CEQA Lawsuit Halts Irvine Company’s 1,076-Unit Housing Development in Sunnyvale

Just when an environmental review cleared the way to build 1,076 new homes on a 34-acre site in Sunnyvale, a lawsuit stopped the project in its tracks.

The petition filed this week by the Laborers International Union of North America, Local 270, claims the city flouted the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by failing to consider how Irvine Company’s proposal would impact “indoor air quality and birds.”

The 25-page complaint is part of a broader trend of CEQA litigation delaying desperately needed housing development in Silicon Valley and throughout the state.

At its core, the landmark 1970 legislation requires public agencies to analyze the environmental impacts of developments and curb them if needed. But the law meant to protect the state’s natural resources has been used by outside groups to block even the kind of dense infill development cities need to become more sustainable.

Naturally, that can call into question stated concerns about the environment. Especially when the litigant has little to no record of environmental activism.

Local 270, for one, is no Sierra Club.

In the case against Sunnyvale and Irvine Company, the union claims the defendants should’ve conducted an environmental study of the cancer-causing effects of the composite wood typically used in home construction. Local 270 hired a certified industrial hygienist and mechanical engineer named Francis Offerman, who warned that formaldehyde-based glues in the wood could elevate the cancer risk of future residents.

Another expert hired by the union to weigh in on the project said the environmental review should have taken a closer look at the impact on birds. Wildlife biologist Shawn Smallwood identified as many as 36 special-status bird species in the vicinity while the city-authorized environmental review cited just four.

The biologist also criticized the report for neglecting to evaluate the project’s adherence to Sunnyvale’s avian-friendly design guidelines, which aim to prevent birds from hurtling into reflective windows.

“Dr. Smallwood estimated that the project would result in 509 bird deaths per year, an impact which was not discussed or analyzed in the [environmental impact report],” the lawsuit states. “To minimize the project’s impacts on birds, Dr. Smallwood suggested several feasible mitigation measures for the city to incorporate into the project.”

Irvine Company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Sunnyvale spokeswoman Jennifer Garnett said the city can’t weigh in on pending litigation.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

17 Comments

  1. It’s ironic….labor unions (the same organizations that push rent control and other bad policies because the bay area is so unaffordable) are blocking the development of much needed housing. In this case over a 1000 units! Think about the impact this would have on the housing crisis if we added another 1000 units…

    • We dont need anymore people we have enough anyway. This is not going to help the city be more sustainable it will clog up more streets creating more traffic and add more strain on the systems we already have. An additional 2000 more cars are not needed here nor do we want them here anyway. We grew here they flew here life sucks commute in like everyone else. Just because you work here doesn’t mean you have to live here. I hope this union blocks as many of these un needed housing projects as they can

  2. GOOD. Irvine Company is the most horrific organization on Earth. Zero care for their residents… just GREED.

  3. I just passed by there on my way to work this morning. It seems that it’s a normal working day out there where they are cutting down big trees that birds have called home for the past decade or so.

    I know that these units will be much needed for affordable housing (given that a small % of them will be under Sunnyvale’s BMR program), but do they need to cut down a lot of these big trees? After all of these, how many of them will be left?

  4. And you wonder why the unions are losing membership. I have no dog in the hunt, but this total abuse of the CEQA law. This lawsuit is for the birds.

  5. Typical bad union extortion. You dare to give people jobs that don’t pad our pockets with dues, we’ll hold your project and workers hostage using any immoral and deciteful method we can find and make an example of you.

  6. We DON’T need any more housing or people. Developement is ruining Sunnyvale. Complain all you want about unions.
    They are the ONLY thing that can help keep blue collar working class, (I’m talking about manual labor, something millenials are completely unfamiliar with), able to sustain themselves in the valley, the valley they built long before all you temporary residents got here. You’ll make your money here until hi Tech decides to move to a cheaper state, and then you’ll move on…You don’t care about this valley.

    • Wouldn’t providing more housing units increase supply, thereby decreasing demand? When supply increases and demand decreases, prices/costs generally decrease. With decreased housing costs, more blue-collar workers could afford to live and stay in Sunnyvale, regardless if they’re a union member or not. Granted, data shows we need millions of new housing units to increase supply enough that demand drops, and thus prices drops, and this particular project doesn’t provide nearly that many units. However, this project would at least be a step in that direction.

  7. Sounds very much like what happened in a lot of solar and wind projects. If a developer wanted to use non-union labor, they would be slapped with a law suite by a union group who wanted to get the work. Since everyone has standing in environmental lawsuits, this is pretty easy to do. I bet if Local 270 won the contract to do the construction on the project, the lawsuit would be pulled in a minute.

  8. The Bay Area is already a microcosm of LA, traffic-wise. The loss of trees is bad, especially considering the poor spaces that are often presented as “parks” to compensate for development. And I wouldn’t mind the added people if they didn’t drive cars, but given the “brilliant” mass transit system here, the added cars are making our current nightmare worse.

    • Céline, I couldn’t agree with you more. I spent most of my youth in Sunnyvale. In fact, I had lived close enough to the new Irvine project that I can remember walking around the beautiful tree-lined fields next to AMD on hot days. Having recently returned to the Valley after living abroad for 10 years, I am deeply saddened by how this area has changed. More cars, more over-priced town homes and no significant mass transit infrastructure improvements. The cities and counties know very well the socio-economical and environmental implications of allowing such developments to continue –all the while, our service sector employees continue to get priced out of the Bay Area– and, yet, developers have hardly met any resistance. This lawsuit will only be a temporary hindrance. Eventually the lobbies and interest groups will prevail at our (mindful residents’) expense, as always.

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