Environmental Impact Report Did Not Need To Consider In Detail An Alternative Plan That Would Have Placed A New Hospital At A Different Campus

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Jan 31, 2024

UC San Francisco (UCSF) created a plan for revitalizing its Parnassus Heights campus in order to expand its capacity to treat more patients and to maintain UCSF’s position as a leading health science institution both nationally and internationally.  The hospital had to turn away 40% of the requested transfers because it lacked capacity and hospital beds.  Additionally, one of the hospitals on campus would not meet seismic standards that take effect in 2030.  The plan included building a new hospital, changing the existing hospital into a location for research and rehabilitation, expanding campus housing, and updating facilities in other manners.

When a public agency undertakes a project that may have a significant impact on the environment, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires that the agency prepare an environmental impact report (EIR).  An EIR must consider a range of reasonable alternatives to a project that would feasibly attain most of the project’s basic objectives but avoid or substantially lessen the significant effects of the project.

The Regents of the University of California (Regents) prepared an EIR.  The EIR found that the UCSF revitalization plan would have significant environmental impacts.  These impacts included increased wind hazard in pedestrian areas due to the new larger hospital building, air pollution from increased use of the area, and noise during the construction phases of the project.  The plan would also involve demolition of several historic buildings.

Several neighborhood groups opposed the plan because it would increase development.  They wanted the new hospital to be placed on one of UCSF’s other campuses, rather than on the Parnassus campus.  Three neighborhood groups filed lawsuits against the Regents, challenging the adequacy of the EIR.  The groups were San Franciscans for Balanced and Livable Communities; Yerba Buena Neighborhood Consortium, LLC; and Parnassus Neighborhood Coalition.  They argued the EIR did not adequately consider the option of building the hospital on another campus.  The trial court denied each of their lawsuits in three identical orders.  The three organizations appealed, and the court of appeal consolidated the appeals and issued one decision.

The court of appeal held that CEQA did not require that the EIR consider in detail the option of placing the new hospital on another campus.  The plan’s main goals were to revitalize the Parnassus campus and expand its capacity to treat patients.  An EIR should not exclude an alternative from detailed consideration merely because it would impede some degree of the project objectives.  However, the EIR does not need to examine in detail alternatives that are infeasible or do not meet the most basic project objectives.  An agency may reject an alternative as infeasible that is impractical or undesirable from a policy standpoint.

The court of appeal also held that the EIR’s truncated discussion of traffic delays was sufficient. Guidance from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) directs that traffic delays are not a significant environmental impact and an increase in transit users is not an adverse effect.  The court of appeal held that UCSF did not have to preserve certain historically significant buildings merely because it was possible to restore and repurpose them.  Additionally, the visual impact of the new hospital was not significant because the plan qualified as an employment center project on an infill site in a transit priority area and zoning allowed for commercial use.  Finally, the court of appeal held that UCSF’s wind mitigation measures did not have to include measures that would significantly change the size of buildings or interfere with their operation.

The court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying the neighborhood association’s lawsuits.

Yerba Buena Neighborhood Consortium, LLC v. Regents of University of California (2023) 95 Cal.App.5th 779 [313 Cal.Rptr.3d 701].

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