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September 8, 2020  |  Written by J. Palmer Hilton

California Supreme Court Holds Public Agencies May Not Categorically Classify Groundwater Well Permit Approvals as Ministerial

On August 27, 2020, the California Supreme Court clarified the scope of decisions that require environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources v. County of Stanislaus (County), the Court held that the County may not categorically classify all groundwater well permit issuances as ministerial decisions. Such a classification exempts well permit issuances from environmental review.

This litigation concerns requirements of CEQA and the operative effect of a number of County ordinances. CEQA classifies projects as either discretionary or ministerial depending on whether an agency is required to exercise judgment in the approval process. Projects deemed discretionary require environmental review under CEQA, while ministerial decisions do not. A number of county ordinances were in place regarding the approval of well permits that modelled the CEQA process.

The County had a policy of classifying all well permit issuances that did not require a variance as a ministerial activity. This policy was followed despite language in the relevant ordinance allowing for the County to exercise judgment in consideration of whether variance conditions were needed to protect waters of the state.

In considering the line drawn between a discretionary and ministerial decision, the court emphasized the agency’s ability to shape the project in any way, or whether an applicant could legally compel the project without any changes in the design. The Court found that a project is ministerial if the agency lacks the authority to address the environmental impacts. On the other hand, a project is discretionary if the agency has power to either disapprove the project or impose conditions on approval as a result of environmental concerns potentially exposed through CEQA review.

Ultimately, the Court found that the County’s blanket classification of groundwater well permit issuances as ministerial to be a violation of CEQA. The Court highlighted the County’s ordinance authorizing judgment and deliberation in decisions of whether to approve a permit. The ordinance set out general guidelines for separation distance between wells, but allowed agency approval on a case by case basis depending on individual circumstances. The Court determined that this scheme conferred significant discretion to the agency in both approval and deviation from the general standards of the ordinance. Based on this level of discretion, this decision could not be categorically classified as ministerial. Additionally, the Court extended this reasoning to hold more generally that agencies may not categorically classify permit issuances as ministerial if the applicable ordinance gives the agency standards requiring application of independent judgment.

This case is of serious import for California’s public agencies that issue groundwater well permits.

A copy of the Opinion is available here.

For additional information on this Opinion, and CEQA issues, please contact Palmer Hilton at philton@somachlaw.com or 916-446-7979.

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