The Cambria Community Services District could not be expected to address specific impacts of a proposed desalination plant in the environmental impact report covering the district’s water master plan, a judge has ruled.
Those impacts “are dependent upon final improvement plans for the … facilities,” Judge Martin Tangeman ruled Aug. 9.
LandWatch San Luis Obispo County, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group, filed suit in October 2008 against the district and the Army Corps of Engineers. It asked the court to rescind the environmental document and suspend all planning and testing and any other work on a desalination plant.
The court found established precedent allows public agencies to file environmental impact documents when it wants “to consider broad policy alternatives,” and when consideration leads to more specific plans “a new initial study would need to be prepared.”
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The district’s environmental report “continually states that further study will be required with site specific plan,” the ruling states, adding that LandWatch’s suit “conveys a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of programmatic EIR such as this one, where specific findings, analysis and mitigation measures must necessarily await identification of a specific project.”
In a statement released Tuesday, LandWatch maintained, as it did in the lawsuit, that “based on these findings (in the Water Master Plan EIR) the district can build and operate the desalination plant without any environmental review.”
“The lawsuit was ill conceived and a complete waste of the taxpayers’ and ratepayers’ money,” district board President Greg Sanders said. “The CCSD will do what is required by the (law) at every step of the way going forward. … This frivolous lawsuit has resulted directly in lowering the level of service the CCSD supplies to the residents of the community.”
The district says it has spent $50,000 defending itself in court and will try to recover from LandWatch whatever litigation costs it can, according to a statement from district General Manager Tammy Rudock. A district staff report said thousands of dollars in administrative costs are at stake.
“LandWatch initiated settlement talks, but director Sanders would not budge an inch,” LandWatch’s statement said. “(LandWatch) did everything we could to reduce the costs through settlement.”
“We offered to settle on terms that were very reasonable,” Sanders said. “Those terms involved a willingness of the CCSD to follow the law, as it has always done regarding the proposed desal project, and do an EIR on the full project. Those terms were rejected by Ms. (Cynthia) Hawley and LandWatch.” Hawley is LandWatch’s attorney.
LandWatch filed a second lawsuit in Superior Court on July 6 against the district, the Army Corps, San Luis Obispo County and the California Coastal Commission. That suit, which has been transferred to federal court, seeks to have the agencies go through the coastal development permit process in accordance with the county’s Local Coastal Program and the California Environmental Quality Act, rather than using the Corps’ participation to gain a federal exemption from state regulations.