CEQA offers several streamlining methods for projects that are consistent with “the general use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies specified for the project area” that are set out in the Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) adopted as part of the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) adopted by the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). The CEQA lead agency is responsible for determining, based on substantial evidence in the record, whether a project is consistent with the SCS. Case law indicates that if the lead agency’s consistency determination is challenged in court the court will give deference to the agency’s judgment. (Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento (2019) 37 Cal.App.5th 698).
No two regional SCSs are the same, just as no two regions of the state are the same. The level of land use detail and the specific policies established in the SCSs vary across the state. None, however, reflect the level of detail found in city or county general plans.
Some of the MPOs, such as the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, have prepared guidance for cities and counties to help them determine whether a proposed project is consistent with the SCS. Where that is the case, a city or county should use that guidance.
In other regions, the city or county should examine the general land use designations set out and described in the SCS and answer the following questions:
- Is the development proposed by the project consistent with the general land use pattern mapped in the SCS?
- To the extent that the SCS has land use policies applicable to city and county land use actions, does the proposed development comply with those policies?
An MPO does not have regulatory power over land use and its SCS does not supersede city/county planning and zoning powers. The SCS is not necessarily consistent with city/county land use plans or ordinances. And, in practice SCSs are not as detailed as a city/county general plan, specific plan, community plan, or zoning ordinance. The proposed project’s consistency with local general plan, specific plan, community plan, or zoning provisions is not part of the SCS consistency determination. Because use of the CEQA streamlining methods based on SCS consistency are voluntary, a city or county is not mandated to use them if it chooses to apply its planning and zoning provisions to the project instead of the SCS’s general land use designations.