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THE WEBSITE OF developer Lafferty Communities Inc. contains a page that features “Garaventa Hills,” a prospective residential development in Livermore.

In large type, the page says, “Coming Soon.”

The page has used those exact same words for more than five years, and a recent decision from the state Court of Appeals for the First Appellate District suggests that Garaventa Hills won’t be coming soon, and may never come at all.

That is great news for Bianca Covarelli, a single mom from Livermore, who has been fighting to “Save the Hill” since 2011 when Lafferty filed the initial application to develop the 31-acre site in the Garaventa Hills.

The undeveloped parcel adjoins the 24-acre Garaventa Wetlands Preserve, an environmentally sensitive area. The initial application contemplated 76 homes, a road system and a bridge over Altamont Creek, which crosses the parcel.

Bianca Covarelli of Livermore said it was “something bigger than myself” that has motivated her for the past 11 years to fight for the preservation of Garaventa Hills. (Photo courtesy of Bianca Covarelli)

Covarelli describes herself as non-political and non-litigious and it “shocks” her how deeply she devoted herself to the fight.

She says, “Something bigger than myself started coming through and taking over, and that’s a fact. I can feel it. It was just this purposeful passion.”

She did her research and learned about the biodiversity of the open space wildlife corridor in which the parcel was located.

She learned that the development site and the preserve are habitats for various “special status species” that are given protection under the Endangered Species laws, including the California red-legged frog, the vernal pool fairy shrimp, and the San Joaquin kit fox.

She learned of the significance of the hill to the Native American Ohlone tribe. “It’s a very, very special, sacred site.”

The more she learned, the more important it seemed to preserve the property. She worked with “Save the Hill,” a group of concerned residents who opposed the development.

Public opposition

In 2012, the city issued a draft environmental impact report (EIR) to assess the likely impact of the development on the environment.

An EIR is a government planning document that considers the impact of a proposed project on the environment and also alternatives to its implementation. The idea is that by fully fleshing out the impacts and alternatives, government officials will make better decisions. The document also provides information for the community and helps hold decision-makers accountable.

The public was invited to comment on the draft EIR and many did.

In the words of the court, “it became clear there was considerable opposition to Lafferty’s original proposal.”

In 2014, the city Planning Commission recommended against approval of the application because of concerns about the project’s compatibility with the environmentally sensitive preserve.

The City Council agreed and in 2015 it rejected the application. It also declined to certify the proposed final EIR.

Garaventa Hill in northeast Livermore, seen on April 1, 2022, is the site of a proposed development of 44 residences on a 31-acre parcel adjoining the Garaventa Wetlands Preserve. (Photo by Joe Dworetzky/Bay City News Foundation)

Lafferty revised the application and in 2017 proposed a smaller project with 44 residences.

In August 2018, the city published a “Revised Final Environmental Impact Report” or RFEIR.

The Planning Commission held a public hearing on the RFEIR and recommended approval. The council agreed and approved the project in April 2019.

Covarelli couldn’t live with that decision; the area was just too important to lose to development. But challenging it seemed daunting.

“I’m just a little old me. … I had more people say, ‘Oh, just give it up. Forget about it,’” she said.

But she did not.

She found a lawyer, Jessica Blome, who agreed to represent the group.

In May 2019, Save the Hill filed a petition in Alameda County Superior Court challenging the RFEIR on a number of grounds, including the failure to evaluate adequately the alternative of not doing the project and preserving it as open space, the so called “no-project” option.

Soul searching

In April 2020, a Superior Court judge ruled against Save the Hill.

Ironically, the court agreed that the RFEIR did not adequately evaluate the no-project option, but it found that Save the Hill had not adequately raised that issue with the city during the administrative process and therefore did not preserve the issue for appeal.

Save the Hill appealed. It was a hard decision for Covarelli.

“I had to really do a lot of soul searching because it was very stressful for me to have to deal with this big lawsuit,” she said.

She is glad they did. The appeals court found that Save the Hill had done enough in the administrative process to preserve the argument about the no-project option.

On the issue of whether the RFEIR was adequate, the court agreed with Save the Hill and found that the city had not fully considered the no-project option.

“I had to really do a lot of soul searching because it was very stressful for me to have to deal with this big lawsuit.”

Bianca Covarelli

The RFEIR said that because the land was owned privately and there was no plan for the city or other agency to purchase it, it was “not necessarily feasible to assume the site would remain undeveloped in the long term.”

Therefore, even if the no-project alternative was theoretically environmentally superior to the project, keeping it open space was very uncertain.

What was not discussed or considered was the fact that the city had been a party to two multi-million dollar settlement agreements that made funds available to be used by the city for acquisition and preservation of open space land.

The appeals court found that the RFEIR’s failure to consider the settlement money created an “informational void” that was inconsistent with the requirements of an EIR. The document is to be a tool for decision-making and accountability. If key areas of relevant information are omitted, the document fails the purpose the Legislature intended.

“An agency must use its best efforts to find out and disclose all that it reasonably can,” the court said.

The appeals court held that “Lacking adequate information regarding the no-project alternative, the City Council could not make an informed, reasoned decision on whether this project should go forward.”

The court set aside the decision to approve the project.

A cyclist climbs Garaventa Hill on Friday, April 1, 2022. The area is popular for outdoor recreation and home to a number of special status wildlife species, including the California red-legged frog, the vernal pool fairy shrimp, and the San Joaquin kit fox. (Photo by Joe Dworetzky/Bay City News Foundation)

An important turning point

Blome thinks the case creates important precedent in California. While the happenstance of two settlement funds was fortuitous in this case, the decision makes clear that when an EIR rejects a no-project alternative as not being feasible, the officials must actually dig in and research whether that is correct. They also must disclose what they learn in the EIR.

Elizabeth Kelly of Livermore was out walking on a trail through the Garaventa Hills property this past Friday. She was over the moon at the news of the court case. She said that when she walks the hill she has seen a fox, a coyote, hawks, and many other animals.

“It just takes a breath away just to see the scenery, the green hills. And even when the beautiful gold dried up, it’s still gorgeous,” Kelly said.

David Ragland, president of Lafferty, said he was very disappointed with the decision.

Ragland said that Livermore needed the housing and the city supported the project. Ragland said the decision does not “kill the project” but he acknowledged that there will be delays to allow for changes to the RFEIR, more public hearings and another opportunity for appeal.

Covarelli is convinced that the court case is the turning point in the long fight. She thinks that the opportunity to preserve the area for future generations is too compelling to be dismissed, particularly when settlement funds may be available. But she is prepared to go the distance.

“It really is amazing how one little person can do so much,” she said.

At the top of the hill that morning, there was a small cleared area where a dozen small white stones had been arranged in the shape of a heart. Next to them were two polished engraved stones — the sort you might see in a souvenir shop — that seemed to have been selected with Covarelli in mind.

The first says, “Dream.”

The second: “I will not be Shaken.”