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Rodeo's CEQA exemption allowed despite alleged creek pollution risk

An appellate court has upheld a CEQA exemption for the 2011 deputy sheriffs' charity rodeo at the Santa Cruz County fairgrounds in Watsonville. Although it was the first rodeo held there in a generation, the court held a categorical exemption was proper for the event on the grounds that, environmentally speaking, the rodeo was much a "normal operation" as any other livestock or equestrian event at that venue.

Plaintiffs objecting to the rodeo had claimed "unusual circumstances" existed that might have a "significant effect" on the environment because of a risk that manure from the event would harm nearby Salsipuedes Creek, and also, per the court, because of "proximity to residential and agricultural land, or a public safety risk of bull riding".

The March 26 decision by California's Third Appellate District upheld decisions by Sacramento County Superior Court judge Lloyd Connelly that had allowed the 14th District Agricultural Association, which runs the fairgrounds, to grant the rodeo a Class 23 categorical exemption from CEQA environmental review as "normal operations of existing facilities for public gatherings."

Per the case history in the decision and local news reports, Connelly allowed Stars of Justice Inc., a nonprofit created by the Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriff's Association, to go ahead with its charity rodeo in October 2011 after the county had gone "two decades" without one. Just under 1000 people reportedly attended. Connelly later confirmed his approval in 2012. (See http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/ci_18993102; http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_19819481; http://bit.ly/1jSZyjO.)

Since the rodeo itself was over long ago, the appeal that followed from rodeo opponents was moot, but the appellate court chose to rule on the environmental issue as a public interest matter "likely to recur and capable of evading review."

The court found the rodeo was part of "normal operations" at the fairground because it was essentially similar to other events held at the same site. It said the site did not have to be compared to other kinds of public venues, nor to other fairgrounds, to determine what was normal. It distinguished a series of cases involving refusals to grant categorical exemptions, arguing that the exemptions were denied not because nearby neighbors or watercourses presented unusual circumstances, but because the activities in question were new ones, with new, unaccustomed effects.

Plaintiffs had claimed that, in adopting a Manure Management Plan to protect the creek, the fairground managers essentially gave up their claim to a categorical exemption by admitting there was a hazard to mitigate. The court found the same sanitation measures applied to all events involving horses and livestock, not just the rodeo, and were not new, just recently formalized and possibly increased.

The plaintiffs contesting the rodeo were Citizens for Environmental Responsibility, Eric Zamost, and his Stop the Rodeo organization. The stoptherodeo.org Web site objects to rodeo events as promoting a culture of violence entailing mistreatment of animals and also, in fewer words, to the discharge of "raw manure" into Salsipuedes Creek.

The case is Citizens for Environmental Responsibility v. State of California ex rel. 14th District Agricultural Association, at http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/C070836.PDF.

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