Humboldt County judge weighs arguments in challenge to Richardson Grove project

Caltrans’ Richardson Grove Improvement Project seeks to widen the 1.1 mile stretch in the state park to allow passage of industry standard trucks North of Leggett. A Humboldt County Superior Court judge is considering whether to dismiss a challenge to the project from environmental groups and residents.
Caltrans’ Richardson Grove Improvement Project seeks to widen the 1.1 mile stretch in the state park to allow passage of industry standard trucks North of Leggett. A Humboldt County Superior Court judge is considering whether to dismiss a challenge to the project from environmental groups and residents. Times-Standard file

Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Kelly Neel took arguments on Wednesday on whether to grant Caltrans’ request to dismiss the latest challenge to its U.S. Highway 101 widening project through Richardson Grove State Park.

Neel said she expects to have a written ruling before June.

“There is a lot to read,” Neel said to the attorneys in her courtroom. “I have read much, but not all.”

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 the Environmental Protection Information Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Friends of Del Norte 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.

The Environmental Protection Information Center’s attorney Sharon Duggan argued in court Wednesday the Caltrans environmental review was deemed inadequate by the court and changes made to the project would require it to amend its environmental review, which would require a public comment period.

She said the only way Caltrans could write an addendum to its environmental review is if they had a valid environmental review.

Caltrans’ attorney Michael Einhorn argued the appellate court only took issue with the impacts to redwood tree roots in its ruling on the agency’s environmental review, but that the review was “valid in all other respects.”

Neel is simultaneously set to make a another ruling as part of a separate but related case to determine whether Caltrans complied with the 2014 court order to revise its environmental review.

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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