CEQA Case Report: Understanding the Judicial Landscape for Development[i]
By Christopher W. Garrett, Daniel P. Brunton, James A. Erselius, and Robert C. Hull
In an unpublished opinion issued May 31, 2018, Save Adelaida v. County of San Luis Obispo, Case No. B279285, the California Court of Appeal partially affirmed the trial court’s decision and held that an environmental impact report (EIR) was required for real party in interest Willow Creek Newco, LLC’s (Willow Creek) application for a minor use permit and that the EIR must analyze wastewater. In summary, the court determined:
- A low threshold for requiring an EIR exists when a fair argument can be made that a project may have a significant environmental impact, even when contrary evidence exists.
- An EIR is necessary when evidence regarding a project’s impact contradicts the contents of a mitigated negative declaration (MND).
Background for Appeal
Willow Creek owns a 127-acre ranch zoned for agricultural use in San Luis Obispo County. Following Willow Creek’s application for a minor use permit to construct several buildings and hold events on its property (Project), the County of San Luis Obispo (County) prepared an initial study, determined that an EIR was not required, and recommended an MND. Neighbors of the property objected to the Project and claimed that the traffic, noise, increased water use, wastewater, and cumulative impacts of the Project required an EIR. They appealed the MND recommendation to the County’s Board of Supervisors (Board), which held a hearing and upheld the decision. In response, opponents of the Project, including Save Adelaida (Petitioners), filed a petition for writ of mandate to require an EIR. The trial court issued a writ that required the County to set aside the Project’s approval pending preparation of an EIR, but determined that the EIR did not need to analyze wastewater. Willow Creek appealed the trial court’s decision to invalidate the approval of the minor use permit, and Petitioners appealed the trial court’s determination that the EIR need not analyze wastewater.
Traffic, Noise, Increased Water Use, and Cumulative Impacts Require an EIR
On appeal, Willow Creek challenged the trial court’s decision on the grounds that there was no substantial evidence to support an EIR based on the Project’s traffic, noise, increased water use, and cumulative impacts.
Neighbors testified to the Board regarding the curvy, two-lane road leading to the Project site, noting its blind hills and curves and recent accidents and traffic fatalities. An expert report submitted by Petitioners found the road to be too narrow to support the Project. The court therefore held that the evidence presented sufficiently established that the road was hazardous and “substandard” and that a fair argument existed that the Project would have a significant environmental impact based on traffic.
Petitioners produced an expert report demonstrating that noise levels associated with the Project would exceed the County’s standards. Relying on this report, the court held that an EIR was needed to consider both temporary and periodic increases in ambient noise levels, and to consider whether the project met the maximum sound levels established by the County’s ordinance.
Increased Water Use
Willow Creek claimed that a well pump test conducted on a single day in 2014 showed that adequate water supply existed. The court, however, found this claim conclusory as a “snapshot” in time and credited evidence produced by Petitioners that demonstrated that insufficient water supply existed in the area. As such, the court held that substantial evidence supported a fair argument that an EIR was required to address increased water use.
Finally, with regard to the cumulative impacts of the Project, Willow Creek argued that fee mitigation programs were sufficient to address cumulative impacts to public services, including fire and emergency services. However, the court found testimony by the County fire chief and residents calling into question the adequacy of this measure persuasive. The court also found that properties that are converted for tourist retail sales and event purposes do significantly impact environmental factors such as traffic, noise, fire and emergency services, and water use, and that Willow Creek’s project would have cumulative effects. Thus, the court concluded there was a fair argument that an EIR was required to address these concerns.
Wastewater Disposal Insufficiently Addressed by MND
Petitioners challenged the trial court’s finding that the MND sufficiently addressed the Project’s wastewater disposal. The court rejected Petitioners’ first argument that the MND impermissibly delays decision-making by requiring that the Project meet all wastewater regulations prior to construction, because requiring compliance with environmental regulations is a common and reasonable mitigation measure. The court, however, found Petitioners’ second argument regarding inconsistencies in the record more persuasive. The MND stated that the Project would use on-site systems to dispose of wastewater, but a County staff report stated that portable restrooms would also be used during events. Thus, the court found that an EIR was necessary to clarify the discrepancy.
Accordingly, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision to overturn the project approval but reversed the trial court’s finding that the EIR need not analyze wastewater.
- Opinion by Presiding Justice Gilbert, with Justice Yegan and Justice Perren concurring.
- Trial Court: Superior Court of San Luis Obispo County, Case No. 15CVP-0197, Judge Ginger E. Garrett.
The authors would like to thank Sophie Stocks for her contribution to this blog post.
[i] California court decisions on California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) related cases can impact business not only in California, but more broadly in other US jurisdictions (e.g., under the US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), though statutory provisions may differ). Latham’s case summary series provides a comprehensive archive of both published and unpublished cases, in order to track judicial interpretations of CEQA and new legal developments. Unpublished or “non-citable” opinions are opinions that are not certified for publication in Official Reports and generally may not be cited or relied on by other courts or parties in any filing with California courts in other court proceedings. (see California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115).
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