​El Dorado County Wins Lawsuit To Proceed With Newtown Road Bridge Replacement Project

by Placerville Newswire / Feb 06, 2020 / comments

[Carla B. Hass. EDC CAO Media Release]

(PLACERVILLE, CA) –El Dorado County officials today announced a victory in the matter of Newtown Preservation Society, et al. v. County of El Dorado, preventing further delay of the County's project to replace the existing Newtown Road Bridge over South Fork Weber Creek.

"We are pleased that the El Dorado County Superior Court ruled in our favor and denied the petition for writ of mandate by a local resident and the Newtown Preservation Society alleging that the County violated the California Environmental Quality Act in pursuit of this important public safety project," said Deputy County Counsel Breann Moebius, who represented the County in the lawsuit.

"After more than a year of legal wrangling that risked delaying the project, we're happy to get on with the business of the County to replace the 90 year old Newtown Road Bridge to make it safer for the residents in the area and the general traveling public," said Department of Transportation Deputy Director, John Kahling.

Petitioners claimed the County's adoption of a mitigated negative declaration and approval of the Newtown Road bridge replacement project violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and that a full environmental impact report (EIR) was required. The lawsuit further claimed the County should have considered a "no project" alternative.

The County opposed the petition, pointing out that even though CEQA did not require the County to consider a no project alternative, the County engineering team had exhaustively considered alternatives in order to obtain full federal funding for the project.  The central dispute in the parties' briefs and at the hearing was whether the County had adequately evaluated and mitigated the project's impacts to fire evacuation routes during the limited time the existing bridge would not be passable during construction.  The Court recognized the expertise necessary to evaluate evacuation routes and that the Department of Transportation had coordinated with the Office of Emergency Services to ensure adequate evacuation options in the event of a fire during construction.  Ultimately, the Court found that the general and speculative concerns about risks of wildfire did not identify a significant environmental impact from the project, ignored the expert analysis in the record, and lacked the necessary expertise and factual basis in the record.

"While risks of wildfire understandably remain a significant concern of residents in our County in light of recent catastrophes, our department ensured that this project will mitigate any temporary risks to the surrounding residents and, in the long term, will provide a safer evacuation route, since the existing bridge is likely to fail similar to the manner in which the large culvert failed at Fort Jim in 2017," said Kahling. 

The Court found in favor of the County's arguments, finding no substantial evidence from the Petitioners that environmental impacts that could not be mitigated would result from the project and that, although generally preferred, an EIR was not required.

In fact, in its ruling, the Court cited case law and the California Public Resources Code, stating:

"The existence of public controversy over the environmental effects of a project shall not require preparation of an environmental impact report if there is no substantial evidence in light of the whole record before the lead agency that the project may have a significant effect on the environment…Complaints, fears, and suspicions about a project's potential environmental impact likewise do not constitute substantial evidence…Neither is the mere possibility of adverse impact on a few people, as opposed to the environment in general."

The Court's ruling also included the following:

"Petitioner has failed to cite the court to any other legal authority that CEQA laws and/or guidelines mandate that in the absence of substantial evidence in the CEQA proceedings raising a fair argument of a significant environmental impact caused by the project even when mitigation measures are applied the County must prove that the project is required and/or justified. The petition for writ of mandate is denied."

"We mounted a credible defense by providing evidence that the County had adequately considered the impacts of the project and incorporated necessary mitigation to reduce those impacts," said Moebius.  "The Court was sensitive to the upcoming challenges the County faces with wildfire risks independent of this project, but its decision reflected an understanding of the limited inquiry in the case and demonstrated a thorough review of the information before the Board of Supervisors when they approved the project."