A Court of Appeal has confirmed that there must be sufficient evidence in an administrative record to support a lead agency’s decision to claim a CEQA categorical exemption. In Save Our Schools v. Barstow Unified School District Board of Education (Sept. 2, 2015, E060759) __ Cal.App.4th __ [2015 WL 5147347] the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division 2, reversed the trial court, effectively vacating the district’s approval of a “minor additions to existing schools” categorical exemption for the closure of two schools and transfer of the students to receptor schools.
CEQA Guidelines section 15314 exempts from the requirement for the preparation of environmental documents projects consisting of “minor additions to existing schools within existing school grounds where the addition does not increase original student capacity by more than 25% or ten classrooms, whichever is less.” When a court reviews a local agency’s CEQA decision, the only evidence the court will consider must be found in the administrative record. The Court of Appeal in Save Our Schools found no evidence that the district had calculated the original student capacity of the receptor schools, or that it had limited the number of students to be sent to each. Thus, the district had no evidentiary basis for concluding that the transfers would not result in a capacity increase exceeding the limits of the exemption at each receptor school.
Save Our Schools is a timely reminder of the importance of a thorough legal review of a district’s CEQA compliance before the Board acts, especially where a project has opponents who will seek to exploit every weakness in the process. Upon review by a court, the failure to have included essential information in the administrative record may well result in substantial delays to the project, litigation expense, exposure to liability for the opponents’ attorneys’ fees, and the cost of redoing the CEQA process.
If you have any questions, please contact a DWK attorney.