Palo Alto has to halt its plan to reduce lanes on California Avenue and reconsider its environmental analysis of the streetscaping plan for the business district, a Santa Clara Superior Court judge ruled earlier this month.
The ruling by Judge Patricia Lucas was a victory by a small group of opponents of the California Avenue Streetscape Plan -- a group that includes Terry Shuchat of the California Avenue camera store Keeble & Shuchat, resident Joy Ogawa and former Vice Mayor Jack Morton, whose accounting practice is located a block away from California Avenue.
In her Nov. 9 ruling, Lucas found flaws with the council's sequence of actions. The city conducted its environmental review for the project at the same time as it was applying for a grant that would pay for the street modifications. Thus, Lucas reasoned, the city settled on its lane-reduction plan, as described in the grant application, before the environmental analysis was complete.
Once the council approved a resolution submitting the city's grant application, Lucas wrote, there was no longer any "'genuine flexibility' in the planning process for the California Avenue improvement project." This means other options, including the "no action" alternative, were out of consideration. This, she said, violates the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
"The City's application committed it to a lane reduction: a design feature that foreclosed other options, including leaving the street as it is with four lanes (the "no project" option required to be considered under CEQA)," Lucas wrote.
City Attorney Molly Stump said the court ruling means the council will rescind its approvals of the grant-application resolution and the project's "negative declaration" (an environmental analysis) and consider them once again, in the sequence ordered by Lucas. The council will rescind its earlier approvals at its next meeting, on Nov. 21.
"The court just said there was a problem with timing," Stump said. "The council needed to reconsider the project after adoption of the environmental-review documents.
"We don't think anything needs to be redone in terms of staff work."
Lucas rejected other complaints from the plaintiffs, including their assertion that the city violated the Brown Act by not giving them a chance to comment on all the documents before council approval. Lucas found no evidence of any prejudice from the city against the plaintiffs. She also found the plaintiffs' argument that the project violates the city's Comprehensive Plan "moot."
William Ross, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he disagrees with Stump that the judge's ruling is largely "technical" and said he is still examining the ruling for elements that could be appealed.
Shuchat said he is pleased with the judge's decision, which will require the city to conduct further review before implementing the plan. Shuchat said the city's proposal would only create more congestion.
"I would like the city to keep the street at a four-lane configuration -- two lanes in each direction," Shuchat said. "I feel traffic movement is very good on the street now. There's no reason to make it two lanes."
The council unanimously approved the environmental analysis for the California Avenue Streetscape Plan on Feb. 14 after hearing from dozens of residents and several merchants. The overwhelming majority spoke in favor of the plan, which the city planners say will make the commercial stretch more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. The plan, which is largely funded by a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority grant, also includes various landscaping improvements and new street furniture. Council members had words of praise for the proposal, with Greg Scharff calling it a "fabulous project."
Shuchat said that while he opposes lane reduction, he supports other elements of the streetscape project and hopes the council will proceed with its plan to beautify the business district. He also said he hopes the city would seek more input from neighborhood stakeholders.
"What would be really nice is if the city had better contact with the merchants and property owners," Shuchat said.