On January 13, 2012, lawyers for Friends of Knowland Park and the California Native Plant Society filed their opening brief in their lawsuit against the city of Oakland and the Oakland Zoo, which seeks to compel the city to prepare a full environmental impact report on the Zoo’s Knowland Park development project. The City and Zoo will file their opposing brief in February, after which we will have an opportunity to respond to it. The case will be heard in April.
In our brief, our lawyers called what the Zoo has done with the environmental review process a “bait and switch,” pointing out that since 1997, the City and Zoo have been piggybacking on a “Mitigated Negative Declaration” (essentially, a lower level environmental document that says the project won’t have any significant environmental impact) that was itself originally prepared for an earlier-proposed, far different and lower impact project than the one that is now being developed. This strategy “comes at tremendous expense to informed decisionmaking and the environment,” our attorneys wrote, pointing out that the project “devastates the site’s rare plant and animal species.”
In addition, the brief argues that the project conflicts with the City’s own General Plan in multiple ways, and that the City failed to require a state-mandated seismic engineering report prior to approving the project and thus the approval is invalid and must be set aside.
Suing is never the first option for environmental groups, and this lawsuit was not undertaken lightly. But it is unfortunately the case that if politicians choose to ignore the law and ramrod through favored projects without adequate environmental review, only legal actions by concerned citizens can ensure enforcement of existing environmental safeguards. What is even more unfortunate is that Zoo executives’ hubris has led them to propose such an environmentally destructive project, which puts the lie to the Zoo’s claims to care about habitat conservation. Better and more environmentally sound alternatives exist, and perhaps at some point, wiser heads will prevail upon Zoo management to consider them.
Ruth Malone is a resident of Oakland since 1983, a founding member and co-chair of Friends of Knowland Park and a longtime Oakland neighborhood activist. Since 2007, she has been working to educate and organize environmentalists, park users, and community members to protect the park. In her day job, she is a professor of nursing and health policy at University of California, San Francisco, where she helps students study the links between health and political, social and natural environments, and conducts research on the tobacco industry and its efforts to thwart public health efforts worldwide.
Ruth Malone’s Reflections Blog offers a combination of reflective essays and updates from the Protect Knowland Park Campaign, linking the fight to protect Knowland Park to broader environmental and ethical issues.