Sierra Club successfully challenges Stockton’s General Plan Update
by Holly Bressett, Attorney, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program
A great legal settlement obtained in October by the Sierra Club, in a case challenging the city of Stockton’s General Plan update, has demonstrated the power of litigation as part of an overall campaign to prod counties and cities to address global warming. Reinforcing this message, a court order issued on March 19 found for the Sierra Club in its challenge to the city of Tulare’s General Plan update and agreed with the Sierra Club on all its global-warming claims.
The Club challenged Stockton’s updated General Plan under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), arguing, among other things, that the Environmental Impact Report did not adequately address the increased greenhouse-gas emissions from the proposed expansion of the city’s sphere of influence and the large residential development projects proposed well outside existing city limits.
The groundbreaking settlement among the club, the city, and the state attorney general, addresses these climate impacts through a Climate Action Plan, to be prepared by the city with oversight from a volunteer advisory committee with representatives from environmental, non-profit, labor, business, and development interests. The plan must include greenhouse-gas inventories; a comprehensive transit program; green building standards for all new residential, municipal, and commercial buildings, which must consistently achieve the top 25% of city green-building measures in the state; proposed General Plan amendments that require and promote infill and downtown development projects; and amendments to the General Plan to ensure that growth on the outskirts of the city is not “out of balance with development of infill.” Many of these measures must be submitted to the City Council for approval within one year from the date of the settlement.
This settlement will bring meaningful reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions through the study of emissions, changes to transportation and building standards, and reductions in sprawl development. We believe that we can achieve similar victories around the state. This case demonstrates how a CEQA lawsuit, when brought as part of a larger campaign, can have more than just procedural results and can lead to major substantive improvements under the right circumstances.
The case also had political ramifications. When the city’s old guard embarrassed itself by resisting a settlement that was clearly in the city’s best interests, this made a great campaign issue for the Club and its Stockton allies. Voters elected a more progressive City Council, including a very green new mayor. Mother Lode Chapter leaders have reported a remarkable turnaround in the attitudes of top city staff, and the local political atmosphere has shifted so dramatically that the developer was forced to abandon an effort to pass a referendum aimed at killing the settlement.
Moreover, chapter leaders kept track of all other related land-use approvals, and wrote comments objecting to the threatened additions of sprawl areas in the city’s sphere of influence. Due to momentum from the settlement agreement, the Club was able to block the worst aspects of that “sphere of influence” amendment.
Factors that made the Stockton litigation such a huge success included:
• sophisticated chapter activists working with their attorneys to devise a comprehensive campaign strategy with litigation only one of a number of tactics;
• targeting of a General Plan, rather than individual development projects in isolation;
• involvement of a highly sophisticated law firm with a track record of dramatic results using CEQA litigation;
• effective work in advance of the litigation to build the administrative record (for example, the chapter prepared its own “alternative plan” to the proposed General Plan);
• effective outreach to, and coordination with, the state attorney general’s office;
• “taking delivery” by settling the case.
In short, the Sierra Club’s multi-pronged strategy in Stockton was extremely effective. In the words of our lead lawyer, “we couldn’t ask for a more inspiring client!” The Club hopes to replicate such campaign-driven results in other cities and counties.
The Sierra Club was represented by the law firm of Shute Mihaly & Weinberger in its Stockton litigation and settlement. Babak Naficy represented the Club in its challenge to the city of Tulare’s General Plan.