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.
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.
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.