Lewis v. Seventheenth Dist. Agricultural Assn.

CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Writing for the CourtREGAN; EVANS; BLEASE
Citation211 Cal.Rptr. 884,165 Cal.App.3d 823
PartiesJoseph F. LEWIS, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. SEVENTEENTH DISTRICT AGRICULTURAL ASSOCIATION, Defendant and Appellant; CENTRAL STATE RACING ASSOCIATION, Real Party in Interest and Appellant. Civ. 21496.
Decision Date18 March 1985

Page 884

211 Cal.Rptr. 884
165 Cal.App.3d 823
Joseph F. LEWIS, Plaintiff and Respondent,
CENTRAL STATE RACING ASSOCIATION, Real Party in Interest and Appellant.
Civ. 21496.
Court of Appeal, Third District, California.
March 18, 1985.
Certified For Partial Publication.
Review Denied May 29, 1985.

Page 885

[165 Cal.App.3d 825] Shine & Browne, P. Scott Browne, Raymond E. Shine, Grass Valley, for defendant and appellant.

Robert Eli, Inc., Robert Eli, Nevada City, for real party in interest and appellant.

Richard F. Ellers, Nevada City, for plaintiff and respondent.

REGAN, Acting Presiding Justice.

In this case 1 we review the question of whether auto racing at a county fairground racetrack immediately adjacent to a residential area is categorically exempt from the California Environmental [165 Cal.App.3d 826] Quality Act (CEQA) and whether a county fairgrounds is a state or local agency for the purposes of reporting under CEQA. We conclude the fairgrounds is a local agency under CEQA, and that its auto racing activity next to a residential area is not categorically exempt.

Seventeenth District Agricultural Association (district association) and Central State Racing Association (racing association) appeal from a judgment issuing a writ of mandamus commanding the cancellation of a contract between them for auto racing at the Nevada County Fairgrounds. The writ was issued in response to an amended complaint contending the board of directors of the district association (district board) improperly found the fairgrounds racing categorically exempt from the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), set forth in Public Resources Code section 21000, et seq.

Appellants contend it was error to issue the writ because the amended complaint was barred by the statute of limitations, and because auto racing at the Nevada County Fairgrounds is categorically exempt from CEQA. In issuing the writ, the trial court considered and resolved these issues in favor of plaintiff. We find no error in the ruling of the trial court, and uphold the issuance of the writ.


The Nevada County Fairgrounds are contiguous with and less than a mile from several residential areas in Grass Valley and unincorporated Nevada County. In 1958, the Nevada County Fair constructed a multi-purpose arena, grandstand, and flat dirt race track for sporting events, including "stock" or "jalopy" auto racing at the fairgrounds. The district board leased the track for such racing until 1965. In 1973, a banked track was constructed permitting higher-powered "modified stock" car racing. Such races have been run by racing association since 1973, generally held every Saturday night from spring to fall. Racing hours were 6:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., but since 1976, due to complaints concerning the noise, the last race each evening was required to start before 11:00 p.m. There has been an increase in racing activity since 1973, resulting in greatly increased gross revenues.

In 1979, after plaintiff and other residents complained about the noise and dust, the district board appointed a committee to study the noise in the 1980 race year. As plaintiff wanted no racing in the 1980 racing year until an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was completed, he filed a complaint for damages, writ of mandamus

Page 886

and preliminary injunction on April 14, 1980, complaining that the expanded, modified stock car racing had been conducted since 1973 without any environmental review. In May 1980 the district [165 Cal.App.3d 827] board required mufflers on all cars, and it prohibited any car which would produce more than 95 decibels of noise individually. The district board fined the racing association for various violations.

The original complaint attacked the 1980 contract between the district association and the racing association for racing to be held in the summer of 1980. While the action was proceeding to trial, the associations entered into a new contract for racing for the years 1981-1983, even though historically such contracts had been executed annually. After the inception of this suit and as part of the 1981-1983 contract, the district association filed a notice of exemption from CEQA requirements by asserting the racing was categorically exempt under the California Administrative Code, title 14, section 15323. 2

Uncertain of its status as a state or local agency, the district association filed the exemption notice with the Secretary of the Resources Agency, as required by Public Resources Code section 21108 for state agencies, 3 and with the Nevada County Clerk, as required by section 21152 for local agencies. The notice of exemption from CEQA was filed concurrently with the execution of the 1981-1983 contract on January 13, 1981. However, the Nevada County clerk put the notice in a box, and failed to post it with other such notices, as required by section 21152, subdivision (c).

On April 6, 1981, plaintiff filed an amended complaint, attacking the 1981-1983 contract between the district association and the racing association. In that amended complaint, he acknowledged the 1980 license to conduct auto racing was "completed," but he contended the controversy was "continuing in nature."

The trial court ruled the issues pertaining to the 1980 contract were moot. However, it also ruled the amended complaint related back to the filing of the original complaint, thereby making the attack on the 1981-1983 contract timely. Additionally, it ruled the amended complaint was not barred by any statute of limitations; that there was sufficient evidence to show plaintiff "furnished" the state Attorney General with the amended complaint; and that a categorical exemption from CEQA does not apply to this activity because the racing caused a potentially substantial adverse change in the environment. Therefore, the trial court ordered a writ of mandamus compelling [165 Cal.App.3d 828] the district board to cancel the existing racing contract until there was compliance with CEQA.


As the facts presented by the trial court are undisputed and the questions on appeal concern the interpretation of statutes and administrative regulations, we may draw our own conclusions of law from the facts. (White v. Berrenda Mesa Water Dist. (1970) 7 Cal.App.3d 894, 900, 87 Cal.Rptr. 338; 5 Cal.Jur.3d, Appellate Review, § 529, at pp. 220-221.)

We first examine the merits of the CEQA compliance issue, and thereafter the procedural claims made by appellants. It is clear from the statutory scheme, and from the administrative guidelines supporting it, that the racing activity at the Nevada County Fairgrounds comes under the provisions of CEQA. The district association claimed it was exempt from CEQA because the racing activity was within one of several classes of activity categorically

Page 887

exempt pursuant to California Administrative Code, title 14, section 15323. 4

The sole question is whether the categorical exemption is applicable to the normal operations of the Nevada County Fairgrounds racetrack. There are certain principal exceptions to the use of the categorical exemptions in the administrative guidelines. California Administrative Code, title 14, section 15300.2, subdivision (c), states: "[p ] A categorical exemption shall not be used for an activity where there is a reasonable possibility that the activity will have a significant effect on the environment due to unusual circumstances." 5

The trial court included this guideline section in its notice of intended decision, but neither discussed it nor relied on it. As discussed below, it relied instead on the language of the categorical exemption itself. We, however, rely directly on this exception to the exemption, and we limit this [165 Cal.App.3d 829] application of the exception to the "unusual circumstances" in this case, those concerning neighboring residences. Initially, we note there is no question of the existence of unusual circumstances--the adjacency of residential areas to the racetrack.

By finding themselves within the categorical exemption in CEQA guideline section 15323, appellants necessarily rejected the exception in section 15300.2. In reading the latter section it is necessary to construe the meaning of "significant effect on the environment." Public Resources Code section 21068 provides, " '[s]ignificant effect on the environment' means a substantial, or potentially substantial, adverse change in the environment." (Emphasis added.)

The trial court found the meaning of "change" to be change from 1970, the time of the enactment of CEQA. The evidence clearly shows a major change in the scope and degree of racing at the fairgrounds occurred after 1970, specifically in 1973, when the construction of a banked racetrack permitted auto racing at higher speeds and with greater noise and dust. 6 We conclude here the racing activity in question represents an adverse change in the environment, 7 and as such, it falls within the definition of "significant effect on the environment."

Page 888

The trial court stated the district board concluded the 1981-1983 racing noise would not put them into the ambit of CEQA guideline section 15300.2, subdivision (c), exception to the categorical exemption. It then stated this decision was supported by substantial evidence, but only after the district association took mitigation steps. The trial court then went on to state the racing noise "may well have a significant effect on the environment, [165 Cal.App.3d 830] but there is substantial evidence to the contrary." We do not rely on the ambiguous statement of the trial court. "It is the validity of the judicial action which is reviewable; not the opinion of the court or its statement of the reason for its action." (Chichester v. Chichester (1964) 228 Cal.App.2d 491, 499-500, 39 Cal.Rptr. 553; citing Southall v. Security...

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