Monday, January 7, 2008

Marin Judge Prepares Railroad Slam

Posted By on Mon, Jan 7, 2008 at 6:39 PM

On the eve of the big North Coast Railroad Authority v. Everyone lawsuit trial date down in Marin County, a judge has signaled that he is inclined to rule against the railroad authority and for the County of Marin, the City of Novato and several Bay Area and Humboldt County environmental organizations.

In a pretrial memorandum, Marin County Superior Court Judge James R. Ritchie has signaled that he is inclined to issue a preliminary injunction on all railroad repair work currently underway on the south end of the line. (Technically, he writes that he's inclined to stop all work contracted after Oct. 15 of this year, or work contracted before that has not actually begun.)

Beyond that, though, Ritchie writes that at this stage of the game he is inclined to side with the plaintiffs' fundamental allegation -- that the North Coast Railroad Authority violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it segmented the line into various parts, apparently in an effort to skirt the impact of the huge amount of traffic it plans to see coming down from Humboldt County. Here's Ritchie's take on the plaintiffs' case:

Regarding likelihood of success: As discussed above, it appears that NCRA violated CEQA by filing the disputed Notices of Exemption before project approval, and by entering into contracts and allowing work to commence before performing the required CEQA analysis. It also appears that NCRA was attempting to avoid conducting CEQA review by claiming that an Environmental Impact Report ("EIR") was not necessary for the construction work itself, but was necessary only for the planned operation of the railway. Instead, the "whole" project -- whether broken up geographically, by phases of construction and operation, or otherwise -- must be considered in CEQA analysis.

If the ruling eventually shakes out this way, the railroad authority will have to do a full environmental analysis of its entire plans for the line. And if that happens, it should at least resolve most of the doubletalk that has been endemic to NCRA and Humboldt Bay District planning over the last couple of years.

To read Judge James R. Ritchie's assessment of the case, check pages 14-17 of this PDF file. The case will be heard tomorrow morning at 9 a.m.

You can download a PDF of an early plaintiffs' brief in the case here.

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Hank Sims

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