City settles freeway expansion lawsuit


The Seal Beach City Council announced this week that it has authorized the city manager to execute a settlement agreement to end its lawsuit challenging the adequacy of the I-405 improvement project Environmental Impact Report by Caltrans and the Orange County Transportation Authority. With the approval of OCTA and Caltrans, the agreement is now final, according to a statement issued by the city Tuesday evening, April 2.

The City Council voted 3-1, apparently in closed session, to approve the agreement.

District Councilwoman Schelly Sustarsic, of College Park East, voted no. There was significant opposition to the freeway project from College Park East residents who were concerned about a proposal to reolocate a soundwall. Mayor Mike Varipapa, who is employed by Caltrans, has not participated in any deliberation or decision relating to the litigation, and abstained from this vote.

“I voted against the settlement agreement because I feel it does not address the original intent of the lawsuit,” Sustarsic said. “The residents of College Park East are concerned about excess traffic, air quality and impacts to their quality of life. The EIR did not adequately address the above, nor the impacts to the residents along Almond Avenue. The main goal of those who supported the lawsuit was to save the Almond Avenue sound wall from being moved, which we were not able to accomplish. This agreement may give some mitigations to Seal Beach that are, in my opinion, already the responsibility of OCTA and Caltrans and I do not feel that they resolve the concerns of our residents.”

As part of the settlement, the Transportation Authority also will reimburse the city approximately $279,000 of the city’s litigation fees and costs. However, the Caltrans plan to move the Almond Avenue sound wall will go forward. Stopping the relocation of the wall was reportedly one of the city’s goals in filing the lawsuit. College Park East residents had objected to moving the wall on the grounds that doing so would adversely effect the width of Almond Avenue. According to the city attorney, the OCTA agreed to design the new wall so that Almo nd Avenue will have a standard width.

City Manager Jill Ingram said the settlement agreement will help mitigate some of the impacts the project is anticipated to cause in Seal Beach, both during construction and after completion. “In 2015, the city Council demanded a number of project improvements, many of which we have achieved. As a result of this difficult process, the project will be less impactful.”

In a challenge to the adequacy of an EIR, a court can order the party that prepared the EIR to amend the EIR to fix inadequacies, but generally will not order specific project changes.

Thus, the court in Seal Beach’s case could possibly have delayed the project temporarily while Caltrans and OCTA updated sections of the EIR, but not necessarily changed the project in any material way, City Attorney Craig Steele said.

“We believe the court would have ordered Caltrans and OCTA to revise the EIR to address the deficiencies in the environmental analysis” said Steele. “While that might have delayed the I-405 improvement project, it would have been the equivalent of a ‘fix-it ticket’ that would not have changed or stopped the project. At this point, we believed the city would get a better result through settlement negotiations than by litigating.”

The settlement agreement requires OCTA to pay the city almost $1.7 million for the city to construct a variety of repairs and improvements requested unanimously by the City Council in 2015. OCTA will also construct approximately $2.455 million worth of additional project improvements requested by the city.

These improvements to be added to the project include constructing a new dedicated right-hand turn lane from the southbound Seal Beach Boulevard 405 off-ramp, to reduce backup exiting the freeway and attempting to turn right onto Seal Beach Boulevard. OCTA and the city also have agreed on a formula and a study process whereby OCTA will pay its fair share of the cost of repaving Seal Beach Boulevard and Westminster Avenue if “cut through” traffic from the project causes additional damage to city arterials.

In addition, Caltrans has agreed to program a full repaving of PCH in the city. This approximately $10 million project, would begin after the completion of the I-405 project, subject to the Legislature’s appropriation of the funds.

Despite the city procuring approximately $14.155 million to mitigate impacts of the project, the city was not able to achieve one of its significant objectives, stopping the relocation of a portion of the sound wall along Almond Avenue.

Stopping the relocation, proposed to occur entirely within the existing I-405 right-of-way, would have required Caltrans to issue exceptions to existing State regulations that establish the dimensions of freeway lanes and shoulders, and the locations of sound walls.

Despite the city’s repeated request that Caltrans issue those exceptions to avoid additional impacts to neighboring residences, Caltrans adamantly refused to consider the redesign.

Sound walls are to be moved in multiple other areas throughout the I-405 Improvement Project area.

In the coming weeks, Caltrans will issue a letter describing the reasons it is moving the wall and why it declined to make the necessary exceptions and will hold a public meeting to explain the project and the reasons for its decisions.

“Caltrans’ decision to move the Almond Avenue wall, while certainly a bad idea that is troubling for residents, is not illegal and will be done entirely on freeway right-of-way Caltrans already owns,” said City Attorney Steele.

“It became apparent to us that the judge in our case would not issue an order to prohibit moving the wall just because it is a bad idea for neighbors,” he said.

In the settlement agreement, the city secured OCTA’s agreement to redesign the wall location so that it will keep Almond Avenue at a standard width, to impose conditions and a schedule on construction, and to underground utilities in the area of the project.

OCTA also will reimburse the city approximately $279,000 of the city’s litigation fees and costs.

“The city set out to improve the project and reduce impacts as much as we could, and we have succeeded in that effort,” said Ingram.

“City staff will continue to work hard to mitigate the impacts of this project and to improve designs for the various project elements in the city,” City Manager Ingram said.