With a heavy sigh and apparent resignation, the same judge who approved the settlement over Richmond’s most pristine piece of waterfront property surprised city attorneys by refusing to kill off a new lawsuit challenging it.
In U.S. District Court on Tuesday, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers called the years of legal battles over the scenic stretch of shoreline called Point Molate, “a tragedy for a city like the city of Richmond, that is not the most well off.”
But still, Rogers said, she was inclined to allow the court case challenging a recent settlement between the city and casino developers to proceed because, “the law requires that i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, and it’s not clear to me that that was done.”
Acknowledging Rogers’ concerns, Arturo Gonzalez, a lawyer representing the city, decided to withdraw the city’s motion to have the judge dismiss the case. In doing so, he allowed the case challenging the settlement to proceed but not without taking a shot at the environmental groups behind the suit.
Calling the plaintiffs “hippies,” Gonzalez mocked the intentions of those who wish to prevent a proposed housing development at Point Molate, eliciting a strong chorus of gasps and hisses from the handful of Richmond residents gathered in the courtroom.
Several environmental groups joined together in filing the suit, which alleges that the city violated the Brown Act, a state law which guarantees open meetings of local legislative bodies, when agreeing to a settlement with the developers behind plans for a casino on Point Molate. This plan was rejected by voters in an advisory referendum vote in 2010.
Years of lawsuits and appeals filed by the developers, who sought to recoup their lost investment in the project, were finally resolved by the settlement in April. But some Richmond residents say the city erred in voting on the deal behind closed doors and took their grievance to court.
“This agreement circumvents a lot of issues,” said Robert Cheasty, executive director of Citizens for East Shore Parks, a local nonprofit that was among the groups that filed the suit. “They should have this deal presented to the public and have the public have input in it and have an open vote. That never happened.”
In court on Tuesday, Rogers appeared to agree with some of the arguments made by groups challenging the settlement. She said she was concerned by parts of the language of the agreement, which seemingly stipulates the city will build 670 houses on Point Molate.
“You cannot do an end run around the Brown Act by entering into settlement agreements and negotiations in order to get property variances or accommodations outside of the public process,” Rogers said.
Addressing Gonzalez, the judge said: “You’re faced with a lawsuit. Wouldn’t it just be easier to have public hearings?”
Though the judge’s comments appeared to convince Gonzalez to withdraw the motion to dismiss, he expressed frustration in court with the city’s position.
“Unfortunately, we realize that no matter what we do, someone is going to sue us and we’re going to be right back in court,” Gonzalez said. “If we do what the plaintiff wants, which is just keep it all open space, we’re going to get sued. If we agree to put any housing there at all, the plaintiffs and their groups will come back and sue us, no matter how many hearings we have.”
Attorneys for the city declined to comment after the hearing.
Cheasty, while pleased with outcome of the hearing, said that regardless of how the case progresses, the fight is far from over.
“We’re going to keep going until we think justice is done,” he said.
The next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 24.