RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) – A Superior Court judge sided with environmentalists and found that a proposal for a new city of 11,350 homes will irreparably harm the San Jacinto Wildlife Area.
Friends of the Northern San Jacinto Valley sued Riverside County and Nuevo Development Co. 2 years ago, claiming the environmental impact report did not adequately study the proposal’s effects on traffic, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions and wildlife.
The Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the San Bernardino Audubon Society, and the City of Riverside joined friends as plaintiffs.
“The project is the Villages of Lakeview, extending over 2,800 acres consisting of 11,350 dwellings, a mixed-use town center including some 500,000 square feet of retail, office and commercial uses, public facilities including four schools and a library, and nearly 1,000 acres of open space/conservation areas,” Judge Sharon Waters wrote in her proposed statement of decision.
The environmental groups claimed the developers violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by using “unrealistic, unreasonable hypothetical scenarios” to assess its impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
The developer disagreed.
Nuevo said it followed CEQA guidelines by comparing expected emissions to a baseline of zero. It then chose to comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act, which sets standards for improving air quality by 2020, when assessing the project’s impacts on emissions in a business-as-usual scenario. Such scenarios predict a future state of things by assuming factors such as population, technology, and laws will stay the same.
Judge Waters acknowledged that regulation policies give agencies a lot of flexibility in setting thresholds for potential environmental impacts. She noted that the policies are unclear on when emissions “are significant to CEQA purposes in relation to GHG [greenhouse gases].”
But the impact report did not actually follow a business-as-usual plan as it claimed, Waters said.
“[It] uses an unrealistic scenario which ignores local planning and zoning laws, strips all vegetation from the project, and contemplates development on mountainous portions of the project site. … It does not appear the EIR used a ‘business as usual’ approach but instead adopted a ‘worst-case’ scenario as it began its evaluation of the GHG emissions,” the judge wrote.
She criticized the defendants’ use of the ruling in Citizens for Responsible Equitable Environmental Development v. City of Chula Vista, saying that ruling cannot support a project that is impossible to develop in light of current conditions.
“The use of this hypothetical ‘BAU’ [business as usual] here which is tied neither to existing conditions or reasonably possible conditions serves only to mislead the public and the decision-makers in their understanding of the actual significance of the GHG emissions, and their effect on the environment,” Waters wrote.
Waters also found that the impact report did not evaluate the project’s impacts on health concerns, and that its analysis of traffic impacts was inadequate because it did not study how an additional 85,000 car trips would affect two local freeways.
However, she ruled in favor of the county and developer on the issue of noise impacts.
The environmentalists said the impact report did not recognize that even small increases in noise could, when added together, cause even more problems for an area already plagued with noise.
Judge Waters disagreed.
“[T]he EIR acknowledges that because the cumulative noise without the project is significant, any additional noise contributed by the project would be significant,” she wrote.
Waters found that the developer studied the possibility of using sound walls, but found it unfeasible and thus acknowledged that noise impacts were unavoidable. Though environmentalists agreed with the assessment on sound walls, they did not offer any other solution to reduce noise impacts.
Waters’ ruling was mixed the question of whether the project was consistent with land-use policies in the county’s General Plan. She took the county to task for approving the impact report despite knowing that it will affect the roads.
“The EIR admits that at full build-out of both the current General Plan roadway system and the project, some roadway segments and intersections will not meet the required standards,” Waters wrote.
“The General Plan Circulation Element establishes definite standards regarding traffic congestion, not guidelines or flexible goals. The county cannot establish specific traffic requirements and at the same time approve a project that will cause unacceptable congestion without taking affirmative steps to handle that increased congestion,” Waters wrote, citing the ruling in Napa Citizens for Honest Government vs. Napa County Board of Supervisors.
This was the only fault the court found in the project’s relationship to the General Plan. Waters wrote that since the county created the plan, it possesses the most discretion when deciding when something does or does not comply with the plan.
Waters also ruled that the first of the three required findings necessary to support an amendment to the general plan was inadequate.
Though she found that the size of the project demonstrated the presence of an “unusually compelling event” and agreed that an amendment was necessary to approve the county’s desire to widen the Ramona Expressway, she ruled that the county did not adequately justify the need to change the general plan.
“Unlike the second and third findings discussed above, when the board made this required finding it did so merely by quoting the language in the extraordinary amendment procedure,” Waters wrote.
Waters declared the finding insufficient because the county provided no evidence to support its claim. She also criticized the county for trying to foist the responsibility to find evidence onto the court.
“To be adequate, a finding must apprise the reviewing court of the basis for the board’s actions. … It is not the responsibility of the reviewing court to comb through the record to find some evidence that might have supported the board’s finding. Here, because the board used the language of the required finding, this court does not know and cannot determine the basis for the county’s decision,” Waters wrote.
“The first finding is not sufficient.”
Waters gave the county and developer 15 days to file objections.
In her minute order, issued in mid-May, Waters shot down the defendants’ request for judicial notice and declared that the proposed statement of decision would act as the court’s final statement.
“We just got the decision in the mail last week, after the other side filed [oppositions] at length,” Rachel Hooper with Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger told Courthouse News. “It was definitely a big moment for us.”
Jonathan Evans, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement: “The county should never have approved a new city next to one of California’s most important birding areas. Luring tens of thousands of residents to the edge of the environmentally sensitive San Jacinto Wildlife Area was a reckless idea that was properly thrown out by the court.”