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Development opponents are claiming a major victory in the battle over projects proposed for Murieta North. They say work on an environmental impact report will have to go back to square one, implying that lengthy delays will result.

The county, which has been on the defensive about the document, says what's happening is not uncommon, and revisiting parts of the work will make a stronger environmental report and not necessarily add much time to the already prolonged process.

The Residences of Murieta Hills East and West and the Retreat projects, a total of 282 single-family homes, first came before the county Board of Supervisors for approval in January. The hearing was continued to April, and in April it was continued to July to give the county time to respond to a lengthy, last-minute legal challenge to the environmental document for the projects. The 25-page letter and numerous attachments were submitted by an environmental lawyer working for the Rancho Murieta Development Concerned Citizens Committee, which opposes the development plans.

In a letter May 18, RMDCCC member Candy Chand said the environmental impact report for the projects, which was in final form, "has been deemed inadequate and sent all the way back to the draft drawing board" due to the RMDCCC's work lobbying the county and various state and federal agencies.

For its part, the county Department of Environmental Review and Assessment says it will revise four chapters of the final environmental impact report and recirculate them for comment. Chapters 5, 10, 13 and 15 cover public services, biological resources, aesthetics, and a summary of impacts.

To Chand, the revisions are "an admission of Sac County that their EIR was never adequate. ... It is going back to square one in that it's going back through the (California Environmental Quality Act) process. It doesn't mean that you chop up the EIR and throw it away completely. ... They could have amended the final. They didn't choose to do that. Once you go back to a draft, that's a major change. ... We get to do comments in writing, we get to debate the draft again. ... This is a huge advantage to be in to try to mold the draft before it gets to a final and get those cumulative studies. ... It's a huge deal."

Lauren Hocker, DERA associate environmental analyst, acknowledged that recirculation "most often occurs at the draft (stage)," but added, "I'm not sure that there's any significance to this in terms of process. ... The CEQA guideline specifically says as long as the hearing hasn't been closed and nobody's certified the document yet you can recirculate it. ... This process has gone on a long time, and it's gone to multiple hearings. There are a lot of people who are making comments at the hearings. ... We were getting near the end and then we got the attorney letter."

Describing it as "sort of a perfect storm type thing," Hocker said the RMDCCC legal letter caused staff to look at the information they had accumulated during the process. "Rather than issue memorandum number 10, we really needed to consolidate those responses ... add a little more information, and repackage it in a recirculated EIR," she said.

Hocker said the EIR was regarded as defensible against legal challenge before the revisions, but "any time we go in and add more details, all of that does make the document more defensible."

"A recirculation should never be perceived as going back to square one," said developer Gerry N. Kamilos. "It's a continuation of the normal process that happens across California. And what it actually does is help the EIR become an even stronger, more defensible EIR." Kamilos and Robert J. Cassano are the developers for the Retreat project.

Hocker said the revisions are probably not going to be what development opponents are expecting. "We haven't commissioned any new studies per se. ... What I think they're expecting or what they want to see this EIR cover is essentially all the information that would be in a master plan, and that's just outside the scope of this EIR," she said.

RMDCCC attorney Thomas N. Lippe called the EIR "severely defective in fundamental ways, so it's hard to imagine a quick Band-Aid solution."

When he was asked what he regarded as defective, Lippe replied, "I think the one that jumps out at me the most is the failure to consider the fact that the Cosumnes River is losing water to groundwater...."

Although the EIR demonstrates there is adequate water for the projects, it doesn't address "the environmental impact of providing enough water for the project," an issue that has statewide relevance, he said.

Lippe challenges the EIR's reliance on the certified environmental document the Community Services District used in securing an extension of the water rights permit to draw water from the Cosumnes River to supply the community's present and future water needs.

Hocker characterized the river flow issue as "a difference of professional opinion. ... (Lippe) provided contrary research to the research that we have and that we disclosed in the document. CEQA recognizes that that is going to happen ... You don't have to go to extraordinary lengths to determine whose opinion is absolutely the best because that can be an endless battle. You just have to disclose it."

Hocker said the recirculated portions of the draft version of the EIR will be presented at the July 18 hearing. At that time, the supervisors could direct staff to prepare another final EIR for the next hearing or continue the discussion.

"Even if we had not recirculated the document, they could have continued the hearings ... to take additional testimony, to talk about it some more," she said.

Also at the July 18 hearing, the Planning Department will make a report, at the request of Supervisor Don Nottoli, on what a master plan update would entail, how much it would cost, and where funding could come from.

"The goal is to get a master plan update and that is still on the table for the Board of Supervisors hearing. ... That is something we are asking for," Chand said.

Earlier in the approval process, the county Policy Planning Commission and the Subdivision Review Committee recommended approval for the Residences and the Retreat projects.

The Residences would have a total of 198 units on 68 acres bounded by Guadalupe, Escuela and Puerto drives. According to county planning documents, the projects preserve almost half the property as open space and retain 95 percent of the oak trees.

The planning staff report recommends approval for the Residences. An initial report recommending denial was reversed after grading and other issues were addressed. There were a half-dozen lots with grading issues still being discussed by county staff and developers when the report was issued.

The Retreat project is planned for 84 single-family homes on three parcels located on the North Course near the Country Club. The plan was revised to create more open space, reduce grading and preserve trees after the planning staff report recommended denial of the project. It now retains about 70 percent of the oak canopy, according to planning documents. One parcel has been reconfigured to address Country Club issues related to golf play.

The planning staff report continues to recommend denial of the Retreat project because it doesn't include higher-density, multi-family housing planned for the area in the 1984 master plan, while development opponents want to see a lower density than what is proposed.

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