Those fighting against a proposal to redevelop gardens on the College of San Mateo campus into a parking lot celebrated a victory which they hope will be the final battle in a long legal war.
An appeals court last week affirmed an earlier San Mateo County Superior Court ruling requiring San Mateo County Community College District officials to complete a full environmental review of the project first proposed in 2011.
Susan Brandt-Hawley, an attorney representing students opposing the project, lauded the most recent court decision as validation of the position her clients have long held.
“This is the outcome we’ve been waiting for and we are looking forward to working with the district to save these gardens,” she said.
The legal process began when the Friends of San Mateo Gardens filed a lawsuit in 2012 aiming to block the district’s plan to demolish the building designed to house the defunct horticulture program along with gardens in favor of making room for a surface parking lot with between 140 and 160 spaces.
Sabrina Teller, the attorney hired by the district, had argued the project did not deserve a full environmental review, as it should instead be considered a minor amendment to a larger campus redesign approved years prior. Changes to approved plans typically hold a lower threshold to clear under state environmental review laws than new and separate projects, which is what the suing party claimed the garden demolition should be considered.
Teller also celebrated last fall a state Supreme Court ruling that school officials should determine whether the controversial project is an amendment of an existing plan to overhaul the school site.
Garden defenders though contended at the time they expected to ultimately win the case when it was sent back to the appeals court, where the presiding judge said Friday, May 5, there is “substantial evidence to support a fair argument that the project changes might have a significant effect on the environment.”
Brandt-Hawley said she believed the most recent ruling could close the door on further legal challenges, while noting school officials can keep up the fight should they wish.
“This should be the end of this case,” she said.
Teller, who represents the district, said school officials are dismayed by the outcome.
“Obviously this is not what we had hoped for,” she said.
Teller said there is an opportunity to appeal the decision, but was uncertain whether district officials will be interested in pursuing the legal battle further.
“There are more legal avenues available and the issue is whether they would take them and I haven’t had a chance to talk with my client about whether or not they would take any of those options,” Teller said.
She noted the appeals court decision was issued last week, so it is likely officials are still weighing the outcome while examining potential next steps.
Shawn Khan, founder of the Friends of San Mateo Gardens, said in a prepared statement he hopes officials resign to reworking plans for the battleground campus space.
“Fortunately, while the case has been pending since 2011, the gardens and horticulture complex remain intact. We now hope that the district will agree to revise its parking lot plans to save as much of the complex as is feasible,” he said.
Brandt-Hawley, who has worked the case from the beginning, said she did not initially expect it to become such an exhaustive legal process.
“It seemed like a compelling case and it was kind of inspiring to see these students caring so much about their campus,” she said.
But as the fight escalated eventually to the state Supreme Court, she said she was proud to work on a case which is likely to set a precedent for other similar projects.
“One very positive thing is that the court has clarified the law in a way that is helpful for citizens and agencies because they know what they need to do,” she said.
As a result, she considers the case a win both for her clients and others who may benefit from demystifying a previously more murky piece of environmental law.
“This is good for everyone and hopefully it saves these gardens,” she said.
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