The Los Altos City Council last week unanimously approved the city’s participation in drafting an amicus brief supporting a court appeal that fights the expansion of the Lehigh Southwest Cement Co. quarry.
An amicus brief – or a “friend of the court” brief – is a filing by a person or organization providing some knowledge or perspective that makes his or her views on the subject matter of an action valuable to the court. The person or organization must seek permission to file the brief with the court and cannot be a party to or an attorney involved in the case.
The council’s Sept. 10 vote included provisions that a neighboring city aside from Los Altos Hills participate in the filing, and that the city’s cost is limited to no more than $7,500. The Los Altos Hills City Council in August voted in favor of joining an amicus brief by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District supporting Bay Area for a Clean Environment (BACE, formerly known as No Toxic Air).
BACE is appealing a Superior Court ruling earlier this year that upheld the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors’ decision to grant vested rights to the company, allowing expanded operations on unused land it purchased in 1948. The lawsuit contended that the county board erred in its decision, noting among other things that an Environmental Impact Report inadequately stated the pollution – and impacts on the local environment – created by quarry mining operations.
More than a dozen speakers at the council meeting urged the city to participate in the filing, including Los Altos Hills Mayor Gary Waldeck. As part of their participation, Los Altos Hills councilmembers agreed to join the filing if a neighboring city – in this case, Los Altos – did so, too.
“If we all joined together, it’s also a significant story going forward that says the citizens in the area are concerned,” Waldeck told the council. “As stewards of both the public health and the public trust, we felt in Los Altos Hills that it was our duty to support this for a relatively modest cost. I’m hoping you’re going to feel the same way.”
Councilwoman Megan Satterlee expressed her reluctance, however, noting that a published court decision to strike down the appeal could set a negative precedent.
“I am not convinced an amicus brief is going to make any difference whatsoever at all in this appeal, because the vested-rights issue is very different from an issue of representing the population and the effect on health and safety,” she said. “That doesn’t immediately play into whether the county erred in its discretion in granting these vested rights.”
BACE attorney Stuart Flashman conceded Satterlee’s point, calling a published court decision on the matter a “scary and dangerous precedent in terms of city planning.”
“If there was a junkyard somewhere within the city’s limits, and that junkyard bought another property, they could claim, ‘Well, we’re just like a mine. We have to expand in order to continue to exist, so we bought this other property. You have to allow us to expand to this other property,’” he said.
Satterlee’s council colleagues, however, said the risk was worth it.
“I really kind of sit here and say, ‘I’m not sure what other choice do we have,’” said Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins. “To be honest, I’d rather try and fail than to not have tried at all.”
Councilwoman Jan Pepper added that the council had a responsibility “to protect the health and safety of our community.”
Mayor Jarrett Fishpaw, meanwhile, added that the city’s participation was a “pretty obvious course of action.”
Councilwoman Val Carpenter also supported the action, noting “the outpouring” of emails from residents seeking the city’s involvement.