Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube

Rural event center must review its impact to species

Issue Date: December 1, 2021
By Ching Lee

A state appellate court has ordered Yolo County to go back to the drawing board and complete a full environmental impact report on a special-events and bed-and-breakfast establishment that has faced opposition from area farms.

The farms, collectively known as Farmland Protection Alliance, sued Yolo County after it approved a use permit in 2016 for the commercial venue Field & Pond near the rural town of Winters. Yolo County Farm Bureau and the Woodland-based conservation group Tuleyome joined in the suit.

Yolo County Farm Bureau became involved in the litigation over concerns of farmland being used for nonagricultural purposes that are incompatible with agriculture, said Chris Scheuring, California Farm Bureau senior counsel, who represented the county Farm Bureau in the case.

Farming communities have grappled with the proliferation of event centers, wedding venues and similar facilities on agricultural land and the conflicts that arise between nearby farms and landowners of the event businesses.

The Yolo suit alleged the county violated the California Farmland Conservation Act, or the Williamson Act, and the county zoning code by approving the event center, which area farmers said interfered with their ability to farm.

The farmers raised concerns about the increased traffic the venue has brought to the area's narrow country road. They said events at the center disrupted farming activities such as harvest, pesticide applications and crop transport.

They argued that Field & Pond really is a commercial event facility located on farmland, unlike agritourism operations that open to the public to support their existing agricultural business.

The groups also challenged the limited environmental review the county used to approve the venue, citing evidence the project may have significant impact on three protected species: the tricolored blackbird, the valley elderberry longhorn beetle and the golden eagle.

A trial court in 2018 ordered the county to prepare a partial environmental impact report, saying that the mitigated negative declaration used to approve the venue was inadequate.

But in its decision last month, California's Third District Court of Appeal said the mitigation measures Field & Pond adopted and the subsequent partial EIR ordered by the trial court are insufficient under state law. Specifically, the court said increased human presence at the site "may have a significant effect on the beetle due to potential damage to elderberry bushes despite the mitigation measure adopted."

Under the California Environmental Quality Act, whenever there is substantial evidence that a project may have significant effect on the environment, a full EIR must be prepared, the court said.

However, the court did not find that the county abused its discretion by approving the event center on land contracted under the Williamson Act, which gives farmers tax incentives to keep their land in agricultural production. The court also concluded the project approval did not violate the property's zoning designation.

Scheuring said Yolo County Farm Bureau maintains the venue poses "serious problems" for surrounding agricultural operations. Even though the court did not rule favorably on the Williamson Act argument, he said a full EIR must now be completed, meaning the county must analyze the project's agricultural impacts more closely.

"An EIR is a full-blown process," Scheuring said. "You look at the impacts a lot harder. You have to mitigate them if it's feasible."

The mitigation may be so expensive that it changes the project or causes the landowners not to do it at all, he said. The EIR also could disclose impacts and required mitigations that are so extensive that the county decides not to reapprove the project, he added.

Because the court already found violation of the state environmental law based on the project's impact on the protected species, it did not address other potential impacts, including to agriculture, said attorney Chris Rodriguez, who represented the Farmland Protection Alliance.

"Once you ring the bell on one of the issues, then the full-blown EIR is required," he said. "We think that had (the court) reached the issue, it also would have agreed with us on the agricultural impacts."

Depending on the project, development of EIRs "can be quite a process," sometimes taking months, even years, to complete, Rodriguez said. It then becomes "a political issue" for the county board of supervisors to consider what's in the report and how to respond, he added.

Eric May, senior deputy counsel for Yolo County, declined to comment.

For now, the court of appeal must send the case back to the trial court to issue an order consistent with its decision. Once the order is issued, Field & Pond will not be able to operate as it currently does, Rodriguez said.

Philip Watt, co-owner of Field & Pond, called the decision "very disappointing." Because of the pandemic, the property has held virtually no events of late, he said. Plus, all the legal expenses have made the business "financially not viable at the moment," he said.

"Unfortunately, this is the final nail, I think," Watt said of the appeal court ruling. "It really is a shame."

With its sweeping views of the countryside and pastoral setting, Field & Pond markets itself as a "nature preserve" mainly for weddings. Its website highlights the "plethora of wildlife species" that call the property home. Watt said he doesn't understand his neighbors' concerns because "all I've been trying to do is improve (the property)," noting that he's been "working seven days a week trying to get the farm going."

Under conditions of the use permit, Field & Pond had agreed to limit events to 20 per year and to hold them only on Saturdays. To accommodate tomato harvest, no events are scheduled between July 15 and Sept. 15. To reduce traffic, buses are used to shuttle visitors to and from the venue.

Watt said he will discuss with his attorneys about his options. He noted that completing a full EIR would mean hundreds of thousands of dollars, which he said he can't afford.

"By the time I pay for another environmental impact study, pay the lawyers to defend it and pay back (plaintiffs' legal fees), that's going to be $2 million down the drain, of which I never had," Watt said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




Special Reports

Features

Series

Special Issues

Special Sections