A Napa Superior Court has dismissed a lawsuit filed by neighbors of a McCorkle Avenue housing project who claimed the city wrongly exempted the project from an extensive environmental review.
On Nov. 8 Judge J. Michael Byrne rejected claims by David and Vickie Bradshaw, suing on behalf of the McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group, that St. Helena’s Planning Department had improperly declared the eight-unit housing project exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and that the Planning Commission and City Council had been denied the opportunity to challenge the exemption.
The Bradshaws said they intend to appeal the decision to the First District Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
“If you stay with your tentative (ruling in favor of McGrath and the city), we’re going to be in the appellate court for two to three years,” David Bradshaw told the judge during the hearing.
In the meantime, applicant Joe McGrath can continue working on the project. He’s also responsible for paying for the city’s legal defense. In a letter to the Star, he said he has spent nearly $250,000 in legal fees.
In a separate statement to the Star, McGrath said he’s pleased with the ruling and called the lawsuit “a gross perversion of justice.”
“The Bradshaws never intended to win this case on the merits,” he said. “Their strategy all along was to send a ‘warning shot’ to all small, sensitive developers to go elsewhere by effectively attempting to bleed me dry financially until I abandoned the project. Their indication today that they will take this Petition up through the Court of Appeals is further testament to that.”
City Attorney Tom Brown declined to comment, saying the ruling speaks for itself.
During public hearings on the project in late 2016 and early 2017, the Bradshaws and other neighbors raised various environmental concerns, including toxic contamination caused by a previous property owner whom neighbors described as a hoarder of old cars and junk.
The county required McGrath to haul away the contaminated soil before starting construction. At the time the project was under review, the cost of the clean-up was estimated at $100,000. Clean-up work costing less than $1 million may still be considered exempt from CEQA.
During public hearings, Planning Director Noah Housh and City Attorney Tom Brown said the project was exempt from CEQA under a provision that exempts infill housing projects. As a result, they said the Planning Commission and City Council should only consider the project’s design review, not the broader environmental concerns raised by neighbors.
In his ruling, Byrne agreed that since the project qualified for a CEQA exemption and was considered a “permitted use” under the city’s Municipal Code, staff and the council were correct in limiting their review to matters involving design review.
Byrne also ruled that it was too late for the Bradshaws to introduce new evidence suggesting that the cost of cleaning up the contaminated soil might be higher than previously anticipated.
Even after McGrath excavated 4,500 square feet of contaminated soil to a depth of two feet, samples of the remaining soil still showed elevated levels of chromium-6 and lead, according to an Oct. 30 letter from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is monitoring the clean-up.
The cost of the clean-up will still be well under $1 million, according to Amanda Monchamp, McGrath’s attorney. In a statement, McGrath said the detection of chromium-6 was due to a flawed testing process.