United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division
NORMAN K. MOON, District Judge.
Rio Associates, L.P.P. and Mimosa, L.L.C. (collectively, "Plaintiffs") initiated this action for declaratory judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C § 2201 and injunctive relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1651 on March 6, 2015. This case arises out of planned construction on and around Route 29 in Charlottesville, Virginia, specifically plans to (1) build a Grade Separated Interchange ("GSI") at the Rio Road and Route 29 Interchange, (2) widen certain sections of Route 29, and (3) build an extension of Berkmar Drive. Plaintiffs, who own commercial property contiguous to the proposed Rio Road GSI, allege that Defendants, various federal and Virginia state officials, have not complied with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq. as they apply to these three projects.
Plaintiffs contend that Defendants have impermissibly segmented a single action into three individual projects in order to avoid NEPA review and that Defendants have subjected the projects to a lower level of environmental review than what NEPA requires. Plaintiffs also advance two additional claims, which are duplicative of or contingent on their NEPA claims, and because I determine that their NEPA claims are not likely to succeed, I decline to address these two additional theories here.
The matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction, wherein they ask me to enjoin Defendants and their grantees, employees, agents, and contractors, from any acquisition of right-of-way, financing, contracting, or construction relating to the projects. An evidentiary hearing on the matter was held on June 1, 2015. For the reasons that follow, I will deny Plaintiffs' motion.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
The basic facts underlying this case are not in dispute. The question of how to best address congestion on Route 29 in the Charlottesville and Albemarle County areas has long been a source of contention in the area. A western bypass for Route 29, which would route traffic west of Charlottesville, was first proposed in 1979. AR 0021. Although environmental work on this project began shortly thereafter, the Federal Highway Administration ("FHWA") and the Virginia Department of Transportation ("VDOT") did not finalize an environmental impact statement until 1993. AR 0003. The statement defined the primary purpose of the bypass was to "find a solution to existing and future congestion on a three-mile section of U.S. Route 29 between U.S. Route 250 Bypass and the South Fork Rivanna River in the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County north of Charlottesville, " with secondary purpose "to complete a gap in ongoing improvements to U.S. Route 29 through central Virginia." AR 0020. The study concluded that no single alternative by itself will satisfy all of these needs. For example, a bypass alternative alone will not substantially improve traffic conditions on existing Route 29. Providing improvements only to existing Route 29 will not satisfy anticipated future needs for additional highway capacity, nor will it satisfactorily fulfill Route 29's function as an arterial route for through traffic.
AR 9. Over the next two decades, proposals for the project evolved, and were subject to additional environmental studies, and even litigation. See Piedmont Envtl. Council v. U.S. Dep't of Transp., 159 F.Supp.2d 260 (W.D. Va. 2001), aff'd in part and remanded in part, 58 Fed.Appx. 20 (4th Cir. 2003). During this time, development in the areas surrounding the bypass greatly accelerated, and in February 2014 the FHWA wrote a letter to VDOT stating that the project required a supplement environmental impact statement, in large part because "[o]ur legal counsel has advised us to reassess the purpose and need of the project in light of the changes in the Route 29 corridor that have occurred over the past 20 years to determine if it remains appropriate since the need appears to have expanded well beyond the existing project limits." AR 1052. All work on the bypass was suspended in March 2014, and in June of that year, most of the state funding was removed from the bypass project and reallocated to other projects on Route 29. AR 1160-61.
These other projects included the Rio Road GSI and the Route 29 widening project. AR 1160-61. The Rio Road GSI will separate traffic north-south though traffic on Route 29 from east-west traffic on Rio Road by replacing the existing at-grade intersection with an elevated interchange whereby Rio Road will remain at its present elevation but Route 29 will be lowered to allow through traffic to proceed under the intersection. AR 1710. The Route 29 widening project will expand Route 29 from a 4-lane divided to a 6-lane divided highway for the section of the highway between Polo Grounds Road and Towncenter Drive. AR 1720. The Berkmar Drive extension project will extend the road north from its current terminus at Route 1438, Hilton Heights Road, to Route 1719, Towncenter Drive. AR 1109. The Berkmar project is an entirely state-funded project, and thus is subject to the Virginia state environmental review process, but not NEPA. AR 1677.
At some point in 2014, the Rio Road GSI and the Route 29 widening projects were considered as recipients for federal funding. AR 1098-1101. VDOT and FHWA produced environmental studies on the two projects, and in June and July of 2014, FHWA approved the resulting categorical exclusions, which found that the projects did not have a significant effect on the human environment and thus did not need further review under an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement. AR 1716, 1726. The projects were then presented for public comment, and the subsequent comments were compiled in September 2014. AR 1648-1707. FHWA gave the two categorical exclusions final approval on September 29, 2014. AR 1716, 1726.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
A preliminary injunction constitutes "an extraordinary remedy" granted at the discretion of the district court. Real Truth About Obama v. Federal Election Com'n, 575 F.3d 342, 345 (4th Cir. 2009), vacated on other grounds 559 U.S. 1089 (2010), reissued in part 607 F.3d 355 (4th Cir. 2010) (reissuing parts I and II of the opinion concerning preliminary injunctions). The Supreme Court of the United States has articulated what a movant must show to obtain a preliminary injunction: " that he is likely to succeed on the merits,  that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief,  that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and  that an injunction is in the public interest." Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 20 (2008). The party seeking injunctive relief must carry the burden of persuasion on each of the four elements by "a clear showing." Real Truth, 575 F.3d at 345; accord Mazurek v. Armstrong, 520 U.S. 968, 972 (1997) (citing 11A C. Wright, A. Miller, & M. Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2948, pp. 129-130 (2d ed. 1995) (emphasis added; footnotes omitted)). Further, the court in Winter explained that when considering whether to grant a preliminary injunction, courts must "balance the competing claims of injury and consider the effect of granting or withholding the requested relief, paying particular regard to the public consequences." 555 U.S. at 9.
In a case such as the instant action, in which a federal agency's decisions are being challenged, a court's review of the claims must be conducted pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. § 706. Under the APA, a court will set aside agency determinations if they are "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A); see Dep't of Transp. v. Pub. Citizen, 541 U.S. 752, 763 (2004). An action is arbitrary and capricious if the agency relied on factors which Congress has not intended it to consider, entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, offered an explanation for its decision that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise. Motor VehicleMfrs. Ass'n v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983).
While "[r]eview under this standard is highly deferential, with a presumption in favor of finding the agency action valid, " Ohio Valley Envtl. Coal. v. Aracoma Coal Co., 556 F.3d 177, 192 (4th Cir. 2009), a court "must not reduce itself to a rubber stamp' of agency action, " N.C. Wildlife Fed'n v. N.C. Dep't of Transp., 677 F.3d 596, 601 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting Fed. Mar. Comm'n v. Seatrain Lines, Inc., 411 U.S. 726, 746 (1973)). Rather, it must decide if the agency's decision "was based on a consideration of the relevant factors and whether there has been a clear error of judgment." Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 416 (1971), abrogated in part by Califano v. Sanders, 430 U.S. 99 (1977).
This case involves the review of whether a federal agency's actions were proper under NEPA, which stands as the "basic national charter for protection of the environment." 40 C.F.R. § 1500.1(a). As such, NEPA declares a national policy in favor of the protection and promotion of environmental quality. See Hughes River Watershed Conservancy v. Glickman, 81 F.3d 437, 443 (4th Cir. 1996) (citing 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321, 4331(a)); see also 40 C.F.R. § 1500.1(c) (stating that the purpose of NEPA is "to help public officials make decisions that are based on understanding of environmental consequences, and take actions that protect, restore, and enhance the environment"). NEPA is fundamentally procedural in nature; "although NEPA establishes environmental quality as a substantive goal, it is well settled that NEPA does not mandate that agencies reach particular substantive results." Hughes River, 81 F.3d at 443. The goals of NEPA "are thus realized through a set of action-forcing procedures that require that agencies take a hard look at environmental consequences." Robertson v. Methow Valley Citizens Council, 490 U.S. 332, 350 (1989) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). So long as "the adverse environmental effects of... proposed actions are adequately identified and evaluated, agencies are not constrained by NEPA from deciding that other values outweigh the environmental costs." Hughes River I, 81 F.3d at 443 (citation, internal quotation marks, and alterations omitted).
Generally, NEPA requires every agency proposing a "major Federal action" to prepare an environmental impact statement if the action will "significantly affect[ ] the quality of the human environment." 42 U.S.C. § 4332(C). Based on regulations promulgated by the Council on Environmental Quality, agencies must establish procedures identifying "[s]pecific criteria for and identification of those typical classes of action" that require or do not require an environmental impact statement. 40 C.F.R. § 1507.3(b)(2). In considering any particular proposed action, an agency must first determine whether, under its own regulations, the proposal would "[n]ormally require  an environmental impact statement" or "[n]ormally [would] not require either an environmental impact statement or an environmental assessment...." Id. §§ 1501.4(a)(1), (2). The latter, where neither an environmental impact statement nor an environmental assessment is required, refers to categorical exclusions, which were used for the two federal projects at issue here: the construction of the Rio Road GSI and the widening of ...