Lost tax revenue, jobs and housing: We all pay the cost of unwarranted litigation.

Small obstructionist groups like the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (CSERC) and Citizens for Responsible Growth (CFRG) are using unwarranted litigation to frustrate, delay, and add significant costs to housing, retail, and job-creation projects that are needed in our County. Their real objective is to stop any growth. If your first reaction to that statement is "Why should I care?" read on, because the actions of these groups take money out of your pocket, and every Tuolumne County resident's pocket, every day, every year.

There have been numerous lawsuits threatened and filed in Tuolumne County. Here are just a few recent examples of litigation to illustrate the impacts.

Remember the lawsuit over the Lowe's Home Improvement project? This project was approved with adequate development requirements by the City of Sonora, and then was delayed for five years by a lawsuit filed by the small group behind CFRG. In the end, the expensive and time-consuming lawsuit did not result in any tangible difference from what was initially approved. The minor changes could have been negotiated at the time of the original approval. According to the Sonora City Finance Department, each year of delay cost the city between $350,000 and $410,000 in sales tax revenues that could have been used to fund road repairs, police and fire services, parks/recreation programs, and economic programs like loans to retain and attract small businesses. That is a total cost of $1,750,000 to $2,050,000 in lost revenue, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses that were incurred by the City of Sonora tax payers and one of our local businesses, which without those expenses would have put more money into the local economy. In addition, the tens of thousands of dollars that Lowes spends locally each year, and the 100 to 125 local jobs were delayed. The end result is higher prices and less money for goods and services, and absolutely no meaningful benefit to the community because of this senseless litigation.

The recently withdrawn approval for the Columbia Apartments in 2013 is another sad result of the abuse of litigation. Our County has a well-documented need for more apartments. This was a $7,000,000 construction project, much of which would have been spent locally, spurring other nearby economic activity. This well-located project, between Sonora and Columbia, would have created greatly needed high-quality apartments and much needed construction jobs. After a year and a half of study, and an in-depth review by the County, the apartment project was conditioned to provide needed road and infrastructure improvements. The project fully complied with County and State regulations and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The project was unanimously approved by our elected Board of Supervisors. Regardless, CFRG sued for the County to add additional permitting time and cost for a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) as a means to delay and stop the project. Fighting the unnecessary litigation would have cost the developer hundreds of thousands of dollars and substantial delays. As a result, the developer withdrew the project because the high cost of litigation to defend the unnecessary lawsuit made the project infeasible to build.
Most recently, Blue Mountain Minerals announced they also are asking the Board of Supervisors to withdraw approval of the expanded Agricultural Fill area, within their existing property, because of another unnecessary lawsuit filed by CSERC asking for a costly EIR. CSERC has said it wants the County and Blue Mountain Minerals to follow the law concerning the Agricultural fill area project. This is troubling because CSERC does not have any mining experience nor mining expertise on which to base its opinion. CSERC's interpretation of "the law" is not shared by County legal counsel; the Planning Commission; our elected Board of Supervisors; the State Department of Conservation, Office of Mine Reclamation; nor the State Department of Fish and Wildlife. All these agencies have reviewed the Blue Mountain Minerals Agricultural Fill area project and feel they have followed the law during the approval process. At the approval hearing, Supervisor Karl Rodefer said, "I believe that the mitigation that is desired by CEQA is accounted for and this is a good project."
The cost for Blue Mountain Minerals to pay for all the legal fees and consultants to continue with an unnecessary and additional EIR process will exceed $200,000 for this project. That cost is on top of $500,000 that was previously spent by Blue Mountain Minerals to successfully defend CSERC's first lawsuit against their EIR in 2005-2006. In that case, CSERC challenged a publicized decision by the County concerning what the proper baseline was for measuring the project's impacts. This step by CSERC was filed before Blue Mountain Mineral's EIR was even completed. The trial court ruled that the CSERC challenge was improper under CEQA. After CSERC lost the lawsuit, the group then filed an appeal. That appeal was also subsequently dismissed by the courts. Even though Blue Mountain Minerals won the lawsuit and the appeal, it was at a high cost to their business and our community. The total cost for the first project and the current project of over $700,000 means less money to reinvest in their business, fewer high-wage jobs, and less money available for supporting community needs like our schools, Meals on Wheels, the Senior Center, TuCARE, and other vital community needs.
So, once again, a small group of obstructionists are costing our community's businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars. We are left paying the real bill, which is higher costs of goods, higher housing costs, and less tax revenue, resulting in severe budget cuts and fewer resources being invested into community nonprofits. Supervisor Karl Rodefer stated regarding Lowe's, "There was a tremendous amount of money taken out of our economy because of that litigation. The CEQA process has been bastardized over the course of time. CEQA has allowed for mitigated negative declarations, not so we could sue and settle and string out the process, but to streamline the process." Unfortunately this repeated senseless litigation negatively impacts all of us. There are better options for the small group of people behind groups like CSERC and CFRG than to continually request delays for more studies and add costs through increased requirements and fees, thereby reducing the scope of projects to the extent that they are no longer economically viable. Then when those tactics are not successful, the groups file lawsuits. We all care about protecting the environment, and there are numerous County and State regulations in place to insure that protection. Our quality of life also requires a balance, and productive ways of finding solutions that do not involve litigation and inhibit needed economic opportunities. The obstructionist groups have to realize that this is not the way to solicit donations. Eventually these tactics are going to also impact the quality of life of the few people behind these groups as our County continues to suffer little or no economic growth.

Do you and your family really want the impact of higher taxes, higher prices for goods and services, higher housing costs, fewer job opportunities, and decreased government services? Considering our aging and declining County population, sixteen years straight of decreasing school enrollment, few jobs for young families, and a multitude of other issues, we all should care about the disturbing trend of litigation imposed on many viable and needed housing, retail and economic development, or job-creation projects in Tuolumne County. Isn't it time we all stand up and say, "Enough!" Reach out to your elected officials and become involved in the process, attend meetings, write letters, and let your voice be heard.

Ron Kopf
Executive Director
Tuolumne County Business Council

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