The Winding Trail Home: Marin County Secures Key Multi-Use Trail Access Decision

June 3, 2020 Articles
Marin Lawyer

With Marin County’s Mt. Tamalpais often considered the birthplace of mountain biking, it should not be surprising that the County finds itself at the forefront of California’s battle over multi-use trail access and consequently at the cutting edge of case law in this evolving area. Highlighting the front lines of this battle, on January 24, 2020, the California Court of Appeal for the First District handed down a significant decision under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) holding that government agencies deciding whether to provide bicycle access to existing trails are not required to analyze “social effects” such as perceived user conflict with hikers under CEQA1. The decision in Community Venture Partners v. Marin County Open Space District (Jan. 24, 2020, A154867) [WL 429110 (unpublished)] (hereafter Middagh Trail) reverses a trial court ruling in favor of a non-governmental organization challenging the Marin County Open Space District’s approval of a proposal to open the popular Bob Middagh Trail in Mill Valley to bicycle use.

The Middagh Trail decision represents a significant victory for the County because it establishes precedent as the first bicycle-access trail approval occurring under the County’s 2014 Road and Trail Management Plan (“RTMP”) which, among other things, established a process for increasing bicycle access to the County’s large-scale trail network. In 2015, the Marin County Bicycle Coalition (“MCBC”) submitted a proposal to the County pursuant to the RTMP process, proposing to open the Bob Middagh Trail to bicycles as an important connector between existing multi-use trails and to provide an alternative to a congested paved road. The County ultimately approved MCBC’s proposal, finding that the proposed improvements and access fell within the scope of environmental impacts analyzed in the County’s Programmatic Environmental Impact Report for the RTMP prepared pursuant to CEQA2.

Community Venture Partners (“CVP”) challenged the County’s approval of the proposal on numerous grounds, including an argument that the County was required to analyze the social effects and safety risks of adding bicycle use on the trail as part of the County’s review of the proposal’s environmental effects under the CEQA process. CVP also raised a number of claims challenging the County’s compliance with its RTMP decision-making process. The trial court agreed with CVP on multiple grounds, including a critical finding that the County failed to analyze potential conflicts among trail users under CEQA. The County appealed the decision, joined by amicus curiae MCBC and the California State Association of Counties and League of California Cities.

The trial court’s decision garnered widespread interest because it represented a significant expansion of the type of environmental effects analyzed under CEQA and could complicate the process for government agencies to increase bicycle access to existing trails. In essence, the trial court’s decision created a new category of environmental effects under CEQA based on perceived “social effects” or “user conflict” which, according to CVP’s arguments, must always be deemed significant, thereby requiring a new Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) for any trail access decision involving bicycles. The trial court’s ruling could also be extended beyond bicycle trail access to require an evaluation of social effects of other important but potentially contentious projects ranging from disabled and low-income housing to high-speed rail and other infrastructure improvements—evaluations that are typically reserved for the elected officials and policymakers making decisions.

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s CEQA ruling on several grounds, ultimately holding that the County properly analyzed the environmental effects of the Bob Middagh Trail proposal in the context of the RTMP Programmatic EIR. Key among the Court’s rulings is its determination that the County was not required to analyze social effects such as perceived conflicts with other existing trail users under CEQA. As explained by the Court, CEQA does not require an analysis of subjective psychological feelings or social impacts because these do not constitute impacts to the physical environment. In this regard, the Court refused to expand the scope of environmental effects analyzed pursuant to CEQA. While the Court reversed the trial court’s CEQA findings, it did affirm the trial court’s decision that the County did not properly “score” alternate trail proposals submitted by other members of the public under its preliminary RTMP evaluation process. The Court therefore remanded the matter to the County to address and presumably “re-score” the original proposals, allowing the County to proceed based on the newly selected proposal pursuant to the Court’s CEQA roadmap once that process is complete.

The Middagh Trail decision represents a path forward for Marin County and other California jurisdictions seeking to open trails to multiple users, including cyclists. Perhaps oddly enough, while the County historically permitted bicycle access on its trail network, such access became restricted over the years due to lobbying by other trail users who view cycling as incompatible with hiking or equestrian use. With the increasing popularity of mountain and gravel cycling, and a younger demographic pursuing such uses, multi-use trail efforts will undoubtedly continue to be a focus of interest groups on all sides of the issue and the counties and cities that must craft a path forward in accommodating these various interests.

1 For readers unfamiliar with CEQA, it generally requires state and local government agencies to assess the environmental impacts of their decisions, frequently requiring an environmental impact report analyzing a broad range of effects, such as pollution and traffic.
2 In some cases, CEQA does not require impacts to be assessed when the potential impacts have already been analyzed under a broader earlier decision, such as a decision implementing a particular provision of a previously-approved regional plan.