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Second lawsuit challenges UTC road design contract

A residential-environmental coalition is suing the city of San Diego a second time seeking to overturn the City Council’s October approval of a nearly $5 million contract to do final design of a proposed road above and through Rose Canyon Open Space Park. The contract calls for the work to commence before the required environmental impact report on the project has been done.

“The whole purpose of an environmental impact report is to disclose to decisionmakers and the public the extent of a project’s impacts ‘before’ a major commitment is made to it,” said Deborah Knight, president of Friends of Rose Canyon, a non-profit citizen’s group which has fought the project for six years. “The City Council and mayor cannot possibly make an informed decision about this very environmentally damaging project before they see that report.”

The city estimates the new environmental impact report will not be finished until October 2009 and claims that it needs to do final design on the road in order to do the environmental review.

Building the road through the University City park would be a precursor to another proposed project, construction of a Regents Road bridge linking University City north and south.

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Council President Scott Peters, whose First District would include the Regents Road project, doesn’t believe designing the road before the environmental report is finished is putting the cart before the horse.

“Drawing a picture of a bridge has no impact on the environment,” said Peters. “It will tell us exactly what this bridge would look like. The more detail we have, the better discussion we can have. The opponents would be the first people to claim, as we do, that the general design isn’t detailed enough.

“What we’re trying to do is the most honest assessment of what this bridge would be like. The litigation is making it a lot more expensive than it needs to be. It’s a shame there’s been so much litigation over something that’s been in the community plan for 20 years.”

Marcia Munn, president of a pro-Regents Road bridge group called UC Connection, argues the road, and ultimately the bridge, are a public safety necessity, as they would provide the area with a new, much-needed regional transportation link and escape route.

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“This has been in the (University City) community plan for years and years,” said Munn, “and Regents Road is not connected because the bridge has never been built. On Genesee Avenue, traffic is backing up two times a day during rush hour. People and emergency vehicles cannot get through in an expeditious way. We need another evacuation route in the event of wildfires coming through UTC. There is only one way to get out - south University City. North of Genesee are 15,000 residents who would all need to get out of here at the same time. We need that opened up to have a second evacuation route.”

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed Nov. 28, are Friends of Rose Canyon and two environmental groups, the San Diego Audubon Society and the Endangered Habitats League. The suit charges state environmental law prohibits the city from such a major commitment to a proposed project before environmental review is complete.

“No private developer in his right mind would spend $5 million on final design without an approved project, and this isn’t even legally a ‘project’ without an approved environmental document,” said Michael Beck, San Diego Director of the Endangered Habitats League.

“Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration both specifically prohibit final design before environmental review is complete,” concurred Mel Hinton, president of San Diego Audubon Society.

By law, say plaintiffs in the suit, the new environmental impact report must analyze less-damaging alternatives to the proposed road, known as the Regents Road bridge project. Their lawsuit also charges that if the city proceeds now with final design of the road, it would likely ignore these less-damaging alternatives when the environmental impact report is completed.

The new lawsuit follows on the heels of the San Diego County Superior Court’s recent award of $450,218 in attorneys’ fees to the same organizations (plus San Diego Coastkeeper) as a result of their previous lawsuit - a sum the city must pay. That suit successfully challenged the City Council’s 2006 vote to approve a previous environmental impact report and implement the controversial road project. As a result of the lawsuit, the City Council rescinded its approval of the project.

“As part of their new environmental impact report, they must consider less-damaging alternatives,” said Knight of Friends of Rose Canyon. “One is to widen Genesee Avenue. We actually contend there are other, smaller improvements to Genesee Avenue they could make that would be sufficient.”

Regents Road bridge supporter Munn believes residents who have been fighting the project are doing so out of personal interest, not concern for the environment. “People who’ve been fighting this don’t want to bear the traffic we have to bear on Genesee,” she said. “This lawsuit, in my opinion, is frivolous, a delaying tactic.”

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Munn said damages environmental groups and Friends of Rose Canyon received from their first successful lawsuit were derived from an infrastructure fund north UTC developers have been contributing to for the last quarter-century. “The money to build infrastructure has been in the (community) plan for years to get that (Regents) bridge,” said Munn. “If they sue the city, and they win, the money to pay them comes out of those (developer) funds. They’re trying to dwindle the funds down, use up the money so they can’t build the bridge.”

Munn also took issues with environmentalists’ assessment of the state of Rose Canyon. “This bridge would go over the canyon, not through it,” she said. “We have two railroad tracks with 55 trains a day going through the canyon, power and sewer lines and an access road. This is not a pristine canyon.”

Knight countered the proposed Regents Road project includes both a road and a bridge through the peaceful and scenic heart of Rose Canyon Open Space Park. Environmentalists contend the contract for final design includes work that would have harmful impacts in Rose Canyon, including drilling deep borings and digging hillside trenches in the path of the project, which crosses though the heart of one of the City’s nine open space parks. The project itself would entail construction of a major cut-and-fill road and a massive concrete bridge.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuits, as well as federal and state regulatory agencies, have repeatedly called on the city not to pursue the Rose Canyon road project because of its environmental impacts. The project, they say, faces not only high environmental hurdles, but also a cost estimated by the city to be in the many tens of millions of dollars.

“This proposed road project may well never be built,” said Knight. “Throwing $5 million at final design at this stage is not only illegal, it’s a high-risk gamble of public funds that are needed for other important projects.”