The city's tab for appealing the Dutra asphalt plant at Haystack Landing will be about $8,500, according to Richard Drury, an attorney for opponents of the project that has become a lightening rod for the community.
The biggest cost of the appeal will be from lawyer fees, which have been estimated at $18,500 for the city, according to Drury. But because two community groups have pledged to pay $10,000 for the city's legal fees, the city's portion will now be considerably smaller. There is also about $2,500 to file the appeal at the First District Court of Appeal, which will also be picked up by community groups, Drury said.
The figure is vastly different from the estimate given by a Santa Rosa attorney in a Press Democrat article last week, who said that the legal costs of an appeal could potentially run as high as $200,000. That prompted criticism that the city, which has had to lay off numerous employees, scale back services and enforce furlough days over the past two years could ill afford the expense.
Last Monday, Petaluma City Council voted 6-1 to stay on as as plaintiff in the lawsuit over the asphalt and aggregate facility across the river from Shollenberger Park that was approved in December 2010. Just prior to the vote, two groups opposing the plant, Moms for Clean Air and Friends of Shollenberger Park, pledged $5,000 each to the legal effort, which people close to the issue have said likely influenced the council's vote.
Since February 2009, the city has spent around $68,000 fighting the plant, which would be located outside city limits, but just across the river from Shollenberger Park. Still, opponents say that community groups are the ones who are the main financiers of the legal challenge.
“The community groups have and will continue to pay for the bulk of this,” said David Keller, founder of the Petaluma River Council, which focuses on restoring and protecting the Petaluma River and is one of the plaintiffs in the case. “We paid for the scanning and indexing of information to compile the record and will continue to pay for the bulk of this suit.”
Keller would not disclose the amount community groups have spent on fighting the plant, but said it was “substantial.”
“The donations continue to come in and we always need more,” Keller said. "Is it cheap? No. Would we rather Dutra respect the community and find another place to do their business? Yes. But meanwhile, we have to keep fighting.”
The Dutra Group, based in San Rafael, has said that it intends to move ahead with the project, which the company characterizes as a boon for jobs and economic development for Southern Sonoma County. The company has to meet more than 100 conditions before it receives permission to start construction.
Opponents have 60 days from the time a judgement is entered to file an appeal, but it could take another two years before the case is heard by an appellate judge.
Following the Press Democrat article which quoted Rachel Stevenson, a Santa Rosa attorney who specializes in banking law and business and commercial litigation, many questioned the wisdom of the city pursuing the legal appeal. But Drury said the costs to the city would be minimal and the trial would be very brief.
“The lawyer quoted in the Press Democrat was probably talking about typical criminal or civil cases, where the costs on appeal can be very high,” Drury said. “In such cases, the trial often extends for months, and the entire trial has to be transcribed, bound and organized for the court of appeal, at great expense. In a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) case, the trial lasts for half a day and the transcription costs about $250.”
Susan Brandt-Hawley, an environmental attorney in Glen Ellen, who specializes in CEQA cases, agreed that the costs are unlikely to go over budget.
Lawsuits based on CEQA law include an opening brief, a reply brief and an oral argument, Brandt-Hawley explained. "But the record has already been prepared and the cost is predictable,” she said.
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