In The News

Dutra asphalt plant controversy in hands of judge

December 9, 2011

By PAUL PAYNE Press Democrat Staff Writer

Lawyers argued Friday before a packed courtroom about a controversial asphalt plant proposed for the Petaluma River that was approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors despite community opposition over potential environmental effects.

Critics of the Dutra Materials project have sued the San Rafael-based company and the county, alleging the project was rushed through in violation of open-meeting laws and without adequate consideration of impacts on public health, air, water quality and nearby park land.

Opponents are seeking a new environmental review and another vote from the board, which has lost two Dutra supporters since approving the project in December 2010 by a 3-2 margin. The new panel likely would reject it.

“I think we made a really strong case,” Petaluma Mayor David Glass said at the end of the more than two hour session before Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau. “And I think the judge asked some really good questions.”

Chouteau listened to arguments from both sides and took the matter under submission. He’ll rely on written briefs and about 50,000 pages of public records in making a decision in the coming weeks.

The courtroom was filled to capacity with Petaluma council members, community activists and project supporters.

“We look forward to a favorable ruling,” Dutra spokeswoman, Aimi Dutra, said after the hearing. “Our case was well-represented and we remain confident.”

The company has been trying to build the 38-acre plant at the southern gateway to the city for about five years. The design has undergone several revisions to reduce noise, traffic and disruptions to native species and habitat.

But opponents allege that an environmental review completed in 2008 was not amended to reflect the changes. Attorney Richard Drury argued it lacked an accurate project description, a map or updated assessments of issues such as traffic and noise, invalidating the supervisors’ approval. He questioned how supervisors could make a decision on something not fully explained to them.

“Even trained experts can’t figure out what the project is, let alone what its impacts are,” Drury said.

Also, Drury accused Dutra consultants of a last-minute “document dump” of more than 600 pages of reports to supervisors the day they voted on the project.

Dutra’s attorney, Les Perry, said the last submission was a mere 56 pages in an 1,800-page report. He conceded changes to the project but said they came at the county’s request and typically lessened impacts on surrounding areas. Each incarnation was covered in the environmental report, he said.

“Yeah, there were pieces added, but to say it’s a project that wasn’t evaluated is fundamentally wrong,” Perry said.

The county’s lawyer, Jeff Brax, disputed claims that supervisors violated the Brown Act by not allowing public comment at the last hearing on Dec. 14. He said it wasn’t required because the matter had been continued from a previous date.

Chouteau picked on some of the open-meeting law questions. He suggested a possible violation of noticing requirements on documents submitted the day the project was approved.

“They were entitled to 10 days’ notice,” Chouteau told Brax. “That’s what I’m concerned about.”