FRESNO — A legal challenge threatening a gargantuan business park near Crows Landing is in the hands of three appellate court justices who are weighing Thursday's arguments over environmental rules.
The West Park project represents Stanislaus County leaders' fondest large-scale hope for creating jobs. But many on the county's West Side say their quality of life could suffer.
The judicial trio must soon decide whether the county and its hand-picked development team, led by Sacramento's Gerry Kamilos, jumped the gun by agreeing to negotiate exclusively without first conducting expensive environmental studies. They want to transform a 4,800-acre former Navy air base into a bustling industrial hub with thousands of employees and a rail link to the Port of Oakland.
Patterson City Council members say Kamilos and the county ignored state law requiring an environmental impact report early in such projects, certainly before West Park became "a done deal."
An EIR would predict impacts most dear to the hearts of West Siders, they say, and lay out alternatives to the grand plan that scares them with talk of long trains, increased traffic and lost farmland.
West Park proponents point to guarantees that the studies are coming, but critics say it's hard to trust them.
Kamilos and the county "jumped through the wrong hoops at the wrong time," said land-use attorney Steve Herum, representing Patterson. WS-PACE (West Side-Patterson Alliance for the Community and the Environment), the grass-roots group that filed a similar lawsuit to stop West Park, dropped out in April but continues to support Patterson.
A Fresno County Superior Court judge ruled in West Park's favor in January 2009; Patterson is appealing that decision.
Herum said West Park proponents disingenuously call their negotiating deal a "memorandum of understanding" instead of the more common "disposition and development agreement" in a deliberate attempt to get around state environmental law.
The three-judge panel should cancel the deal and order Kamilos and the county to first produce the all- important studies, Herum said. Otherwise, "it may be unstoppable when this belated EIR takes place."
Justice Rebecca Wiseman seemed to entertain Patterson's point of view when she asked for details on the metaphor of a "train going down the track. Once people get their mind set (on a specific concept), sometimes that's as important as a document."
But the county's lawyer noted that Kamilos' consultants are preparing the required document. Kamilos last month told The Bee that a draft should be ready to circulate by fall.
"This is moot," said attorney Sabrina Teller, representing West Park and the county. "The EIR is under way."
Justice Betty Dawson asked several pointed questions on the rationale for ordering proponents to go back and do something they're already doing.
After the hearing, Patterson City Councilman Dominic Farinha said, "Let's start by doing the project correctly and diligently and go from there."
Justice Stephen Kane remained silent throughout Thursday's hearing.
Herum said Kamilos and the county already have gotten away with a fast one by coaxing a $22.5 million grant from the California Transportation Commission for a rail link to Oakland. Herum decried "psychological momentum in favor of the project going forward without any environmental analysis."
The county should have produced the document soon after a steering committee made recommendations on transforming the former air base back in 2001, Herum said.
Teller said robust public dialogue on West Park — which some leaders have referred to as the most contentious, highest-stakes issue ever to confront the county — served people well. "The county has a responsibility to take actions in public," she said, and "cheerleading ... is natural and it's normal to expect that."
The forthcoming EIR might well address West Siders' concerns, Teller said. To say it won't before it's even created is premature, she said.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.