provided. The review period was extended, public hearings were held in October 2010, and the public comment period closed on November 15, 2010.

         In September 2011, the Department released the final environmental impact report (FEIR) for the project, in which it identified “[a] refined version of Alternative 2” (river restoration with reconfigured 18-hole golf course) as the proposed preferred alternative. The FEIR stated, “The Preferred Alternative plan is conceptual, and acreages have been modified from the description of Alternative 2 in the [DEIR] to further address public access issues, such as trail safety, as well as protection of sensitive resources and management considerations. The final design may reflect modifications to project features made as a result of the normal design refinement process. However, these modifications are not expected to substantially increase the intensity or severity of an impact or ...


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