Court of Appeal Finds Rodeo Categorically Exempt from CEQA

Citizens for Environmental Responsibility v. State of California ex rel. 14th District Agricultural Association (Mar. 26, 2014) ___ Cal.App. ___, Case No. C070836.

On March 26, 2014, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial of injunctive relief against a rodeo. Appellants, an environmental group concerned about possible water quality impairment due to manure runoff from the rodeo, claimed the 14th District Agricultural Association violated CEQA by approving an exemption from environmental review for a rodeo held at the Santa Cruz County Fairground in 2011. The District had found the rodeo exempt from CEQA review under the Class 23 categorical exemption for normal operations of existing facilities for public gatherings. Appellants argued that the Class 23 exemption did not apply here because (1) the rodeo project impermissibly included mitigation measures in its determination that the project was exempt, and (2) the unusual circumstances exception to the exemption applied. The Court of Appeal disagreed.

A Class 23 exemption covers “normal operations of existing facilities for public gatherings for which the facilities were designed, where there is a past history of the facility being used for the same or similar kind of purpose.” This means similar activity has been occurring for at least three years and there is a reasonable expectation that the project would not represent a change in operation of the facility. The court noted that the fairground had hosted dozens of livestock and equestrian events annually for decades. The court rejected appellants’ contention that the exemption was impermissibly premised on proposed mitigation measures. The alleged mitigation measures, which dealt with manure disposal, had been in place years before the proposed rodeo, and had been formalized in a manure management plan in 2010. Thus, the court found that the plan was not a new measure proposed for or necessitated by the rodeo project, and was instead part of the ongoing “normal operations” of the fairground.

Finding that no mitigation measure precluded application of a categorical exemption, and finding that the Class 23 categorical exemption applied to the project, the court turned to appellants’ second argument that the rodeo fit within the unusual circumstances exception to the exemption.

The court laid out a two-part test for the unusual circumstances exception: first, determine whether the project presents unusual circumstances. If there are unusual circumstances, the court then determines whether there is a reasonable possibility of a significant effect on the environment due to the unusual circumstances. In assessing whether the rodeo project presented any unusual circumstances, the court looked at whether the circumstances of the project differed from the general circumstances of projects covered under the exemption. The court found that the rodeo did not represent a change in the operation of the fairground, as the project was no different in nature and scope from previous fairground events. In addition, appellants did not provide any evidence that a “normal” fairground would operate any differently. Because the court found no unusual circumstances, it did not reach the second issue of whether there was a reasonable possibility of a significant effect on the environment due to such circumstances.