A lawsuit over the removal of 201 trees from College of San Mateo that upset neighbors over the loss of the natural barrier from noise, traffic and buildings was thrown out of court under a statue of limitations clause.
The California Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the district did notice the public on the December 2010 tree-cutting project and that the appeal of the project was beyond the 180-day statute of limitations. Back in July 2011, neighbors in Hillsborough joined together under the name Citizens For a Green San Mateo and sued the San Mateo County Community College District for failing to conduct an environmental impact review before removing the large trees from the ridgeline of the campus, installing new lights in the parking lots and reconfiguring the roads. The group sought to require an environmental impact review before plans moved forward to cut trees and add new light fixtures, parking lots and roads, which the plaintiff said affected the adjacent neighborhood.
The court’s ruling states the Gateway Phase I project and related tree removal activities were within the scope of the project described in the initial study and mitigated negative declaration. Even if the challenged activities did differ substantially from the project described in the initial study and mitigated negative declaration, the lawsuit was filed July 1, 2011, more than 180 days after the removal of trees along West Perimeter began on Dec. 28, 2010.
“Their (the plaintiff’s) action is still time-barred even under a most generous interpretation of the statute of limitations,” the ruling stated.
The district was very pleased with the ruling and is entitled to recover its costs on the appeal.
“In their review, the court itemized the multiple public notices that described the tree trimming/removal process-board agendas, board reports, public hearings, newspaper announcements and Web postings, including the public project manual that identified every single tree to be trimmed or removed,” Chancellor Ron Galatolo said in a prepared statement. “In doing so, we believe the court validated all the actions the college district properly took to inform the public about this matter. As we have stated many times before, the tree trimming, which was part of the campuswide improvements at College of San Mateo, was undertaken to remove the dead, diseased and nonnative trees on campus which had been identified as a potential fire hazard.”
The district removed the trees under the supervision of an arborist as part of a woodland/wildfire management program, said Barbara Christensen, director of community and government relations for the district. Trees were removed for the following reasons: 48 percent were a fire hazard; 30 percent were diseased, dying or dead; 7 percent were impinging on native trees; 3 percent had poor structural integrity; and 11 percent opened up scenic corridors.
“This involved removing and pruning non-native and highly flammable species such as eucalyptus and diseased or dead trees, as well as general ground cleanup to mitigate ‘fire ladder’ effects,” Christensen previously said, adding the clearing allows native species, like oaks, to grow.
In light of the ruling, there is no need to examine the district’s related claims that the Citizens For a Green San Mateo failed to properly exhaust their administrative remedies, as well as the issues relating to supplemental review, the ruling stated.
“Similarly, we do not reach the district’s claim of mootness, which is based on the fact that the challenged tree removal activities have long since been complete, and the trees have been or will be replaced in accordance with the mitigation measures set forth in the initial study and mitigated negative declaration,” it stated.
The Citizens group’s attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley could not be reached for comment.
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