Appellate Court Upholds CEQA Exemption for Rodeo at Santa Cruz County Fairground

April 2nd, 2014

By: Chris Butcher



In Citizens for Environmental Responsibility v. State ex rel. 14th District Agricultural Association, 2014 Cal. App. LEXIS 283, the Court of Appeal, Third District, affirmed the trial court’s determination that a rodeo at the Santa Cruz County Fairground (the Fairground) meets CEQA’s Class 23 categorical exemption for “normal operations of existing facilities for public gatherings.”

In 2011, the Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, through its nonprofit corporation Stars of Justice, proposed a rodeo at the Fairground. The Fairground hosts several livestock shows and public events annually and even held rodeos in the past. After comparing the impact of normal events at the Fairground with the proposed rodeo, the 14th District Agricultural Association (the District), which administers the Fairground, issued a Notice of Exemption under CEQA Guidelines section 15323 for a Class 23 categorical exemption for the rodeo, finding that the rodeo was consistent with normal operations of the Fairground.

The appellants contended that the District improperly exempted the rodeo from CEQA review for two reasons. First, the appellants argued that the Fairground’s new Manure Management Plan or MMP constituted a mitigation measure, which implicitly acknowledged the environmental effects of the rodeo. However, the Fairground adopted the MMP in 2010 after the Regional Water Board found impaired water quality in Salsipuedes Creek, which runs through a portion of the Fairground near the horse barns and arena. The contaminated water and MMP existed before the rodeo and as a result, the MMP was part of the “normal operations” and not a mitigation measure that would preclude the Class 23 categorical exemption.

Second, the appellants argued that the Class 23 categorical exemption for normal operations of public gathering facilities did not apply because of the unusual circumstances exception in CEQA Guidelines section 15300.2, subdivision (c). CEQA Guidelines do not define the term unusual circumstances, but the court rejected the appellant’s argument that unusual circumstances should be determined by comparing the project to all public gathering facilities in general such as racetracks, stadiums, and convention centers, or in the alternative, comparing the project to “normal” fairground facilities. Instead, the court held that unusual circumstances for normal operations of a public gathering facility should be determined by comparing the normal events or operations of the facility with the circumstances presented by the proposed project.

In comparing the normal operations of the Fairground to the rodeo, the court found that the rodeo did not represent a significant change in the operations of the facility, did not cause additional environmental risks, was consistent with the surrounding zoning and land uses, and had a size and scope appropriate for the Fairground. The rodeo would attract around 1,500 spectators and include a maximum of 500 horses with only 100 on the grounds at one time and 250 cattle with 50 on the grounds at one time. This was consistent with the 1,500 to 3,500 spectators that came to horse shows during the county fair and the 500 horses and 800 cattle at the Fairground during the annual horse cutting show. As a result, there were no unusual circumstances that took the rodeo out of the categorical exemption for normal operations of the Fairground.

KEY POINT

The unusual circumstances exception for the Class 23 categorical exemption for normal operations of a public gathering facility is determined by comparing the normal operations and events at the facility with the operations of the proposed project at the facility. Unusual circumstances are not determined by more broadly considering how the proposed project compares with operations at other public gathering facilities in general or other public gathering facilities of the same type.