Caltrans’ revised Richardson Grove project under review by local judge

Caltrans argued before a Humboldt County Superior Court judge on Tuesday that its revised widening project plans for U.S. Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park comply with a 2014 court order to address environmental impact concerns. Environmental groups argued that the environmental review is “inadequate” and that the changes to the project require a more in-depth environmental review.
Caltrans argued before a Humboldt County Superior Court judge on Tuesday that its revised widening project plans for U.S. Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park comply with a 2014 court order to address environmental impact concerns. Environmental groups argued that the environmental review is “inadequate” and that the changes to the project require a more in-depth environmental review. The Times-Standard — filE

Attorneys for Caltrans and environmental organizations made their case before a Humboldt County judge and a packed courtroom on Tuesday as to whether Caltrans has an adequate environmental review for its controversial U.S. Highway 101 widening project through Richardson Grove State Park.

Superior Court Judge Kelly Neel said she will take the matter under submission and said that she would likely not have a decision by the end of the month.

Caltrans’ 1.1-mile highway widening project through the old-growth redwood park began in 2007, but has been repeatedly challenged in state and federal courts by environmental groups like the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center and local residents Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen.

Caltrans is seeking to expand the highway to allow industry standard-sized trucks to be able to pass through, but challengers claim the project does not address potential impacts to redwood trees and their root systems.

Caltrans has repeatedly found in its environmental reviews that the project would have no significant environmental impacts under both the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

A state appellate court panel found in 2014 that Caltrans did not provide information on the impacts to old-growth redwoods and how they planned to reduce those effects. Caltrans was then ordered by the Humboldt County Superior Court to revise its state environmental document.

Caltrans released an addendum to its state environmental review in May 2017, including a revised project plan that would reduce the number of trees that would be removed — no old-growth redwoods would be removed — reduce the amount of pavement that would be added, and reduce the amount of material that will be moved and used as fill.

Like its previous environmental reviews, the agency found its revised project would not have a significant environmental impact.

On Tuesday, Caltrans deputy attorney Stacy Lau argued the changes made to the project have fulfilled the court’s demands.

“The conclusion is the same as it was before, and there aren’t substantial project changes,” Lau Neel.

The Environmental Protection Information Center’s attorney Sharon Duggan argued Tuesday the Caltrans environmental review was deemed “inadequate” by the court. Duggan said that the only way you can create an addendum to the environmental review as Caltrans did is if they had a valid environmental review.

“It’s our position that Caltrans needed to revise the [environmental impact report] and go through the appropriate process to reflect how things have changed,” Duggan said.

Lau characterized the project changes as being “minor modifications” and that the agency was never required by the court to recirculate the environmental review.

“Because the impacts would be less than they were in the previous project,” Lau said.

Caltrans’ revised project plans were challenged again in June 2017 as part of a separate lawsuit by the Environmental Protection Information Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Friends of Del Norte and the four previously mentioned county residents. The litigation calls on the court to order Caltrans to cease project operations until it complies with state laws, to cover attorneys’ fees and the lawsuit’s cost and provide any other relief the court deems proper.

Caltrans’ challenge to these claims is set to be heard by Neel on March 28.

Duggan said Caltrans is arguing the latest lawsuit relates to Tuesday’s hearing in that Caltrans is arguing that it has complied with the previous court order and are therefore calling the latest lawsuit to be thrown out.

Another federal lawsuit challenging Caltrans’ environmental review of the project was also filed by the environmental groups and residents in November 2017.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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