Claremont Insider: Friday's Environmental Report

Friday, December 21, 2007

Friday's Environmental Report


A Claremonter was in the news recently for Claremont's favorite pastime: A lawsuit involving an Environmental Impact Report.

James Walters, a professor of bioethics at Loma Linda University, likes to build houses on the side. Developer Walters owns a prime piece of real estate outside of Lone Pine, CA, on the road to Whitney Portal, where a trailhead to Mt. Whitney is located. The area, in the foothills of the eastern Sierras, is described as pristine.

Walters made the news in the Los Angeles Times in 2005 when he was trying to build a 27-home luxury development called Whitney Portal Preserve on the property.

(We've figured out how to develop anything - just add the word "Preserve" to the project. Remember Centex Homes' Stone Canyon Preserve at Mt. Baldy Rd. and Padua Ave. in northeast Claremont?)

An organization called the Save Round Valley Alliance (SRVA) argued that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project was inadequate. SRVA sued Inyo County, which approved the EIR, and has been trying to get them to consider an alternative to the project, namely working a land-swap deal whereby the developer could get a parcel of land in a less environmentally significant area in return for not building on the proposed site.

According to an article posted on the Sierra Fund website, the Whitney Portal Preserve EIR was improperly passed by Inyo County officials. A three-judge panel in Riverside ruled that the EIR did not fully consider alternatives to the project:

SRVA Advocates for Smart Growth, the plaintiffs in the case, have long advocated for a better blueprint for development in the region. They argued that Inyo County decision-makers should have considered the possibility of a land swap, whereby the threatened landscape could be protected and growth could be focused closer to existing development.

The panel of judges agreed. “We agree with SRVA that the analysis of the land exchange alternative is legally insufficient and reverse on that ground. The failure…effectively preclude[d] informed decision-making and informed public participation, thereby thwarting the statutory goals of the EIR process.”


State law requires that environmental review provide decision-makers with adequate information to assess the impacts of a proposed project, including alternatives to the proposal. But, according to the final ruling, environmental review for this project "…includes only the barest of facts…, vague and unsupported conclusions about aesthetics, views, and economic objectives, and no independent analysis whatsoever of relevant considerations.”

The decision is another important example of citizen action to stop illegal approvals of Sierra development. “We are delighted with this decision," said Tamara Galanter of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, counsel for SRVA. "The 47 page ruling reflects a careful analysis of the applicable law and recognizes the importance of considering alternatives as part of the environmental review process."
Walters isn't giving up without a fight, as the LA Times reported today.


Another sign of the Apocalypse:

Given the nature and location of the development, you might rightly figure that Professor Walters is a card-carrying, property-rights, small government Republican. Guess again. His political donations have been to Democratic candidates: $1,250 to John Kerry in 2004 and $1,000 Barack Obama in 2007.

Perhaps we should expect this. After all, in Claremont's own current EIR battle over the Base Line Rd. affordable housing project, we have such staunch Democrats as Human Services Commissioner Andrew Winnick, HS Commissioner Valerie Martinez, local Democratic Club president Bob Gerecke, Claremont Graduate University professor Dean McHenry, City Councilmember Ellen Taylor, and the entire cast and crew of the Claremont League of Women Voters, arguing that the project go forward.

In this upside-down world, the local Democrats have essentially adopted the logic used by tobacco companies to sell cigarettes, choosing to ignore a 10-year-long study by the USC Keck School of Medicine cited in the EIR that found that building a project so close to a major highway will likely lead to impaired lung development in children living there.

Winnick and the city believe, wrongly, that making the adults who move into the proposed units sign a notice that they are aware of the potential health hazards will waive any city liability in the future should kids living in the project develop lung problems. (Parents cannot sign away the rights of their minor children to sue.)

Our Democrats are also ignoring the recommendation by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich's office that the project be built elsewhere because of the pollution concerns.

Strangely, Winnick, Martinez, McHenry, and the rest have made their main talking point the argument that people have long lived near freeways, so we should allow the city to continue to build this project next to the 210 Freeway. In doing so, they reject the scientific evidence - evidence not on hand, not presented, when those older homes were built. (People have been smoking for years without harm, they need to be allowed to continue to use our safe, time-tested product.)

And, just as in the Whitney Portal Preserve case, the City Council, Winnick, Martinez, McHenry, et. al. (sound like defendants in a lawsuit?) are ignoring the alternatives. In fact, Winnick and others, have failed to mention the very realistic alternatives to the Base Line Rd. site. They act as if the alternatives don't exist. (Maybe if we don't talk about it, no one will remember there are other possibilities.)

Incidentally, does anyone know where Winnick, Martinez, and the rest were when Claremont's Village Expansion was being developed. Maybe they can explain why, with all the housing units that went in, there was no affordable housing component there or in any of the other housing developments that have been put into Claremont in the last 15 years. Apparently, it wasn't important to them.

Coincidentally, the Washington Post recently had a list of top 10 potential government ethics scandals. Number 10 has special significance for Claremont:

10. FEMA knowingly let Katrina victims live in hazardous trailers: Records indicate that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had cautioned its workers about trailers contaminated with formaldehyde. But the agency has been accused of delaying testing for the substance in trailers occupied by people left homeless by the hurricane.

A Republican adminisration's faux-pas serving as a template for Claremont's future foibles. Left is right, right is left. Strange times indeed.


Of course, not everyone loses if there is an EIR challenge because of Winnick & Co.'s muleheaded intransigence. At least City Attorney Sonia Carvalho's firm, Best, Best & Krieger, will likely get to defend the challenge, and litigation will mean hundreds of billable hours of defense work for the firm or whomever gets the case.

It may not be the best public policy, or the best process for developing that policy, but it's what we allow it to be.