Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, April 10, 2018

Contacts:  Nina Erlich-Williams, (510) 336-9566,
Rachel Hooper, Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, LLP, (415) 552-7272
Jana Clark, Cleveland National Forest Foundation, (831) 254-7777
Patrick Sullivan, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 517-9364,

Resolution of San Diego Transportation Lawsuit Sets California-wide Climate Precedent

Planners Across State Have to Curb Air Pollution, Greenhouse Emissions

SAN DIEGO— A landmark settlement in a six-year legal battle over the San Diego Association of Governments’ transportation plan will push regional planners across California to limit air and climate pollution stemming from sprawl development and inadequate public transit.

With the agreement of all parties, the San Diego County Superior Court has formally ordered that the agency, known as SANDAG, has to decertify the plan’s defective environmental analysis, which failed to adequately assess climate damage from sprawl. That sets a precedent for all future transportation planning.

The case went all the way to the California Supreme Court, producing two precedent-setting court opinions that will guide SANDAG and other agencies in addressing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and the public-health impacts of regional transportation planning.

“The end of this battle is just the beginning of a brighter future for all San Diego County residents,” said Jana Clark, Cleveland National Forest Foundation Board member. “With this case resolved, SANDAG must now do what it should have done in the first place: plan for a more sustainable future for our region so that we can avoid the worst effects of climate change.”

In its sweeping 2014 decision that was confirmed and republished in November 2017, the appeals court held that SANDAG failed to analyze how the transportation plan’s increase in pollution from cars and trucks could harm people in neighboring communities, and failed to take meaningful steps to reduce that pollution.

“Californians will breathe cleaner air because future plans must reject the old model of building more highways and encouraging polluting sprawl development,” said Aruna Prabhala, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The court of appeal also faulted SANDAG for failing to consider any alternative to its plan that focused on reducing the number of miles that residents drive, even though SANDAG’s own Climate Action Strategy acknowledges the need to reduce driving. Finally, the court found SANDAG used incomplete and inaccurate data to assess the plan’s effects on agricultural land.

“The people of San Diego and all of California won a major victory as a result of this litigation,” said Rachel Hooper of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, an attorney for the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and the Sierra Club. “This case sends a clear message to regional planning agencies throughout the state that they must take their responsibility to combat climate change seriously.”

The Cleveland National Forest Foundation, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and two community groups all filed suit against SANDAG in 2011 over its faulty environmental review of a state-mandated Regional Transportation Plan. The people of the state of California, represented by the attorney general, intervened in support of the petitioners.

SANDAG’s $200-billion plan was supposed to identify opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a coordinated approach to transportation and land use. However, the plan front-loaded the expansion of freeways, which induce sprawl and reinforce the region’s dependence on car-oriented transportation. SANDAG’s review of its plan’s climate, air pollution, health and agricultural impacts was also faulty and unlawful.

Petitioners succeeded on the vast majority of their legal claims in this hard-fought case. The trial court ruled in late 2012 that SANDAG had not adequately addressed the plan’s long-term climate impacts. In a 2014 ruling, the California Court of Appeal agreed, finding SANDAG’s EIR deficient on numerous other grounds as well. The California Supreme Court took up one narrow issue in the case, ruling in 2017 that SANDAG’s assessment of the transportation plan’s long-term climate effects was lawful at the time.

The Supreme Court emphasized, however, that while SANDAG had done enough in 2011 to inform the public that its plan was out of step with long-term scientific goals, SANDAG’s analysis might not pass muster today or in the future. The Supreme Court’s ruling confirms that agencies like SANDAG must stay current with climate science and must pay attention to California’s long-term goals for reducing emissions.

Following the Supreme Court’s review, in November 2017 the California Court of Appeal confirmed, and republished, most of its 2014 decision invalidating the EIR for the regional transportation plan.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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