School district files lawsuit
Explanation of Senate Bill 50:
According to the Lozano Smith law firm, under SB 50, school districts have been able to continue levying a fee per square foot of development (commonly called a "Level 1" fee), so long as sufficient justification exists to support that fee. The current Level 1 fees are $3.20 for residential development and $0.51 for commercial. For school districts that meet certain criteria, a "Level 2" residential fee may be imposed that can be higher than the Level 1 fee, based on a specific statutory formula. The Level 2 fee is unique to each school district and must be authorized annually. In concept, Level 2 fees are the equivalent of what the state assumes will total 50 percent of the cost of providing facilities for students from new development.
School officials filed a 99-page lawsuit Dec. 28 in Superior Court against the city of Lincoln, Lincoln City Council, Planning Commission and Lake Development-Lincoln LLC. The district wants a judge to order the city and the developer to adequately address environmental impacts to schools.
Lincoln City Council voted unanimously during closed session Tuesday to authorize city attorney Jon Hobbs to defend the city. The decision was announced at the beginning of the public portion of the council’s meeting.
“I am extremely disappointed the school district felt their only avenue was to sue the city,” Lincoln Mayor Stan Nader said. “We were certainly willing to continue discussions but that is now problematic as they have taken this particular action.”
The lawsuit seeks to make the city and developer state in environmental documents how new schools will be provided for future students, where those students will attend school and how current schools and the environment will be impacted if those students attend existing schools.
The Western Placer Unified School District contends that the environmental documents approved for Village 1 and Phase 1 of Village 1 do not comply with the city’s 2008 General Plan or the California Environmental Quality Act.
CEQA is a statute that requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible, according to the California Natural Resources Agency.
The Village 1 Specific Plan area is located east of the Auburn Ravine and includes land on both the north and south side of State Highway 193. The plan area includes 1,832 acres and extends in its southeast corner out to Sierra College Boulevard and out to Stardust Lane on Highway 193.
The first phase of Village 1, known as Phase 1 or Lake Development, includes 290.2 acres located primarily east of Auburn Ravine and north of Highway 193.
One 12.1-acre elementary school site has been identified for Village 1, which is projected to have 5,639 dwelling units resulting in 3,383 new students. Of those 3,383 students, 1,658 represent elementary, 778 middle school and 947 high school.
According to the district’s facilities master plan, a new elementary school would house 800 students.
There is no school site planned for Phase 1, which is projected to have 1,135 dwelling units resulting in 333 elementary students, 157 middle school students and 191 high school students. The school district made the decision to build fewer, larger schools.
Middle school and high school students would attend Glen Edwards Middle School and Lincoln High School.
Western Placer Unified School District Superintendent Scott Leaman and facilities planner Heather Steer acknowledge that, based on the numbers, there is a possible need for a second elementary school to house students from Village 1.
The alternative is to build portables at existing school sites, update offices, playgrounds, food facilities, and restrooms and provide transportation to new students. The identified sites are Carlin C. Coppin Elementary School, Creekside Oaks Elementary School and Sheridan Elementary School.
“The district seeks for the city and Lake Development to comply with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act to evaluate and mitigate all reasonably foreseeable impacts on the environment, including schools,” said Megan Macy of Lozano Smith, the school district’s legal counsel. “These impacts are not limited to new construction but necessarily include traffic impacts and issues related to overcrowding, such as noise, student safety and changes in views due to addition of new facilities on existing sites,” Macy said.
The lawsuit sums up the district’s demands on pages 35 and 36. The district is asking the court to set aside the decisions of the City Council certifying the environmental impact report Nov. 27, 2012 and the Planning Commission recommending approval of the report to the City Council Nov. 14, 2012, order each body to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act and the city’s General Plan, declare that the environmental documents must address impacts related to schools and school facilities, render a judgment that the city must mitigate impacts to schools and school facilities and pay attorneys’ fees.
Asked by The News Messenger how much the lawsuit would cost taxpayers, neither the district nor the city gave a figure.
“The district is hopeful that the lawsuit will be resolved expeditiously through settlement negotiations with the city and Lake Development so that neither the district nor the city will need to incur significant legal costs,” Macy said. “At this time, the cost of the lawsuit itself is uncertain, dependent on the city’s defense, which is unknown to the district at this time.”
City of Lincoln officials, including Nader, Councilman Spencer Short and City Manager Jim Estep, have asked why the district had to file the lawsuit.
Leaman said the district had a 30-day window from the time the city filed the notice of determination for the environmental report with Placer County to take legal action. He said the district “learned its lesson” from the planning process for Village 7. The Village 7 housing development is west of Lincoln Crossing Elementary and includes 2,898 units. One elementary school is included in the district’s facilities master plan for Village 7.
“We spoke at the Planning Commission and City Council meetings and we are still in intense negotiations to make something happen,” Leaman said. “The city passed the environmental impact report and we still have no school.”
Short said the filing of the lawsuit is not going to improve city-school relations or foster effective communication.
There have already been a few disagreements between the two over how to talk about future development.
The district scheduled a four-part series of meetings about future development of schools in August and September.
Short, who was mayor during 2012, said the city received “very short notice” of the first meeting. The city was formally invited to attend the second meeting. However, Short said at the Aug. 21 school board meeting, the council and school board should schedule a workshop. He said the city answering questions at a school board meeting is the wrong format for the discussion.
School officials told planning commissioners at the commission’s Nov. 14 meeting that the district may sue the city if environmental documents were approved for Village 1 and Phase 1 of Village 1.
“When the district started talking about a lawsuit at the Planning Commission meeting, the city backed up,” Short said.
The city intended to schedule a joint session with school officials Nov. 27, but the Village 1 discussion took place that night. City officials canceled the workshop and said a meeting would be scheduled after the first of the year.
The school board voted unanimously Dec. 18 to authorize the district to initiate litigation against Lake Development and the city of Lincoln in reaction to the city’s approval of environmental documents over the district’s objections.
The deadline for the district to file a legal action was Jan. 2, 2013, based on the California Environmental Quality Act timeline.
“Unfortunately, I cannot provide substantive comment on the matter at this time now that there is active, pending litigation,” said Jon Hobbs, Lincoln’s city attorney. “However, I remain disappointed that the school district has decided to pursue litigation in this matter.”
Estep also is disappointed.
“In my discussions with the school superintendent, I strongly advised against recommending this action to the school board as it certainly would not improve their relationship with the city and would adversely affect future cooperative discussions regarding funding for schools,” Estep said.
Leaman said the district is hoping to settle its difference with the city “through negotiation.”
“If not, we will be challenging the report, we will go to the courts and see what the determination is,” Leaman said.
Short, who is an attorney by trade, said going through the legal process will not address the district’s primary concern, which would be to work with the developer to determine what fee the developer will have to pay for a school facility under Senate Bill 50 rules.
Senate Bill 50 explains the rules under which school districts can negotiate with developers to collect fees to build schools.
“Both sides still need to come to an agreement,” Short said.
If the district wins the suit, Short said the city could be ordered to analyze secondary impacts including water and sewer flows, air quality and bus trips.
Leaman said he “simply wants” the city to “follow its own General Plan.”
The district gives several examples in the lawsuit of where the district believes the city did not follow the General Plan. One of the examples was streets.
“General Plan Goal T-2 is to continue to ensure provision and maintenance of a safe and efficient system of streets to meet demands of existing and planned development,” the district asserts. “The project will require over 2,300 students generated by the project to be transported outside the proposed project to attend elementary, middle and high school, resulting in a greater demand on existing and planned street systems, as students that would typically attend a neighborhood school within walking or short driving distance will instead be transported as far as 20 miles away to attend existing schools.”
Another example cited in the lawsuit involved air quality.
“General Plan Policy HS 3.5 states that the city shall require developments, where feasible, to be located, designed and constructed in a manner that would minimize the production of air pollutants and avoid land use conflicts,” the district states in the lawsuit. “By failing to locate an adequate number of schools within the project, the project will increase the production of air pollutants due to a substantially greater number of home-to-school trips by car, rather than by bicycle or walking.”
Short said the district has made conflicting statements over the actual amount of schools the district wants to build to serve the Villages, a series of seven future housing developments.
Leaman and Steer have said the district made a decision to build fewer, but larger schools.
“What the district fails to acknowledge,” Short said, “is the district is trying to fit its 2010 master plan into an already adopted 2008 General Plan.”
Short said the district was not well engaged in the 2008 General Plan process.
“The General Plan process took six years to develop,” Short said. “After the General Plan was developed, and after the district’s severe financial limitations were discovered, the school district went about preparing a facilities master plan to respond to the General Plan rather than planning jointly.”
Leaman said the district attended the General Plan hearings but was not involved in the city’s process.
“The city’s General Plan is good,” Leaman said. “We used it to plan our schools. Our master plan is built around the General Plan.”