On Monday, EPIC was back in court for what felt like the millionth time to defend the ancient old growth Redwood trees of Richardson Grove State Park from Caltrans’ proposed highway widening. Sharon Duggan, longtime attorney and friend of EPIC, represented EPIC and allies in court before Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Kelly Neel. As the plaintiff, EPIC was allowed to argue first. In her defense of the grove, Sharon was masterful.
At the heart of the case are two important arguments. First, Caltrans substantially changed the project—increasing the amount of cut and fill—earthwork, involving heavy machinery across sensitive shallow roots—and the public should be afforded the opportunity to comment on the proposed changes. Second, the “addendum” provided by Caltrans that describes the new changes contained numerous and substantial errors, such that no reasonable person could understand what the heck the agency is proposing to do or what the impacts would be. (I can confirm that trying to figure out what Caltrans is doing or what the impacts might be is like trying to learn Trigonometry from a textbook written in Phoenician.)
In its rebuttal, Caltrans dismissed our claims with sophisticated sophistry. To our first issue, Caltrans responded: “Why should we offer new public comment, when we allowed public comment back in 2008-2009?—that should be enough.” (Seriously, that was their argument.) The judge appeared to doubt the agency’s case. After Caltrans’ attorneys concluded their argument, the judge asked, “What’s the harm in allowing new public comment?” To which Caltrans had no argument other than it didn’t think it was necessary. The truth of the matter is that Caltrans wants to keep the “administrative record” for the project closed and not allow another opportunity for EPIC and the public to poke holes in their arguments.
To the second issue, Caltrans admitted that there were errors and discrepancies, but instead of owning up to their mistakes, Caltrans pointed to all of the paper that it had created in developing the project, some 19,000 pages. Their argument: Yes, there may be errors in some places, but that’s to be expected when you have a big project. This trick—to bury a court under a heaping mound of paper—is a common one used by any party that wants to make it look like it did a thorough job and make an overburdened judge’s work more difficult by forcing her to sort the wheat from the chaff. But it masks a fatal flaw. While there are a lot of pages, not all pages have the same weight. Where it matters—the most consequential documents—are where those errors and internal discrepancies matter. Throughout the project’s development, Caltrans has failed to generate public support because of their sloppy work. How can we trust an agency that no old growth will be adversely impacted if the agency can’t keep their facts straight?
The case is now in Judge Neel’s hands. She stated that she would take the case seriously and appreciated the broad public show of support for Richardson Grove. Cross your fingers and think good thoughts. And when you are traveling through Richardson Grove, Go Slow for the Grove!