Enviros Fight Giant Desert Development


     RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) - The Sierra Club claims in court that an enormous development project on the shore of the Salton Sea will create a new city that will irreparably harm the environment.
     The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Riverside County Board of Supervisors and the developer, Black Emerald Properties, in Superior Court.
     The 4,918-acre project would include up to 16,655 dwelling units and 5 million square feet of commercial space in the California desert, according to the complaint.
     "As county planners acknowledged, the project and its 40,000 or more residents would form an entirely new town, which would be constructed between the failing Salton Sea on the east and the sensitive wilderness lands of Anza Borrego State Park and the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument on the west," the complaint states. "Given the project's remote location, project residents - and especially early residents - will be forced to drive long distances for job and basic services. This massive influx of people, and the resulting traffic, will lead to an increase in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in a region that already had some of the nation's highest air pollution levels. It will also catalyze more growth and cause significant new impacts on nearby parks, biological resources and cultural resources."
     The environmental groups claim the Travertine Point development, and the county's approval of it, and of its allegedly inadequate environmental impact report, violated the California Environmental Quality Act, and the California Code of Regulations.
     The Salton Sea is saltier than the Pacific Ocean and is becoming saltier every year. It was created by a flood in 1905, has no outlet, and is polluted with agricultural runoff.
     "It's baffling why they approved the project in light of the economic downturn and the decline in the housing market," Aruna Prabhala, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Courthouse News in an interview.
     "Why bring in more development when there are already houses that are not filled? It doesn't seem to make sense.
     "We support smart growth, but where that smart growth occurs is important. They basically want to build a new town in the middle of nowhere. It's an ambitious plan that ignores the reality of the county."
     Paul Quill, the project manager, disagreed.
     "The Coachella Valley is a very popular area," Quill said. "Though the economy is currently not very good, we believe that it will change for the better. When it does, the need for housing will increase, and people will look here as a desirable place to live.
     "We estimate that in the next 30 or so years, the eastern Coachella Valley will increase in population by at least 150,000. A project like Travertine Point will allow this population growth to occur through a planned, sustainable town that will leave prime farmland intact, not the urban sprawl you get with 140-acre subdivisions."
     Developed by Black Emerald Properties, with cooperation from the Torrez Martinez Tribe and funding by Federated Insurance, Travertine Point project be roughly 35 miles southeast of Palm Springs. Eighty percent of it will be in Riverside County, the other 20 percent in Imperial County, according to the complaint.
     Travertine Point is slated to be built on the northeast edge of the Salton Sea, California's largest lake. Despite its salinity and pollution, the sea provides habitat for an immense number of migratory birds. Rare bighorn sheep and endangered kit foxes live in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which borders the project area to the west and south.
     Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in California, and is a popular tourist attraction for its seasonal wildflowers, and for hiking and camping.
     The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity say the Riverside Board of Supervisors approved the project despite its inadequate environmental impact report.
     "Among other issues, petitioners noted that the DEIR [draft environmental impact report] did not adequately analyze the project's impact on biological and cultural resources in the area and that its proposed mitigation measures were inadequate and in some cases unenforceable," according to the complaint.
     The plaintiffs cite critical comments from other organizations and government agencies. For example, the Department of Conservation criticized the project for seeking to build a new town on valuable farmland
     The plaintiffs seek a writ of mandate ordering the board to revoke its approval of the project and to do another environmental impact report that complies with CEQA and other laws that govern construction of large-scale projects.
     Quill disagreed with the environmentalists' condemnation of the environmental study.
     "The opponents claim that the project's environmental impact was not thoroughly studied, but there are around 3,000 pages in the environmental report, excluding the appendices," Quill said.
     "It was a five-year process, and it was revised and recirculated three times. The project was thoroughly vetted on the environment aspect, so we take issue with their assertion that it wasn't.
     "What we're doing is taking land that is out of service, with failing citrus and grapes, and replacing it with developed property, a self-contained town."
     While the complaint acknowledges that that EIR was revised numerous times, it claims that each time it was resubmitted for public scrutiny, the issues that organizations and government agencies expressed concerns about were never fully addressed.
     One such issue was the South Coast Air Quality Management District's allegation that Travertine Point's remote location - about 16 miles from the closest town - would lead to increased traffic in the area, which would hurt air quality in an already polluted region.
     Quill rejected that.
     "The entire project is designed to provide people a place to live, work, and play without having to commute," he said. "The mixed-use nature of the project means a reduction in the number of vehicle trips people will have to take.
     "We also had outside experts come in and analyze the project, and their studies showed that it addresses voluminous clean energy concerns by including sustainable measures like making places within walking distance, having electrical vehicle outlets, and using solar opportunities in residential and commercial areas.
     "Overall, they estimated that a person living in the community would reduce their carbon footprint by 38 percent as compared to someone living in a standard area like San Bernardino."
     But Sierra Club lawyer Erin Chalmers was skeptical about that.
     "The project does have a lot of interesting aspects, but I think they're making a lot of wildly optimistic assumptions," said Chalmers, an attorney with Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger. "They claim that residents will make 14 percent, or one in seven trips in the community on foot, but this is an area where temperatures are routinely over 100 degrees three to four months a year. The air quality is horrid, the sea smells disgusting, and there are many military flyovers at very loud decibels.
     "Believing that anyone will willingly walk anywhere in conditions like this is just unrealistic."
     The Salton's Sea's salt-crusted shorelines, half-abandoned towns, and boats in the middle of dry land all testify to the fragility of the environment. Some biologists have said that the sea's salinity and pollution will soon kill all the fish in it but hardy tilapia.
     "The Salton Sea environment is very fragile," said Prabhala, the Center for Biological Diversity attorney. "It's dependent on agricultural runoff, and there will be less runoff if they develop the lands."
     Quill, however, said the project could help restore the dying sea.
     "We, like a lot of people, have hope that the Salton Sea can be restored through effort," Quill said. "The project will contribute to the restoration of the Sea, not cause its demise. Since we really can't rely on government funding, we believe that through renewable energy opportunities we can help fund the restoration efforts and pay for things like cleaning up the area and desalination."
     Chalmers doubted it.
     "The project leaders have declared that they will help restore the area, but the fact is, they've only put forth a couple hundred thousand dollars. That's a minuscule fraction for the billions of dollars it will take to restore the sea," Chalmers said.
     "They even admitted that the will go forward without restoration. They really shouldn't start building this project until the Salton Sea has been restored to a certain degree, and demand for such a project occurs."
     The Riverside County Board of Supervisors approved the Travertine Point project in February.
     The plaintiffs say in their complaint that if the project is built it will destroy the area's "recreational, wildlife viewing, scientific, and educational purposes."
     Quill disagreed.
     "Urban sprawl is one 40-acre subdivision after another," he said. "You can have development like that, or you can plan a large-scale community that is sustainable and healthy.
     "The master plan for this new town ensures that development proceeds in a clearly sustainable, logical manner environmentally. It may not start for five years or until the economy drives up population growth, but once it starts, it has a plan. Only a certain number of homes can be built before we must build parks, schools, and job-creating businesses.
     "This ensures for the future that the original vision gets implemented. If you don't plan for sustainability, you don't get it.
     "We believe that this project is the model for urban planning in edge development in California."
     Chalmers was not so optimistic.
     "It will take 35 or more years to completely realize the project, and it might be built without the commercial development to balance out residential development," he noted. "People could be stuck out there in the middle of nowhere with no water.
     "Ultimately, this is a case where optimism trumps reality."