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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California Highway Plan Speeds Past Objections

(CN) - Environmentalists cannot challenge a proposed four-lane freeway in Mendocino County, Calif., a federal judge ruled, disputing the need for a revamped environmental impact statement.

The Center for Biological Diversity and others sued the Federal Highway Administration, the California Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers in May, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

They claimed the Willits bypass, bordering the rural community of 5,000 north of Ukiah, just west of Mendocino National Forest, would threaten wetlands, salmon-bearing streams and endangered plants, including Baker's meadowfoam.

Caltrans countered that the 6-mile addition would reduce delays, improve safety and streamline service on Highway 101, which connects San Diego to the Oregon border.

The agencies conducted a supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project in 2006. After the California Transportation Commission and the State Transportation Improvement Program allotted only enough money for a two-lane road, the agencies adopted a tiered construction plan in the five years since.

Under the plan, two lanes would be built with the available money in an initial phase, and two more lanes would be added as funding becomes available.

Activists claimed, however, that this plan failed to address traffic volume, habitat damage and greenhouse gas emissions, and violated the National Environmental Policy Act. They said a two-lane road requires a new impact statement.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White sided with the public agencies on Thursday.

"The moving plaintiffs do not contend that Caltrans should not proceed at all on the Willits bypass project," the19-page ruling states. "Rather, their position is that, in light of purportedly new information and new circumstances, '[r]easonable two-lane alternatives exist,' and Caltrans should have prepared a supplemental EIS to evaluate those alternatives."

White said the plaintiffs failed to show that purported changes in traffic patterns required a revamped supplemental environmental impact statement. Moreover, they filed a motion only after the agencies awarded a contract.

"The moving plaintiffs argue the balance of equities is in their favor because of the alleged environmental harms that will result if the Willits bypass project proceeds without further evaluation," White wrote. "Counterbalanced against those considerations are the fact that the moving plaintiffs did not file their motion until after Caltrans had awarded the contract for the Willits bypass project."

Two of the plaintiff groups participated in planning related to the project since 1988 and 1998, White added.

"Although 'preserving environmental resources is in the public's interest,' there are equivalent public interests on the other side of the scale, which counsel against issuing an injunction," the decision states.

"Accordingly, the court finds that the moving plaintiffs have not met their burden to show the balance of equities tip sharply in their favor or that the public interest clearly favors the issuance of an injunction," White added.

The Sierra Club, the Willits Environmental Center and the Environmental Protection Information Center joined the Center for Biological Diversity as plaintiffs. California Farm Bureau Federation filed a brief as an intervenor.

White scheduled a case management conference for Nov. 16.

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