Since December of 2017, when the Marin County Department of Public Works released the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard Rehabilitation Plan, Community Venture Partners argued that significant flaws in the DEIR had to be addressed in order to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). From the outset, the County stubbornly refused to even acknowledge those arguments and Director Dan Dawson and his consultants, LSA, went to great lengths to refute them in their responses to public comment.
However, at the last moment, it appears that all of CVP’s objections have been addressed and new data has been incorporated into the Final EIR.
We are grateful to see the County finally bring the project’s EIR into compliance with CEQA, but since this outcome is so contrary to their previous stance, one wonders why the sudden change of heart.
CEQA is essentially a pretty simple law. It is basically about providing the public with all the information needed to comment intelligently and for elected officials to make well-reasoned decisions. It requires:
- Full public disclosure of all facts and circumstances;
- A complete description of a proposed project;
- Consideration of a range of alternatives to a proposed project, including a “no project” alternative;
- Identifying potentially significant impacts;
- Comprehensive analysis of those potentially significant impacts;
- Methods of mitigating significant impacts;
- Solicitation of public comment and input on the proposed project and CEQA document findings; and
- To do all this prior to the decision to “approve” the project by the lead agency – in the case of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard that would be an EIR certification and decision by the Marin County Board of Supervisors.
These are not overly difficult requirements.
However, it appears the County has been operating under their own unique interpretation of CEQA for decades, in violation of both the letter and spirit of that law. Having done this, unchallenged, for so long, we’ve historically found the County to be calcified and resistant to criticism or community input of any kind.
Could their final response in this instance indicate that things are changing? One can only hope.
The County’s DEIR failed to satisfy some fundamental CEQA requirements
As described in previous articles and in follow up comments submitted, under the guidance of CEQA expert Edward Yates (letter 1 and letter 2) and independent analysis by traffic expert Robert Harrison and air quality expert Geoffrey Hornek (letter 1 and letter 2), CVP objected to the following:
- The project description was incomplete and failed to include critical information such as the width of traffic lanes in the proposed street plan;
- The EIR lacked adequate analysis of potential traffic impacts of proposed plan: the report only included traffic analysis of the existing road layout;
- The Department’s contention that no CEQA analysis for traffic impacts was required because they could rely on the CalTrans Highway Design Manual, was patently false; and
- The EIR’s air quality analysis was inadequate and based upon incorrect interpretations of relevant standards.
As noted above, over the past six months, the County had repeatedly dismissed all of these objections and refused to acknowledge their failure to adhere to CEQA. However, the Final EIR now indicates the newly proposed lane widths for each intersection and roadway section. It provides traffic analysis of the proposed new street design, it no longer relies solely on the CalTrans Manual for compliance issues, and the air quality analysis, though not perfect, is improved.
We are grateful that the County “saw the light” in this instance and saved us the time and cost of filing yet another legal claim against them: one on which I’m confident we would have prevailed. They have saved themselves from the embarrassment of losing yet again in court, and more importantly they’ve avoided wasting more taxpayer’s money.
But again, why the change of heart in the 11th hour? Could it be that Community Venture Partner’s string of successful challenges regarding Brown Act, Public Records Act (working with Edward Yates and Friends of West Tam Valley), and on CEQA issues, in the courts, has begun to make the County sit up and take notice?
Though the County continues to respond to CVP as if we’re a threat, what we hope they will begin to understand is that what CVP is doing is an essential public service and for the good of the general public.
Hopefully, the County is beginning to grasp that CVP is not in the business of bringing frivolous claims, but instead is focused on carefully considered and fully substantiated legal arguments to force greater government transparency and adherence to state law.
Why is any of this important?
Some may be asking why these legal skirmishes matter. After all, the CVP arguments for this project and other projects are often highly technical.
The answer, first and foremost, is because the public has a right to know what their government is doing and on what basis they are making decisions that impact their lives. It’s about getting the county in the habit of undertaking a good public process, with all the facts and full disclosure, because with better information and data, elected representatives can make better decisions.
At the same time, from a legal perspective it’s about drawing lines in the sand and setting precedents.
Each argument CVP has brought forth in the past 4 years -- the Larkspur Station Area Plan, the Corte Madera Inn CEQA violations, the Mill Valley “by right” zoning challenge, the sports complex at the Hamilton Field toxic waste site, the Fairfax Victory Village zoning ordinance improprieties and the MCOSD Alto Bowl trails challenge (both working with CEQA expert counsel, Michael Graf), our ongoing battle against top down proposals for high density zoning legislation, and others stretching all the way back to arguments against the Marin County Housing Element and Plan Bay Area in 2014 -- has built on the successes and lessons of the previous arguments to send a consistent message to public agencies, and increase our knowledge base and our network of expert advisors and consultants.
Working hand in hand with local community groups has also been a key ingredient to our successful outcomes. Their efforts and assistance have been invaluable.
There are also legal principles at stake in each case, which can inform future government decision making. Our successful Brown Act (working with Edward Yates) and Public Records Act challenges have both resulted in noticeable changes in how public agencies are conducting meetings and responding to public information requests. Our successful Alto Bowl multi-use trails challenge has already resulted in adjustments of how the County is addressing CEQA on other projects in the open space.
Successful challenges on key legal concepts about “tiering” off of previous EIRs, improper claims of categorical CEQA exemption, improper “piece-mealing” of projects to avoid full disclosure of cumulative impacts, and other such issues establish precedents for future arguments of those same concepts in new situations.
This effort, this vigilance to remain “in the face” of improprieties is fundamental to ensuring good governance, because although today the issue may be failing to show lane widths and traffic impacts in a study, tomorrow it may be about critical life safety impacts or avoidable destruction of our quality of life.
CVP believes it’s important to demand excellence in all things at all times from our government agencies.
There is work left to do
As much as we applaud the County’s awakening to the requirements under the law for the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard FEIR, there are other core issues about which the community at large remains deeply concerned, all of which fall under the category of public engagement and communications.
In the past few years we have seen endless examples of local government agencies actively working to avoid public input, avoid open disclosure of relevant facts and circumstances, and generally playing what I’ve called “hide the ball.” The community is tired of having to demand transparency that should be standard practice.
The counterpart to this issue is the manipulative, highly orchestrated dog and pony show that masquerades as public process, led by a short list of well paid consultants, spewing out boilerplate “studies” and “responses” to public questions, all carefully designed to reach predetermined conclusions.
Public process surrounding planning, development and major expenditure decisions, should not be carried out as if just “going through the motions” is an acceptable standard.
Enough already. Time to innovate and use technology to engage the widest possible public audience.
Bob Silvestri is the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area. Please donate the CVP to help us continue to work on the public's behalf. We want to thank all our donors for making our efforts possible.