SANDAG ends seven-year legal battle over long-range plan

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San Diego's regional transportation and planning agency has settled a seven-year-old lawsuit brought by environmental groups who contended the agency's long-range plan prioritized spending on car-centric projects over mass transit.

The San Diego Association of Governments said Friday the agency agreed to pay $1.7 million in attorney’s fees to settle the remainder of the lawsuit that challenged the environmental review of its 2050 Regional Transportation Plan.

The Cleveland National Forest Foundation, backed by the Sierra Club and then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris, sued the agency in 2011 over the environmental impact report for its $214 billion transportation funding plan.

The lawsuit argued that SANDAG didn’t properly address greenhouse-gas impacts.

Following a split decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal on whether the agency fully complied with state environmental laws, the California Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on the narrow question of whether the agency took into consideration an order by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

The state Supreme Court decided by a 6-1 margin in the agency’s favor in July. The court found that SANDAG didn't abuse its discretion when it declined to embrace Schwarzenegger’s climate goal and that it didn't improperly conceal the environmental impacts of its plan.

The Supreme Court decision cleared up confusion on how to take greenhouse gas emissions into account in long-range plans, SANDAG Chair and County Supervisor Ron Roberts said in a statement following that decision.

“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? The Court clarified today that our responsibility is to state law, and that SANDAG appropriately followed that law," Roberts said.

The case was remanded to the trial court for final disposition resulting in the settlement agreement.

The settlement will result in the payment of attorney’s fees and the decertification of the 2011 EIR for the 2050 Regional Transportation Plan.

It will have no practical impact on any projects or programs, since the plan challenged by the lawsuit has been superseded by the current long-range plan and its environmental impact report in 2015, according to SANDAG. The most recent version of the long-range plan hasn't been challenged in court.

SANDAG is expected to release a revised long-range plan in 2019.

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