By William W. Abbott  

Citizens for Environmental Responsibility v State of California (March 26, 2014, C070836) ___ Cal.App.4th ___.

The 14th District Agricultural Association operates the Santa Cruz County fairgrounds outside of Watsonville. Built in 1941, this facility hosted agricultural, rodeo and county fairs for many years. In 2009, the county sheriff’s association approached the Association about hosting a three day rodeo as a fundraiser. Using a Class 23 CEQA Exemption (CEQA Guidelines section 15323; normal operations of existing facilities,) the Association approved the use of the fairgrounds for the rodeo, but for other reasons, that particular rodeo event was cancelled. Around the same time, the Regional Water Quality Control Board took interest in the site due to downstream stream contamination, potentially as a result of runoff from the horse and cattle facilities. The Association began gathering water quality samples, determining that the water entering the fairgrounds site from upstream was of lower quality than the water leaving the site. Unrelated to the water quality investigation, during its many years of operation, the Association had evolved its manure management plan, shifting from one of storing wastes on site to daily removal during events. The Association approved a written Manure Management Plan (“MMP”) about 6 months before the deputy sheriffs proposed its rodeo in 2009.

In January 2011, the deputy sheriffs proposed a two day rodeo. Opposition on CEQA and animal cruelty grounds developed. In April, the Association’s Board directed its consultant to assess the viability of the Class 23 exemption for approving the deputy sheriff’s request. The consultant affirmed the suitability of a class 23 exemption, and in May, the Board approved the exemption and the sheriff’s request. The rodeo activity contemplated 1500 attendees, 500 horses (maximum of 100 onsite at any time) and 250 cattle/stock (maximum 50 onsite at any time.)

The opponents sued, and the trial court ruled for the Association, finding the Class 23 exemption to be appropriate, and rejecting the arguments concerning unusual circumstances and that the exemption was invalid on the grounds that the agency relied upon mitigation (the MMP) as a basis for utilizing the exemption. Like the trial court, the court of appeal upheld the use of the exemption.

The appellate court observed that the MMP was not a mitigation measure, but was an practice of the Association independent of the sheriff’s rodeo. Accordingly, it was not a measure proposed or necessitated by the project. (The significance of this issue is that a lead agency cannot mitigate its way into an exemption. Salmon Protection & Watershed Network v. County of Marin (2004) 125 Cal.App.4th 1098). Turning next to the Class 23 exemption, the appellate court concluded that it was appropriate for the lead agency to evaluate the proposed sheriff’s rodeo against other similar Fairground events, and not as against a broader range of public buildings and grounds. The court then analyzed the opposition’s “unusual circumstances” argument, finding that there was nothing unusual about the facts surrounding water quality, surrounding zoning and land uses or as to the scope of the activity.

In this case, the court’s common sense interpretation and application of CEQA Guidelines section 15323 was just good CEQA horse sense. Ride on!

William W. Abbott is a partner 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.