Thursday, February 28, 2008

CBAs go to court (for the first time?)

The first case that I know of to deal with CBAs in any detail was issued this week. The case, Merced County Farm Bureau v. County of Merced (No. 150013, Sup.Ct., County of San Joaquin), was brought under the California Environmental Quality Act by community groups hoping to prevent the development of the Riverside Motorsports Park. In particular, they claimed that the environmental impact report (EIR) was inadequate. The court agreed, in part because the EIR in this case did not address the development agreement and community benefits agreement that had been required by the county when it approved the master plan. As the court explained, "[t]he environmental effects of the Master Plan cannot be evaluated properly without consideration of the Development Agreement and the Community Benefits Agreement that have not been drafted. The absence of this analysis renders the EIR defective as an informational document upon which the public and its officials can rely in making informed judgments. An analysis of the Development Agreement and the Community Benefits Agreement should appear in the EIR or at a mininum in an appendix."

What isn't clear about this case is how the CBA requirement arose in the first place, i.e. whether the county imposed the CBA requirement in response to community concerns about the project, or whether the county put the CBA requirement in the master plan in order to hold the developer to promises that it had made (I'll be checking into this). It's also not clear what the county had in mind when it made the CBA requirement. The minutes of the board of supervisors from December 16, 2006 (just prior to the master plan approval), simply state that "[t]he applicant shall enter into a Community Benefits Agreement that commits them [sic] to a series of benefits that are specific to the nature of the project and the needs of the local community." There's no indication as to whether the county expects the developer to negotiate with community groups or local officials about these benefits. It's also unclear how extensive the benefits have to be.

Still, even if the scope of the CBA is presently unknown, it's good news for CBA supporters that the court rejected the EIR due to the fact that the CBA hadn't yet been completed. CBA provisions may indeed be important to the environmental review of the project. However, this case may not supply persuasive precedent for future cases involving CBAs that aren't required by the municipality.

The planning documents for the Riverside Motorsports project, including the draft master plan and the EIR, are up on Merced County's website. For more information on reaction to the case, see this article in the Merced Sun-Star.

Updated June 11, 2008, here.