County, Environmental Groups Agree in Court to Work Towards “Big Dig” Settlement

County asks for time to reach develop an agreement with the groups following tentative court decision finding County EIR failed to provide for adequate public input

Published : Wednesday, June 19, 2019 | 4:49 AM

Work on Los Angeles County Flood Control District’s sediment removal project in the Devil’s Gate Dam/Hahamongna Watershed Park will continue for now, but the District agreed in court Tuesday to develop a settlement with two Pasadena environmental groups as to future terms of the work.

Judge James C. Chalfant of Los Angeles Superior Court issued a 29-page tentative decision Monday in favor of the Arroyo Seco Foundation and the Pasadena Audubon Society in their lawsuit against the County.

The tentative ruling finds that the Flood Control District’s environmental impact report is inadequate in several key areas.

Senior Deputy County Counsel William Simon asked Chalfant for a postponement of the trial until July 30 to allow the County to meet with representatives of the Arroyo Seco Foundation and the Pasadena Audubon Society to develop a comprehensive settlement agreement. Foundation and Society attorney Mitchell Tsai agreed to the postponement.

Los Angeles County Public Works Strategic Communications Manager Kerjon Lee said he could not comment beyond confirming that “parties in the case regarding the Devil’s Gate Reservoir Restoration Project requested a continuance of the scheduled court hearing” and Chalfant granted the request and issued the continuance.

Arroyo Seco Foundation Managing Director Tim Brick told Pasadena Now Tuesday, “[County officials] recognize that the judgments against them and they want to resolve the outstanding issues still. So we agreed to allow the trial to be postponed until July 30th in order to accomplish the settlement.”

Brick added that The Arroyo Seco Foundation and Pasadena Audubon worked directly with Mark Pistella, L.A.County director of Public Works, who assured them that he would be “personally involved in the settlement and that we are going to resolve the issues by the end of July.”

“It’s never been our goal really to shut down the project,” Brick added, “but rather to minimize the negative impacts of the project, and we think we’ll be able to accomplish that through this settlement process.”

Attorney Tsai said he found Chalfant’s tentative decision “detailed and decisive.”

As Tsai explained, “It finds that the Flood Control District failed to provide the public with a meaningful opportunity to comment on the revised program and the alternatives available as a result of the Flood Control District downgrading its required flood control capacity standard at Devil’s Gate Dam.”

“In addition, the tentative decision finds that the Flood Control District’s environmental mitigation measures failed to specify performance standards for the required habitat mitigation areas.”

Laura Solomon, President of the Pasadena Audubon Society, said her organization “is gratified.”

“The court recognizes that the County has failed to work transparently with the public, despite their frequent claims to the contrary,” she said.

Added Solomon, “We hope that the County will do its job to protect the land, the birds, and the people by shrinking the size of the permanent footprint of the project, using the cleanest trucks possible to move the sediment, and truly restoring the Hahamongna basin, especially the nesting habitat they have destroyed.”

The Flood Control District proposes to remove 1.7 million cubic yards of sediment and debris in the reservoir behind Devil’s Gate Dam in a program critics have dubbed “The Big Dig.” The sediment has accumulated over many decades. The removal program would involve as many as 425 diesel truckloads daily for four or more years and the destruction of 70 acres of habitat in the alluvial canyon at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.

If the environmental groups and the County cannot develop an agreement in the next six weeks, Judge Chalfant will hear oral arguments on the tentative ruling on July 30.

According to a statement from the Arroyo Seco Foundation, should Chalfant ultimately finalize his tentative decision, he will issue a writ to order the Flood Control District to revise and recirculate the Project’s environmental impact report and set aside or vacate the Project’s approvals.

“All project activity would then cease pending revision and recirculation of the Project’s environmental document,” said the Foundation’s statement.