A settlement meeting required by the California Environmental Quality Act may give the Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District and the city of Tehachapi a chance to resolve their water supply disagreement.
In a nutshell, the city has approved residential projects that could add 1,400 or more housing units over the next seven years — and the water district contends that the city violated CEQA and doesn’t have sufficient water to serve such development.
The water district filed the action with the court on Sept. 16, challenging the city’s Sept. 7 approval of the Sage Ranch project and claiming that the city violated multiple state laws in its approval of the planned development.
The district’s petition asks the court to set aside the city’s approval of the 995-unit residential subdivision near Tehachapi High School — and possibly some other subdivisions totaling an additional 450 units dating back as far as 2006.
“The District’s accusations are both unfortunate and unfounded,” a spokesperson for the city said on Sept. 27. “Due to pending litigation, we have no comment at this time.”
The case has been assigned to Kern County Superior Court Judge Kenneth C. Twissellman II and the city has engaged legal counsel. According to the court website, the city is represented by Joseph D. Hughes, a water specialist with the Bakersfield firm Klein DeNatale Goldner and Ginetta L. Giovinco, a CEQA specialist with the Los Angeles firm Richards Watson Gershon. Representing the water district is Andrea A. Matarazzo of Sacramento’s Pioneer Law Group.
In addition to the city of Tehachapi, the petition lists Does 1 through 20 as respondents and identifies Jeffrey Ciachurski, Does 21 through 40, and three companies associated with the Sage Ranch development as “Real Parties in Interest.” As of Oct. 15, the court website did not show that Ciachurski or the companies involved in the Sage Ranch development — or any other parties — had made filings with the court. However, two attorneys from the Sacramento firm Kronick Moskovitz Tiedemann & Girard were served with the settlement meeting notice and identified as attorneys for Real Parties Greenbriar Capital Corporation, Greenbriar Capital Holdco, Inc., Greenbriar Capital (U.S.), LLC, and Ciachurski.
The CEQA settlement meeting required by the Public Resources Code provides an opportunity for the parties to meet and confer concerning the issues anticipated to be raised in the action and to make a good faith effort to settle the dispute. The meeting notice indicates that the initial meeting will be held remotely through a link to be provided to counsel and the parties.
If the matter cannot be resolved through the settlement meeting, the case would continue with the preparation of an administrative record for the judge’s review.
Conflict of interest?
The city’s approval of the Sage Ranch master plan included a requirement that the developer provide 175 acre-feet of pumpable water rights. Ciachurski has told the city that he has obtained these rights. In its court filing, the district addressed the matter as follows: “Although the District appreciates the late effort to resolve water supply concerns, this attempt is inadequate because the environmental impacts of providing water through this new source have not been analyzed, and in addition to being too late, it is still insufficient.”
Ciachurski said in an interview on Oct. 5 that he believes the city did “an outstanding job” on the water report made as part of the Sage Ranch Environmental Impact report and said the Sage Ranch legal team believes the water district will not be successful in court.
He claims that the Watermaster for the Tehachapi Basin — General Manager Tom Neisler of the water district — knows that he purchased the water rights in question because he was required to report the transfer to the water district.
Further, Ciachurski alleges, the president of the water district’s board, Robert W. Schultz, has a conflict of interest because he owns property adjacent to the Sage Ranch property.
In a letter to the city dated April 16, 2020 — which is included in the Sage Ranch EIR — Schultz expressed concerns about the project and future planning for the city and for the impact on his property. He said a 30.54-acre parcel he owns in the unincorporated area directly south and adjacent to Sage Ranch is zoned for agriculture and actively used to grow row crops. Schultz suggested meeting with city planners.
“I would not be opposed to making a deal here where we use our property for a purpose outside of farming, but it must make economic sense,” Schultz wrote. “If we do not have a planned future use for our property and the farming becomes impacted by the Sage Ranch Project, then you will have essentially shut down the use of one property in favor of the plan on another and I cannot agree to this. I would rather work with the planners and my neighbors than to work against them.”
Ciachurski said that he asked the city to refer Neisler and Schultz to the Kern County District Attorney for an investigation of fraud. The city on Oct. 5 responded to an inquiry and said that it did receive a request from Ciachurski to make a referral to the DA but that it had not taken such an action. When asked why the requested referral had not been made, the city replied that upon the advice of counsel it would make no further statement on the matter.
The city confirmed that staff did meet with Schultz, as requested.
“As discussed publicly at the July 12, 2021, Planning Commission meeting, City staff, responding to the request from Mr. Schultz, met to discuss his potential plans to develop his property with residential units,” the city said in a statement.
Schultz, responding on Oct. 8 to an inquiry about Ciachurski’s allegation, said the property he wrote to the city about is Schultz Enterprises, Inc.
“I am a minority shareholder,” he said. “As part of the CEQA process, the city wrote a letter to Schultz Enterprises, Inc., which encouraged comments and participation in the process. My letter was in response to the City’s request for involvement.”
Schultz dismissed Ciachurski’s allegations.
“The most important item here is that TCCWD does their job to properly manage the water supply and protect the water basins,” he said. “That's the focus. That's been the focus since the inception of TCCWD and it remains to be.”
In the meantime, according to a statement from the city on Oct. 5, the litigation has had no impact on the previously approved residential development projects referenced in the district’s filing (Sage Ranch, The Address, Tract 6248, Tract 6507, Tract 6668 and Tract 6714).
“Each of the listed projects were approved in accordance with all applicable laws,” the city said. “The projects are currently proceeding.”
Case information can be found online by searching for Case Number BCV-21-102184 at: https://odyprodportal.kern.courts.ca.gov/PORTALPROD/Home/Dashboard/29
Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.