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Second District Court of Appeal Finds County Well Permit Approval is “Ministerial,” Exempt from CEQA Review Absent Showing of Discretion, SGMA Absent Agency Law Incorporation

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

In California Water Impact Network v. County of San Luis Obispo (2018) 25 Cal. App. 5th 666, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the approval of groundwater well permits was a ministerial act and not subject to CEQA environmental review because no discretion was exercised when such permits were issued.

County of San Luis Obispo (County) staff, after finding that four groundwater well permit applications were complete and complied with County and state standards, approved each well permit without conducting CEQA review. Specifically, staff alleged the wells met the standards outlined in the San Luis Obispo County Code Chapter 8.40, incorporating the state well standards set by the Department of Water Resources.

California Water Impact Network (Network) filed suit claiming that the County improperly failed to conduct CEQA review and, in doing so, “bypassed public disclosure of potentially significant impacts to groundwater resources.” The trial court agreed with the County that no CEQA review was necessary for ministerial actions and granted the County’s demurrer.

The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court and the County that no CEQA review was required where such permit approvals were exempt as “ministerial projects” under Public Resources Code section 21080(b)(1). The Court described where a ministerial project does and does not exist and rejected Petitioners’ argument that the recently enacted Sustainable Groundwater Management Act altered the County Code.

The Court clarified that a ministerial act is where “little or no personal judgement” is used by the public official; the law is applied to the facts and no individualized or special consideration is required. The Court noted that well permits are a type of building permit which are “presumed to be [a] ministerial [act].” In contrast, a discretionary act involves judgement or deliberation. The Court reviewed the legislative intent, stated that agencies conducting ministerial acts have no ability to influence the project, and concluded that such acts are excluded from CEQA review.

Citing rules on judicial statutory interpretation, the Court rejected appellant’s argument that the County had some discretionary powers under Chapter 8.40 to impose additional conditions on well permits. The Chapter was clear: a well permit “shall be issued” so long as the listed conditions are met. The Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to uphold the permits.

Key Point:

The issuance of groundwater well permits are ministerial duties exempt from CEQA review. Therein, SGMA considerations need not be addressed in agency decisions unless the guiding agency law specifically incorporates it.