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LETTERS: The Rancho Laguna CEQA Suit

The attorney representing a Moraga man who sued his town over its plan to build a fenced-in dog area breaks down the rationale for the suit and costs of that action.

 

Dear Editor:           

This is clarify some confusion concerning legal costs incurred by the Town of Moraga following its decision to contest the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) lawsuit that was filed last January by long-time Moraga resident Steve Smith.  The lawsuit was in response to the Town’s claim that the fenced-in dog area it was on the verge of establishing at Rancho Laguna Park (“RLP”) was a categorically EXEMPT Project under CEQA.  In other words, that no environmental review was necessary, at all.

Nevertheless, as the Town later confirmed, it had NEVER been entitled to claim the Project was EXEMPT.  That the Town needlessly incurred at least $58,000 in legal fees by wrongly contesting the lawsuit (rather than simply following the law, as it was required to do), is only a part of the debacle that has been taking place for almost four years now. 

That the Town incurred the costs is particularly troubling, given that from the outset, Town officials (including Staff, Park & Rec Commissioners and the three Council members who voted for the Project, and later the elimination of off-leash hours altogether) had been informed both in writing and at Council & Commission meetings that CEQA review would be required. 

Beyond that Town officials at all levels chose to ignore that CEQA applied, and, accordingly, that there was no basis for the Town to file a Notice of Exemption with the County, is that the Council choose to incur significant legal costs to contest the lawsuit, without simply first assessing whether there was sensitive habitat (requiring CEQA review).

Just having a biologist spending an hour of his/her time to make a brief onsite visit to RLP would have quickly confirmed the validity of the lawsuit.  And even though the Town ultimately paid an environmental firm $7,000 to do an assessment, this amount pales in comparison to the $58,000 in legal fees spent before the Council even thought about simply doing a quick  and cost-effective assessment of the validity of the CEQA claim (again, an hour’s worth of a biologist’s time would have quickly so confirmed).  Mind-blowing waste.

Another part of this almost four-year debacle is the proposed “Project,” itself, and how it would have needlessly eliminated one of the most popular and appreciated features of the park (the North side Picnic and barbeque area). 

Additionally, as to suitability and safety, no one is aware of any existing Dog Park that is as deficient as what would have been left, after the North Side Picnic and BBQ area had been eliminated.  To begin, no one is aware of a Dog Park that has wood chips as its ground cover, or is as narrow and full of trees, as this space would be.  The space, including obstructions and surface, is not suitable for the safe running and playing by dogs, or the walking exercise that dog owners have been able to experience with the 30 years of off-leash hours use.  Further, it would not be usable or accessible for people with disabilities, or balance issues.

Also, and very significantly, whether people were aware of the lawsuit or not, everyone should understand that BUT FOR the timely filing of it, the elimination of the North  Side Picnic and BBQ ( a much appreciated and wonderful feature of RLP) would have been rushed through, and completed by early or mid March of this year.

In other words, without the three Council members (Mendoca, Harpham and Chew) ever asking even one question about the adequacy, safety and accessibility of the proposed dog area (let alone expressing any concern about elimination of the North Side Picnic and BBQ area), it would have been gone, before the Community at large was ever aware of what was going on.

That the three Council members would have so mindlessly eliminated a wonderful feature of the Park, and to do so to create an unsafe and inadequate space for dogs and those owners able to access it, is stunning.

Consequently, to me, as private citizen (and not in conjunction with the CEQA suit), it was preferable that off-leash hours be terminated rather than that RLP be diminished by the needless removal of a wonderful feature of the Park. 

Accordingly, I expressed to the Council that it would be preferable to eliminate off-leash hours, altogether, rather than proceed with creating the inadequate and unsafe area that three of the five Council members were proposing to do. 

The thought being, at that time, that it would have been better to protect the Park from being mindlessly diminished, and then later seeking to restore the 30-year tradition of off-leash hours.  Now, thanks to the Referendum, the off-leash hours have been restored until the Council, either reconsiders, and rescinds their banning off-leash hours, or continues to seek elimination of off-leash hours by letting the issue go to ballot at a later election time.

In closing, hopefully, the above information helps clarify the validity of the CEQA suit to those who may have questioned it.  If not, at the least, I would hope that they realize that BUT FOR the timely filing of it, a wonderful feature of the park would have lost.  Not to mention that certain Council members chose to spend at least $58,000 in legal fees to contest the suit, before just simply paying for an hour a biologist time to inspect the Park.

A  simple inspection would have readily confirmed the validity of the suit, and that the Town was not entitled to claim the proposed project was categorically Exempt from CEQA review.

 

Best regards,

Bill Cosden
Attorney for Steven Smith in
Smith v. Town of Moraga

Jon Chambers July 11, 2012 at 11:38 PM
Don't get too excited 2nd Gen. Think that when the County gets to the required number of signatures, they stop counting. So while 1,014 were actually certified, a much larger number could have been certified, if necessary. While I disagree with their approach, I have to give the off-leash advocates credit for collecting a large number of signatures in a very brief time period--they did a really good job on this. Now, if we could bring all that energy and enthusiasm to a compromise solution, we could get something positive done.
Ryan July 11, 2012 at 11:38 PM
So @ 1800 you were reasonable but now that it is just over 1000 you are just over it and want them to ban off leash hours completely? Somehow I don't think this is what put you over the top.....
2nd Generation Moraga July 12, 2012 at 12:08 AM
@JC: 1,830 unverified signature / 1,089 verified signatures / 1014 "sufficient" signatures. 75 "not sufficient" (3 not sufficient due to duplication). Not sure how they count them or if they count them all (it seems like they do). @Crime Dog: Yep, rescind the ordinance, eliminate the off-leash hours. Cost = $0.00. Enough is enough.
Ryan July 12, 2012 at 12:19 AM
You have been in town for 30 years at least, how long have these off leash hours bothered you? Why did it take you so long to stand up to these unruly dog owners? What about them using the park for a very limited amount of time per day makes you so upset?
Jose July 12, 2012 at 03:55 AM
I am pretty sure this "30 years of off-leash tradition" is low-balling the historical facts. Joaquin Moraga's own dog, Higgs-boson, was never on a leash. But despite that, the more relevant and important issue would seem to be this civil war in Moraga and the endless blame game which will not end! Some of us on the sidelines would love to end it for you before you make the national news. Put 2 proposals to a vote. The expense will be justified if it restores the peace.

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