New Year, New Hope

by Carolyn Chase

  y office receives a strange assortment of requests for assistance. About once every week or so, I receive a message asking for help. Often they are calling me out of frustration; but always, they are calling because they care.

Most are asking for help to save something or some place that they love. One week it's illegal grading next to an eagle's nest; the next week it's a pollution or sewage spill or trash-dumping issue. Some weeks it's just help to save a baby bird or other critter or how to recycle something. Sometimes it's related to permits - how to get them or how to stop them. Most of the time, I'm able to do a successful referral. The people who contact me also receive some connection to hope. But the hardest calls are from folks seeking justice. It's tough even to provide hope for those who need some recourse via the legal system.

The search for justice in our society automatically throws you into a foreign realm in which the average person is ill-equipped to cope. The legal system is the domain of semi-civilized warfare, and you had better have some smart people on your side or you'll be road kill. More than a battlefield for the wronged or perceived wronged, it's the way the powerful get their business done.

But one person's business can be another person's problem. How is it acceptable for developers, elected officials and bureaucrats to compromise our environmental protections and quality of life? Do we have the technology to replace or reproduce what we are destroying in nature? Because the environment is, by its very nature passive, or simply reduced to property, can our demands upon it ever be mediated except via crisis or lawsuit? Or will we just continue to mitigate our way to hell?

You also find out quickly that the price of justice is extraordinarily high. So high, in the case of environmental issues, that we can never, ever recoup. It is an uphill battle simply to retain any ground.

For a group of us interested in overturning the City's "Statement of Overriding Considerations" prepared for the Zoning Code Update and purporting to justify the proposed environmental damage, the legal analysis came back positive. Yes, indeedy. We could pursue at least two causes of action with a reasonable expectation of success. But at what price? It's not just a matter of risk analysis once know you have reasonable chance to succeed; it's more of an opportunity cost/benefit equation. How much will it really cost to pursue justice? It's where you have to put a price tag on doing the right thing.

Astonishingly, the City is not legally required to provide any cost/benefit analysis for their activities - even for the sweeping changes made to the Zoning Code. They should be required to do it, but this doesn't happen unless the politically powerful need it to advance their already-decided-upon agenda. After all, it's terribly inconvenient to get an analysis back that doesn't agree with your agenda. It's better never to do it to begin with. As long as your donors tell you it's good for them, it's good for the entire city right?

The legally-required environmental analysis and environmentally preferred alternatives were dismissed and considered to be overridden by the following policy-based justification: "it would contradict City efforts to decrease regulation complexity and to increase development predictability."

The environmental analysis stated that the following would be the likely results of passing the ZCU: loss of existing natural land forms - including hillsides; loss of wetlands and wetlands buffers; inconsistency with environmental goals of adopted land use plans; loss of important agricultural land; significant losses of populations of species not covered by the MSCP (Multiple Species Conservation Program) preserve design; preclusion of adequate wildlife corridors for species not covered by the MSCP preserve design; loss of archaeological resources and historical buildings, structures, objects and landscapes; loss of paleontological resources; increased erosion with the resulting sediment ultimately negatively affecting downstream wetland and lagoon areas; increased air pollution emissions; increased runoff and increased volume of pollutants carried by the runoff; and increased traffic volumes.

But so what, right? Our main policy goals are to keep it simple and increase assurances for developers. The stated goals, incidentally, were: clarity, objectivity, consistency, predictability, simplicity, adaptability, progressiveness and integrity. None of these are inherently in conflict with environmental protections.

Protection of the environment can be accomplished in a clear, objective, consistent, predictable, simple, adaptable, and progressive manner with plenty of integrity. Streamlining to increase predictability for the developer and for the environment - giving us all assurances - should have been the order of the day. But the city quickly adapted the goals as the process unfolded: it would be predictability for developers, adaptability for the public, and increased environmental impacts overall.

The City is not really required to do any planning or really abide by its general plan or community plans - because of the policies of this mayor and city council. In essence the majority leadership seems to believe that planning is only one-step removed from communism.

If I had an "extra" $30-50K sitting around, it might be fun to take a firm position in our pinball political system. But what would be the remedy, even if we won? The City would likely just have to make another statement. It would be longer and glossier, and probably even have some real analysis. Unfortunately I'm not wealthy enough to invest in this kind of justice. The money required to pursue it might be better spent on campaigns to replace the elected officials who led the effort to dismantle environmental protections and planning.