The First District Court of Appeal issued a published decision upholding a mitigated negative declaration in the case Maacama Watershed Alliance v. County of Sonoma (40 Cal.App.5th 1007). It can be difficult to defend an MND in litigation, so seeing a published case upholding one is somewhat uncommon. This case focused on the quality of the evidence presented by project opponents.

The project at issue involved construction of a winery building, adjoining wine cave, and other winery-related facilities on about 2.4 acres in Sonoma County. The site already had two residences and 46 acres of vineyards on an 86-acre parcel zoned agricultural use. The County prepared an MND in 2015, which was adopted by the County’s Board of Zoning Adjustments. However, project opponents appealed to the Board of Supervisors. The County prepared a revised MND, which the Board approved. Project opponents filed suit, arguing that a fair argument indicated the project could result in various significant environmental effects. The trial court denied the petition.

On appeal, project opponents argued that an EIR was required to address potential geology and erosion, groundwater supply, visual impacts, and fire hazards. The First District Court of Appeal rejected each argument, finding that the project opponents did not meet their burden to demonstrate substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the project could result in these impacts. The court emphasized that speculation and unsubstantial expert opinion are not substantial evidence for a fair argument. In this case, project opponents could not demonstrate that their evidence met the threshold required to be considered substantial evidence.

MNDs are difficult to defend in CEQA litigation due to the applicable standard of review. However, cases like this and Joshua Tree emphasize that substantial evidence must support a project opponent’s fair argument, and substantial evidence is not just any evidence.