Residents sue over Green Bridge

08/08/2018

Community members who have long opposed Caltrans’s plans to tear down and replace Point Reyes Station’s historic Green Bridge have taken to litigation. 

On Aug. 1, Friends of the Green Bridge, a nonprofit formed by 20 residents earlier this year, filed a lawsuit against Caltrans that alleges the agency violated the California Environmental Quality Act on numerous counts. Reflecting a widespread call from community members since the project’s earliest days, the group asked the court to order Caltrans to reconsider a retrofit. 

San Francisco attorney Chris Carr filed the suit in Marin Superior Court this month, less than 30 days after Caltrans released the project’s final environmental impact report. 

In that report, Caltrans selected from five design alternatives and one no-build option a three-span, concrete bridge estimated to cost $8 million and take a year to construct, including a three-week complete closure of the throughway, one of two entrances to Point Reyes Station. 

“Nobody ever wants a lawsuit, but that’s what we had to do,” said Inverness resident Bob Johnston, a former professor who specialized in CEQA and who is leading Friends of the Green Bridge. 

Mr. Johnston has opposed the bridge replacement on grounds that it is both unnecessary in order to bring the bridge up to safety requirements—Caltrans’s key argument—and could lead to more traffic and development in the area. (The chosen design has a six-foot wider roadway.)

Ever since Caltrans engineers determined in 2015 that the 90-year-old bridge does not meet modern standards for earthquake resistance, many residents have criticized the plans primarily over impacts to the community. 

Like all state projects, the bridge replacement must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, as it constitutes an “activity [that] has potential for a direct physical change or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment.” 

The environmental impact report, which must also comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, is prepared to analyze environmental impacts and to outline mitigation measures, for negative impacts.   

The new lawsuit claims that Caltrans violated CEQA on four counts. First, it argues the agency failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives, including one or more “legitimate seismic retrofit alternatives,” in its environmental impact report. 

The draft report considered a no-action alternative and five replacement designs, addressing the retrofit option in a section that discussed build alternatives that were “considered but dismissed.” 

CEQA guidelines state, “The range of potential alternatives to the proposed project shall include those that could feasibly accomplish most of the basic objectives of the project and could avoid or substantially lessen one or more of the significant effects.”

The suit claims Caltrans lacked justification for excluding retrofit alternatives from the E.I.R. analysis. A month before the draft E.I.R. was released last spring, the agency produced a document titled “Recommended Seismic Retrofit” that evaluates a retrofit—yet the suit cites this document, as well as retrofit options submitted through public comment, as analyses that were not properly considered in the environmental report. 

As a result of this first claim, and the following three, the suit asks the court to void the agency’s approval of the project “on the grounds that such a decision was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise unlawful.”

The suit’s second claim is that Caltrans, in its E.I.R., “fails to formulate definite, enforceable mitigation measures designed to avoid or minimize the project’s significant environmental impacts.” 

More specifically, it says the report inadequately identifies and analyzes impacts from construction on nearby properties and facilities, including from access restrictions, noise, dust and vibrations. 

Other unaddressed impacts from the project include traffic congestion, the economic toll on the community and noise impacts on Marin Sun Farms, the Point Reyes Animal Hospital and other nearby residences and businesses, according to the suit. The effect on water quality and biological resources is also cited, specifically on Lagunitas Creek, which is subject to federal protections under the Clean Water Act. 

The suit continues that Caltrans has “impermissibly” deferred formulating definite and enforceable measures in numerous other instances, such as requiring surveys for the threatened Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly before vegetation clearing and addressing hazardous materials exposure for construction workers but not for adjacent residents or passersby. 

Third, the suit claims Caltrans’s decision to demolish and replace the bridge was “predetermined,” made before initiating and completing the environmental review process—also a violation of CEQA. 

The fourth claim explains that some information, including several accessory documents that explored the possibility of a retrofit, was released after the draft E.I.R and was not followed by a recirculation of the draft report. 

“Recirculation is… required when the addition of new information deprives the public of a meaningful opportunity to comment on substantial adverse project impacts or feasible mitigation measures or alternatives that are not adopted,” the suit states. 

In conclusion, the lawsuit asks the court to direct Caltrans to set aside its approval of the project; consider a reasonable range of alternatives, including a retrofit; identify and analyze all of the project’s environmental impacts and formulate adequate mitigation measures; and, finally, to shoulder the plaintiff’s legal fees. 

Caltrans spokesman Robert Haus reported that the agency cannot comment on pending or current lawsuits. 

The agency did give notice of a public meeting, scheduled for Sept. 6 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Dance Palace Community Center, where representatives will be available to discuss how Caltrans reached its final design choice. 

Yet for David Moser, a San Francisco attorney who owns property adjacent to the bridge and led the charge to reconsider a retrofit, the meeting is just salt in a wound. (Though barred by his property from joining Friends of the Green Bridge, Mr. Moser helped the group connect with their attorney, Mr. Carr, with whom he has collaborated in the past.) 

“Caltrans asked for public input only because it is required by law to do so,” Mr. Moser wrote in an email. “Caltrans has never actually been interested in any public comments that differed from the predetermined ‘demolish and replace’ project. Now, after all the final decisions have been made, it wants a ‘community outreach’ open house? To do what, explain to the community how Caltrans ignored the community? It’s so completely disingenuous and disrespectful.”