Judge rules against 13-acre church project in Rimforest – San Bernardino Sun

More than a year after the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors gave it the go-ahead, a 13-acre church complex project has hit a snag.

Superior Court Judge David Cohn ruled the project has an inadequate environmental impact report. Now, the county and Lake Arrowhead-based Church of the Woods will need to create and approve a new report before the long-delayed project can move forward.

“After 20 years of repeated efforts by the church, with ongoing support and review by the county, both have failed to come up with a defensible analysis and approval under the law, for this badly sited project,” Steven Farrell, chair of the Sierra Club’s San Bernardino Mountains Group, is quoted as saying in a news release issued by the plaintiffs. “When will they take a serious look at an alternative?”

What comes next is not clear.

“San Bernardino County takes compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act and other environmental laws seriously,” county spokesman David Wert wrote in an email Thursday. “Future action on this project by the county will depend on the applicant’s desire to continue with the project in light of the court’s order, which has not been issued at this time.”

A Church of the Woods representative said the organization had no comment via email.

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This is the church’s second attempt to get a version of the project built. In 2003, the church first proposed the project, according to Cohn’s ruling. The San Bernardino County Planning Commission approved the project without an environmental impact report. Though a report was later approved in 2011, the church withdrew the project in the face of opposition, according to Cohn.

A second version of the project was submitted in 2017. The county Planning Commission approved the project in January 2020 over objections from environmental groups and the Board of Supervisors denied the groups’ appeal in October 2020, though it did not certify the report or officially approve the project.

A month later, in November 2020, environmental groups, including Save Our Forest Association, the local Sierra Club and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, took legal action. Plaintiffs accused the church and county of violating the California Environmental Quality Act and state planning and zoning law.

According to plaintiffs, the report shifts the project’s impact to a county storm drain proposed for the same location and doesn’t adequately look at the project’s impacts on wildlife, water quality, wildfire evacuations and scenic views, among other concerns.

Among the wildlife the project could impact, according to the groups, are the California spotted owl, the San Bernardino flying squirrel, the southern rubber boa, Andrew’s marble butterfly, peregrine falcon, bald eagle, yellow warbler, American badger and ringtail.

On March 9, Cohn made his ruling.

He found the county’s approval and the environmental report lacking in several ways. According to Cohn, the report:

  • improperly conflated the storm drain and church complex’s impacts;
  • inappropriately pushed off figuring out how to limit the project’s impact on some of the listed wildlife;
  • didn’t account for how the project might eliminate a wildlife corridor;
  • didn’t spell out how the project would limit landslide and other potential geological impacts;
  • didn’t adequately look at how wildfire evacuations would be impacted by the up to 900 people who might be at the new church facility at any one time.

So Cohn set aside both the approval of the report and all project-related approvals.

“We’re relieved the county’s approval has been overturned. Now the many species that use this special site of century-old conifers and oaks — the owls, foxes, deer and bear — and especially the boa and flying squirrels, two species found only in this forest, will not be evicted,” Drew Feldmann, conservation chair of the local Audubon Society, is quoted as saying in the news release.

“It’s tragic to pave over and destroy an irreplaceable (stream and banks) habitat in our magnificent forest surrounding,” Hugh Bialecki, president of Save Our Forest Association, is quoted as saying in a news release. “I’m grateful the court recognized the highly detrimental impacts this development would have on our mountain traffic, making it more hazardous for residents to escape from fire, while also needing to add six new traffic signals.”

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