A recently approved update to the Tuolumne County General Plan is facing a legal challenge from an environmental advocacy group based in Twain Harte.
The Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, or CSERC, announced this week that it’s filing a lawsuit against the county and Board of Supervisors over the Jan. 3 approval of the plan, which sets long-range policies and goals related to land-use planning and development through 2040.
A copy of the 14-page civil complaint was provided by the center to The Union Democrat on Thursday, but the Tuolumne County Superior Court’s civil division had yet to receive it as of about 3 p.m.
The deadline for anyone to file a lawsuit over the plan’s approval is Monday, Feb. 4.
John Buckley, executive director for CSERC, said that aspects of the plan and associated documents fail to meet certain requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, as well as state planning and zoning laws.
“The plan has many, many points of controversy,” Buckley said. “Rather than attempt to force a redoing of the entire plan, this litigation is narrowly focused on some important issues.”
One of the allegations in the center’s complaint is that the board and county violated CEQA by certifying the plan’s environmental impact report, or EIR, which is required to be completed whenever a project is anticipated to have a significant impact on the environment.
The complaint alleges the plan’s EIR improperly assumed that development would not generally occur outside of established communities and failed to consider a number of feasible alternatives because it was narrowly focused on making development in the county easier.
“There are all these other values that are important, or at least as important,” Buckley said. “Protecting scenic resources to benefit tourism and people living here, supporting agriculture, maintaining a rural quality of life — these are all things that got diminished in the plan because it was so focused on development.”
The EIR also failed to adequately analyze and mitigate the plan’s “significant impacts” on climate change, transportation, biological resources, air quality and agriculture, according to the complaint.
For example, the complaint stated the EIR expects development under the plan to result in greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 that would exceed the state’s targeted threshold by more than 60 percent.
Buckley said the report relied upon a “climate action plan” that has yet to be created for meeting the state goals by 2040. He added that the county has talked about developing such a plan in response to climate change for years.
“There’s no consequence for saying it’s something you’re going to do, because there’s no legal requirement for the county,” Buckley said. “It’s not clear exactly when a plan would be created to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.”
The plan also re-designates more than 3,000 acres of agricultural land for commercial and residential uses and increases the number of homes that could be built on hundreds of additional acres, which the complaint alleges is inconsistent with goals in other parts of the plan.
State planning and zoning laws require a general plan to be an “integrated, internally consistent and compatible statement of policies,” the complaint stated.
Shute, Mihaly, and Weinberger, a law firm based in San Francisco that specializes in environmental law, is representing CSERC in the lawsuit. The firm also submitted comments to the county on behalf of the center one day prior to the plan’s approval.
Dozens of people spoke in support of and oppositon to the plan at public hearings on Dec. 19 and Jan. 3.
Many of those in favor of approving the plan included business leaders, developers and people in industries that would benefit from increased development. They argued that the previous plan approved in 1996 was outdated and cumbersome.
Buckley also spoke at the meetings and outlined some of his center’s concerns that are now included as part of the complaint. A number of others who spoke against the plan’s approval felt the process was being rushed during the holiday season and mere days before two newly elected county supervisors joined the board.
“We’re really understanding that different interests in the county can have different perspectives on a county general plan,” Buckley said on Thursday, “but because we have a responsibility to represent the environment, rural quality of life, and other resources values, we believe it’s our responsibility to point out the General Plan update doesn’t meet state requirements.”
The county received a notice of CSERC’s intent to file the lawsuit on Wednesday, as required by state law.
Quincy Yaley, assistant director of the county Community Resources Agency that oversaw development of the plan, stated in an email that she had only seen the notice as of Thursday but was “looking forward to reviewing the subject matter of the lawsuit.”
“I anticipate it will be on one of the issues that was previously raised by CSERC and responded to by the county in the final EIR,” she stated.
The lawsuit seeks a temporary delay on putting the plan into action and for the court to direct the county and board to overturn its approval and make whatever changes are necessary to comply with CEQA.
There’s also a request for the county to be ordered to pay the costs of the lawsuit and CSERC’s attorney fees, in addition to anything else the court deems “just and proper.”
Deputy County Counsel Carlyn Drivdahl said she had yet to receive a copy of the lawsuit on Thursday and couldn’t comment on what impact it could have the implementation of the revised plan.
District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer, who serves as board chairman, said he had heard about the notice of CSERC’s intent to file the lawsuit but also had yet to receive a copy, so he declined to comment on the specific claims.
“I have great confidence in staff and the group that we put together for both the General Plan and the EIR, and I believe that we will in large measure prevail,” Rodefer said. “But anytime you go before a judge, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.