Peninsula Cities Lose Initial CEQA Lawsuit Against High Speed Rail Authority

It was the first of many lawsuits to hit the HSRA. Menlo Park and Atherton, joined later by Palo Alto - three adjoining cities on the San Mateo County/Santa Clara County border, among the wealthiest in the nation, sued in 2008 to reroute the train.

March 5, 2013, 10:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

The three mid-Peninsula cities wanted the high speed train to enter the Bay Area via the Altamont Pass from the East Bay rather than the Pacheco Pass which would have it use the Caltrain corridor that bisects the three cities. Mike Rosenberg, who has covered their many lawsuits as well as those originating in the Central Valley, writes that the cities sued under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and were successful in getting the Authority to "decertify the massive environmental study" that resulted in making some changes along the route - but not the abandonment of the route, which was their intention.

Was this the poster child case for CEQA abuse?  The original August 2008 suit led "to an epic legal saga that resulted in numerous public hearings and 163 court filings".

The case had been held up by businesses as an example for reforming California's landmark environmental law, an effort under way in the Legislature this year. The Peninsula cities, which are opposed to the rail line coming through their idyllic towns because they believe it will be noisy and unattractive, had used the law as grounds to sue and delay the state's biggest ever public works project, costing the state tens of thousands of dollars in court fees.

It is unknown whether the plaintiffs will appeal this decision while another one of their lawsuits is "winding its way through the state Court of Appeal and probably wont' be heard until this fall". However, their attorney's words would lead some to think it doubtful.

"The judge has essentially said this time, 'Yeah (the state) got it right,'" said Stuart Flashman, an attorney representing the Peninsula cities. "I'm not 100 percent surprised. Each time when you go back and do this again, it gets a little harder."

Rosenberg writes that "(t)he one significant case remaining against the project will be heard in court in April. In that case, Madera farmers opposed to the bullet train, suing under the state's environmental law, have asked a judge to block this summer's groundbreaking." In addition, a "taxpayer lawsuit alleges state cannot legally spend proposition 1a bond proceeds on central valley project".

The High-Speed Rail Authority's press release (PDF) noted the significance of the the "blended rail" approach to sharing the Caltrain corridor that may allay some of the fears of the three cities of the use of eminent domain for an expanded right-of-way.

The Town of Atherton had argued the Authority did not comply with the requirements of CEQA, but the court rejected that argument, noting the project could proceed through a phased implementation approach or through a blended system in the Caltrain corridor.

Also writing on the outcome of this and the prior lawsuits by the three cities is California High Speed Rail Blogger Robert Cruickshank in his post, "The Original Frivolous Lawsuit Is Finally Dismissed". Cruickshank doesn't pull his punches on the issue of CEQA reform and how it relates to this lawsuit.

This lawsuit is a reminder that some sort of CEQA reform is badly needed. It has to be good reform that strengthens the law rather than carving out loopholes. But after four and a half years and god knows how many hundreds of thousands of public dollars spent on legal fees, it’s clear that this lawsuit was unnecessary, unjustified, and unsuccessful.

Friday, March 1, 2013 in San Jose Mercury News

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