In Citizens for Environmental Responsibility v. State of California ex rel. 14th District Agricultural Association, et al. (3rd App. Dist., March 26, 2014), the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision to exempt a three-day rodeo from California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) review under the Class 23 categorical exemption[1] because the rodeo would be held on fairgrounds that operate similar types of events throughout the year.

The Notice of Exemption (“NOE”) published by the District noted that the rodeo event would take place at the Santa Cruz County Fairground, and disclosed that any horse and livestock manure would be managed according to the Fairground Manure Management Plan (“Manure Plan”) and would prevent manure from polluting a creek that intersected the Fairground site.   

Citizens for Environmental Responsibility (“Citizens”) filed a petition for writ of mandate and complaint for injunctive and declaratory relief nearly three months before the rodeo was to take place, arguing that the Manure Plan constituted a mitigation measure and therefore, the project could not be exempt from CEQA review. 

The appellate court held that there was “no reason why the implementation of a public gathering facility’s preexisting program that is part of the facility’s normal operations and designed to address ongoing issues should preclude Class 23 exemption.”  (Slip Opinion, p. 15.)  Importantly, the Manure Plan was not implemented as a proposed mitigation measure nor was it created for purposes of the rodeo project.  Rather, the Manure Plan had been part of the “normal operations” of the Fairground for nearly 50 years and was utilized to address the alleged “manure management problem” identified by Citizens that had preexisted the rodeo project.  Even though the plan was not formalized in writing until 2010, there was sufficient evidence that the procedures had been in place since the early 1990’s and the Manure Plan was not simply a mitigation measure covertly implemented to avoid CEQA review. 

The appellants then argued that the impaired creek on the site of the project differentiated the project from other “normal facilities” defined under the Class 23 exemption and therefore, presented an “unusual circumstance” excepting the project from the exemption.  This simple “apples-to-apples” comparison was firmly rejected by the court because facilities defined under the exemption like racetracks, stadiums, convention centers, etc. cannot be accurately compared to a facility that houses horses and cattle. 

Rather, an “unusual circumstance” is present if there is a significant change in circumstances, i.e., change in the normal operations, additional environmental risks presented by the proposed project, the proposed project would be inconsistent with the surrounding zoning and land uses, or the scope and size of the proposed project is significantly different than the normal operations.  (Slip Opinion, pp. 32 – 36.)  Here, the proposed rodeo project presented none of these circumstances — normal operations of the Fairground includes about two dozen equestrian and/or livestock events each year, no changes to the facility or the operations were proposed by the rodeo, there were no additional environmental risks posed by the rodeo, and the scope and size of the rodeo was no different than any previous Fairground events.

The Citizens for Environmental Responsibility decision provides a reference for understanding what constitutes an “unusual circumstance” and whether normal operational conditions constitute mitigation. 

Authored by Juliet Cho.


[1] CEQA Guidelines § 15323 provides an exemption from CEQA review if “normal operations of existing facilities for which the facilities were designed where there is a past history of the facility being used for the same or similar kind of purpose.”