Wildomar Housing Lawsuit: Will the state finally reform CEQA Law?

More evidence that current state environmental law is obstructing environmentally-friendly infrastructure projects.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

The good people of the fiscally-broke City of Wildomar are stuck with paying for yet another frivolous environmental lawsuit. This one was over the city's state-mandated Housing Element document where the suing plaintiffs known as Alliance for Intelligent Planning and represented by environmental attorney Raymond Johnson cashed in on a $120,000 settlement even though the most of the environmental legal challenges were found frivolous and rejected in court.

The 2013-2021 Housing Element plan is the city’s policy document guiding the provision of housing to meet future needs for all economic segments of Wildomar, including housing affordable to lower income households.

As I mentioned earlier this week, housing prices all over Southern California have reached a critical high point with rentals and purchase prices in Southwest Riverside County creeping into unaffordable territories for many workers. One of the reasons why this is happening is because both the medical and small business sectors there are growing combined with more and more San Diego workers looking for better and more affordable housing options. The San Diego region also has an expensive housing issue although nowhere near as bad as LA, Orange County, and San Francisco.

Being a part of Southwest Riverside County, Wildomar needs to ensure developers are able to supply the housing infrastructure for the increased demands. Aside from the southeastern shores of Lake Elsinore and its feeding creeks, much of the development would be in-fill or built on flat lands and not directly pollute sensitive ecosystems. And the court agreed. One caveat: Just like the rest of the Inland Empire, Southwest Riverside County needs a growth in better paying jobs to combat long-distance commuting. That would force Orange County and San Diego into a position where they have to allow for infill development or face stagnation. Medical jobs are growing and the City of Murrieta has been proactive in attracting all kinds of small business investments along the Jefferson Avenue/Historic 395 redevelopment corridor. But the region could use more and each worker should be able to afford to live there.

Back to Wildomar's lawsuit settlement.

This is yet another example of a frivolous lawsuit filed in the name of protecting the environment, and trivial cases like this exacerbates our strained justice system paid for by you and I because we pay the salaries of the judge and court staff through our taxes. And then, there's a small group of lawyers like Johnson who take trivial and frivolous environmental cases like this hoping to cash in on a settlement from we the people. The Press Enterprise exposed Johnson's history of this two years ago. By the way, his firm was handed over $250,000 from the Perris Valley Line CEQA lawsuit settlement from the Riverside County Transportation Commission in 2013. Of course, reinstating passenger rail service along an existing rail line clearly poses no ecological threat.

Interestingly enough, Johnson can't be directly blamed for this behaviour because he's found a legal means to make money even though it is morally unacceptable. The fact is broken CEQA law allows for this type of crony capitalism to continue unchecked.

To be fair, most lawyers do not practice this type of frivolous behavior and there needs to be an impartial means to resolve major civil disputes in court through the judicial system. Plus, projects that are indeed suspected pollutants must be held to account in court. The World Logistics Center suit for example should be heard out. If the Mid County Parkway freeway project combined with existing land-use policies are going to blow more smog from LA into the San Jacinto Valley area where there are no air outlets, both the affected cities and the county would need to update their general plans. We all need to be able to breathe clean air and drink clean water. Plus, for the record, Johnson has taken legitimate environmental disputes to court; they're not all bad. But the trivial and frivolous suits must be stopped.

The question is: Why are the special interests still allowed to file environmental lawsuits against projects that pose no threat to the environment and cash in on a settlement? Plus, there should be another layer of protection against frivolous lawsuits altogether: If a judge finds a lawsuit frivolous, he/she should be able to order the suing party to pay for all of the court costs plus the defendant's attorney bill.

The fact that a special interest group two years ago was able to cash in on a $3 million CEQA settlement from the Metrolink Perris Valley Line should be grounds to reform CEQA law. The fact that an Inland Empire city body that is struggling to pay its bills has had to pay $120,000 to an attorney who filed a frivolous environmental suit against a state-mandated housing master plan should automatically prompt the legislature to take action.

Where is the law that protects environmentally-friendly transit infrastructure and housing development projects from trivial and frivolous environmental lawsuits? Where is that law? How many more frivolous CEQA suits do we need before the state takes action?