Reports Have an Impact on Environment : Development: Studies mandated by the state are poised to play a key role in the biggest decisions facing local officials.
They have been used to kill a state university site in Ventura and to dramatically scale back a massive housing project near Thousand Oaks.
They have also been used in petty neighborhood disputes in Ojai and as a stalling tactic by Ventura businesses reluctant to reinforce their buildings against earthquakes.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 26, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 26, 1991 Ventura County Edition Metro Part B Page 5 Column 1 Zones Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Environmental Reports--A reference in a Sept. 15 article to a 1989 lawsuit challenging an environmental impact report for a proposed Cal State University campus at Taylor Ranch was incorrect. The suit was filed in Ventura County Superior Court by the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County.
Environmental impact reports are increasingly found at the center of controversies over construction projects across Ventura County. They are poised to play a central role in the biggest decisions facing local officials: where to dump the county’s garbage, where to jail its criminals and how to bring water to its thirsty communities.
Critics say that environmental impact reports have evolved into bloated, unwieldy documents that run up construction costs, entice trouble-making lawsuits and cause unnecessary delays.
“It has become a tool for extremist environmental groups who want to stop development,” said Paul Meyer, executive director of the California Council of Civil Engineers & Land Surveyors.
Supporters applaud environmental studies as an extraordinarily successful way to examine the ecological consequences of any construction project before it is approved. They say the state law that triggers environmental studies is the principal barrier that keeps Los Angeles-style mini-malls from hopping over the county line.
“We would live in an awfully ugly place without the California Environmental Quality Act,” said Neil Moyer, president of the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County. “Look at the San Fernando Valley, that was built before CEQA,” he said. “They have landfills erupting like boils, their transportation corridors are comatose and they have no concept of open space.”
The California Environmental Quality Act was passed by the state Legislature in 1970 in reaction to California’s pell-mell growth in the 1960s.
Surprisingly, nearly everyone in the current debate over growth supports the basic intent of the law: to reveal all significant environmental impacts of projects and stimulate vigorous public debate before local or state officials give approval.
“I may not like some of the results and the time it takes, but on balance it is better to have it than not,” said Fred Maas, vice president of Potomac Investment Associates. The firm proposes to build 750 homes and a golf course on Bob Hope’s Jordan Ranch and has scaled back the project from 1,152 houses during an environmental review.
“I sometimes don’t like the 55-m.p.h. speed limit either,” Maas said. “But I’d rather have it.”
Yet over its 21-year history, the law has evolved through court decisions to reach a far greater number of projects and require environmental analysis on everything from air pollution to Indian artifacts.
Court decisions have brought a dramatic increase in environmental studies--a trend expected to continue as housing and commercial development keep pace with the state’s crushing growth in population.
Only a few years ago, the Ventura County planning division dealt with only a handful of environmental studies in a year, said Planning Director Keith Turner. This year, the number has jumped to 24 ongoing studies.
The scope and costs of environmental reports continue to expand as well. The county hires a consultant to write an environmental study and then bills the developer for both the consultant’s fees and county staff time to review the document.
Five years ago the county planning division billed developers $190,650 for the studies. During the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, the bills amounted to $739,970.
William Fulton, an urban planner and author of “Guide to California Planning,” said the widening scope of the law has given citizen groups a great deal of leverage--something he considers a good thing.
“The law developed such complicated procedures, it is too easy to challenge in court,” he said. “So when some people don’t like a project in their back yard, they can try to stop it by attacking the procedure rather than the project.”
Fulton cited as an example the request of Environmental Coalition members to expand the study of the proposed landfill for Weldon Canyon north of Ventura.
The 1,475-page document is well on its way to setting a record for the most expensive impact report ordered by the county on a single project. So far, it has cost $851,000 for consultants to draft the report and another $386,000 for county staff members who must review the massive document.
Although the study examined--and dismissed--the remote risk of the dump spreading AIDS to landfill workers or visitors, the Environmental Coalition asked that it re-examine the issue. Specifically, its members wanted to know if sea gulls might spread the virus by carrying used condoms from the dump to nearby neighborhoods.
The request brought the coalition widespread ridicule, but the county has set forth to answer the request along with dozens of others it has received.
“That is clearly an example of where an adversarial group wants to stop a project and will try anything to do it,” Fulton said.
Yet environmentalists are not the only ones accused of abusing procedures guaranteed under the law.
In 1989, a downtown Ventura property owner threatened to sue the Ventura City Council if it did not conduct an environmental study on its law requiring earthquake safety repairs on unreinforced masonry buildings.
The council backed down, on the city attorney’s advice, and has just completed the study.
“It had the effect of stalling city action,” said Everett Millais, Ventura’s director of community development. “It’s been 2 1/2 years. And the citizens and the city are paying for it.” The study’s costs have mounted to $126,000, he said.
The California Environmental Quality Act has created a multimillion-dollar industry of planners, engineers, biologists, archeologists and other experts who help assemble complex environmental studies.
“It’s a sizable industry and still growing,” said Richard Simon, environmental assessment manager for ENSR Consulting & Engineering in Camarillo.
Tightening environmental requirements have sustained the Ventura office of Fugro-McClelland, an engineering group that once subsisted off work in the Santa Barbara Channel’s booming offshore oil fields.
As oil development dried up, Fugro-McClelland’s engineers have focused more on environmental studies, said Mel Willis, vice president of planning and environmental services. He estimates his company does $3 million a year in environmental studies required by California law. Fugro-McClelland is one of several dozen firms on the county’s list of approved consultants.
In addition to professionals, the law has spawned a small group of citizen experts who have humbled seemingly invincible developers.
The best example is Russ Baggerly, a former cobbler from Meiners Oaks, who says his greatest victory was halting the proposed Cal State University campus on Taylor Ranch just west of Ventura.
Baggerly, self-taught in the California Environmental Quality Act, eventually found his way onto the payroll of Patagonia Inc. as a consultant to fight the proposed campus that he feared would increase traffic and air pollution in western Ventura County.
Looking over the draft environmental report, Baggerly discovered that the study examined the impact of a smaller two-year campus even though the Cal State system ultimately planned to expand the school into a larger four-year institution. With the help of a Santa Barbara environmental law firm, Baggerly filed a lawsuit.
In 1989, a federal judge ordered Cal State to redo the environmental study to examine the consequences of a four-year campus. Although Cal State has backed away from Taylor Ranch, the final impact study was completed last month and university trustees selected a site last week near Camarillo.
David Leveille, Cal State’s director of institutional relations, said the setback cost the university two years, $1 million in consulting fees, and what a growing number of community leaders now agree was the county’s best site for a state university.
“I agree with (Ventura) Mayor Richard Francis, who said, ‘We will rue the day we let the university slip from Taylor Ranch,’ ” Leveille said. He predicted that the hillside site with magnificent ocean views will one day be packed with condominiums.
Fulton said the university must share the blame for the setback. “It is a classic example of how you cannot give lip service to CEQA,” he said. The first environmental report was a rush job, he said, and limited only to the first phase of the university. After the defeat in federal court, he said, “they wised up and did it right.”
Most environmental impact reports focus on large construction projects, with the vast majority of smaller-scale projects exempted from the requirements by local planning officials.
In each case, city or county planners run down an environmental checklist of everything from the impact on endangered species to aesthetics.
Some public officials acknowledge that application of the environmental law can be uneven.
“Generally, it is more of an art than a science in determining when to require an EIR,” said John Prescott, principal planner for Thousand Oaks. “We concentrate primarily on the effects on grading, natural vegetation, wetlands, air quality. But it can be something like a visual impact.”
The city, for example, is exploring the impact on the “view shed” of California Lutheran University’s proposal to erect a 150-foot-tall antenna for the campus radio station.
Dennis Gillette, the university’s vice president for institutional advancement, said he understands the city’s desire to protect the surrounding ridgelines from unsightly construction. “I fully recognize that there will be some people who object to any type of development.”
To make the proposal more palatable, Cal Lutheran has offered to build the antenna as narrow as possible and place it next to a giant Christian cross that is already silhouetted against the skyline. “No one has objected to that, as far as I know.”
Because of their smaller size, Ventura County and its cities tend to scrutinize smaller projects than those in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Planning Director Turner said the county once ordered an environmental study of a proposal by a homeowner to change the address of his Ojai lot to incorporate the name of an adjacent side street.
Surprisingly, the homeowner’s request caused an uproar in the neighborhood, and he dropped the proposal rather than pay for an environmental study. “That was very unusual,” Turner said.
For the most part, environmental studies are reserved for larger housing projects, commercial or industrial buildings and public works projects.
“Generally, the more active the citizens groups are, the more extensive the environmental documents become,” said Willis, the Fugro-McClelland vice president. He said Ventura County is about average for a relatively affluent county in ordering such studies.
Former Simi Valley Councilwoman Ann Rock said she has seen city councils come a long way since she cut her teeth in politics as an environmental activist in the 1970s, when she was president of the Environmental Coalition.
“By and large,” she said, “public agencies are doing a conscientious job of following the letter of the law.”
Rock said she is irritated that environmentalists have grown more militant as government has grown more responsive to their concerns. “When I was involved, I was not out to lick the county,” Rock said. “I was trying to make a project better.”
She was angered recently by the Environmental Coalition’s push to study “condom-marauding sea gulls” at the proposed dump.
“To play on the fear of AIDS really teed me off,” she said. “It looks to me like they are manufacturing grounds not to have a landfill near someone’s back yard.”
Moyer, the Environmental Coalition president, said citizen activists must intervene to make sure local governments require the studies mandated by the law.
“We see a wide interpretation of the law, ranging from abysmal to awful,” Moyer said.
Times staff writer Joanna M. Miller contributed to this story.
Environmental Checklist State or local officials must require an environmental impact report if the project has the potential to degrade the environment. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, EIRs generally are required if the project would cause a significant impact in any of these areas: Air quality Groundwater quantity or purity Traffic, parking, road safety and design Endangered species, wetlands habitat, coastal habitat or animal migration corridors Noise Glare and irritating light Agricultural compatibility Scenic highways or visually aesthetic areas Prehistoric fossils, Indian artifacts Historic, ethnic or religious sites Beaches and sand dunes Seismic hazard Mudslides, erosion or flooding Aircraft hazards Fire hazards Hazardous materials or waste Sewage and waste disposal Electricity, natural gas and electronic communications Law enforcement Education and libraries Parks, trails and recreation General environmental goals and policies Source: Ventura County Administrative Supplement to State CEQA Guidelines