Judge denies restraining order to halt zoo expansion
on July 26, 2011
An Alameda County Superior Court judge today denied the request to issue a temporary restraining order to halt the Oakland Zoo’s expansion project. The request, filed jointly by Friends of Knowland Park and the California Native Plants Society (CNPS), called for a three-week suspension of the zoo’s project, which the groups say will damage the natural habitat for endangered native species living in the city-owned Knowland Park.
The zoo’s expansion plan, approved unanimously by the Oakland City Council last month, has been on the drawing board since the mid-1990s and gone through multiple rounds of environmental reviews before it broke ground earlier this month. However, the groups opposing the project argue that the development plan has been significantly changed since its initial Environmental Impact Report was approved in 1998. The groups say that the modifications—which include a newly added veterinary hospital as well as an overnight camping area—will have tremendous impacts on nearby native plants and the Alameda whipsnake, which is considered a threatened species in California.
“We’re concerned that the environmental impact of this plan has not been adequately considered by Oakland and the zoo,” said Mack Casterman, a conservation analyst for CNPS. Casterman said the groups have been asking the zoo to complete a more up-to-date EIR and take alternative projects into consideration before it moves ahead with construction, which Casterman says is “too environmentally damaging to allow.”
The zoo, on the other hand, is eager to proceed with the long-awaited expansion. The first the phase of construction, or the veterinary hospital, may be completed as early as next summer, said Nik Dehejia, the zoo’s director of strategic initiatives. Dehejia said the zoo’s current blueprint is “environmentally superior” to the original one and an effective habitat enhancement plan is included to reduce its biological footprint on the surrounding environment.
“We’re fundamentally disappointed by this attempt to stop a project that’s so beneficial to everyone in the community.” Dehejia said, adding that the legal challenge jeopardizes the zoo’s ability to provide better care for animals and deliver education programs to children, which will rely on the new facilities under construction.
During the temporary restraining order hearing on Tuesday, attorneys representing both sides debated whether the zoo’s current construction is causing irreparable damage to the grasslands of Knowland Park. “These grasslands are lost—we don’t have the technology to restore them,” said Catherine Engberg, the attorney for the conservation groups, as she presented the judge photos of the graded land where the veterinary hospital is going to be built. The zoo’s attorney, on the other hand, argued that the construction is being carried out according to the approved plan and there’s no evidence that irreparable damages will take place in the following weeks, which is a legal requirement to grant a temporary restraining order.
“The horse is out of the barn,” said Judge Frank Roesch as he denied the restraining order request, saying that the grassland has already been graded and no irreparable damages is foreseeable in the following three weeks.
However, the attempt at getting a restraining order is only the first step of the legal actions taken by the groups who oppose the zoo’s expansion. Last Thursday, Friends of Knowland Park and CNPS filed a petition to the county court to stop the project until a new EIR is conducted, which will put the zoo and the city of Oakland back in court again.
In response to the lawsuit Dehejia said that that the zoo will continue to defend itself “vigorously” in court, but added that “The funds used in court are much better used for caring our animals.”
According to Engberg, the conservation groups have also filed a preliminary injunction request, which, if granted, would stall the zoo’s expansion project while the rest of the lawsuit is processed. The hearing on the injunction is scheduled for August 16.
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