Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places of western North America
and the Pacific through science, policy, education, and environmental law.

September 13, 2001

Lawsuit Cites Impacts to Water Supply, Traffic, Local Quality of Life, and Rare Wildlife

Contacts: Dr. Tim Krantz, San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society (909) 335-5149
Kassie Siegel, Center for Biological Diversity (909) 659-6053
Gary Lewis, Cherry Valley Acres and Neighbors (909) 769-9841
Stan Riddell, Cherry Valley Acres and Neighbors (909) 845-4447

Today two local conservation groups, the Center for Biological Diversity ("Center"), San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society ("Audubon"), and a local community group, Cherry Valley Acres and Neighbors, went to court to try to overturn Riverside County's recent approval of the Oak Valley Development in western Riverside County. "This suit is about protecting the environment and quality of life in the Inland Empire," said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity, "We can not stand by while Riverside County ignores the laws that were designed to protect the public from the destruction of our native wildlife and biodiversity, from urban sprawl, and from gridlock."

The lawsuits, filed under the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") and the Planning and Zoning Law, challenge the Riverside County Board of Supervisors' July 17th approval of 4,367 residential units on approximately 1,748 acres of wildlife habitat and open space in unincorporated Riverside County between the cities of Calimesa and Beaumont. The Board of Supervisors approval followed a unamimous 4-0 DENIAL of the project by the Riverside County Planning Commission on June 6. The Planning Commission's chief concerns were the lack of an adequate water supply for the project, impacts to wildlife and endangered species, and the fact that the project will exacerbate the jobs/housing imbalance in western Riverside County.

While massive, the approved development is only one part of what is essentially a new city proposed for the area. All told, over 13,000 dwelling units on over 6,000 acres are proposed by Oak Valley Partners LP, the project proponent and development corporation. The second and third components of the Oak Valley Project adjoin the current development area and fall under the jurisdiction of the City of Beaumont and the City of Calimesa, respectively. Dr. Tim Kranz, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Redlands, stated, "The project as a whole represents putting a city of 50,000 people in the rolling hills and lush riparian wetlands of upper San Timoteo Canyon. This, together with 20,000 lots already approved, but not yet built in the Banning Beaumont are, will have enormous impacts on regional water supply, traffic congestion, and air quality, affecting the quality of life of everyone in the Inland Empire."

One of the most troubling aspects of the Oak Valley Project approval is that there is not enough water available for the proposed new city, which overlays a groundwater basin that has been in overdraft for many years. The lawsuits expose this flaw, and critiques the Environmental Impact Report for relying on the illusory "paper water" entitlements of the State Water Project. The lawsuits charge that the EIR failed to analyze the environmental impacts of obtaining water for the project. For example, a new reservoir is proposed to serve the development, yet no environmental review was conducted for this component. "This project threatens the very lifeblood of our community - water," said Cherry Valley Acres and Neighbors' Lewis. "There is not enough water to support this project, which the Planning Commission knew but the Board of Supervisors decided to ignore," Lewis said. Last year, Cherry Valley Acres and Neighbors succeeded in stopping the proposed Noble Creek project in Beaumont when a court found that officials in Beaumont had failed to identify sources of water for that project and had failed to consider that project's impacts on water resources.

One of the most contentious issues is the destruction of all 167 acres of rare coastal sage scrub habitat on the project site, which is habitat for the coastal California gnatcatcher, a small federally protected bird species. The California gnatcatcher was observed on the project site at least five times during wildlife surveys by the developers' consultant, yet the EIR concluded that the site is currently unoccupied by the species and proposes to bulldoze all of its habitat. The developer had previously promised the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that at least 13 acres of this coastal sage scrub habitat would be preserved as a condition for construction of the golf course currently on the project site. "The EIR's treatment of rare and imperiled wildlife and habitats is unacceptable," said Siegel, "The development corporation is essentially breaking its previous promise to avoid occupied California gnatcatcher habitat."

At least 38 other species that are listed as endangered, threatened, or sensitive could occur on the project site, yet the EIR has consistently minimized the impacts to these species and the environment. Virtually all of the 1,748 acres of natural habitat, where black bears and mule deer still roam, will be graded and fragmented by the development, yet the EIR has proposed no meaningful mitigation for these impacts. Remaining regional wildlife migration corridors will be severely and irreversibly disrupted by the new city.

The lawsuits also challenges Riverside County's failure to describe and analyze the cumulative and growth inducing impacts of the Oak Valley Project, including huge impacts to traffic in the region. The EIR admits that 72,844 trips per day will be generated by this portion of the project alone, yet this admitted impact is dwarfed by the true traffic impacts of the project as a whole-generating more than 200,000 trips per day on area roads and highways. The Riverside Press Enterprise reported last week that the Inland Empire faces gridlock in 20 years. The only mitigation proposed for the admitted 72,844 trips per day generated by this portion of the Oak Valley Project is to widen and enlarge existing and proposed streets in and around the project area. Yet even with these developments, the impacts to traffic are still classified as "significant and unmitigable."

The Board of Supervisor's July 17th approval is only the first in a list of approvals that will include, at a minimum, permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, approval from the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and a biological opinion on the effects of the project on federally listed species from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The Project Applicant has not yet begun the federal side of the permitting process for the Oak Valley Project.


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