Land Use Map for the West Area Specific Plan

A map of the West Area Specific Plan notes the placement of schools, yet to be funded or built, in blue.

The Santa Rita Union School District and the Salinas Union High School District have sued the city of Salinas, a local builder and a trio of property owners, alleging the city's plans to develop more than 4,000 homes in its future growth area will flood schools already bursting at the seams while offering no solution to fund building more schools to meet the new demand.

The districts filed suit Jan. 16 in Monterey Superior Court on the basis that the city failed to address the district's concerns and comments on the environmental impact report (EIR) for the West Area Specific Plan, the growth area that was annexed into the city in 2008. The plan, which will see the phased development of 4,340 housing units meant to house up to 15,928 residents when complete, was approved by the Salinas City Council in December.

About 2,000 of those new residents are expected to be new elementary and middle school students, as well as high school students. That number of students "would exceed the expected capacity of two new elementary schools and one new middle school, and there is no new high school," the lawsuit states.

"However (the EIR) makes the unsupported assumption that all environmental impacts associated with schools will come from the construction of new schools on new sites," the lawsuit states. The EIR "fails to properly address the probability that funding will not be available to fund new school facilities."

The Santa Rita Union District will hold a town hall meeting at 6pm, Jan. 23, at McKinnon Elementary School to outline the history and impacts of the decisions leading up to the suit.

In a statement, SUHSD Superintendent Dan Burns said the district's Board of Trustees understands the need for additional housing, and especially affordable housing, in the city. But when school districts commented on the environmental impact report for the West Area Specific Plan, Burns says, none of the comments were adequately addressed.

"Our District has not been included in any negotiations with the developers over the past three years, our comments sent as part of the Environmental Impact Report were not adequately addressed, and when open meetings facilitated by the developer or city staff have taken place there has been a generalized feeling that school district concerns do not matter," Burns says. "Therefore, the school districts have been left with little option but to file suit under CEQA." 

CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, requires state and local government agencies to identify significant environmental impacts of development plans and avoid or mitigate those impacts if possible. In the lawsuit, the Santa Rita district writes that when the West Area Specific Plan's draft EIR was opened for comment, the district emphasized that the impact fees developers will pay for building homes doesn't satisfy CEQA obligations to consider and mitigate school-related impacts. The plan notes that the districts will be responsible for development of schools in the plan's area.

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Santa Rita currently operates four elementary schools and two middle schools; the West Area Plan designates sites for three elementary schools and a middle school as well. Salinas Union, meanwhile, operates the newly opened Rancho San Juan High School in the project area, and that school is nearly at full capacity already. 

About a third of school facilities financing comes from developer fees as authorized by Education Code, which may be imposed in connection with the planning, use or development of real property. But developer fees most often don't cover impacts caused by development because the statutory fee amounts fail to acknowledge the difference in school construction costs from one district to another.

The fee amounts also fail to address the facilities needs of districts experiencing unprecedented growth, the suit states, and the adjustment formula for developer fees is based on a "construction cost index" and doesn't include indexing related to increases in land costs that result in the actual cost of facilities increasing at a greater rate than the adjustment.

These inadequacies of developer fee funding, the lawsuit states, mean that more pressure is placed on school districts to fund facilities from local sources—mainly local bonds. If the districts can't fund new schools from their general fund, state facilities bond funds, local bond funds or developer fees, the only option they have would be a special tax on the new housing development, which would require two-thirds voter approval. 

"The viability of that option is low," the lawsuit states.

In addition to the city, the suit names as "real parties in interest" the homebuilder Ray Harrod Jr. and his Harrod Construction Co., Rexford Title, Inc., Global Investment Development LLC, and property owners Patricia Jane Bondensen and Alvin and Karen Mortensen.

Salinas City Attorney Chris Callihan said late Thursday afternoon that the city had not been served with the suit and he was unable to comment. 

The Santa Rita Union and Salinas Union districts are asking a judge to vacate all project approvals, including the certification of the EIR, and for a preliminary and permanent injunction preventing the city or the other parties from undertaking any activity to implement the West Area Specific Plan. 

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