has been hit with its second environmental lawsuit in less than a month, when a group of Hillsborough residents filed a case last week against the community college district and its board of trustees for felling over 200 trees along the northern ridge of the campus in January without adequate public notice and environmental review.
Citizens for a Green San Mateo, an informal local group, filed the lawsuit in San Mateo County Superior Court after negotiations with district officials about how to minimize the effects of uprooting the trees failed to conclude amicably.
Last month a group of students and community members – represented by Brandt-Hawley Law Group, the same public interest environmental law firm that has filed the Hillsborough residents' case – petitioned the superior court to , alleging that the college administration had failed to do an adequate review under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.
The latest lawsuit makes a similar allegation, stating that the felling of the trees required a CEQA review given the “significant environmental impacts” of such a move. The petitioners claimed that removing the “decades-old green buffer of mature trees” had exposed homes in surrounding Hillsborough neighborhoods to bright lights, buildings and activities on campus.
“The surrounding neighborhoods and hiking trails that have enjoyed a bucolic, tree-lined vista are now exposed to clear-cut hillsides and bright lights shining throughout the night,” the lawsuit alleges.
Removing the trees was part of the college's larger bond-funded redevelopment plan, or the 2006 Facilities Master Plan. While the first phase of what is called the North Gateway Project saw the removal of the trees along the northern border of the campus, the second phase will include a new plaza, renovated parking lots, an amphitheater and pedestrian pathways.
In the absence of an acceptable settlement, the petitioners have asked that the college not be allowed to cut any more trees, renovate or construct parking lots or install lighting fixtures in the areas exposed to surrounding neighborhoods, until they thoroughly review the environmental effects of and remedies for past and future removal of trees.
According to the lawsuit, residents had raised concerns and objections in January when the trees were being uprooted. It alleges that a district official had even apologized for not contacting residents before the project began. The residents then formed a group to negotiate with college authorities on ways to minimize the effects of removing the trees. Those talks came to naught.
However, district spokesperson Barbara Christensen said the college was proceeding with construction plans for both phases, and bids for Phase II were received Thursday as per schedule.
In a separate emailed statement, Christensen said the district removed 201 trees, under the supervision of an arborist, as part of a wildfire management program.
“This involved removing and pruning non-native and highly flammable species such as Eucalyptus and diseased or dead trees, as well as general ground clean-up to mitigate 'fire ladder' effects. The removal of the non-native and unhealthy trees has afforded the college the opportunity to encourage the growth for native species, such as oaks, that had been crowded out by the other trees,” the statement said.
Also, the removal of the trees had opened up space for a scenic overlook planned as part of the North Gateway project.
The statement added that the district was indeed in discussion with Hillsborough residents about how to address their concerns, but the talks had not yielded much results.