Muzzy Ranch v. Solano County Airport Com'n

Decision Date21 June 2007
Docket NumberNo. S131484.,S131484.
Citation60 Cal.Rptr.3d 247,160 P.3d 116,41 Cal.4th 372
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
PartiesMUZZY RANCH CO., Plaintiff and Appellant, v. SOLANO COUNTY AIRPORT LAND USE COMMISSION, Defendant and Respondent.

Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin, Richard C. Jacobs and Jonathan W. Hughes, San Francisco, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Bingham McCutchen, Stephen L. Kostka and Marie A. Cooper, Walnut Creek, for California Building Industry Association as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Appellant.

Dennis Bunting, County Counsel, and James W. Laughlin, Deputy County Counsel, for Defendant and Respondent.


In this case, we consider whether an airport land use commission conducted sufficient environmental review pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.) when it adopted a land use compatibility plan that embraces existing restrictions on residential housing development for a large area near an Air Force base. We conclude the commission's adoption of the plan fell within an exemption from CEQA for projects that have no potential to cause a significant effect on the environment. (See Guidelines for Implementation of Cal. Environmental Quality Act, Cal. Code Regs., tit. 14, § 15061, subd. (b)(3).) Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal, which remanded for further proceedings.


Solano County Airport Land Use Commission (Commission) was established, pursuant to the State Aeronautics Act (Pub. Util.Code, § 21001 et seq.), for the purposes of ensuring the orderly expansion of airports and promulgating appropriate land use measures in Solano County (id., § 21670, subd. (a)(2)).

The Commission first adopted a land use plan for the Travis Air Force Base area in 1990, amending it in 1994. In 1999, the Commission determined that preparation of a new plan was appropriate owing to "changes in current and reasonably foreseeable aircraft operations at Travis Air Force Base, as well as development in the surrounding areas." In 2002, the Commission adopted by resolution the Travis Air Force Base Land Use Compatibility Plan (TALUP) that is the subject of this litigation. The Commission's resolution stated that "based on advice provided by its legal counsel, the Commission finds that the [TALUP] is not a `project' subject to [CEQA] because it would not cause a direct physical change or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment."

The TALUP "sets forth land use compatibility policies applicable to future development in the vicinity" of Travis Air Force Base. The policies are designed "to ensure that future land uses in the surrounding area will be compatible with the realistically foreseeable, ultimate potential aircraft activity at the base" and are "intended to be reflected in the general plans and other policy instruments adopted by the entities having jurisdiction over land uses near" the base.

The TALUP also sets forth criteria for determining the compatibility with Travis Air Force Base's activities and mission of possible future development in several geographic zones. This litigation has centered on the TALUP's regulation of "Compatibility Zone C," which the TALUP defines to encompass "locations exposed to potential noise [from the base] in excess of approximately 60 dB CNEL1 together with additional areas occasionally affected by concentrated numbers of low-altitude ... aircraft overflights," excluding developed residential areas within existing city limits. Although the TALUP does not provide precise acreage or square mile measurements, maps included in the plan make clear that Compatibility Zone C covers a large land area within Solano County, an area Muzzy Ranch Co. represents to be greater than 600 square miles extending more than 35 miles through Solano County.

The TALUP purports to restrict residential development within Compatibility Zone C to levels currently permitted under existing general plans and zoning regulations. Specifically, the TALUP states that "[n]o amendment of a general plan land use policy or land use map designation and no change of zoning shall be permitted if such amendment or change would allow more dwelling units in the affected area than are allowed under current zoning."

Five days after adopting the TALUP, the Commission filed with the Clerk of Solano County a "Notice of Exemption," citing Public Resources Code section 15061, subdivision (b)(3), and declaring that the Commission's action created "[n]o possibility of significant effect on the environment."

Muzzy Ranch Co. (Muzzy Ranch) is a limited partnership holding ownership interests in more than 1,000 acres within the area affected by the TALUP. Following the Commission's adoption of the TALUP, Muzzy Ranch filed a petition for writ of mandate and complaint for declaratory relief, contending that the adoption of the TALUP violated CEQA. The trial court denied the petition and entered judgment for the Commission. The Court of Appeal reversed, remanding with directions that the trial court issue a writ of mandate ordering the Commission to set aside its adoption of the TALUP. We granted the Commission's petition for review.


In order to "[e]nsure that the long-term protection of the environment, consistent with the provision of a decent home and suitable living environment for every Californian, shall be the guiding criterion in public decisions" (Pub. Resources Code, § 21001, subd. (d)), CEQA and its implementing administrative regulations (the CEQA Guidelines)2 establish a three-tier process to ensure that public agencies inform their decisions with environmental considerations. (No Oil, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (1974) 13 Cal.3d 68, 74, 118 Cal.Rptr. 34, 529 P.2d 66.) The first tier is jurisdictional, requiring that an agency conduct a preliminary review to determine whether an activity is subject to CEQA. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15060; see Pub. Resources Code, § 21065.) An activity that is not a "project" as defined in the Public Resources Code (see § 21065) and the CEQA Guidelines (see § 15378) is not subject to CEQA. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15060, subd. (c)(3).)

The second tier concerns exemptions from CEQA review. The Legislature has provided that certain projects, such as ministerial projects and repairs to public service facilities of an emergency nature, are exempt. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21080, subd. (b)(1), (2); CEQA Guidelines, §§ 15061, subd. (b)(1), 15260.) In addition, pursuant to the Legislature's command (see Pub. Resources Code, § 21084, subd. (a)), the CEQA Guidelines list categorical exemptions or "classes of projects" that the Resources Agency has determined to be exempt per se because they do not have a significant effect on the environment. (CEQA Guidelines, §§ 15061, subd. (b)(2), 15300 et seq.)

A project that qualifies for neither a statutory nor a categorical exemption may nonetheless be found exempt under what is sometimes called the "common sense" exemption, which applies "[w]here it can be seen with certainty that there is no possibility that the activity in question may have a significant effect on the environment" (CEQA Guidelines, § 15061, subd. (b)(3)). (See generally Davidon Homes v. City of San Jose (1997) 54 Cal. App.4th 106, 113-118, 62 Cal.Rptr.2d 612.)

If a public agency properly finds that a project is exempt from CEQA, no further environmental review is necessary. (No Oil, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles, supra, 13 Cal.3d at p. 74, 118 Cal.Rptr. 34, 529 P.2d 66.) The agency need only prepare and file a notice of exemption (see CEQA Guidelines, §§ 15061, subd. (d), 15062, subd. (a)), citing the relevant statute or section of the CEQA Guidelines and including a brief statement of reasons to support the finding of exemption (id., § 15062, subd. (a)(4)). If a project does not fall within an exemption, the agency must "conduct an initial study to determine if the project may have a significant effect on the environment." (Id., § 15063, subd. (a).) If there exists "no substantial evidence that the project or any of its aspects may cause a significant effect on the environment" (id., § 15063, subd. (b)(2)), the agency must prepare a "negative declaration" that briefly describes the reasons supporting its determination (see id., § 15070 et seq.).

CEQA's third tier applies if the agency determines substantial evidence exists that an aspect of the project may cause a significant effect on the environment. In that event, the agency must ensure that a full environmental impact report is prepared on the proposed project. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15063, subd. (b)(1); see also Pub. Resources Code, §§ 21100, 21151; CEQA Guidelines, § 15080 et seq.)

Muzzy Ranch's objections to the Commission's proceedings in this case focus on the first and second tiers of the CEQA process. With respect to the first (jurisdictional) tier, Muzzy Ranch contends that in its resolution adopting the TALUP, the Commission erred in concluding that adopting the TALUP was not subject to CEQA. With respect to the second (exemptions) tier, Muzzy Ranch contends the Commission violated CEQA by failing to examine the potential environmental impacts of its adopting the TALUP before filing its Notice of Exemption claiming the common sense exemption. (CEQA Guidelines, § 15061, subd. (b)(3).)

Our inquiry into whether the Commission has complied with CEQA extends only to "whether there was a prejudicial abuse of discretion." (Pub. Resources Code, § 21168.5.) In a CEQA case, as in other mandamus cases, our review of the administrative record for error is the same as the trial court's; we review the agency's action, not the trial court's decision. (County of Amador v. El Dorado County Water Agency (1999) 76 Cal. App.4th 931, 946, 91 Cal.Rptr.2d 66; Friends of the Old Trees v. Dept. of Forestry & Fire Protection (1997) 52 Cal. App.4th 1383, 1393, 61 Cal.Rptr.2d 297.) Throughout, we must bear...

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