Sixth District Court of Appeal Affirms County Violated CEQA in Adopting Mitigated Negative Declaration

On May 7, 2015, the Sixth District Court of Appeal affirmed the lower court’s holding that the County of Santa Clara violated CEQA in adopting a mitigated negative declaration, instead of requiring an environmental impact report, for a use permit authorizing wedding events on vineyard property in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Keep Our Mountains Quiet v. County of Santa Clara (May 7, 2015) Case No. H039707.)

Beginning in 2006, Candice Wozniak hosted a number of weddings and other events on the property without obtaining the necessary use permit from the county. She stated that approximately 100 people typically attended the events. Noise complaints from neighbors, however, indicated the events potentially hosted upwards of 200 attendees. The county eventually issued a use permit authorizing 28 special events per year for 100 guests, to be held between 2pm and 10pm on Saturdays and Sundays in the spring and summer. Three years later, in 2011, the county adopted a revised mitigated negative declaration (MND) for the project.

The MND set forth three conditions of project approval: orienting speakers away from neighboring residences; posting a noise complaint phone number; and conducting an annual report assessing compliance with the conditions in the first year. Only one live outdoor band event was permitted in the first year of operation.

The county’s sound consultant found that, though the county’s noise standards were not exceeded during a sample weekend, the consultant was unable to conclude that the events unequivocally did not generate significant noise impacts. A mock event was held at the property to assess noise levels. Neighbors acknowledged not hearing the event, but stated it was not representative of actual events held on the property.

Keep Our Mountains Quiet (the “Association”) filed a petition seeking to require the county to prepare an EIR. The trial court held in favor of the Association, and real party in interest—the Wozniak Trust—appealed. The appellate court laid out the rule that an EIR is required whenever substantial evidence in the record supports a fair argument that significant impacts may occur. An MND may be prepared where the initial study identified potential significant effects on the environment but revisions to the project plans would avoid or mitigate those effects to a level of insignificance. The court noted that relevant personal observations of area residents on nontechnical subjects may qualify as substantial evidence.

In reviewing the project’s noise impacts, the court stated that a project’s effects can be significant even if they are not greater than those deemed acceptable in a general plan. The court agreed with the Association that the lead agency should consider both the increase in noise level and the absolute noise level associated with a project. The court found the neighbors’ comments about the discrepancy in noise levels between the mock event and actual events constituted substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project may have unmitigated noise impacts. Relatedly, the court found that substantial evidence supported a fair argument that project-related crowd noise may have significant noise impacts on the surrounding residents.

The court also found evidence supported a reasonable inference that the project may have significant impacts on biological resources, but no substantial evidence supported the argument that the project might have significant noise impacts on visitors in the nearby Open Space Preserve, which was open to the public by permit only. The court stated it “need not consider the impacts on hypothetical users of nonexistent trails.”

The court also found substantial evidence that the project may have significant traffic impacts. The testimony the court cited related facts about road conditions based upon personal knowledge. The court found increased traffic from the project would substantially increase existing design feature-related hazards.

Regarding attorney’s fees, the court was not persuaded by the Trust’s contention that the litigation had not conferred a significant benefit because the trial court did not require the County to perform additional studies for the EIR or impose new mitigation measures. The significant benefit justifying an award of fees, the court noted, is the proper assessment of the environmental impacts associated with the project. Though the number of nearby residents was small, the preservation of biological resources and the safety of public roadways were of interest to the public, and thus the trial court had reasonably concluded that the suit conferred a significant benefit on the general public. The court further found that the Association’s members did not enjoy a direct pecuniary benefit from the litigation; the amount of any monetary advantage in avoiding reduced property values was speculative. The trial court’s denial of a multiplier for Association’s counsel was upheld, as it was not a clear abuse of the trial judge’s discretion.