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In Stop Syar Expansion v. County of Napa (2021) 63 Cal.App.5th 444, the First District Court of Appeal upheld Napa County’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the expansion of Syar Industries, Inc.’s aggregate mining operations at a local quarry. Citizen group Stop Syar Expansion (“SSE”) filed a Petition for Writ of Mandate under CEQA claiming that the EIR was deficient on 16 counts, including in its analysis of greenhouse gas emissions, water usage baseline, water quality, and general plan consistency. The trial court denied the Petition for Writ of Mandate, and SSE appealed, raising five issues. The Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that SSE did not exhaust administrative remedies because it failed to raise specific issues in the administrative proceedings as required by the Napa County Code. Additionally, the Court denied SSE’s general plan consistency claim under CEQA, holding that general plan consistency is properly reviewed with traditional mandamus under Code of Civil Procedure section 1085.

The Court held that SSE failed to meet the jurisdictional requirement of exhaustion of administrative remedies with regard to a number of its claims. The Court looked to the County Code, which required “identification of the specific factual or legal determination of the approving authority which is being appealed, and the basis for such appeal.” Because the County Code required identification of the specific issue, the Court found that prior case law allowing the project opponent to exhaust administrative remedies with only general issue identification was inapplicable.

Applying this standard, the Court held that SSE failed to exhaust its administrative remedies as to the issue of whether the EIR properly assessed truck emission impacts by using a baseline production number averaged over five years. While SSE raised the general issue of the adequacy of the baseline, it did not raise the specific issue of the five-year average versus actual production. The Court then went on to address the substance of the claim, finding that even if this issue had been properly exhausted, the five-year average baseline was appropriate to account for varying levels of operations.

SSE also argued that the EIR’s evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions was inadequate. Again, the Court held that SSE failed to exhaust its administrative remedies because its comments during the administrative proceedings were generic and not specific to the failure to adequately account for and mitigate loss of carbon sequestration capacity.

SSE also challenged the water usage baseline, alleging that the EIR contained conflicting amounts of actual sand production and that the County improperly assumed the percentage of total water usage based on prior years. Once again, the Court held that SSE failed to exhaust administrative remedies because it did not raise the specific issues in the administrative proceedings. Even if the issue had been exhausted, the Court held the water usage baseline was adequate because it was appropriately estimated based on known sand production amounts over time. Additionally, the court found that the County’s choice of methodology and approach was not unreasonable or supported by plainly faulty data.

SSE asserted the EIR’s analysis of water quality impacts was inadequate because it (1) failed to disclose baseline water quality conditions, and (2) failed to analyze water quality impacts of using a surfactant to enhance effectiveness for dust control. The Court again held that the issue was not exhausted because these specific grounds were not raised in the administrative proceedings by SSE. While Skyline Park, another project opponent, raised these specific issues, SSE could not rely on Skyline Park’s administrative appeal efforts because, under the Napa County Code, grounds for appeal not specifically raised by an appellant are waived.

Additionally, the Court held that SSE was precluded from raising Skyline Park’s claims because they had already been litigated and resolved in a separate case filed by Skyline Park. “An objector will be precluded from relitigating CEQA issues where a final judgment has been entered in a court action brought by another objector and there is a community of interest—or, privity—between the two objectors.” (Citing Inland Oversight Committee v. City of San Bernardino (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 771, 781–782; Atwell v. City of Rohnert Park (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 692, 699; Citizens for Open Access ect. Tide, Inc. v. Seadrift Assn. (1998) 60 Cal.App.4th 1053, 1071–1072.) Essentially, the Court found that SSE could not claim privity with Skyline Park in order to fulfill its exhaustion requirement without being subject to the preclusive effect of Skyline Park’s other action. On the merits, the Court held that the EIR adequately disclosed the water quality baseline with detailed analytical data and properly disclosed the potential impact of using surfactants to control dust.

The Court also held that CEQA requires only disclosure of General Plan inconsistencies, and that SSE was required to bring claims regarding General Plan consistency under Code of Civil Procedure section 1085 for ordinary mandamus. The Court relied on Highway 68 Coalition v. County of Monterey (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 883, 893–894 and Pfeiffer v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 1552, 1566 in finding that “[b]ecause EIRs are required only to evaluate ‘any inconsistencies’ with plans, no analysis should be required if the project is consistent with the relevant plans.” SSE attempted to frame general plan consistency as a CEQA issue, claiming that it was not required to pursue this claim by ordinary mandamus because “the EIR failed to disclose inconsistencies with the General Plan as a violation of CEQA’s informational requirement.” The Court disagreed.

On the merits, the Court found that the County adequately addressed project’s consistency with the general plan, acknowledging the “great deference” owed to an agency’s general plan consistency determination and emphasizing that it is “not the role of the courts to micromanage such decisions.”