There was a great turnout at the February 13th hearing on the merits for Walt Ranch in the Napa Superior Court before Judge Warriner, a visiting Judge from Placer County.

The Court issued a Tentative Decision denying all three petitions prior to the hearing.

Thomas Lippe, attorney for Living Rivers Council, presented his oral argument on various issues ranging from challenging the adequacy of the ECP Plan (engineered drainage facilities) and the County’s calculations of storm water run off to challenging the County’s failure to include pertinent memorandums concerning HSG soil typing in the EIR which are relevant to soil typing at the project site.

Rachel Mansfield Howlett, on behalf of COCWD and COHA, explained that the EIR did not address the significant impacts of the project on the community’s water supply and it unlawfully deferred determination of groundwater impacts to Circle Oaks wells until after project approval. The Ground Water Management Plan fails to include performance standards that would ensure mitigation measures would be implemented prior to the impacts of the project occurring. She argued that the potential for damage to Circle Oaks roads and infrastructure was also inadequately studied. Proposed mitigation for impacts to Circle Oaks roads and underlying Water District’s sewer and water infrastructure does not ensure that the project’s impacts will be mitigated. The EIR also did not consider alternative access ways to the project that could have avoided the impacts to Circle Oaks roads altogether.

The Court unexpectedly ended the hearing at noon during Ms Mansfield-Howlett’s presentation and requested all counsel to return and resume oral argument on March 1, 2018 at 1:00 p.m. Ms. Mansfield-Howlett will continue her argument at that time.

Both attorneys were critical of the choice of law used in the Judge’s Tentative Decision in determining the applicable standard of review. The Court relied heavily upon older case law, cited within the County’s Opposition Briefs [e.g. Laurel Heights (1988)], in support of many of the findings in the Tentative Decision rather than two recent California Supreme Court cases [Banning Ranch (2017) and Vineyard Area Citizens (2007)] which, Petitioners argued should be applied. The legal arguments are subject to different standards of review which are complicated and contested in this case. Simply stated, the standard of review consists of whether the County abused its discretion by (1) failing to act in the manner required by law, considered de novo by the court, or (2) whether the County’s conclusions and findings are supported by substantial evidence. Petitioners argue that Walt urged the court to apply the ‘substantial’ evidence standard, more deferential to the County, to every issue before the Court, whereas, the first standard of review, more deferential to the environment, should apply to several of Petitioners’ arguments, instead. Ms. Mansfield-Howlett asked the Court to re-review the issues before the Court under the first prong of abuse of discretion and Judge Warriner said that he intended to.

The next hearing is scheduled for March 1 at 1:00 p.m. in Department G of the Napa Superior Court. Circle Oaks will complete its oral argument and conclude rebuttal and sur-rebuttal argument. Next, the Center for BioDiversity’s and Sierra Club’s counsel, Aruna Prabhala, will present oral argument.