Thursday, July 21, 2011

Oakland Zoo Expansion Opponents File Suit Today

By Nate Seltenrich
Thu, Jul 21, 2011 at 2:04 PM

We knew it was coming, and here we have it. Critics of the Oakland Zoo's expansion into upper Knowland Park officially filed suit today against the zoo for failing to perform an Environmental Impact Report. The suit was filed by the California Native Plant Society, a Sacramento organization with an East Bay chapter geared toward preserving California's native flora, and Friends of Knowland Park, a community organization that has fought to represent neighbors and the park itself ever since changes to the expansion, first approved in 1998, were proposed four years ago. If successful, it could delay or further alter the expansion plans.

Both groups have been fighting for an Environmental Impact Report since the zoo announced its new expansion plans would instead be supported by a Mitigated Negative Declaration, a less intensive document that asserts a project will result in no negative impacts after prescribed mitigation efforts. When Oakland's Planning Commission approved the project, the coalition appealed. When City Council heard the case in mid-June, it, too, sided with the zoo, giving its expansion the green light once and for all.

Or not. Although the City Attorney's office has advised Council that the city and zoo are legally in the clear, the opponents' legal representation at San Francisco firm Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger suggests otherwise. The sticking point is the significance of the changes between the zoo's original and updated expansion plans.

“The Zoo’s amended Master Plan is so different from the earlier version of the document that it should be considered a new project under the California Environmental Quality Act,” said attorney Catherine Engberg in a statement. “The City Council should not have approved this project without a vigorous exploration of alternatives. This lawsuit asks the City and the Zoo to take a harder look at the damage that would be done if the expansion goes forward as planned, and to explore opportunities for fulfilling the Zoo’s mission without destroying the sensitive habitat in Knowland Park.”

Construction is well under way for the zoo's gradual expansion into 58 acres of upper Knowland Park, beginning with a vet hospital planned for completion by next July. As it stands now, the park is Oakland's single-largest parcel of open space. It is home to an array of intact habitats housing numerous native and rare plants and animals, including the endangered Alameda whipsnake, which opponents feel will be threatened by the expansion. Sudden Oak Death has also recently been discovered in the park, and construction could facilitate its spread through the Oakland hills.

In an earlier interview, zoo director Joel Parrott told the Express that the zoo's ongoing Habitat Enhancement Plan, outlined in part in its 1,300-page Mitigated Negative Declaration study, would adequately mitigate any environmental effects of the expansion.

Reached for comment on the lawsuit, expansion project director Nik Dehejia said the zoo was disappointed by the action and any potential construction delays it might bring. "The costs of halting this project are incalculable," he said. "The East Bay Zoological society will vigorously defend our position."

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