Los Angeles, CA (March 16, 2017) – Two lawsuits filed over two years ago (March 24 and 25, 2015) by United Walnut Taxpayers (UWT)** and by the City of Walnut, ended on Tuesday, March 14, when Judge Chalfant of the Los Angeles Superior Court, in a lengthy forty-nine page decision, found that Mt. San Antonio Community College (Mt. SAC)
- Has a pattern and practice of violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) environmental law in the implementation of its facility master plan construction program, and
- SAC has improperly sought to avoid complying with City of Walnut ordinances
UWT originally filed suit in the Los Angeles Superior Court based on claims Mt. SAC violated CEQA, local development rules, and was intending to illegally spend Measure RR school bond funds when Mt. SAC’s Board of Trustees approved a contentious $48.5 million 2,300 space parking structure project. UWT also sued on claims that Mt. SAC unlawfully passed a resolution purporting to exempt the parking garage project from City of Walnut zoning ordinances and had a general pattern and practice of avoiding legally required environmental review for its facility projects.
In an unprecedented legal battle between a dedicated taxpayer group, United Walnut Taxpayers and the largest single campus community college in the United States, Mt. San Antonio Community College, the taxpayer group achieved a monumental environmental legal victory. This marks the first time that a community based taxpayer organization has achieved such a large and sweeping victory against the Mt. SAC Board of Trustees.
This is a victory for the Walnut community and a step in the right direction towards the preservation and protection of our environment, and ultimately, the quality of life in Walnut.
As a result of the UWT victory the Mt. SAC Board of Trustees has abandoned the construction of a 5-story parking structure planned within 125 feet of a residential neighborhood making the UWT claim moot. However, should Mt SAC revive the parking structure project once again, UWT will seek new and appropriate legal review.
Additionally, as a result of the UWT victory, a planned Mt. SAC off-campus 11 acre solar generating facility project in midst of the residential community will be required to start a new CEQA process. If the new Mt. SAC CEQA review is legally compliant and unchallenged, the court ruled that Mt. SAC will then be required to obtain hauling and grading permits from the City of Walnut. If the new Mt. SAC solar generating project CEQA review is deficient, UWT will seek new and appropriate legal review.
Separate and apart from CEQA compliance, if substantial issues of public safety surrounding the planned off campus residential neighborhood solar generating facility are not properly addressed in the hauling and grading permit process, the City is required to deny Mt SAC’s permits according to UWT.
Regarding CEQA, on March 14, 2017, Superior Court Judge James Chalfant made the following findings against the Mt SAC Board of Trustees:
“The EIRs do not address the details of the specific projects, they merely lists the projects that are part of the Facilities Master Plan. See AR 181-183. These are all characteristic of a programmatic EIR, not a project-specific EIR.”
“Mt. SAC must prepare and circulate initial studies to responsible agencies (at an appropriate time) as projects come up for an actual decision on design and implementation.” “The District was required to, at minimum, prepare and circulate an initial study for each of the Solar Project and the Parking Garage Project to determine whether the individual projects would cause significant environmental effects not examined in the Program EIR. Contrary to this requirement, the District did not properly prepare and circulate initial studies for those Projects.” “There is no evidence that the initial studies were presented to the Board or any responsible agencies. The District failed to proceed in the manner required by law by failing to properly circulate initial studies for the Parking Garage and Solar Projects.”
The judge further ruled, “United Walnut‘s Petition against the District is granted in large part. The Parking Garage Project is moot and United Walnut‘s claims concerning it are denied. For the Solar Project, the District failed to proceed in the manner required by law by failing to properly circulate initial study. The District also is required to comply with the City‘s grading ordinances in constructing the Solar Project. Finally, the District has a practice of preparing Program EIRs which can be used for tiering, but are not project-specific. Because it uses programmatic EIRs, United Walnut is entitled to declaratory and injunctive relief that Mt. SAC must prepare and circulate initial studies to responsible agencies (at an appropriate time) as projects come up for actual decisions for design and implementation.”
The Superior Court has ordered that Mt. SAC must rescind its approvals and start over with timely CEQA review that is fully vetted to the public and other state and local resource agencies.
The lawsuits have caused Mt. SAC’s major facilities projects and its Measure RR bond spending program to come to a screeching halt. Its plan to spend over $83 million to build an entire new stadium and athletics center is also currently wrapped up in a similar legal battle between the same parties and UWT contends the writing is on the wall how Mt. SAC’s handling of the stadium and athletic projects will also suffer defeat for the same reasons as its prior ones.
Attorney for UWT, Craig Sherman commented that, “This has been a long time coming and we are absolutely thrilled to see that the court agreed with substantially all of our claims and arguments. When we began this fight 2 years again, we warned Mt. Sac that its bond spending and environmental review programs were a mess and were shutting out public input and blatantly violating many laws.”
UWT President, Layla Abou-Taleb stated “Ultimate responsibility for the actions of Mt. SAC rest with the Board of Trustees. In many cases the Mt. SAC Board never approved or requested ‘initial studies’ or the required ‘alternate studies’ a requirement of CEQA. If any monies have been wasted or substantial repair or improvement delays have resulted that is the responsibility of the Mt. SAC Board of Trustees. Mt. SAC CEO Dr. Scroggins takes ultimate direction from the Board, which voted to approve the legally challenged projects despite repeated pleas by UWT to follow the CEQA requirements.”
“Our primary goal was to get Mt. SAC to consider concerns of the community for its large scale projects on the outskirts of its campus because they are highly impactful and affect the quality of life in the entire Walnut community. We’ve been calling on Mt. SAC to sit down with the community, talk to the community, and create a balance with their needs and the community needs. Hopefully, that is where we are now, however, only time will tell whether Mt. SAC will change its errant ways” stated Layla Abou-Taleb President of UWT.”
UWT has demonstrated that a small but dedicated group of community residents can make a difference on important issues of protecting the environment and public safety.
** UWT is a public benefit corporation formed to preserve and protect the quality of life in the City of Walnut. It includes over 500 local community members, has affiliated support of three residential communities and multiple business associations.