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In  Save Cuyama Valley v. County of Santa Barbara (Jan. 10, 2013) 2013 Cal.App.LEXIS 212, the Sixth District Court of Appeal issued a decision upholding the trial court’s denial of Save Cuyama Valley’s (Save Cuyama) petition for a writ of mandate against the County of Santa Barbara (County).  Save Cuyama contended that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) prepared for a sand and gravel mining project violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in several ways.

First, Save Cuyama challenged the EIR’s analysis of the project’s hydrological impacts, claiming that: (1) the County violated CEQA in defining its threshold of significance for hydrological impacts; (2) substantial evidence did not support the EIR’s finding that the project’s hydrological impacts were minor yet significant and unavoidable; and (3) the mitigation measure proposed for hydrological impacts was too nebulous to satisfy CEQA.  The court rejected each argument.  “CEQA grants agencies discretion to develop their own thresholds of significance.” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15064, subd. (d)).  In addition, the court found that the EIR’s assessment of the project’s hydrological impacts was supported by substantial evidence because it sufficiently explained why a sediment deficiency did not inevitably translate into adverse hydrological impacts.  Lastly, the court found that the mitigation measure proposed to address the project’s hydrological impacts did not constitute improperly deferred mitigation.

Second, Save Cuyama claimed that the water supply analysis was deficient because the EIR used the same threshold of significance to assess the project’s individual and cumulative impacts.  In addition, they argued that the standard that was used, which was from 1992, was outdated.  The court explained that a noncumulative examination of the project’s impact on water usage was unnecessary because the EIR already found that the project had no significant cumulative impact, which is under an “undoubtedly more stringent cumulative-impact threshold.”  The court also found that substantial evidence demonstrated the water supply threshold relied on in the EIR, although established in 1992, was still valid.

Finally, Save Cuyama challenged the EIR’s finding that the project would not have a significant water quality impact without mitigation.  The court agreed that no substantial evidence supported the conclusion that the water quality impact was less than significant without mitigation.  However, the court concluded Save Cuyama failed to establish the error was prejudicial.  The court explained that Save Cuyama did not dispute that a water quality condition required by the County when it approved the project would be wholly effective in negating the mine’s adverse impact on water quality.  Therefore, whether or not the impact was labeled significant, Save Cuyama failed to establish that the project as approved had the potential to result in a significant water quality impact.

Key Point:

CEQA grants agencies considerable discretion in their determination of thresholds and their assessment of environmental impacts, requiring only that the agency support any conclusions with sufficient evidence.

If the threshold for cumulative impacts is more stringent than that for noncumulative impacts, it is unnecessary to do an examination of the latter impacts when it has already been established that the former fell below the threshold.

When challenging an EIR’s finding that an impact will be less than significant, the opposing party must establish that the project, if approved would result in a significant impact on the environment.  Claiming that substantial evidence in support of the conclusion is lacking is not enough to show prejudicial error.

Written By: Tina Thomas, Christopher Butcher and Andrea Lutge (law clerk)
For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

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