City responds to downtown plan lawsuit

The Huntington Beach's city attorney's office has responded to a lawsuit challenging the city's plans to attract more business and tourism to its downtown.

The legal team said the residents group Huntington Beach Neighbors has no evidence that the environmental impact report, or EIR, of the Downtown Specific Plan update is in violation of any law.

"Accordingly, this petition should be denied," the response stated.

The Neighbors filed its lawsuit with Orange County Superior Court in November, claiming the California Environmental Quality Act was violated because the city simplified the report to downplay the changes the improvements will have on the surrounding community.

"We are for development. We're not against development," said Neighbors President David Rice. "We're just for doing it responsibly, and the plan in place is irresponsible. We just want to make sure everything is being looked at."

The EIR the city prepared is what's called a program document, which gives the city the benefit of addressing broad policies, guidelines and measures needed to accommodate a future project, according to the response. Once the city begins to implement the proposed development, another detailed EIR would be required, the response stated.

The Neighbors, though, argued that the EIR fails to provide traffic, noise and parking studies on summer nights and weekends when the downtown area sees the most visitors and patrons. The group also argued that the report doesn't project enough police presence because it bases the need for enforcement on future residential and not commercial developments.

"They fudged something that's not representative of reality," Rice said.

The city argued that there is no evidence that the traffic study, which is almost 1,000 pages long, was not sufficient.

The only issue the court must examine is whether the study is credible, the response noted.

The EIR provides answers to future parking needs, which could include a shuttle service, the use of a commercial parking lot and valet, and parking permits for residents, according to the response.

Kim Kramer, spokesman for the Huntington Beach Downtown Residents Assn., said his group refused to join the lawsuit and advised against it because it jumps the gun.

"When you sue the city, you really want to have a good chance of winning, and you got to remember, this is going to cost the taxpayers money," Kramer said.

The city has never lost this type of lawsuit, and even if the group wins, there will not be any real impact because the proposed developments are not in the works yet, he said.

"I think the issues are important, but you have to wait until you see what's actually planned," Kramer said.

Councilman Don Hansen said the purpose of the EIR was to analyze different factors that will go into the land use and that could ultimately reduce traffic.

"We feel comfortable that everything was done appropriately," he said.

Huntington Beach's goal is to compete with other Orange County cities on the tourism front and attract more businesses and visitors downtown. The idea is to enhance and expand the area's residential, business and entertainment venues, Hansen said.

The city's planning and economic development staff completed an update of the downtown plan at the direction of the City Council in 2009, according to the city's website.

The council approved the plan last January. The preparation of the EIR and traffic study cost $952,000, said Kellee Fritzal, deputy director of economic development.

A hearing is scheduled at 9 a.m. March 17 at the Civil Complex Center in Santa Ana.

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