Santa Barbara County and its consultants had no duty to prepare an environmental impact report that was acceptable to a developer, an appellate court has ruled. A three-judge panel of the Second Appellate District, Division Six, unanimously turned down a challenge from the developer of Mission Oaks, a 3,877-acre residential project proposed near Buellton. The project called for 31 homes to be built on separate 100-acre parcels, with most of the land to remain in agricultural use for cattle grazing. A draft EIR had been prepared for the county by Envicom Corporation of Agoura Hills and other consultants. The draft EIR found, according to the opinion by Presiding Justice Steven Stone, "a multitude of significant, adverse, and unmitigable impacts." The developer of Mission Oaks, Stone wrote, "opines that the preparation of the DEIR was a sham, and that the conclusions in the DEIR are false." The developer hired its own consultant, who concluded there was no substantial evidence to support the DEIR's findings and conclusions. The Mission Oaks project was rejected by both the county's planning commission and its board of supervisors in 1995. A separate mandamus lawsuit was filed. The county won on the mandamus issue, although no ruling has been made yet on a cause of action in that case involving a taking issue. Mission Oaks, according to the appellate opinion, alleged that the county wanted to prevent development and generate excessive fees, so the county "falsely encouraged Mission Oaks to proceed with the EIR while knowingly having no intention of ever approving or recommending approval of the Project." Most of the Mission Oaks lawsuit that was the subject of the appeal was rejected at the Superior Court level, except for one Williamson Act claim that was later dropped. The appellate panel said that the suit was untimely, because it was not brought within the deadlines set for such actions. Statements at issue in the case are privileged under Civil Code Section 47, which prevents tort claims for preparation of an EIR, the court said. Additionally, the court said that the case was subject to Section 425.16 of the Code of Civil Procedure, the anti-SLAPP statute. The appellate court opinion said the only issue remaining was a breach of contract claim - that the EIR was not prepared under the requirements of CEQA and the fees charged to the developer were unreasonable. The county owed no duty to provide an EIR acceptable to Mission Oaks, according to Justice Stone's opinion, which was joined by Justices Arthur Gilbert and Kenneth Yegan. The fee agreement between the county and developer showed that the county had the sole discretion to determine the adequacy of the performance of the EIR consultant and the extent of payment. "The County owes no duty to assuage the desires of the potential developer," the court said. "The County did not abuse its discretion under the instant contracts or its duty under CEQA as to any of the consultant defendants or otherwise." Mission Oaks also argued that because the county was a third-party creditor beneficiary of the contract with EIR consultants, it owed Mission Oaks a duty to comply with CEQA. But the court said that the language of the county's contract with Envicom said Envicom's responsibility was to provide "a complete and accurate EIR" solely to the County, not to Mission Oaks "[n]or to any other third-person or entity." "CEQA is designed to protect the public," the opinion said. "If courts permitted lawsuits against environmental consultants by project proponents regarding the findings stated in their reports, the independence of the professional experts and the objectivity of their specialized findings and conclusions would be undermined and jeopardized by fear of retaliatory action." The court also granted attorneys' fees to the county under the anti-SLAPP law. This is believed to be the first time a court has granted attorneys' fees to a local agency under the law. "Disgruntled developers should not be permitted to frivolously tie up the resources of government agencies and the judiciary by suing for damages over the denial of their map and permit applications," Justice Stone wrote. Mission Oaks attorney Kenneth S. Meyers said the appellate court opinion "grossly misstates Mission Oaks' position regarding what our claim was." One caption in the opinion, Meyers noted, read "County Owes No Duty to Provide EIR Acceptable to Mission Oaks." "We've never contended that the county had that duty," Meyers said. "Rather, our contention is that the county's duty was to cause the preparation of an EIR which complied with the objective standards of CEQA." Mission Oaks has filed a petition for review with the California Supreme Court. The Case: Mission Oaks Ranch, Ltd. v. County of Santa Barbara, No. B108463, 98 Daily Journal D.A.R. 7903 (issued June 18, 1998). The Lawyers: For Mission Oaks: Kenneth S. Meyers, Alschuler, Grossman & Pines, (310) 551-9142. For Santa Barbara County: Shane Stark, County Counsel, (805) 568-2950. For Envicom Corporation: Jan Chilton, Severson & Werson, (415) 398-3344.