Walnut sues Mt. San Antonio College

By Rich Irwin and Steve Scauzillo

WALNUT >> The city and concerned residents filed separate lawsuits against Mount San Antonio College this week, claiming the community college is violating the city’s zoning ordinance and breaking environmental laws. It is the latest attempt by the City Council and residents to stop construction of a controversial $48.5-million parking structure off Mountaineer Road.

“We have to hold their feet to the fire, they’re not complying with the law,” said Councilman Bob Pacheco after the City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to sue Mt. SAC. “We have to challenge their actions because the college has not been straight with us.”

Mt. SAC began construction March 18, one week after receiving approval from the Division of the State Architect. On Wednesday, work continued, as workers cut down campus trees facing Mountaineer Road to make way for the parking garage.

“They want to play hardball and be obnoxious about it. They are marching ahead and shoving it in the public’s face. But they know this is going to get overturned,” said Craig Sherman, San Diego-based attorney for United Walnut Taxpayers.

The residents’ lawsuit claims the college violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not crafting a separate environmental impact report on the 2,300-space garage project. It also argues the city did not present voters of Measure RR, a $353-million bond issue adopted in 2008 with a full description of the project, a violation of Proposition 39. The third cause of action mimics the city’s lawsuit and claims Mt. SAC should not be exempt from city zoning laws.

“I think we got them dead to rights,” Sherman said.

In an interview Thursday, Mt. SAC President William Scroggins said the college received the residents’ lawsuit and its attorneys are preparing a response to present to the Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday. “We feel we have a good basis in both statute and case laws that support our position,” he said.

As an educational institution, Mt. SAC contends it is exempt from city zoning laws and therefore, only needs approval from the state architect.

“We’ve done each of the required steps in terms of environmental impact, traffic studies, the construction design and approval by the state,” he wrote in a news release.

Scroggins said the college does not plan on stopping construction. Sherman said his group, made up mostly of Timberline residents whose homes would be as close as 120 feet from the structure, may ask for an injunction if construction doesn’t stop immediately.

“We think it would be foolish for the district to proceed in light of the lawsuits and very clear violations,” he said.

• PHOTOS: Walnut, resident group sue Mt. SAC over parking garage

The city lawsuit claims Mt. SAC is building the five-story garage with two levels underground on land zoned for homes but never asked for a zoning variance. City Attorney Mike Montgomery of San Marino said school districts are exempt from following city zoning codes, but college districts are not.

Pacheco noted that in a 2002 Environmental Impact Report, Mt. SAC proposed two smaller parking structures in other areas within the college. Sherman said the college only published “boilerplate language” about increasing parking and circulation but never called out the specific project and location to voters; as a result, it can’t use Measure RR monies to build the project.

Homeowners protested for more than a year after the college presented plans for the massive garage on top of an existing parking lot next to the Timberline neighborhood. During the year-long battle, the City Council sided with the homeowners. In February, it directed its attorney to send a letter asking the college to reconsider the project.

“They want to put a five-story structure 120 feet away from the residences. It is not in accordance with zoning and the city’s general plan,” Montgomery said.

The city’s lawsuit claims the parking structure “will impact the surrounding neighborhood, including traffic, noise, land use and aesthetics.” Mt. SAC countered, saying the location is best suited to meet student parking needs because it would be near most classrooms.

Councilwoman Mary Su says the city wants the college to build a parking structure in the center of campus, away from homes. She said Mt. SAC Trustees turned down invitations from the city to talk about a location change.

“If this lawsuit can win their attention, we can sit down and talk and come to an agreement,” Su said on Thursday.

But the college has not indicated a willingness to change locations.

Mt. SAC board member Manuel Baca called the parking garage “a dilemma” that now will be settled in the courts. He said Walnut and Mt. SAC serve different populations.

“This is the place (for the garage) where it makes the most sense,” he said.


Walnut expands battle with Mt. SAC, adding stadium expansion and solar project to list

Walnut threatens to stop Mt. SAC Hilmer Lodge Stadium expansion, other college projects /March 12, 2015

WALNUT >> The City Council escalated the war with Mount San Antonio College Wednesday night, saying it will try to stop other projects, including a $62 million upgrade to Hilmer Lodge Stadium that comes with a play to host the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in 2020.

“The city of Walnut fully intends to enforce city zoning code regulations, city general plan guidelines and state land use law as it pertains to any proposed development at Mount San Antonio College,” the city posted on its website Thursday.

The widening gulf between the upper middle class suburb and the largest community college in California — located within the city limits — comes after a yearlong battle in which neighbors, and then the city, have demanded Mt. SAC not build a five-story parking garage adjacent to Walnut homes off Mountaineer Road.

While that battle continues, the city wants veto power over: the stadium project, set to break ground this summer; a 13,500-square-foot food court with seating for 290 people; a 10,000-square foot fire academy/training tower and a solar-power generation system to be built on land west of Grand Avenue or on top of the proposed parking structure in the northwest part of campus.

Walnut is poised to file a lawsuit against the college, saying its parking garage project should be subject to city codes and approval. Educational institutions and projects are exempt from municipal zoning but must gain approval from the Division of the State Architect (DSA). Mt. SAC has not sought city approval.

Another legal argument involves whether the parking structure is an “educational classroom” and therefore exempt. But recent court cases in Orange County have challenged community college projects for fast-food restaurants and dormitories, arguing they are commercial or residential, not educational, and must gain local approval.

Mt. SAC recently amended its application to the DSA to add a solar panel project which would be affixed to the top level, said Walnut City Attorney Mike Montgomery.

He claims the solar project is an attempt by Mt. SAC to avoid being subject to Walnut’s zoning codes by adding an energy element. Energy or water-saving projects by state institutions are excluded from local review, he said. In the last few months, Mt. SAC has said the college will also use the structure for firefighter training and for astronomy classes.

“All of a sudden it has a solar panel, before that fireman’s ropes and a telescope? It is not a classroom. It is a parking structure,” Montgomery said at the meeting attended by 30 Timberline residents.

The City Council threw every possible weapon against the college’s expansion plans during the heated meeting Wednesday night in which residents complained the city efforts were “too little, too late.”

One of those ideas would be an outright ban on large trucks on Mountaineer Road, where dump trucks would need to pass to build the $45 million, 2,200-space parking garage. The city has not yet received an excavation permit request from the college, said city staffers, but hinted if it did, it could turn it down.

The city will establish an ad-hoc committee to address Mt. SAC’s projects. The city is considering sending a mailer to all Walnut residents on the city’s position regarding the garage and future college projects. The makeup of the committee will be discussed on March 25, the next City Council meeting, said City Manager Rob Wishner.

Councilman Robert Pacheco intimated the community, or even individual council members, could use political strategies. He mentioned that three of the seven Mt. SAC trustees are up for re-election in November: Fred Chyr, Roseanne Bader and Manuel Baca.

“These folks are concerned about their re-election,” he said during the meeting. Pacheco added: “We are going to keep their feet to the fire.”

Frustrated Walnut residents, who agree with the city’s stance that the parking structure will hurt property values and could snarl traffic further, said they want more than talk.

“This snail’s pace isn’t going to work,” said Layla Abou-Taleb, a Timberline resident and a member of resident group opposing the parking garage. “What we need from you is action.”

The residents wanted Walnut to file its lawsuit. Council members and staff spoke vaguely about legal remedies but said they could not speak about them in a public session.

Montgomery told the Council that he recently learned that letters from the City Council objecting to the parking garage were never delivered to the Mt. SAC board. “They are absolutely arrogant. It is pretty clear litigation is going to result,” he said.