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Maacama Watershed Alliance v. County of Sonoma (2019) Cal.App.5th 1007

In 2015, Knight Bridge Vineyards LLC sought approval from the County of Sonoma to develop a two-story, 5,500 square foot winery, a 17,500 square foot wine cave, tasting room, wastewater treatment and water storage facility, fire protection facility, and mechanical area on an 86-acre parcel zoned for “extensive agriculture” (Project). The extensive agriculture zone allows wineries and tasting rooms as conditional uses. County staff reviewed reports considering effects of the Project on geology, groundwater, wastewater, and biological resources. Staff concluded that, with recommended mitigation, the Project would not have a significant effect on the environment, and recommended the County adopt an MND and approve the Project. On September 17, 2016, the County approved the CUP and adopted the “2015 MND” and mitigation monitoring program.

Maacama Watershed Alliance and Friends of Spencer Lane (collectively, Petitioners) appealed the decision to the County. In response, County staff prepared a revised “2016 MND”. After comments were submitted identifying potential groundwater and water quality impacts, the County engaged in further environmental review and subjected their conclusions to two rounds of peer review by independent investigators. The County then adopted the revised “2017 MND” and approved the Project.

Petitioners filed a petition for writ of mandate in the superior court, contending the County should have prepared an EIR instead of an MND. Petitioners alleged there was a fair argument that construction and operation of the winery would cause significant environmental effects. The superior court denied the writ of mandate, and Petitioners appealed to the First District Court of Appeal. The Opinion examined the adequacy of the County’s environmental review; focusing on geology and erosion, biological resources, water quality, fire hazards, and visual impacts.

The 2017 MND’s geology, water quality, and biological resources sections noted the presence of a large, ancient, and inactive landslide on the Project site; but determined that the winery and caves were outside the landslide area. The study recommended (1) a variety of mitigation measures to ensure that the Project would not result in erosion or landslides and (2) best management practices during construction to minimize erosion and sediment deposits impacting water quality and steelhead or coho habitat in the nearby Bidwell Creek. These measures would result in less than significant impacts to special status species and would prevent substantial erosion by protecting existing drainage patterns on the site.

Petitioners retained a variety of independent researchers to support the argument that the County’s review was inadequate and failed to accurately report site conditions. Petitioners’ researchers disagreed with the County’s geotechnical investigator, and claimed the report did not support the conclusions regarding landslide risk and slope stability. The Court outlined each of researchers’ opinions, and determined that the County was entitled to rely on their report. Petitioners also suggested that the County improperly deferred geological impact mitigation by relying on best management practices and the County’s grading ordinance. The Court disagreed and found that this was not a case of post-hoc mitigation formulation. Rather, there is “nothing improper” about adopting measures to reduce the Project’s expected environmental effects while requiring monitoring and adjusting in the event of unanticipated conditions.

Petitioners contended substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the Project’s groundwater use would significantly affect the salmonid population in Bidwell Creek and ground water supply in nearby wells. The Court disagreed. The original Project, as proposed in 2013, would result in increased groundwater use of 5.5 acre-feet a year. The Project, as approved in the 2017 MND, would result in no net increase in groundwater use over current conditions through implementation of water reduction measures, documentation of water use, ongoing monitoring, and corrective measures. Petitioners again employed outside experts to challenge the County’s reports. After weighing the veracity of their arguments, the Court held that while evidence would support a finding that the Project will not cause significant effects on groundwater supplying Bidwell Creek and neighboring wells, that was not the question presented to the Court. Instead, the question before the Court was whether there was substantial evidence to support a fair argument that the Project will have significant effects. The Court held that the Project will not have significant effects, and upheld the County’s decision making.

The Court similarly dismissed Petitioners’ challenge to the adequacy of aesthetic considerations. The 2017 MND stated that the site was not designated as a scenic resource, and that the Project would not cause significant visual impacts. Petitioners claimed that a light-colored unvegetated 10-bedroom residence on the ridgeline near the Project site was visible from scenic highways, and argued that the Project would have similar visual impacts. The Court disagreed on the basis that the Project would not be on the ridgeline, and that to the extent that the roof could be seen from scenic highways, it would be surrounded by vegetation and designed with low-reflective, earthy tones. The Court recognized that while comments from laypersons may constitute substantial evidence supporting a fair argument of significant aesthetic effects, in this case, the opinions of local residents “based largely on the views of a different structure” were not sufficient to show that the Project would have significant aesthetic impacts.

Finally, Petitioners claimed a fair argument existed that the MND improperly concluded that the Project’s wildland fire risk was less than significant. The Court found that the Project was consistent with the General Plan’s Public Safety Element and the County’s Fire Marshal’s Fire Safe Standards. Although the site is within a very high fire hazard severity zone, the Project would be subject to the County’s permit requirements and robust fire suppression measures. The Court concluded that Petitioners failed to point to substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the Project would significantly increase the risk of wildfires.

The Court concluded that the MND properly analyzed potential environmental effects, and noted that while Petitioners did not “obtain the relief they have sought”, they achieved success by forcing Project modifications and extensive analysis of its environmental effects through litigation.