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Sunset Sky Ranch Pilots Association v. County of Sacramento

December 28, 2009


Ct.App. 3 C055224 Sacramento County Super. Ct. No. 06CS00265, Judge: Jack Sapunor.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Corrigan, J.

The County of Sacramento declined to renew a conditional use permit for a privately owned airport. A mandamus petition seeking to prevent the airport's closure was denied. The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the county's action amounted to a "project" subject to the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq. (CEQA).)*fn1

The Court of Appeal erred because it misconstrued the nature of the project at issue. Declining to renew the conditional use permit was not a public project under CEQA, because the county did not "directly undertake[]" to close the airport. (§ 21065, subd. (a).) Instead, it decided not to reauthorize a private activity that required "the issuance... of a... permit." (§ 21065, subd. (c).) The airport operation was the "project" in question, and projects rejected by a public agency are specifically exempted from CEQA requirements. (§ 21080, subd. (b)(5).)


This litigation pits the owner and users of the Sunset Sky Ranch Airport against nearby property owners and Sacramento County. Appellants are Daniel Lang, the airport owner, and the Sunset Sky Ranch Pilots Association (collectively, the Airport). Real parties in interest, John Taylor and the law firm of Taylor and Wiley, represent the neighboring property owners. They are aligned as respondents with Sacramento County and its board of supervisors (the County).

An airstrip began operating in 1934, when there were no applicable zoning regulations. Since 1968 a zoning ordinance has allowed airports in the area, if the operator obtains a conditional use permit (CUP). Lang acquired the property in 1971 and was granted a two-year CUP to operate a private airport, which was then used mainly for agricultural flights. In 1972, the Sacramento County General Plan was amended to allow a public use airport at the location, and Lang acquired a state airport permit for that purpose. The CUP expired in 1973. Lang did not apply for renewal, but continued operating the airport.

In 1989, Lang lost his business license because he was out of compliance with the zoning code. He appealed the denial and applied for a certificate of nonconforming use. The County upheld the license denial and refused to certify a nonconforming use, citing "considerable expansion" of the airport. (See Hansen Brothers Enterprises, Inc. v. Board of Supervisors (1996) 12 Cal.4th 533, 552.) It recommended that Lang obtain a CUP. Lang sued, and the County prevailed.

In 1999, the Airport applied for a 10-year CUP. The County, however, granted only a 5-year permit, anticipating that an East Elk Grove Specific Plan approved in 1996 might lead to urbanization of the area. The CUP required that "[t]he airport operator shall inform all airplane owners with tie-downs who intend to install or improve airport hangars on the property of the terms of this use permit, including the expiration date." The County approved a negative declaration under CEQA, finding that the CUP would have no significant effect on the environment. (See § 21064.) A challenge to the negative declaration was unsuccessful. (See Fat v. County of Sacramento (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 1270.)

In September 2004, two weeks before the 1999 CUP expired, the Sunset Sky Ranch Pilots Association applied for renewal. The County Project Planning Commission voted to approve a renewed CUP for two years, with no further extension. Real parties in interest filed an administrative appeal with the County Board of Supervisors (the Board). The Board upheld the appeal and denied renewal of the CUP. Its findings stated: "The action taken by the Board of Supervisors is not a revocation of an existing use permit but, rather, merely a decision not to renew a use that has already expired. It accordingly reflects a decision to not re-grant a permit for a use that has been determined to no longer be compatible with its surroundings. Furthermore, [CEQA] does not require that environmental analysis be conducted before an agency denies a project since a denial does not constitute a project for the purposes of CEQA."

The Board noted the development of new residential neighborhoods in the area, the local school district's difficulty in finding a suitable school site due to the airport's overflight zone, and the existence of other airport facilities at more appropriate locations. It declared that the denial of a CUP did not amount to action on any future developments that might be feasible with the elimination of the airport. The Board observed that such developments would themselves require environmental review before they could be approved.

The Airport sought a writ of mandate, injunctive relief, and monetary damages. Among other claims, it contended the County had failed to comply with CEQA because it had not analyzed the environmental impacts of closing the airport. The trial court denied relief. The Court of Appeal reversed, reasoning that the CUP denial was part of a County plan to enforce its zoning code by closing the airport and transferring pilots to other airports. Accordingly, the court concluded that the County's action amounted to a project requiring environmental review under CEQA.

We granted respondents' petition for review of the CEQA issue.


Whether an activity is regulated by CEQA is a question of law that may be decided on undisputed facts. (Muzzy Ranch Co. v. Solano County Airport Land Use Com. (2007) 41 Cal.4th 372, 382.) When it enacted CEQA, the Legislature imposed certain limitations on its scope. CEQA applies only to activities that meet the definition of a "project" under the statute and its implementing administrative regulations.*fn3 (Muzzy Ranch, at p. 380.) In addition, the Legislature specifically exempted certain activities from environmental review. (Ibid.; ยง 21080, subd. (b).) These exemptions reflect legislative policy decisions. Although we construe CEQA broadly " `to afford the fullest possible protection to the environment within the reasonable scope of the statutory language,' " we do not balance the policies served by the statutory exemptions against the goal of environmental protection. (Napa ...

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