Local News

Wednesday, Mar 19 2014 04:37 PM

Citizens group sues city over 24th Street widening

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    A constant flow of traffic on 24th Street is sometimes interrupted when drivers go south bound on Cedar Street off of 24th Street. A proposed city financed cul-de-sac is still in the works.

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

A citywide association of residents opposed to expanding the county's busiest street has sued the city of Bakersfield and Caltrans alleging they violated the state's environmental quality act in approving widening 24th Street.

In its petition for writ of mandate, Citizens Against the 24th Street Widening Project accuses the agencies of violating the California Environmental Quality Act by approving an Environmental Impact Report on the project.

It alleges they relied on outdated traffic counts for 24th Street -- parts of which city officials have said carry nearly 60,000 vehicles per day -- to justify widening it.

The association also charges them with acting in a piecemeal fashion by separately considering building cul-de-sacs on downtown streets south of 24th Street.

And it asks a judge to order all work on widening 24th Street stopped, the existing EIR "set aside" and a new EIR prepared.

Caltrans released the final EIR on the project Dec. 31, finding "Alternative 1 will have no significant impact on the human environment."

Alternative 1 was one of two options to widen 24th Street. It involved taking land -- and demolishing 23 single-family homes -- along the north side of 24th Street.

Caltrans recommended Alternative 1, saying it "better preserves a historically significant and architecturally diverse segment of 24th Street ... ."

The widening would expand 23rd and 24th Streets from three lanes in each direction to four between D and M streets by eliminating 293 street parking spaces, and from two to three lanes in each direction between D and Olive streets by widening the road. The work would result in "(a) permanent increase in ambient noise level," according to Caltrans.

Citizens' founder Vanessa Vangel said historic downtown and Westchester streets will be irreparably damaged if the project goes forward -- and construction could expose residents to valley fever and other respiratory diseases.

"This project is in the wrong location. We are not ignorant to progress or the need for progress, but it's in the wrong place," Vangel said. "Bakersfield is surrounded by empty land. It's the most opportune city for a beltway plan. Go around us, not through us."

Her attorney, Jamie T. Hall of Long Beach-based Channel Law Group, also currently represents groups suing the city and the county over allegedly violating CEQA by enacting measures restricting or banning medical marijuana dispensaries.

Hall described the 24th Street widening project as a relic from an earlier era of city planning, and said crews would be wise to stop work until litigation concludes.

"This is not what cities are doing. They're not plowing thorough neighborhoods and destroying them just for the sake of convenience. This is going against the trends of good planning," Hall said. "Any act that they engage in at this point, any construction-related activity, is risky because they could be proven wrong and have to go back to the starting line."

City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said the lawsuit was not unexpected, and work would not stop unless ordered by a judge.

"When a city performs this type of work, particularly this volume of work involving that number of homes and people, these types of lawsuits are expected," Gennaro said. "Just like with all our other CEQA lawsuits, work only stops if we are ordered to stop by the court."

City Manager Alan Tandy declined to respond to the allegation the EIR relied on outdated traffic counts but said the city has been embroiled in many similar lawsuits.

"I think it's the 25th time or something we've been sued on CEQA," Tandy said, noting much of the litigation was over development projects. "That's in the last 10 years probably."

Caltrans Spokeswoman Tami Conrado said she was unable to verify with the agency's legal department whether it had received the petition, which was filed Monday. Conrado said agency policy is to decline comment on active lawsuits.

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