Environmental Groups Say City Must Conduct Environmental Review Before Declaring Riverfront Land “Surplus”

The Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to “surplus” approximately 45 acres of land including the Redding Rodeo grounds and Redding Civic Auditorium grounds in preparation for a potential sale. Legal Counsel for three local environmental groups say doing so would violate the California Environmental Quality Act and be inconsistent with the city’s own General Plan.

This story is part of Scout’s ongoing coverage of proposed riverfront land development – you can find the rest of the series here.

Citing concerns about impacts to the “abundance of natural and biological resources immediately adjacent to the Project site,” a legal representative for three local environmental groups told city officials in a letter sent Thursday April 14, that they must conduct an environmental review prior to declaring key riverfront land “surplus.”

Under consideration is an area of about 45 acres at the Redding riverfront, including the Civic Auditorium and Redding Rodeo Grounds. That land sits amidst a larger approximately 200 acre area at the riverfront described in the letter as “extensive riparian lands with extremely high biological resource values, including the Turtle Bay Exploration Park open space area, the Turtle Bay Bird Sanctuary, and riparian resources extending from the Sundial Bridge upstream and beyond the Posse Grounds boat ramp, all areas with significant natural resource and public recreational values.”

Redding’s City Council is scheduled to vote on whether to declare the three parcels “surplus” at their Tuesday meeting. That declaration would pave the way for the sale of the land to a consortium of local non-profits and developers known as the D&D group, that includes non-profits the McConnell Foundation and Turtle Bay Exploration Park as well as local developers K2 Development Companies and the multi-national architecture firm Populous. In September, the D&D group submitted a letter of intent and proposal of development, asking to purchase the property.

Since then a series of public meetings and workshops have been held to provide information about proposed development at the site. A majority of respondents to city surveys and public comments have opposed the sale of the land, which has been public for generations. But many local individuals and some key local groups, including Advance Redding and the Redding Rodeo Association, both of which lease space at the site, now back the proposed development plan.

Three environmental groups, the Wintu Audubon Society, the Shasta Environmental Alliance and the Sierra Club Shasta Group are behind Thursday’s letter to the city. The correspondence was written by Winter King, an attorney specializing in CEQA, land use, and Tribal law, who works with the San Francisco legal firm Shute, Mihaley and Weinberger.

The environmental groups are concerned about what they say is unavoidable environmental impact to approximately 200 acres of land at the riverfront, should some of the parcels be sold and developed after a surplus declaration. Citing the specifics of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, King argues that the city cannot declare the land surplus before undertaking an environmental review of the impacts of an already proposed sale and development of the land. CEQA is a state law that requires public agencies to “look before they leap” to consider the environmental consequences of their actions and is intended to prevent significant and avoidable environmental damage.

The city says declaring the riverfront land “surplus” is legal under CEQA according to documents released last week as part of the Council’s agenda packet for Tuesday. A staff report included in that agenda says the land may be declared surplus under CEQA’s Common Sense Exemption, because there is no possibility that declaring the land surplus would have a significant impact on the environment and because it’s currently impossible to determine what development, if any, may occur on the property as a result of the surplus declaration.

Not so, writes the lawyer for the environmental groups, emphasizing that the Common Sense Exemption under CEQA requires that the city to be able to see “with certainty that there is no possibility that the activity in question may have a significant effect on the environment.” King argues that the city’s current approach is “piecemeal,” separating the declaration of surplus from the intent to sell the land when it is actually being utilized as the first step in a likely sale and development process. Because the city has an actual proposal for development in hand, she writes, the extensive environmental impacts that will occur after an expected sale to developers are already “reasonably foreseeable” under CEQA.

Furthermore, King writes, the Common Sense Exemption to environmental review under CEQA does not apply because of the “unusual circumstances” surrounding the land in question. Those circumstances, she says, include documentation in Redding’s own General Plan that indicates the land deserves special protections due to its environmental significance.

The D&D group has said they will pay the approximately $1 million needed to develop a master plan of the riverfront area but will do so after entering into a negotiating agreement to buy the property. Their master plan would be subject to the approval of the Council and, they say, would involve extensive community input. But King suggests that the city should consider master planning the project site itself, without the help of developers, explaining that this approach ensure the City’s control over the master planning process and will “avoid a land sale that could result in the foreclosure of options for protection of important and irreplaceable public resources.”

While both city staff and representatives of the D&D group have repeatedly emphasized that there is “no plan” for how the land will be developed, and that any development will reflect the input of the community, a proposal submitted by the D&D group in September does include a number of specific visions for the land, which includes the potential of developing a sports area, updated convention center, and other entertainment areas and which King describes as “massive, dense, urban-scale development.”

This kind of development, while not yet certain, would increase the commercial use of the property, King writes, leading to more light and noise, and impacting wildlife in the nearby riparian areas. The project’s site also makes it likely that development there would “impact buried cultural, tribal and/or archeological resources,” she says.

Acknowledging that development as currently proposed may differ from actual development, King nevertheless advises that “ANY increase in the frequency, intensity or scope of land uses on the Project Site has the potential for significant adverse impacts on the riparian resources, due to their immediate proximity, their sensitivity, and their high public and biological values.”

While city officials have made repeated verbal commitments to the public that most of the 200 acres at the riverfront will not be sold or developed, impacts to this land are still likely without the sale of those parcels, King writes, because the area proposed for sale lacks “an adequately sized and positioned no-disturbance buffer zone” to protect the larger riparian area.

Should the Council vote to declare the land “surplus” Tuesday, a Notice of Availability or NOA will be sent out to affordable housing developers and public agencies. Under the Surplus Land Act, these entities must be given an opportunity to attempt to purchase the property before it can be sold to other private interests.

The Redding City Council will meet to discuss this issue Tuesday, April 19, at 6 pm. You can read the letter on behalf of local environmental groups here and find the city’s staff report regarding the proposed declaration of “surplus” property here.

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