Environmental groups sue county over LA River Master Plan – Daily News

Two environmental groups are demanding the county of Los Angeles rescind approval of the LA River Master Plan and re-do the environmental review in a lawsuit filed last week in Superior Court.

The LA Waterkeeper and the Center for Biological Diversity contend the county doesn’t treat the 51-mile river as a natural space but instead emphasized flood control over parks and habitat. The lawsuit says the master plan mostly lists vague goals but does identify projects that would involve placing two concrete platforms over the river for park space, capping the flow and creating damaging impacts that can’t be fixed.

“We believe the concrete platforms for parks are a bad choice,” said Benjamin Harris, lead attorney for the LA Waterkeeper on Monday, July 18. The lawsuit says adding more concrete will detract from recent improvements along an 11-mile, soft-bottom, natural portion of the L.A. River known as Glendale Narrows and in the Elysian Valley zone near the new Taylor Yard Pedestrian and Bicycle Bridge.

Harris said the master plan and a Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) aimed at analyzing the impacts of each project are inadequate. He said the county concluded it would not consider removal of concrete channels from the river, even at points where flood control is not an issue.

“We imagine a naturalized river, revitalizing the entire city and region,” Harris said. “But without any changes to the existing river channel, there is nothing more than a flood control channel. So people won’t see a river, and this way it invites more industrial development of the river.”

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors adopted the plan on June 14. The board and other county officials disagree with the two groups’ contentions, praising the plan as balancing environmental, flood control and other community needs.

The county claims the plan would create 51 miles of connected open space along the river, which runs from Canoga Park where Bell Creek and Arroyo Calabasas converge, through the city of Los Angeles and more than 12 other cities before it flows into the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach.

The plan also calls for completion of the L.A. River Trail and adding new access points to the river and the trail; adding mass transit stops to river points; increasing habitat, while adding species of fish and native plants; and adding affordable housing in river-adjacent communities.

Originally a plan was approved in 1996 with goals of flood prevention and making the river more aesthetically pleasing. Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl spearheaded a motion in 2016 to update the plan. The process included a 41-member steering committee that met a dozen times for other community input, plus 15 events with 10 other community organizations.

But LA Waterkeeper and seven other groups, some whom are members of the steering committee, recently asked the county to take their names off the final plan. The groups said the county refused to listen to their ideas and after years of input did not incorporate changes into the plan.

The opposition surprised some on the board. After hearing their request, L.A. County Public Works Director Mark Pestrella told the board he respected their concerns about the parks on concrete platforms.

“Am I concerned about our partners and our stakeholders (expressing environmental concerns), absolutely,” Pestrella said. “And you have my word we will continue to work with them and try to meet their goals and always hear their voices before we approve any project as we move along.”

But the lawsuit also claims that the process undertaken was flawed and one-sided.

The two groups point out that the county held meetings that were superficial, preventing key topics from being discussed.

“The county tried to silo meaningful discussions to preclude having more important topics discussed at those meetings,” Harris said. “There was not an opportunity for us to provide meaningful feedback.” LA Waterkeeper disagrees with the county’s characterization that the plan was “community driven.”

Harris said he has not heard whether the county will remove the group’s name from the document.

As to projects, the lawsuit says the plan does goal-setting without citing specific projects aside from the two concrete platform parks.

“The master plan is not really a plan,” Harris said. “A plan would provide very clear guidance and priorities of how the projects would look.” The lawsuit asks for more information on river projects, with a full environmental analysis.

In consultation with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, the LA Waterkeeper and university researchers concluded that for the cost of the two planned concrete platform parks, the county could add 850 community pocket parks.

“These can provide amenities, playgrounds, shelter from the climate-driven heat, as well as stormwater capture,” Harris said.

LA Waterkeeper, working with a graduate student from Cal State Northridge, kept track of community feedback during steering committee meetings. The group said 40% of the respondents emphasized the environment and nature as the most important goals for the L.A. River.

People can learn more about the plan at LARiverMasterPlan.org.

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