In Friends of the Kings River v. County of Fresno, No. F068818 (Cal. Ct. App. 5th Dist., Dec. 8, 2014), the Fifth Appellate District upheld Fresno County’s (County) approval of the Carmelita Mine and Reclamation Project (Project) in 2012.  The Project includes a proposed aggregate mine and related processing plants on a 1,500-acre site located approximately 15 miles east of the City of Fresno.  Stoel Rives attorneys Tom Henry and Michael Sherman represented the applicant, Colony Land Company, L.P., during the approval process with the County.

This decision is important because: (1) the County was not required to mitigate the loss of farmland with agricultural conservation easements (ACEs); and (2) the Court addressed the scope of the State Mining and Geology Board’s (SMGB) authority to review reclamation plans on appeal.

Agricultural Conservation Easements May Not Be Required As Mitigation For Loss of Farmland

Friends asserted numerous CEQA challenges, which the Court rejected in mostly unpublished portions of the opinion.  In a published portion, the Court upheld the County’s rejection of ACEs as feasible mitigation for conversion of farmland to other uses. 

Friends relied on Masonite Corp. v. County of Mendocino (2013) 218 Cal.App. 4th 230, where the Court of Appeal held that “ACEs may appropriately mitigate the direct loss of farmland when a project converts agricultural land to a nonagricultural use.”  However, the Court distinguished Masonite from the approach taken by the County because in Masonite the lead agency did not even consider the use of ACEs to mitigate for direct impacts to farmland.  In contrast, the County considered ACEs and concluded in the EIR that ACEs would not reduce the amount of farmland converted to mining uses by the Project.

SMGB Has Limited Power to Review Reclamation Plans on Appeal

In October 2012, Friends appealed the County’s approval of the Project’s reclamation plan to the SMGB.  While this appeal was pending, Friends filed a petition for writ of mandate to challenge the certification of the EIR.  The SMGB subsequently remanded the reclamation plan back to the County on procedural grounds.  Based on this successful appeal to the SMGB, Friends alleged that the case was not ripe, and the trial court could not deny the writ of mandate, because the SMGB’s decision invalidated the County’s approval of the reclamation plan.

In rejecting Friends’ argument, the Court analyzed the scope of powers conferred on the SMGB by the California Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA).  Under SMARA, local lead agencies have primary responsibility for enforcing reclamation requirements.  The SMGB may hear appeals in certain cases under Public Resources Code Section 2775; however, the SMGB has “no power to deny the approval of [a] reclamation plan.”  Instead, “[t]he only remedy available for a successful appeal to the SMGB is remand to the lead agency for reconsideration.”  Consequently, the Court held that the SMGB appeal did not invalidate the reclamation plan and the case was ripe for review.

Written by Tom Henry and Michael Sherman