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In Save Panoche Valley v. San Benito County, the Court of Appeal for the Sixth Appellate District affirmed a ruling denying a petition for a writ of mandate alleging violations of CEQA in San Benito County’s (County) approval of a solar power project and related cancellation of Williamson Act contracts. This decision follows on the heels of recent cases, including North Coast Rivers Alliance v. Marin Municipal Water District (2013) 216 Cal. App.4th 614, reflecting a trend of increased judicial deference to agency decision-making under the “substantial evidence” standard of review.

Real parties in interest proposed to construct a solar farm on 4,885 acres of land used for cattle grazing in San Benito County’s Panoche Valley, 15 miles southwest of Fresno County. The project necessitated the cancellation of Williamson Act contracts covering portions of the property. The County prepared a draft EIR evaluating various project alternatives, including a project with a smaller footprint and a project relocated to Fresno County.

In the final EIR, the project was modified to mitigate a number of the significant environmental effects identified in the draft EIR. The revised project would have a 34% smaller footprint, would establish a conservation easement over a large portion of the property, and would lower the height of the solar panels. The County Board of Supervisors (Board) approved the project development agreement and cancellation of the Williamson Act contracts, and certified the final EIR.

Appellants argued that: (1) the Board’s findings regarding cancellation of the Williamson Act contracts were not supported by substantial evidence; (2) the Board’s findings regarding the infeasibility of the environmentally superior project alternative were not support by substantial evidence; (3) adopted mitigation measures improperly deferred mitigation and/or were not sufficient to reduce significant effects; and (4) the Board’s statement of overriding considerations was untimely because it preceded project approval. The Court of Appeal rejected each of these arguments, as discussed below.

First, the Court explained the Board was required to make two findings to cancel the subject Williamson Act contracts: (1) other public concerns substantially outweighed the Act’s objectives, and (2) no proximate non-contracted land was available and suitable for the proposed use. Since the record showed the project would further the State’s renewable energy goals, substantial evidence supported the Board’s finding that other public concerns substantially outweighed the Act’s objectives. The Board’s finding that no proximate non-contracted land was available for the project was also supported by substantial evidence because the alternative site identified was about 60 miles away, in two different counties, and was partially encumbered by Williamson Act contracts.

Second, the Court held there was substantial evidence supporting the Board’s finding that the environmentally superior alternative identified in the EIR was infeasible. The Board cited multiple reasons in support of its finding of infeasibility, but the Court only considered three of them ( the alternative site’s lack of proximity, its location outside the county, and its private ownership) before concluding the Board’s finding was supported by substantial evidence.

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