TriCounty Watchdogs Prevail in Challenge to Frazier Park Estates in Lebec

UPDATE: LEBEC, CA (Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 at 4 p.m.)— A press release has been circulated by the Center for Biological Diveristy and the TriCounty Watchdogs regarding the court victory last Friday (see report below) against Kern County’s authorization for Frank Arciero’s Fallingstar Homes’ plan to build Frazier Park Estates in Lebec. Watch this week’s issue of The Mountain Enterprise for more details.

Here is the press release:
Judge Nixes Tejon Pass Sprawl Development Project
Frazier Park Estates Goes Back to the Drawing Board

BAKERSFIELD, Calif.—Plans for a large scale housing development proposed in the Frazier Mountain area of southern Kern County, Calif. were struck down by a superior court judge on Friday, Feb. 10, in a victory for groups fighting for smart growth in the region. The Frazier Park Estates project would have included 41 acres of houses and condominiums on steep and rugged terrain in the rural mountain area near Lebec and the Tejon Pass area of Interstate 5.

Judge Kenneth C. Twisselman of the Kern County Superior Court agreed with TriCounty Watchdogs and the Center for Biological Diversity that Kern County had failed to adequately analyze the project’s water supply; that the project description inconsistently described the project as having anywhere from 188 to 661 residences; and that the county improperly justified deferred mitigation for the project’s impacts. The suit was brought under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

“This was the wrong project in the wrong location and never should have been approved by the county,” said Jan de Leeuw, spokesperson of TriCounty Watchdogs, a local environmental and smart-growth organization. “It threatened our very limited groundwater supply and would have radically changed the rural character of the region.”

Twisselman’s ruling voided the environmental impact report prepared by Kern County and will prevent developer Frank Arciero from proceeding with the project until — and only if — a new report that complies with the law is prepared and approved.

“CEQA does not permit the lead agency to approve a large residential project before the full extent of the project’s impact on the environment is fully understood,” said Babak Naficy, attorney for the groups. “The judge found that this EIR failed on three grounds: (1) the description of the size of the project was inconsistent in the EIR and county resolutions, (2) the County had illegally deferred analysis of the project’s impact on water supply and (3) the mitigation of impacts on biological impacts was improper.”

“This is an extremely important habitat area for scores of threatened, endangered, and rare species, including the California condor, so it’s important that any development be carefully thought out,” said Adam Keats, urban wildlands director at the Center. “This is a huge victory for smart planning, especially considering the tremendous pressure from developers this area has been under.”

The proposed project is located west of Tejon Ranch’s massive Tejon Mountain Village project. That project has also been vigorously fought by TriCounty Watchdogs and the Center for Biological Diversity, among others.

LEBEC, CA (Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012 at 6 a.m.)—An exuberant note of celebration was circulated last night by members of the TriCounty Watchdogs: "[Kern County Superior Court] Judge Kenneth Twisselman ruled in favor of the TriCounty Watchdogs on the FallingStar case today! The ruling was in our favor on both water and biology issues. It was a long day and we didn’t get out until a little before 5 p.m.," Watchdog President Linda MacKay wrote, saying she would follow with more details. "Arciero and Kern County may appeal, or they may decide to redo the EIR. But this is a huge victory for the Watchdogs." The suit was filed June 22, 2010.

The Environmental Impact Report for the Frazier Park Estates proposal was certified by the Kern County Board of Supervisors despite the fact that the Kern County Planning Commission and Kern County’s planning department both rejected the proposal. The El Tejon Unified School District Trustees also sent a representative to tell Kern County Supervisors of their concern that the development (which would have surrounded Frazier Mountain High School) would draw down the water table and jeopardize the high school’s water well.

The Lebec County Water District, which has roughly 300 customers, opposed the project and refused to annex the development, saying that the wells of the district were already in trouble, with contaminents (such as fluoride, and others) already above the state-mandated maximum. Then-President Darren Hager said LCWD did not have the capacity to service 500 more homes and an extended commercial district. The developer had also asked the district to run a sewage processing plant, which the district refused to consider. Consultants for the water district explained in detail why the development could put existing residents of the Mountain Communities at risk.

Frazier Park Public Utilities District also rejected a request by the developer to annex the project.

Inadequate access to enough water to serve 557 proposed new homes and a commercial strip along Frazier Mountain Park Road was the most notable concern expressed at the public hearings. "The water supply of residents of the Mountain Communities who already live here will be put at risk," opponents said. Frank Arciero of Paso Robles, California is the developer, through his Fallingstar Estates homebuilding group.

This is part of the February 10, 2012 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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