By William W. Abbott

Keep Our Mountains Quiet v. County of Santa Clara (May 7, 2015, H039707) ___ Cal.App.4th ___.

The “Fair Argument” standard remains as the operative benchmark in assessing the validity of a negative declaration. The most recent decision involves approval by Santa Clara County of a wedding site venue located off of Summit Road, a state maintained facility in rural Santa Clara County. Existing uses on the property included a winery, llama and alpaca grazing lands, barns and a residence. Adjacent properties include park land owned by an open space district (with restricted access) and homes. In a not uncommon fact pattern, the property owner began hosting wedding events, some of which had up to 300 guests. Following complaints and direction from the County, the applicant filed for a use permit seeking 28 special events for up to 100 guests and 12 staff, during the hours of 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. The County studied the project for three years before issuing a mitigated negative declaration (MND). After taking testimony, the Planning Commission approved a revised MND in December 2011. The neighbors appealed the Board of Supervisors who denied the appeal, affirming the MND and conditional use permit. Conditions of approval included the following limitations: only one outdoor live event (to be monitored) orientation of speakers away from existing homes towards the open space preserve with specific placement approved by the planning department based upon a review by a noise consultant. CEQA litigation followed. The trial court found that an EIR was required due to potential noise and traffic impacts, declining to rule on the alleged violations of planning and zoning law deeming them moot. The court also awarded the petitioner attorney fees of $145,747, but declined to enhance the award as requested by the petitioner. Petitioner and real party in interest both appealed. The County did not.

The appellate decision as always turned on the evidence in the administrative record, and whether or not there was substantial evidence in the record to support the fair argument standard. Turning first to noise, the County had relied upon its General Plan and noise ordinance as defining the relevant threshold of significance, but the appellate court agreed that CEQA analysis is not confined to the question of conformity to adopted general plan and noise ordinances, but that a broader inquiry was appropriate. The evidence in the record on noise was extensive. It included the applicant’s study, a peer review conducted by the County, the petitioner’s consultant’s critique of the peer review of the noise study as well as neighbor testimony regarding noise levels associated with actual events as well as those undertaken by the County’s consultant conducting a mock event. The evidence from neighbors was that sound experienced by a wedding event, with the speaker placement as contemplated by the conditions of approval (DJ speaker orientation away from the homes) could still be heard by the neighbors. As to a live band, the County’s consultant concluded that a live band could be 10 db louder that DJ generated music, leaving no room to argue a lack of substantial evidence given the court’s conclusions regarding DJ generated sound levels. Regarding crowd generated noise, neighbor testimony again carried the day in terms of substantial evidence of a fair argument (the court again concluding that reliance on the general plan and noise standard was not dispositive). There was also evidence of noise impacts to wildlife in the adjacent open space preserve. As to the impacts to potential future users of the park, there was insufficient evidence of potential impacts as future use was hypothetical and CEQA is concerned with existing physical conditions.

Turning next to traffic impacts, the court also found substantial evidence of potential impacts given the narrow road width and blind curves, as documented by the neighbors and the opponent’s consultant. The traffic studies indicated a substantial increase in traffic levels, increasing the risk. Evidence from Caltrans indicated that the accident history in the vicinity of the project was twice the statewide average. This evidence was sufficient to meet the fair argument standard.

While an appellate court reassesses the sufficiency of the evidence on the question of the negative declaration or EIR, the court is much more deferential to a trial court’s decision to award attorney fees under the private attorney general doctrine. (CCP 1021.5) The real party in interest argued that the evidence did not support the requisite findings necessary for the award, but it was sufficient in the view of the appellate court to find a substantial benefit by virtue of the fact that the trial court ordered proper environmental assessment. It was not necessary for the trial court to demand any new studies or impose new mitigation measures to justify an award. Although the real party argued that only a few individuals benefitted, the court disagreed and pointed to the potential impacts to biological resources and the road, both issues of benefit to the public generally. Reviewing the successful petitioner’s claim for a multiplier of the award, the court of appeal declined to reverse the trial court’s decision to not enhance the award.

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.