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."
"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."
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