Last Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, attorneys representing Discovery Builders and their Faria new home development requested a new trial for the lawsuit by Save Mount Diablo, following a judge’s decision in favor of the environmental group to stop the project. As previously reported, on March 30, 2021, Save Mount Diablo filed a lawsuit challenging the City of Pittsburg’s approval of the 1,650-unit Faria project, on the ridgeline between Pittsburg and Concord. According to the agenda item documents, the master plan overlay district encompasses approximately 607 acres of land. (See related article)
Save Mount Diablo Says Motion for New Trial “Should Be Denied”
Asked about the motion for a new trial, Save Mount Diablo Executive Director, Ted Clement responded, “Regarding the Seeno companies/Pittsburg request for a new trial, the Court has already rejected their arguments for reasons fully set forth in its decision. Their Motion for New Trial does not question the adequacy of the administrative record on which the Court properly based its decision (and which the City itself prepared) or suggest there was any other irregularity or unfairness in the hearing. Instead, they seek a second bite of the apple.”
“Their Motion reargues issues that were fully briefed and addressed in the Court’s Decision,” he continued. “They also seek to introduce irrelevant and improper extra-record evidence, violating black letter law that CEQA actions must be decided on the record that was before the agency when it made its decision.”
“Because their Motion provides no basis for this Court to order a new trial solely on the issues decided adverse to them, it should be denied,” Clement concluded.
CONTRA COSTA COUNTY — On February 10, 2022, the Contra Costa County Superior Court handed Save Mount Diablo a major victory in its legal challenge to the City of Pittsburg’s approval of the 1,650-unit Faria/Southwest Hills Project.
According to the ruling, the city’s environmental review was inadequate in numerous ways. Faria was proposed by Seeno companies/Discovery Builders, Inc./Faria Investors LLC on the spectacular and highly visible major ridgeline between Pittsburg and Concord and could include grading and houses visible across the ridge.
As a result, the City of Pittsburg is required to overturn approvals for the project and correct environmental review. The city and Seeno/Discovery Builders will also be required to pay Save Mount Diablo’s legal fees.
It remains to be seen whether the developers, Discovery Builders, Inc. and Faria Land Investors, LLC, or the City of Pittsburg will appeal the decision.
The Pittsburg City Council—then-Mayor Merl Craft; then–Vice Mayor Holland Barrett White; and Councilmembers Shanelle Scales-Preston, Juan Antonio Banales, and Jelani Killings—all voted to approve the proposal in February 2021. (The mayor and vice-mayor designations rotate among the councilmembers.) They ignored hundreds of letters and public comments that opposed the project. Save Mount Diablo filed a lawsuit challenging the project’s approval in March 2021.
If the project had moved forward, it would have meant the development of a major, new residential subdivision on 606 acres of ridgeline and hillside grazing land in what is currently unincorporated Contra Costa County, immediately south of the City of Pittsburg.
The biologically rich site supports sensitive wildlife species and rare plants and is in one of the most visible and most environmentally constrained areas of the county. The Faria project would have fragmented open space and damaged wildlife corridors.
The proposed housing development would have changed the beautiful green hills forever by annexing the property to the City of Pittsburg and locating 1,650 new residences far from jobs, transit, and services.
The Faria project would have also impacted the new East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) Thurgood Marshall Regional Park – Home of the Port Chicago 50 at the Faria site’s southwestern edge, formerly part of the Concord Naval Weapons Station. Save Mount Diablo and its partners advocated for the creation of this new park over many years. The Faria project would have been located directly above the new park on a ridgeline, degrading views from surrounding areas.
The Contra Costa Superior Court ruled that the City of Pittsburg’s environmental review of the project was inadequate in four major ways:
It failed to analyze any impacts that would results from the 150 accessory dwelling units that were added by the City of Pittsburg at the last minute. This is important because the number of units affects every part of environmental review from traffic to water supply to schools, etc. and will make correcting the environmental review complicated;
It failed to include a baseline description of biological resources that could be impacted by the project, specifically special-status plant species;
It failed to consider the water supply impacts of adding 1,650 new housing units in the area, which is especially important given years of drought and increasing fire danger; and
It failed to adequately disclose or mitigate the project’s air quality impacts, including greenhouse gas impacts, without which development will continue to make the climate crisis much worse.
“The court’s decision says to developers: ‘You don’t get to kick the can down the road. You have to do a thorough analysis of your project’s impacts before you lock in project approvals,’” said Winter King, Save Mount Diablo’s attorney from Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger. “The court got it right.”
The court’s ruling means that the City of Pittsburg’s approval of the project is null and void.
The court also noted that additional impacts—such as geologic hazard impacts resulting from grading and filling, and impacts on streams and agricultural lands—would need to be addressed in more detail.
Save Mount Diablo Executive Director Ted Clement said, “Throughout the East Bay, residents have worked hard to protect our ridges and views, flora and fauna, and to defend our parks. In this case that was just decided in our favor, Save Mount Diablo had to stand up against some very powerful interests to help further the work of protecting these treasured resources, which add so much to our collective quality of life.”
“Although I’ve worked for Save Mount Diablo on this issue, I’m also a Concord resident,” said Juan Pablo Galván Martínez, Save Mount Diablo’s Senior Land Use Manager. “This project infuriated me as an open-space lover, a wildlife enthusiast, and someone who is deeply worried and taking action to stop catastrophic climate change. Since this affects both cities, I want both city councils to work together to protect the hills and ridgeline.”
“This is a major victory for Pittsburg’s hills,” stated Save Mount Diablo Land Conservation Director Seth Adams. “Open space, habitat for wildlife, and the community’s scenic views have won the day, and poorly planned development will not go forward, for now. We are very happy with the court’s decision.”
“On the other hand,” said Adams, “while our victory is costly for the city and Seeno/Discovery Builders in time and money, it does not stop the project forever. After correcting environmental documents, the Pittsburg City Council can approve Seeno’s huge project again if they choose. But now they have a second chance to make it better by protecting the ridgeline and neighboring regional park. We don’t have to argue about protecting ridgelines in other cities. The Pittsburg City Council should do the right thing.”
Save Mount Diablo
Save Mount Diablo is a nationally accredited, nonprofit land trust founded in 1971 with a mission to preserve Mount Diablo’s peaks, surrounding foothills, watersheds, and connection to the Diablo Range through land acquisition and preservation strategies designed to protect the mountain’s natural beauty, biological diversity, and historic and agricultural heritage; enhance our area’s quality of life; and provide educational and recreational opportunities consistent with protection of natural resources. To learn more, please visit www.savemountdiablo.org.
Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country
By Kurtis Alexander, 9/21/16 5:11pm
Benicia’s rejection of plans to bring trains filled with crude oil to Valero Corp.’s big refinery in the city was hailed Wednesday by critics of the country’s expanding oil-by-rail operations, who hope the flexing of local power will reverberate across the Bay Area and the nation.
Of particular interest to environmentalists and local opponents, who for years have argued that Valero’s proposal brought the danger of a catastrophic spill or fire, was a last-minute decision by U.S. officials that Benicia’s elected leaders — not the federal government — had the final say in the matter.
Word of that decision arrived just before the City Council, in a unanimous vote late Tuesday, dismissed Valero’s proposal for a new $70 million rail depot along the Carquinez Strait off Interstate 680. Valero had said the project would not only be safe but bring local jobs, tax revenue and lower gas prices.
“We’re pleased with the decision and the implications it will have across the country,” said Jackie Prange, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several groups opposed to the project. “This issue is live in a number of sites across the country. This is definitely a decision that I think cities in other states will be looking to.”
As oil production has boomed across North America, so has the need to send crude via railroad. The uptick in tanker trains, though, has been accompanied by a spate of accidents in recent years, including a 2013 derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in which a 72-car train exploded and killed more than 40 people.
The authority of communities to limit oil trains has been clouded by the assertion of some in the petroleum industry that local officials don’t have jurisdiction to get in the way. Companies like Valero have contended that railroad issues are matter of interstate commerce — and hence are the purview of the federal government.
Shortly before Tuesday’s meeting, however, Benicia officials received a letter from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which wrote that Valero, based in Texas, was not a railroad company and that the proposed rail terminal fell under city jurisdiction.
“It’s what I was waiting for to help me make my vote more defensible,” said Councilman Alan Schwartzman at the meeting.
Earlier this year, Valero had asked the Surface Transportation Board for “preemption” protection for the project after Benicia’s Planning Commission rejected the proposal. The plan proceeded to the City Council upon appeal.
The plan called for oil deliveries from up to two 50-car trains a day, many passing through several Northern California communities en route from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Those trains would carry as many as 70,000 barrels of oil.
The company billed the project as a way to keep gasoline prices low in the absence of a major oil pipeline serving the West Coast. Crude is currently brought to the Bay Area mostly by boat or through smaller pipelines.
On Wednesday, Valero officials expressed frustration at the city’s decision.
“After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the City Council members have chosen to reject the crude by rail project,” spokeswoman Lillian Riojas wrote in an email. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”
The vote directly hit the city’s pocketbook. Nearly 25 percent of Benicia’s budget comes from taxes on the oil giant, and the city coffers stood to grow with more crude. The refinery employs about 500 people, according to city records.
But the city’s environmental study showed that oil trains presented a hazard. The document concluded that an accident was possible on the nearly 70 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and the refinery, though the likelihood was only one event every 111 years.
The document also suggested that much of the crude coming to the Bay Area from North Dakota, as well as from tar sands in Canada, was more flammable than most.
Several cities in the Bay Area and Sacramento area joined environmental groups in calling for rejection of the project.
“The council’s vote is a tremendous victory for the community and communities all throughout California,” said Ethan Buckner of the opposition group Stand, who was among more than 100 people who turned out for the council’s verdict. “At a time when oil consumption in California is going down, projects like this are unnecessary.”
At least two other plans are in the works for oil delivery by rail elsewhere in the region — in Richmond and Pittsburg. A handful of other proposals have been put forth in other parts of California, including the expansion of a rail spur at a Phillips 66 refinery in San Luis Obispo County, which is scheduled to be heard by the county planning board Thursday.
Prange, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said this week’s finding by the Surface Transportation Board gives cities the confidence to reject the proposed oil trains, if they wish to do so.
“It reaffirms the power of local government to protect their citizens from these dangerous projects,” she said.
U.S. oil deliveries by rail have grown quickly, from 20 million barrels in 2010 to 323 million in 2015, according to government estimates. In response, federal transportation officials have worked to improve the safety of oil-carrying cars with new regulations.
But over the past year, rail deliveries nationwide have slowed, in part because of the stricter rules as well as local opposition, falling crude prices and new pipelines.
Critics have complained that the tightened rules have fallen short, pointing to incidents like a June train derailment in Mosier, Ore., which spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Columbia River. Leaders in Oregon are discussing a statewide ban on crude trains.
Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
Repost from Bloomberg [Editor: Note 3 mentions of crude by rail, and in the final paragraph a reference to local opposition to CBR in Santa Maria, Pittsburg and Benicia. – RS]
California Isn’t Feeling U.S. Oil Boom as OPEC Dependence Grows
By Robert Tuttle, May 4, 2016 9:01 PM PDT
• State sourced a record 52% of its crude from overseas in 2015
• Falling in-state and Alaska production is driving imports
The shale oil boom that cut U.S. crude imports by 32 percent in a decade isn’t being felt out west as California grows increasingly dependent on Middle East supplies.
California brought in a record 52 percent of its crude from abroad last year, up from just 9 percent 20 years earlier, according to California Energy Commission data. The state hasn’t yet released the specific countries that supplied that oil in 2015, but in 2014, about 58 percent came from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the most recent data show.
Foreign dependence is only expected to grow as supplies from within the state and Alaska diminish and efforts to bring U.S. crude from the Midwest by rail face local opposition.
“Regulatory impediments have kept California isolated from the growing sources of domestic crude production,” John Auers, executive vice president at Turner Mason & Co., said by phone from Dallas. “California refiners won’t be able to take advantage”’ of lower-priced domestic crude.
Growing imports mean that California refiners have some of the highest crude costs in the U.S., which are passed onto consumers in the form of higher gasoline prices, David Hackett, president of Irving, California-based Stillwater Associates, said in a phone interview.
Imported crude is priced off Brent, which was selling at less than a $1 premium to U.S. West Texas Intermediate Wednesday. While the lifting of restrictions on U.S. oil exports has narrowed the gap from as high as $15 a barrel in 2014, the spread between the grades could widen again when oil rises and U.S. shale oil production picks up, Hackett said.
Drivers in Los Angeles paid the highest pump prices in the U.S. for much of last year, exceeding $4 a gallon last summer, according to AAA.
Alaska supplied the state with 73,000 barrels a day of crude in 2015, about 12 percent of California’s total supply, state data show. That’s down from as high as 46 percent in the early 1990s and may fall further as Alaska’s production is forecast to drop to 319,100 barrels a day in 2023, down from almost 500,000 barrels a day this year, official datashow.
California itself produced about 225,000 barrels a day in 2015, supplying about 36 percent of its own needs, according to state data. That’s a drop from 240,000 barrels a day in 2014. The decline in the state’s own production came as producers cut output amid falling oil prices and following the shutdown of the Plains All American pipeline near Santa Barbara after a spill curtailed about 38,000 barrels a day of offshore production, Stillwater’s Hackett said.
California could benefit from cheaper Midwestern oil if crude by rail terminals were built. New terminals planned for Santa Maria, Pittsburg and Benicia have been stymied by local opposition and regulatory holdups, Hackett said. In February, for example, Valero Energy Corp’s planned crude-by-rail project was rejected by a city commission.