Kern County veterans have waited patiently for the construction of a new veteran’s clinic for over 10 years, but just as momentum appears to be swinging in the project’s favor, a new lawsuit threatens to stop it in its tracks.
Filed in Kern County Superior Court in early April by Progress for Bakersfield Veterans, a limited liability company run by the owners of the existing veterans clinic on Westwind Drive, the lawsuit claims the city of Bakersfield improperly disregarded the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved construction of the new clinic in March.
The lawsuit claims the proposed location of the new clinic — near Olive and Knudsen drives — poses potential health concerns due to onsite contamination and nearby sources of air pollution. Progress for Bakersfield Veterans, which claims to represent the true interests of local veterans, says that renovating and remodeling the existing clinic could be done cheaper and faster than building from the ground up.
“This alternative could be completed in a fraction of the time and cost, and without causing significant impacts on the environment and posing hazards to veterans,” the lawsuit says. “Using the existing VA site would also conserve natural resources and help maintain the vitality of Bakersfield’s existing commercial properties.”
But for many Kern County veterans, yet another delay may be inexplicable. Congress first authorized the construction of a new clinic in 2010, but disagreements over the proposed location caused delays. Then, in 2016, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs learned its preferred site was in the path of the High Speed Rail. Contract difficulties pushed back the project further, until this month, when the VA awarded a new contract to San-Diego developer SASD.
“I have heard from many veterans that, because it’s been delayed so many times and they’ve gotten their hopes up on so many occasions, many of them have resigned themselves to the fact that they will believe it when they see it,” said Dick Taylor, former director of the Kern County Veterans Services Department. “I have friends in southern California, and it seemed like many of these clinics were getting built and occupied in a relatively routine fashion. We thought, ‘well gosh, there shouldn’t be any issues at all,’ but all these issues started to come out of the woodwork.”
In the lawsuit Progress for Bakersfield Veterans lists eight pages of potential environmental impacts the city did not consider when approving construction, including the possibility that burrowing owls may live in the area where the new clinic is proposed. Under CEQA law, municipalities can issue a mitigated negative declaration when projects are not expected to significantly impact the environment.
Progress for Bakersfield Veterans argues in the lawsuit that the city improperly issued the declaration. If a judge agrees, the city may have to prepare an environmental impact report, a process that could take months, if not years.
"Progress for Bakersfield Veterans believes that the proposed location is unsafe and inappropriate for veterans for multiple reasons," Progress for Bakersfield Veterans Partner Allen Hubsch said in a statement. "The site was formerly the location of an oil production and an adjoining oil refinery in and before the 1950s and then an auto dismantling yard and junkyard. The parcel is zoned industrial because it is unfit for medical uses. The City performed an inadequate environmental analysis of this parcel and is not giving our veterans the respect they deserve by choosing this unsafe location. We think Veterans deserve much better."
Given the contentious nature of the clinic, the city expected a lawsuit.
“It’s a very good example of how CEQA is being used as a sword against projects in a deliberate attempt to delay them,” said City Attorney Ginny Genaro, noting she believed the lawsuit did not have anything to do with the environment, but rather Progress for Bakersfield Veterans financial interests. “It’s very unfortunate, particularly for the veterans of our community.”
It is unknown, however, when or if the project will be delayed because of the lawsuit.
The city will look to SASD to reimburse their legal costs.