Keep Our Mountains Quiet v. County of Santa Clara

Why It Matters: The Sixth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s holding that preparation of an EIR was required for the approval of a use permit to allow wedding events on vineyard property. The court concluded that compliance with local noise standards alone is not dispositive of whether a project’s noise impacts may be significant. The court held that substantial evidence, including nontechnical personal observations of area residents, supported a fair argument that significant noise and traffic impacts may result from the project.

Facts: Beginning in 2006, Candace Clark Wozniak, the owner of a 14.46-acre vineyard and residence (the Property), began hosting a number of weddings and other events without obtaining the necessary use permit from the County. The Property, located adjacent to an Open Space Preserve, is otherwise surrounded by an area characterized by single-family residences on large, heavily wooded lots. In December 2008, in response to three letters from the County informing her that she was required to cease holding wedding receptions without the required land use approval, Wozniak applied for a use permit. On December 2, 2011, the County planning commission adopted a revised mitigated negative declaration (MND) and approved a use permit to allow 28 special events per year on weekends throughout the summer. In the MND, the County employed the noise standards set forth in its noise ordinance and General Plan as the thresholds for significant noise exposure, deeming any increase to be insignificant so long as the absolute noise level did not exceed those standards. The board of supervisors affirmed the adoption of the revised MND and approval of the use permit.

The evidence presented during the administrative proceedings included technical analyses of noise and traffic impacts. In part, a noise study of a mock wedding reception prepared by Wozniak’s acoustical consultant concluded that the County’s noise standards, established by ordinance and in the General Plan, were not exceeded. The County’s acoustical consultant conducted his own noise analysis of a mock wedding reception and concluded that while the level of noise would be noticeable, it likely would not exceed the standards for the County and Santa Cruz County. The petitioner’s acoustic consultant reviewed the noise study prepared by the County’s consultant and opined that the music should have been played at a higher decibel level which, in turn, likely would have exceeded the County’s noise requirements. Neighbors submitted comments complaining of noise levels during the unpermitted events held in 2006, and neighbors who were home during the mock events concluded that the noise levels were not representative of actual events. The owner of the Open Space Preserve expressed concerns about noise impacts on visitors and wildlife in the Open Space Preserve.

Keep Our Mountains Quiet (the Association) filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking to require the County to prepare an EIR. The lower court ordered the County to prepare an EIR and granted in part the petitioner’s motion for attorney’s fees. Wozniak appealed the decision. The County respondent did not appeal.

The Decision: At the outset, the Court of Appeal set forth the rule that an EIR is required whenever substantial evidence in the record supports a fair argument that significant impacts may occur, and noted that relevant personal observations of area residents on nontechnical subjects may qualify as substantial evidence. With regard to noise impacts, the court stated that a project’s effects can be significant even if they are not greater than those deemed acceptable in a general plan and agreed with the Association that the lead agency should consider both the increase in noise level and the absolute noise level associated with the project. The court found that the neighbors’ comments regarding noise levels constituted substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project may have significant unmitigated noise impacts.

The court then concluded that testimony relating to road conditions that were based on personal knowledge constituted substantial evidence that the project may have significant traffic impacts. The court also found that evidence supported a reasonable inference that the project may have significant impacts on wild animals, but that no substantial evidence supported the argument that the project might have significant noise impacts on visitors in the nearby Open Space Preserve, which was open to the public by permit only.

Finally, the court upheld the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees, concluding that the preservation of biological resources and the safety of public roadways were of interest to the public, and therefore the trial court had reasonably concluded that the suit conferred a significant benefit on the general public. The court further found that the petitioner’s members did not enjoy a direct pecuniary benefit from the litigation and the amount of any monetary advantage in avoiding reduced property values was speculative. The trial court’s denial of a 75% multiplier for the petitioner’s counsel, who took the case on partial contingency, was upheld, as it was not a clear abuse of the trial judge’s discretion.

Practice Pointers:

  • Ensure that thresholds of significance are clearly defined to allow determination of whether a “substantial adverse change” results from a project.
  • The use of the CEQA Guidelines Appendix G Checklist does not guarantee that the threshold will be held to be adequate.
  • Particularly when a project faces strong opposition, carefully evaluate the adequacy of preparing an MND as opposed to a full EIR. The “fair argument” standard is a low bar.