Judge Affirms Richmond Council Broke the Law in Casino Accord

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday September 04, 2008 - 09:24:00 AM

Richmond city councilmembers violated state environmental protection law when they approved a $335 million pact to provide road improvements and emergency services for a North Richmond casino. 

The November 2006 council decision approved a 20-year agreement with the developers of the Sugar Bowl, a proposed $200 million casino with 1,940 slot machines and parking for 3,500 cars. 

Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Barbara Zuniga upheld her previously announced ruling against the city when she filed her decision late Tuesday, holding that the council violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) mandate to review a development project’s potential impacts before voting its authorization. 

Zuniga said the council failed to meet CEQA requirements that called for review of actions by public agencies that have the potential for direct physical changes to the environment “or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment.” 

The judge noted that the agreement with the Scotts Valley Band of Pomos mentions the possibility of future but contractually limited CEQA compliance “if required,” but failed to include the CEQA-mandated consideration of an alternative where no project would be developed. 

The Sugar Bowl casino project is now in the final stages of a separate federal environmental review, but the service agreement as such is not. 

The lawsuit was brought by a coalition that includes Citizens for East Shore Parks, the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund (SPRAWLDEF) and the Parchester Village Neighborhood Council. 

The winning attorney was Richmond resident Stephan Volker, who praised the judge’s decision and said, “The city’s attempt to sidestep CEQA was both disgraceful and disrespectful of the public who would be force to live with the severe consequences of this ill-designed project.” 

Volker is also one of the attorneys who has sued UC Berkeley in an effort to halt construction of a controversial stadium along the western wall of Memorial Stadium. 

Unless the city appeals the decision, Richmond will have to conduct an environmental review before signing a new agreement, an often lengthy process if the city must complete a full environmental impact report. 

For more detail on the casino case, see http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2008-08-28/article/30958.