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The Planet

Legal Tools for Stopping Sprawl

The Planet, April 1997, Volume 4, number 3

By Rebecca Bernard, Assoc. Litigation Coordinator

Many sprawl-inducing projects are pushed through local approval processes so quickly that important local, state and even federal environmental laws are violated. Although taking a city, county or developer to court is a last resort, litigation can be a crucial way for citizens to protect natural lands and wildlife from the devastating effects of urban sprawl. Federal laws like the Endangered Species Act are sometimes compromised by projects that destroy wetlands or critical habitat for endangered species. More often, state and local land use regulations are at issue, as a recent California case demonstrates.

In the pastoral oak-and-savannah foothills of the Diablo Grande Mountains, developers proposed a massive "new town" project that would carve a 29,500-acre scar of residences, retail and commercial facilities and golf courses into the landscape, destroying the habitat of the endangered kit fox. When the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors ignored the objections of local anti-sprawl activists and gave the project the green light in 1993, the Sierra Club and the Stanislaus Natural Heritage Project took their objections to the courts.

First, claimed the litigants, the county's approval violated California land use planning law, which requires that every land use approval conform to the city or county general plan (a state-mandated blueprint for local development).

Litigants charged that the county's approval of the project failed to conform to sections of the general plan promoting preservation of agriculture, rangeland and endangered species, and restricting residential development to urban areas and areas with adequate existing utilities. They also claimed the approval violated the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires an environmental impact report for any project authorized or undertaken by a public agency that is likely to have a significant environmental effect.

Two other state laws were invoked for ostensible violations -- the Williamson Act and the California Endangered Species Act. The Williamson Act authorizes California counties to contract with farmers and ranchers to maintain their lands in farming or ranching. Anti-sprawl advocates alleged that the county allowed early cancellation of Williamson Act contracts even though this would lead to "leapfrog" development. The plaintiffs also charged the county with violating the California Endangered Species Act because they approved the Diablo Grande project even though it would result in the destruction of the kit fox's habitat.

Lawsuits opposing sprawl can be an uphill battle, but the Diablo Grande challenge has been a success story so far. Recently, a California appellate court struck down the county's environmental impact report because it failed to explain where the water for 5,000 new residences would come from. Now it's back to the drawing board for Stanislaus County.

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