California Supreme Court
Muzzy Ranch Co. v. Solano County Airport Land Use Commission
Case No. FCS020127
The California Supreme Court issued a decision June 21st that will have a significant impact on future airport land use planning in California. In 2002 the Solano County Airport Land Use Commission (ALUC) updated its Travis Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan (TALUP). A developer, Muzzy Ranch Company (Muzzy), filed a lawsuit to invalidate the plan. In its deliberations the Court interpreted the California Aeronautics Law, the California Environmental Quality Act and the public housing law before ruling that the TALUP was valid. The TALUP covered 600 square miles and extended more than 35 miles through Solano County. Muzzy owned more than 1000 acres within the area. Muzzy?s lawsuit alleged that the ALUC should have required an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
The ALUC argued that no EIR was required because the TALUP was not a ?project? as described by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The ALUC argued further that the TALUP was entitled to a ?common sense exemption? under California law.
The Court faced 3 issues: 1) Was the TALUP a project? Answer, Yes; 2) Did the ALUC meet procedural requirements for a common sense exemption? Answer, No. 3) Was there some legal basis for deciding with the ALUC and finding the TALUP valid Answer, Yes.
Here is a summary of the Court?s analysis, discussion and decision:
The Court quoted from the California Environmental Quality Act. ?Long-term protection of the environment, consistent with provision of a decent home and suitable living environment for every Californian, shall be the guiding criterion in public decisions.?
An EIR is required only if there is substantial evidence that a project will have a significant effect on the environment. An airport compatibility plan along with a local general plan guides the future growth and development of cities and counties.
Was the TALUP a project as that term is used in the California Environmental Quality Act A project is defined as an activity which may cause either a direct physical change in the environment, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change. The Court ruled that the TALUP was a project.
In ruling that the TALUP was a ?project? the Court settled a debate that has long existed in California over whether a Negative Declaration could be applied instead of requiring an EIR when adopting an airport compatibility plan. This clarifying ruling by the California Supreme Court will be of major importance in future airport land use planning.
The Court’s ruling will require a change in the way airport land use commissions function. Each new compatibility plan or amendment of an existing plan will be subject to CEQA review. This likely will require an EIR. It means ALUCs are facing a major financial challenge. The formulation of an EIR requires the services of professionals who charge for their services. Airport land use commissions have no funding source for an EIR. Their respective sponsoring counties are required to provide ALUCs only minimal funding sufficient for office and administrative needs.
Would the TALUP qualify for a common sense exemption from an EIR? A ?common sense exemption applies where it can be seen with certainty that there is no possibility that the activity in question may have a significant effect on the environment. To establish a common sense exemption a notice of exemption must be filed by an ALUC. The notice must include a statement of reasons why the exemption applies. Although the ALUC filed a notice of exemption with the Clerk of Solano County, it failed to provide a statement of reasons. This negated the common sense exemption.
Was there a basis for the Court to find the TALUP valid Yes. The ALUC had incorporated the Solona County General Plan into the TALUP and did not impose any zoning or other changes. This was the saving feature for the TALUP. The existing General Plan zoning was mainly agricultural.
The Court stated although the ALUC had not followed the correct procedures, it arrived at the correct result. Since the County General Plan had previously undergone an EIR when it was adopted, there was no need for the ALUC to require another one.
The Court went further and offered instructive comments that may serve as guidance in future airport land use planning.
Environmental impacts in areas outside the boundaries of an airport compatibility plan must be considered. The Court discussed California?s ever-increasing population and related need for housing. The Legislature requires that local jurisdictions in their land use planning identify adequate sites for housing and make adequate provision for the existing and projected needs of all economic segments of the community, including the locality?s share of the regional housing need.
The Court suggested that the location of future housing could be influenced by restrictions on housing in an airport influence area. This would be an indirect effect influenced by an airport compatibility plan. While this did not enter into the Court?s decision in this case, it should serve as a signal to land use planners and consultants to consider how housing needs outside compatibility plan boundaries may enter into future planning.
|Jay C. White, General Counsel, California Pilots Association.