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State Supreme Court OKs SANDAG climate change study

SAN DIEGO — The California Supreme Court issued a decision in favor of the San Diego Association of Governments Thursday, ruling that SANDAG followed the proper state law while conducting a 2011 study concerning climate change and the region’s long-term transportation plan.

The issue arose from an environmental impact study completed in 2011 for SANDAG’s “2050 Regional Transportation Plan.” After the environmental study was complete, the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups filed lawsuits challenging SANDAG’s review.

At the heart of the issue that ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court was whether SANDAG completed a greenhouse gas analysis properly by following a state law, or if they should have conducted the analysis to comply with a governor’s executive order.

“The Court clarified today that our responsibility is to state law, and that SANDAG appropriately followed that law,” SANDAG Chair and County Supervisor Ron Roberts said.

The state’s highest court ruled 6-1 in favor of SANDAG, with Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar casting the dissenting vote.

“We are very pleased with today’s outcome,” Roberts said. “Rulings by the lower courts left local governments confused about how they should analyze greenhouse gas emissions; should we follow state law as established by the Legislature, or follow executive orders issued by the governor?”

But the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups who filed suit against SANDAG, said the Court ruled in favor of the government agency on only one narrow issue and said the ruling “emphasized that future environmental analyses of similar plans must address the state’s long-term climate objectives in greater detail as California’s climate efforts evolve.”

“We disagree with the court’s narrow ruling, but this decision will clearly push transportation planners to better evaluate the massive greenhouse pollution generated by decades of sprawl development and neglect of public transit,” said Kevin Bundy, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The court’s ruling underscores that agencies like SANDAG have to step up and do their part going forward. Ensuring that transportation and development advance the state’s long-term, science-based emissions reduction goals is essential.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling overturned only the greenhouse gas study issue, leaving undisturbed the decision by an appellate court that ruled against SANDAG on other key issues.

“San Diego residents deserve a future with increased transit, bike and walk commutes, clean air and water, and protected open space — at its core, that’s what this lawsuit was about,” said Jana Clark, a Cleveland National Forest Foundation board member. “Regardless of today’s narrow ruling from the California Supreme Court, our lawsuit against SANDAG has been a major victory for the health and quality of life of all San Diegans because it has initiated a changed SANDAG.”

Federal law requires that transportation plans like SANDAG’s “2050 Regional Transportation Plan” be updated every four years, SANDAG officials said. The “2050 Regional Transportation Plan” that was at the center of today’s ruling has already been superseded by “San Diego Forward: The Regional Plan,” which the SANDAG board approved in October 2015. No environmental groups have filed legal challenges against “San Diego Forward” or its environmental impact report.