Angel Law Helps Ventura County Environmentalists Halt Boating Center Development in the Wrong Place

Environmentalists won an important victory for the coastal zone environment of Oxnard and Channel Islands Harbor this week. In a lawsuit filed against the California Coastal Commission and Ventura County by a local environmental organization, Habitat for Hollywood Beach, the Honorable Judge James C. Chalfant of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County issued a decision on October 16, 2006 invalidating the Commission’s approval of Ventura County’s Boating Instruction and Safety Center (BISC) project on the west side of Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. The decision will ensure that the Commission examine the cumulative adverse environmental and public safety impacts of the BISC and surrounding projects in the harbor. The decision also orders the Commission to evaluate alternatives to the BISC, including alternative sites that would avoid parkland and migratory bird impacts while increasing public safety and recreational benefits for novice sailors.

The court’s decision invalidated the Commission’s March 16, 2005 approval of an amendment to Channel Islands Harbor’s Public Works Plan (PWP), the land use plan that guides development in the Harbor. The County had proposed an amendment to the PWP in order to build a two-story Boating Center that would have been located just a few feet from a black-crowned night heron rookery, would have eliminated public parkland, would have impacted critical habitat for the federally threatened western snowy plover and the endangered California least tern, and would have put novice boaters directly in the path of increasingly heavy boat traffic.

In its lawsuit, filed May 9, 2005, Habitat for Hollywood beach argued that the Commission, when it approved the County’s proposal to put the Boating Center on the west side of the Harbor, failed to consider the option of putting the Boating Center in alternative locations that might lessen the project’s impacts to the environment. The California Environmental Quality Act requires the Commission to analyze alternative designs and locations to projects it considers if there is a possibility those projects will have a significant effect on the environment. Locating the Boating Center on the east side of Channel Islands Harbor was a viable alternative to the County’s plan, and would have avoided impacts to the night heron rookery, the snowy plover, and the least tern, would have saved public open space, and would have kept novice boaters out of the way of boat traffic in the Harbor’s busy west channel. The court agreed with Habitat’s argument that the Commission completely failed to look at alternatives to the project. In its decision, the court noted that the Commission’s staff report for the proposed Boating Center (the equivalent of an Environmental Impact Report in this case) “contains no description or analysis of alternatives to the [Boating Center] project.” The court’s decision acknowledges the importance of alternatives analysis to environmental protection and requires that the Commission prepare a new staff report that analyzes alternative locations for the Boating Center.

The court also agreed with Habitat’s point that the Commission should have looked at the environmental and public safety effects of other projects in the Harbor when it approved the Boating Center. The County’s recent proposal to renovate the Channel Islands Marina, also located on the Harbor’s west side next to public parkland, posed a threat to the night heron rookery, which would have been sandwiched between the Marina renovation and the proposed Boating Center. The Marina renovation also would have removed over a hundred boating slips from the Harbor, exacerbating the loss of slips caused by the BISC. Finally, the Marina renovation would have narrowed by 20 feet the busy west channel of the Harbor, which funnels boat traffic right by the County’s proposed location for the Boating Center. As noted by the court, the Commission must analyze cumulative impacts “in order to ensure that the entire relevant environmental picture has been adequately considered.” The court found that the Commission did not do this here.

The court also sided with Habitat regarding the Commission’s failure to look at the combined effects to boater safety of the Boating Center and two residential projects already approved by the Commission — Mandalay Bay and Seabridge, which are being built in the back bay section of the Harbor. These two residential projects will add about 800 more boats to the Harbor. To access the ocean, these additional boats must use the west channel, which passes directly in front of the County’s proposed location for the Boating Center, and which is already used by commercial fisherman, boaters from the existing Marina, and the hundreds of existing residents in the back bay. Novice sailors, taking instruction at the Boating Center on the proposed west side, would have sailed directly into traffic in the midst of the busy west channel. The court’s decision requires the Commission to prepare a new analysis of the project in light of the contributing impacts of the Marina renovation and Mandalay Bay and Seabridge.

Matthew Heerde, an attorney at the Law Offices of Frank P. Angel, legal counsel for Habitat for Hollywood Beach in the lawsuit, was pleased with the court’s ruling. “The court’s decision requires the Commission to take an independent, probing look at the impacts of the Boating Center project,” Heerde said. “Requiring the Commission to further analyze the Boating Center’s impacts and alternative locations enforces the Commission’s unique responsibility to protect California’s coast, but also assures the public that the Commission is fulfilling that responsibility, which is one of the fundamental purposes of the California Environmental Quality Act.”

Frank Angel, of the Law Offices of Frank Angel, said, “the court’s decision not only invalidates inadequate environmental analysis by the Commission, but also sends a message to Ventura County and its Harbor Department that mismanagement of the Harbor’s public resources is unacceptable. Hopefully, the County will read the writing on the wall, and will see that taxpayers’ money should not be wasted on trying to approve projects that have been flawed from the start and that harm protected migratory bird species, eliminate public access to coastal resources, and jeopardize public safety. The Harbor Department should be proud that the herons, plovers, and least terns have made the Harbor their home, and should do every thing possible to protect these valuable species.”

Dr. Jonathan Ziv, president of Habitat for Hollywood Beach, stated, “As a result of Judge Chalfant’s ruling, the public now can be satisfied that the Coastal Commission, in approving a location for the BISC, will follow established coastal and environmental laws and employ their own, independent environmental analysis, rather than hastily accepting under threat of County legal action the distorted and manipulated conclusions of the County’s environmental impact report for the Boating Center. Habitat is confident that as a result of this ruling, the Commission will be able to understand the true cumulative effects to the heron and boater safety of the Boating Center and other projects, and will also take a serious look at the east side of the Harbor for the Boating Center’s location. Once the true effects of the west side are known, and the east side alternative site is considered, we believe the Commission will see that the east side is the most appropriate location for the Center.”