Court Finds Public Interest In Meeting Renewable Energy Goals in California Outweighs Efforts To Preserve Agricultural Lands - CEQA and Williamson Act Decision Upholds Approval of 420-Megawatt Solar Project

In Save Panoche Valley v. San Benito County, the Sixth District Court of Appeal upheld the county’s approval of a 420-megawatt photovoltaic solar plant. The court found that the county had substantial evidence to support its certification of the environmental impact report (EIR) for the project, as well as for its cancellation of Williamson Act contracts on portions of the project site.

The Williamson Act establishes a mechanism for saving agricultural land in California by allowing counties to create agricultural preserves and then to enter into contracts with landowners within those preserves. In order to cancel such a contract, a county must find that “other public concerns” “substantially outweigh” the aims of the Act. Here, the court held that evidence supporting a finding that the project would further the state’s progress in satisfying the Renewable Portfolio Standards (which require energy companies to produced 33 percent of their retail energy sales from renewable energy sources by the end of 2013) constituted a public interest outweighing the purpose of the Act and allowing the county to cancel the contracts for 4,563 acres of agricultural land.

The court found that the EIR appropriately analyzed impacts to several protected animal species and did not improperly defer mitigation addressing potential impacts to those species. It also rejected claims that the habitat conservation ratios imposed by the county were inadequate. Addressing the EIR’s agricultural analysis, the court ruled that the imposition of conservation easements, project-site restoration requirements, and on-site sheep grazing during the life of the project were sufficient to mitigate for the loss of prime agricultural land. The court held that no provision of CEQA or case law required the county to require the creation of additional agricultural lands as mitigation.

Finally, in upholding the county’s determination that the environmentally superior alternative identified in the EIR was infeasible, the court ruled that “an alternative may be deemed infeasible if it is unable to be completed in a reasonable amount of time.”

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