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On December 20, 2023, the California Supreme Court denied a petition for review of Tsakopoulos Investments, LLC v. County of Sacramento (2023) 95 Cal.App.5th 280, which upheld the County of Sacramento’s greenhouse gas (GHG) CEQA thresholds.

In Tsakopoulos, the County of Sacramento certified an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that analyzed impacts of development of a mixed use project known as Mather South that includes about 3,500 residential units, schools, retail, R&D, parks and 157 acres of open space.  The County had developed GHG thresholds in 2011 using local population and emissions data to meet the statewide goal of a 15% reduction from 1990 levels by 2020.   As part of the Mather South EIR, the County updated these thresholds to be consistent with statewide reduction targets established by SB 32 of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

The Mather South project is one of four master plans proposed in southwest Sacramento.  The petitioner, the developer of an adjacent master plan, challenged the Mather South EIR alleging the County’s GHG thresholds used the same methodology that was rejected in Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Fish & Wildlife (2015) 62 Cal.4th 204, and Golden Door Properties, LLC v. County of San Diego (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 892. The Third District Court of Appeal held that the petitioner failed to meet its burden of proof as the County’s GHG thresholds were clearly supported by substantial evidence and distinguishable from the thresholds rejected in Center for Biological Diversity and Golden Door.

Justice Robie of the Third District authored the lengthy Tsakopoulos opinion, which includes a thorough background on the state’s climate change legislation, as well as the seminal GHG thresholds cases, Center for Biological Diversity and Golden Door.  Key take aways include:

  • The Tsakopoulos opinion emphasizes the Center for Biological Diversity holding that a public agency “enjoys substantial discretion in its choice of methodology.”  It explains that the Supreme Court in Center for Biological Diversity did not disapprove of a methodology, but rather held there was a the lack of substantial evidence in that record to support the use of statewide goals for an individual project.  The Tsakopoulos opinion appropriately applies significant deference to the County’s determinations in adopting its own local threshold.
  • The Tsakopoulos opinion also explains that Center for Biological Diversity does NOT require, as an across-the-board matter, that individual projects reduce emissions more than the economy as a whole in order to achieve statewide targets.  Rather, Center for Biological Diversity requires lead agencies support adopted GHG thresholds with substantial evidence.  The Petition for review focused solely on this issue.  With the Supreme Court’s denial of review, Tsakopoulos rebuts the argument that individual development projects must reduce emissions more than the statewide targets.
  • The opinion also easily distinguished the County’s GHG thresholds from the Golden Door thresholds.  Golden Door struck down the County of San Diego’s per capita GHG threshold because it was based on statewide emission and population data and San Diego did not have substantial evidence supporting the application of statewide data to a local project.  The Golden Door thresholds also applied to all sectors. In Tsakopoulos, the County’s per capita thresholds were based on local data and sector specific.

With the denial of review, the Supreme Court has affirmed the substantial deference courts give local agencies in their choice of thresholds to determine environmental impacts under CEQA. The unpublished portions of the Tsakopoulos opinion uphold the County’s construction-related GHG impacts and human health impacts analyses.