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

November 21st, 2019

By: Johannah Kramer



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.




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