20 Aug 2014
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Lawsuit Saves CSM Gardens, For Now

College of San Mateo student group alleges environmental law violations in plan to raze building and gardens for a parking lot.

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Plans to raze a garden this summer at the have been temporarily put on hold after students and community members filed a lawsuit claiming that the college district and its board of trustees violated state environmental laws.

As part of an ongoing redevelopment project, the college district in May approved demolishing and paving a chunk of the Building 20 complex to make way for a parking lot on the east side of the campus. The complex includes a 48-year-old building encircling an open courtyard, a greenhouse and mature gardens in the north, west and south.

In a suit filed last week in San Mateo County Superior Court, the petitioners against the move – an informal group called Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens – have alleged that the district and its board of trustees had failed to do an adequate review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which they argue is required given the extent of demolition planned and the “potentially significant environmental effects” of losing the garden.

The lawsuit describes the building complex as a “unique cultural landscape,” its gardens providing a “unique campus gathering place as well as valued plant and wildlife habitat and a teaching garden for horticulture and science.”

“I consider myself a rigid environmentalist and I believe the administration has not followed the rules set forth by the CEQ Act,” said Shawn Kann, a college student acting as the petitioning group's spokesperson. He said he joined the fight to save the garden four months ago, after nearly a year's objections by students, faculty and community members had done little to dent the demolition plans.

He said the gardens were not only a critical learning resource for students, but also a coveted open space for quiet study and relaxation.

In response to the lawsuit, the San Mateo County Community College District Board of Trustees has defended its stand and processes as lawful and required.

More Parking Needed?

With the construction of a new building, the college administration said it needed more parking space on the east side of the campus. Administrators say the demolition of Building 20, the greenhouse and parts of the garden is needed to make way for 125 to 200 parking spaces, a five-fold increase of its current capacity.

In a statement and subsequent emails, a spokesperson for the college district, Barbara Christensen, said 13,500 square feet of the approximately 50,000-square-foot area – which includes planted slopes beyond the western and southern borders of the garden – would be cleared for the parking lot. The garden in the north would be preserved for use by science classes, and species critical for science classes would either be transplanted or new specimens would be purchased, she said.

However, a person knowledgeable about the garden, who asked not to be identified, said the plants were unlikely to survive a transplantation in the summer. Also, students fear that a large redwood tree may be removed if the college determines it to be too expensive to maintain.

Christensen said the campus has about 86 acres of landscaped or open space, which the protesting group's Kann argues are too manicured and not comparable to the mature garden in contention.

Christensen also said Building 20 was too old to be refurbished and was no longer needed since all student services offices there have been relocated to a newer building on campus. The horticulture program that used the building has been on hiatus for two years due to budget cuts, and the floristry program has low demand, leaving little use for the building, especially since there were enough new classrooms and lab space on campus.

The 6,000 square-foot greenhouse, also slated to be demolished, was too old to be taken apart one window at a time, which would be required to remove the asbestos around all windows, she said.

The Legal Argument

The parking lot project, funded by a $468 million bond measure in 2005, is part of the college's 2006 Facilities Master Plan, itself an updated version of a 2001 Educational Facilities Master Plan that assessed the need for repair, renovation or new construction for the college.

The petitioners argue that the 2006 plan did not prepare a detailed Environmental Impact Report as required by the CEQA, going instead with the less involved Negative Declaration. Even so, the plan had stated that Building 20 would be be rehabilitated and retained.

While college authorities say the building was later determined to be too decrepit for repair and hence approved for demolition, those opposing the plan argue that this should be treated as a new project since it is a major deviation from the plan, and deserves a full environmental review.

Garden-Related Programs

Building 20 and its contested gardens were home to the Horticulture Department, which also runs the floristry program. On hiatus for two years, the horticulture program will likely be on the chopping block when it comes up for review this July.

Pointing to the budget crisis and low demand, Christensen noted that “The majority of these students are non-majors; in other words, they are taking the class for personal enrichment. Our board has indicated repeatedly that, given the difficult budget crisis we face, we are to concentrate on offering transfer courses, career/technical education and basic skills classes that prepare student for college-level work.”

A source close to the program, who did not wish to be named, said it was unlikely the department would survive beyond the two semesters given to wrap up pending coursework.

Beth Covey, a floral design student at the college, who also works as an event planner, is miffed as much at the college's attitude toward the program, as she is with the decision to demolish the garden.

“I was offended that they considered my career choice a hobby,” she said adding that she had enrolled in the classes to further her career.

She said the garden was like no other place on campus, and she was concerned with the way the college went about planning the demolition.

“They should have dotted all i's and crossed all t's, which I believe they did not.”

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