By Cori Badgley

In Sunset Sky Ranch Pilots Association v. County of Sacramento (2009) ___ Cal.4th ___  the California Supreme Court reversed the decision of the appellate court, which held that the denial of a conditional use permit renewal was a project under CEQA.  Although project denials are generally exempted from CEQA review, the appellate court reasoned that in this case the result of denying renewal of the permit constituted the whole of the action, and therefore, CEQA applied.  (See “Court Holds that County Has Power to Deny Conditional Use Permit Renewal, but CEQA Applies”.)  The California Supreme Court disagreed.

Sunset Sky Ranch Pilots Association, petitioner in this action, obtained a CUP in 1999 for airport operations.  Although the airport requested that the CUP span ten years before expiration, the County of Sacramento granted only a five 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 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.  Although Petitioner sued the County on various grounds, the only issue addressed by the Supreme Court was whether the denial of the CUP renewal constituted a project, and therefore, CEQA applied.

The Supreme Court held that the County’s refusal to issue a renewed CUP fell squarely within the CEQA exemption for a “project which a public agency rejects or disapproves.” (Pub. Resources Code, § 21080(b)(5).)  According to the appellate court, the exemption did not apply because the consequence of the permit denial included transferring pilots to different airports and closure of the airport, which may impact the environment.  Disagreeing with the appellate court’s analysis, the Supreme Court stated: “The Court of Appeal erred by deeming the consequences of a project denial to be part of the project itself.”  The only project at issue here was the denial of a permit.  Whether or not the airport already existed had no bearing on the scope of the project.  Since the project involved the County’s denial of a permit, the CEQA exemption applied, and no environmental review was required.

Cori M. Badgley is an associate at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP.  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.