By Cori M. Badgley and Diane Kindermann
In Sunset Skyranch Pilots Association v. County of Sacramento (2008) 164 Cal.App.4th 671, the Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District addressed two separate issues: 1) does the State Aeronautics Act (“SAA”) preempt the County’s decision to deny renewal of Sunset Skyranch Pilots Association (“Airport”) conditional use permit (“CUP”), and 2) does the denial of the CUP renewal constitute a “project” under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”)? The appellate court held that the SAA did not preempt the County’s decision, and denial of the renewal of the CUP did constitute a project under CEQA.
Sunset Skyranch Airport obtained a CUP in 1999 for airport operations. Although the Airport requested that the CUP span ten (10) years before expiration, the County granted only a five (5)-year CUP in anticipation of a new East Elk Grove Specific Plan that could change land uses permitted in the area of the Airport. Approximately five (5) years later, the Airport requested a renewal of its CUP. The County denied the renewal without conducting environmental review under CEQA. The County claimed that the area surrounding the Airport was changing, and the Airport would no longer be an appropriate use of the property. The Airport appealed the County’s denial and lost on both its preemption and CEQA arguments in trial court. The Airport appealed.
First, the Airport argued that the SAA preempted the County’s denial of the CUP renewal. The appellate court disagreed. The court began by pointing out that the Airport did not have a vested right to continue airport operations because the CUP had a specific expiration date and the Airport was put on notice that the uses in the surrounding area may be changed. The court then found that although the SAA encourages aviation and the availability of airports, it does not mandate that the airports remain open. According to the court, the language of the SAA makes it clear that jurisdiction over the operation of any airport remains with the local agency. The court concluded that nothing in the SAA requires “existing airports to keep on existing.” The power to grant or deny a CUP lies with the local agency, and therefore, the County has the authority to deny the Airport’s CUP renewal.
Project under CEQA
Second, the Airport argued that the County had failed to perform any environmental review as required by CEQA. Under CEQA, every “project” must undergo environmental review unless one of the exemptions applies. The issue here was whether denial of a permit renewal constituted a project under section 15378(a) of the CEQA Guidelines. In finding that the denial constituted a project, the appellate court looked not only at the denial but the inevitable result of the denial, which was closure of the Airport and “transfer of pilots to other airports.” Although “CEQA does not apply to projects which a public agency rejects or disapproves,” denial of a CUP renewal is not a “mere denial of the project.” Instead, the court found that the “whole of the action” in this case (i.e., closure and transfer of pilots) “has the potential for physical change in the environment.” Therefore, CEQA was triggered. The court emphasized, however, that merely because CEQA was triggered did not mean that an environmental impact report was required.
In the end, the Airport lost its main battle over the preemption issue, but it succeeded in obtaining another opportunity to convince the County to renew its CUP. Since the County failed to engage in the proper environmental review, the denial of the CUP renewal is not valid. The County essentially has a “do-over” and maybe the political milieu has changed such that the elected officials will find merit in continuing airport operations at Sunset Skyranch.
Diane Kindermann is a partner at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, and Cori Badgley is an associate with the firm. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.
The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.