Caltrans has been added to the list of those filing lawsuits challenging Madera County's Nov. 5 approval of the revised Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for Tesoro Viejo, the 1,656-acre planned community on Highway 41, north of Ave. 12 proposed by Fresno's McCraffey Homes.
The revised EIR was submitted to the county after a lawsuit was filed in 2009 by the Madera Oversight Coalition, and the Dumna Tribe and others, forcing the developer to provide a revised EIR to include a more technical analysis of roads, traffic and water after supervisors approved the project on Dec. 8, 2008.
The Caltrans lawsuit, filed Dec. 14, alleges that the county failed to mitigate for traffic impacts and is in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Caltrans contends that the county's traffic study underestimates the volume of traffic the development is expected to generate, making the proposed mitigation inadequate.
Brent McCaffrey, president of McCaffrey Homes, called the Caltrans litigation "baffling."
"As we clearly stated on Nov. 5 before the Madera County Board of Supervisors, and continue to publicly state, we recognize the safety of everyone in the region, as well as our community, is of the utmost importance," McCaffrey said in a prepared statement Monday. "While not required to make all the improvements along the Highway 41 corridor we continue to remain steadfast in our commitment to Madera County, future residents of Tesoro Viejo and our neighbors throughout the region that we would make improvements to widen Highway 41 so it is four-lanes from Avenue 12 to Avenue 15 with the potential for stoplights at Avenue 14 ½ and Avenue 15 prior to the first residential occupancy. Simply stated, we are putting the needs of everyone else first before our own as this would be 15 years in advance. Why Caltrans chooses to reject this offer and litigate, rather than putting the safety of all the residents who drive Highway 41 first above all else is just baffling."
Matt Treber, senior planner for Madera County, said the county has been working with Caltrans to mitigate traffic issues.
"It is unfortunate that Caltrans has decided to bring litigation against Madera County since we have been working diligently to resolve their concerns," Treber said. "The developer has offered and Madera County has accepted the widening of Highway 41 from its current two lanes to four lanes from Avenue 12 to Avenue 15 before the county would issue an occupancy permit for a single home in the development, in addition to numerous other conditions and mitigation measures."
This suit comes after the City of Fresno, the Coalition for Clean Air and a joint suit by the Madera Oversight Coalition and Revive the San Joaquin have all been filed based on inadequate information in the court-ordered revised EIR in the areas of water, air pollution and traffic.
In a prepared statement released Friday by Caltrans, Malcolm Dougherty, Caltrans director said the suit is about realistic planning and the integrity of the state highway system.
"In addition, the specific plan proposes to realign State Route 41 in a location inconsistent with the preferred realignment of the highway, as designated in the Rio Mesa Area Plan," Dougherty said. "It would also re-direct the highway through a Caltrans vernal pool mitigation site south of the development."
Caltrans and Madera County signed an agreement in 1995 acknowledging that the highway needed to be realigned to accommodate for future growth and selecting the preferred realignment route. According to Caltrans, the county's approval of the proposed plan jeopardizes the realignment.
City of Fresno officials fear the large development north of the Fresno River would add to air quality and water quantity issues.
Chris Acree, executive director of Revive the San Joaquin, says the revised EIR is still not what the court ordered.
A letter to the editor in the Dec. 13 Fresno Bee from Robert G. Ledger Sr., chief of the Dumna Tribe, said the tribe now supports the project. The letter said the tribe is proud of the partnership it has formed with the McCaffrey family.
"Tesoro Viejo is a well-planned, sustainable community that respects the land and the needs of the region," Ledger said. "The disingenuous environmental groups that are suing the project have no basis for their suits and only want to be obstructionists."
Bruce Gray of the Madera Oversight Coalition was quick to respond, mailing a letter to Ledger, the Bee and the Sierra Star the next day, asking Ledger to take a moment and reflect back on the tribe's previous position when it (the tribe) was part of the 2009 lawsuit against McCaffrey and the county over cultural resources, water and traffic inadequacies.
Gray said The Dumna's "cultural aspects" of the original case set precedence with the courts by explaining in detail what CEQA requires in an EIR for mitigating impacts to historical resources of an archeological nature.
"If you think we have been (Dumna included) disingenuous and obstructionists, please publicly reqlinquish all settlement agreements you have made with Mr. McCaffrey," Gray concluded in his letter.
Tom Wheeler, Madera County Fifth District supervisor, said all the lawsuits are unfortunate because the legal proceeding will cause delays in the project and delays in creating growth and jobs in Madera County.
"McCaffrey came back with a revised EIR that had more data that what the judge asked for," Wheeler said. "McCaffrey has settled issues with the Madera Irrigation District, Chawanakee Joint Union School District and the Dumna Tribe. Hopefully all these other issues will be settled in a year."
Full project build-out, with a projected population close to 16,000, has been estimated for 2025.