Sunset Skyranch Pilots Association v. County of Sacramento (July 2, 2008, C055224) ___ Cal.App.4th ___

By Misty Calder

In this case, Sacramento County (“County”) denied renewal of a conditional use permit (“CUP”) needed for the continued operation of a privately-owned, public-use airport.  The trial court held that (1) denial of the CUP renewal did not constitute a “project” under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”); and (2) denial of the CUP renewal was not preempted by or violative of the State Aeronautics Act (“SAA”).  The Court of Appeal reversed as to the CEQA claim, holding that denial of the CUP would have the practical effect of closing the airport, and airport closure had the potential to cause significant environmental impacts.  Therefore, notwithstanding section 15270 of the CEQA Guidelines, the closure of the airport was a “project” under CEQA and not exempt from environmental review under CEQA.


The Sunset Skyranch Pilots Association (“Airport”) had been operating the airport at some level of activity since at least 1934.  In 1971, the Airport applied for a CUP for a private use airstrip and a public use airport.  The County granted it a two-year CUP to operate a private use airport.  At the time the 1971 CUP was issued, the main purpose of the Airport was for agricultural flight operations.  The following year, the County Planning Commission approved a change in the County General Plan to allow a public use airport at that location.  Also in 1972, pursuant to the SAA, the Airport obtained from the Department a state airport permit for a public use airport.  In 1973, the 1971 CUP expired by its own terms, and the Airport did not request a renewal of the CUP but continued the airport operations.

The Airport subsequently applied for a ten-year CUP in 1999 (after having operated without a CUP between 1973 and 1999).  The County granted a five-year CUP, anticipating that an East Elk Grove Specific Plan might lead to urbanization of the area, rendering the Airport an incompatible use.

In 2004, the Airport again submitted a CUP renewal application, which was accompanied with a letter from the Department’s Aeronautics Division stating in part, “We support continued operations at [the Airport].”  After an administrative hearing, the Board of Supervisors denied renewal of the CUP, overturning the Planning Commission’s decision to grant it.  The Board found that the action was not a revocation of an existing use permit, but rather, a decision not to renew a use that had already expired and that was no longer compatible with its surroundings.  In addition, the Board concluded that the denial of the CUP did not require an environmental analysis under CEQA, because it did not constitute a project.


On appeal, the Airport argued that the County’s action violated the CEQA because (1) the closure of the airport was a “project” under CEQA and not exempt from environmental consideration, and (2) the airport closure is likely to cause significant environmental impacts.  The County, on the other hand, claimed that there was no CEQA “project” because the Board of Supervisors merely denied a CUP renewal, and CEQA Guidelines section 15270 of the California Code of Regulations states, “CEQA does not apply to projects which a public agency rejects or disapproves.”

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the County’s argument, noting that this case did not involve a mere denial of a project, but denial of a CUP renewal that would unquestionably result in closure of an airport.  It stated that a CEQA “project” means “the whole of an action” having the potential for physical change in the environment, and that the County’s action in denying the permit had the practical effect of closing the Airport.  (Guidelines § 15378, subd. (a).)  The Court opined:  “Even if it is not yet known what will happen to the airport facilities (hangars, paved runway, etc.), it is known and intended by the County that the pilots who currently use the Airport will have to transfer to other airports.”

As a result, the court found that the County’s plan to enforce its zoning code, by ensuring the Airport closure and the transfer of pilots to other airports, was part of “the whole of [the] action” of the CUP denial, and the whole of the action had the potential for physical change in the environment.  Accordingly, the Court held that the County’s action constituted a CEQA “project” requiring preparation of at least an initial study.

No Preemption by or Violation of SAA

The Airport also contended on appeal that the County’s denial of the CUP renewal was preempted by the SAA.  The Airport argued that the SAA prevented the County from exercising its zoning powers in a way that would result in closure of a public-use airport, as long as the airport had a state permit under the SAA and complied with conditions of the county’s CUP.

The Court of Appeal disagreed, stating that the SAA focused on safety standards and controlled development of airports and, while its stated purpose is to “encourage” aviation, it does not compel the County to allow continued operation of the Airport.  The Court opined:  “Even as to matters where the commissions have jurisdiction, the SAA expressly recognizes local regulation and acknowledges the continuing role of local governments by specifying that the local entities’ override of certain commission decisions must be made by a two-thirds vote and a finding by the local entity that the proposed action is consistent with the SAA.”  Thus, the Court of Appeal held that the County’s decision to deny the renewal of the CUP was not preempted by or contrary to the SAA.

For more information please contact Misty Calder.  Misty L. Calder is an associate in the Real Estate, Land Use and Natural Resources and Environmental Practice Group in the firm’s Orange County office.