Proposed housing in East Bay hills derailed by court ruling

LIVERMORE — A housing development that was more than a decade in the making is now on hold after a state appeals court ruled that the city’s environmental assessment process for the project was flawed.

The March 30 decision by a three-member panel of the California District First Circuit Court of Appeals marks a major victory for a group of residents suing to block development of a 80-acre property in the Garaventa Hills area of ​​north Livermore because they it wanted to see how the ecologically sensitive hillside land is preserved.

San Ramon developer Lafferty Communities plans to build 44 homes on the property, which Livermore City Council approved in 2019. However, the jury said Livermore’s environmental impact report failed to properly and thoroughly assess the “no-project alternative” — the option of not developing the land at all — making the report inadequate under state law.

“I’m grateful to the three Circuit Court judges who heard what we said,” said Bianca Covarelli, a member of the Save the Hill group, which sued Livermore in 2019 over authorizing the environmental assessment and project.

While Alameda County Court Judge Frank Roesch agreed in a fall 2020 ruling that the city’s assessment was “poor,” he ultimately ruled that the civic group did not “exhaust all avenues” to alert the city to the issue make before they challenged the environment review in court.

The Court of Appeal disagreed with Roesch and ordered his judgment set aside.

“The record is replete with incidents where Save the Hill officials urged council members to consider the possibility of raising finance to purchase and maintain the project site,” the judges wrote.

Several million dollars from two separate previous settlements — the Dougherty Valley Settlement Agreement and the Altamont Landfill Settlement Agreement — stemming from litigation over a major housing project and landfill expansion, were available for the city to purchase vacant land, the authorities wrote Judge . But the city didn’t include this information in its environmental report.

When council members at public meetings in 2019 asked employees about the option of buying the land and preventing development, “they were advised by employees and attorneys that it was too late and would hold the city liable,” the judges wrote .

“They were also instructed to limit their focus to the project in front of them — although (the California Environmental Quality Act) required them to focus on both the project and possible alternatives, including the no-project alternative,” they wrote Judge.

The city and East Bay Regional Park District used a portion of those funds in 2011 to purchase environmentally sensitive land known as the Farber property, which the court said was also being considered for development. The land is now part of the Brushy Peak Regional Preserve.

“The fact that there are two sources of funding that serve the precise purpose of allowing the city to acquire ecologically sensitive areas like Garaventa Hills for conservation is exactly the type of information (California’s Environmental Quality Act) provided to those those responsible for making often irreversible environmental decisions on behalf of the public,” the judges wrote.

The judges said that because the city council lacked “adequate information about the no-project alternative,” it could not make an “informed, reasoned decision” about the project. They ordered the city to pre-approve the environmental report and the project “must be shelved” and a new environmental report completed before construction can begin.

“We should have been heard in the numerous City Council and Planning Commission meetings as we tried to communicate, collaborate, and work together to preserve this land because it’s such a rare and unique ecosystem,” Covarelli said in an interview.

The land proposed by Lafferty for development since 2011, along with the adjacent Garaventa Wetlands Preserve, provide habitat for a variety of species and plants protected under California or state Endangered Species Acts, including the California red-footed frog, California tiger salamander, California burrowing owl, San Joaquin Kit Fox, western spadefoot and vernal pond fairy shrimp.

The Livermore Tarplant, Palmate-bracted Bird’s Beak and Congdon’s Tarplant are also found in the area.

Lafferty originally proposed building 76 homes in the area with a vehicular bridge over Altamont Creek in 2011, but reduced it to 47 homes before the project was rejected by the planning commission and city council in 2014 and 2015. The current proposal, 44 houses and a footbridge over the creek, was first circulated in 2017 and approved in April 2019. The citizens’ group filed its lawsuit the next month.

“It’s a very beautiful place, and it’s the last open rolling hill in our city growth line within our city limits. They’re building everywhere else in Livermore,” Covarelli said.

“I will not rest until we see this country preserved forever,” she said.

Livermore City attorney Jason Alcala said in an email that his office is “considering the appeals court’s opinion and has no comment at this time.”

“Hopefully the legal parts of this are in the rearview mirror,” Covarelli said, “and we can work together like we should have three years ago to preserve the country.” Proposed housing in East Bay hills derailed by court ruling

Joel McCord

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