California Attorney General supports SOFAR lawsuit against the County

provided by SOFAR

n a case that is gaining statewide and national attention, the San Diego Superior Court has permitted the filing of two amicus briefs in support of Save Our Forest & Ranchlands' (SOFAR) lawsuit against San Diego County's proposal (GPA 96-03) to replan and rezone approximately 200,000 acres of back-country ranchlands.

One of the amicus, or "friend of the court," briefs was filed by the Office of the Attorney General of the State of California; the second was filed by a coalition of nine environmental groups concerned about San Diego's future. SOFAR has argued that, despite the passage of nearly four years since the court first ordered it do so, the county has failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in approving the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for GPA 96-03. In asking the court to halt the project, SOFAR charged that "if allowed to stand, the county's approach would make a mockery not only of CEQA's core procedural requirements for good faith effort at full disclosure of environmental impacts, but also of CEQA's fundamental substantive requirement to avoid those impacts whenever feasible."

The Office of the Attorney General of the State of California, in its amicus brief, strongly agreed with SOFAR: "The EIR fails to provide even the most minimal information about the specific impacts of GPA 96-03 on sensitive wildlife species." This approach, the brief added, "would eliminate a CEQA analysis when a project is expected to have significant environmental impacts" and thereby "turn CEQA on its head."

The Attorney General's Office also criticized the EIR for its failure to properly analyze measures that could have mitigated or avoided the adverse impacts of the project. Other agricultural counties have adopted measures to avoid such impacts, as SOFAR had told the County, and "the County itself had information and policies that enable it to do the same." The decision "to disregard and dismiss [these] feasible mitigation measures," the brief concluded, violates "CEQA's requirement to 'mitigate or avoid significant effects on the environment whenever it is feasible to do so.'"

The Office of the Attorney General repeatedly emphasized the statewide importance of this case, noting that "the potential clearing and grading of vast amounts of natural habitat in San Diego County will impair or destroy the state's biological resources, damaging habitats utilized by numerous sensitive plant and animal species." The adverse "precedents set by the inadequate environmental review conducted for the proposed project," the brief added, "could have enormous impact on the protection of natural habitats."

The second amicus brief, authored by Professor Daniel P. Selmi, was filed on behalf of a coalition of nine environmental groups, including California Native Plant Society, California Oaks Foundation, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Health Coalition, Mountain Defense League, San Diego Audubon Society, San Diego BayKeeper, Sierra Club, and Surfrider Foundation. These groups, which include both statewide and local organizations concerned with San Diego County's future, charged that the County "has fundamentally misconceived its responsibilities under the California Environmental Quality Act." The groups argued that the County had not engaged in a "good faith effort" to gather all relevant information concerning the general plan's significant impacts on biological and plant resources. For example, the County "made no effort to determine the project's actual effects" on endangered species, resulting in an "utter lack of detail" concerning those effects.

The environmental groups also accused the county of refusing to examine mitigation measures that would lessen the project's significant environmental impacts. The groups claimed that the county had illegally determined that all mitigation measures were, per se, infeasible because they allegedly would interfere with the "purpose" of the project. By doing so, declared the groups, the county had illegally used this narrowly defined purpose "as a vehicle for avoiding the county's legal obligation to identify and evaluate an array of mitigation measures that will eliminate or reduce the project's significant impacts." Finally, the groups requested the court to overturn the county's decision because the county "has resisted full compliance with CEQA from the beginning of its effort to approve this project."