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$1 Million Mistake: District’s Failure to Conduct EIR May Cost It Almost $1 Million in Legal Expenses

The Alliance for Responsible Neighborhood Planning successfully sued Burlingame Elementary School District, a Pennsylvania public school, for failing to prepare a comprehensive environmental impact report resulting from construction of Hoover Elementary School. The Alliance for Responsible Neighborhood Planning is seeking $996,482 in legal expenses related to the suit. “’An award of fees and expenses is warranted…because petitioners succeeded in enforcing an important right that significantly benefited the general public and/or a large class of persons, and the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement are such as to make the award appropriate,” according to the motion filed by the alliance’s attorney Kevin Haroff on Tuesday.”

The district purchased a new school in response to growing enrollment in the school district which is projected to increase from 3,234 to 3,500 by 2018. Construction was necessary to modernize the recently purchased building and included creating larger curbside bays for student pickup and dropoff. The district completed a mitigated negative declaration prior to construction in 2012. However, the mitigated negative declaration, which is similar to an environmental impact report but less comprehensive, did not include possible traffic changes. The school district filed an appeal of San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Marie Weiner’s ruling that halted district construction until it prepared environmental impact reports that take traffic changes into consideration.

Superintendent Maggie MacIsaac stated that the district was surprised by the amount being requested but remitted “It’s going to be up to the judge. She’ll decide if they’re reasonable or exorbitant legal fees.” Of the amount requested by the Alliance, there is $995,467 in attorneys’ fees and $1,015 in expenses which Alliance calculated using the Lodestar method of multiplying reasonable hours by a reasonable hourly rate. The Alliance is also requesting that the attorneys’ fees be multiplied by 1.75 to total $418,161 because “media scrutiny and public commentary made prosecuting the litigation more challenging, but also the substantial and beneficial impact the litigation has had within the community.”

The sum would come out of the district’s $56 million bond program and would cut into the construction budget, affecting the quality of the facilities according to MacIsaac. However, the Alliance justifies its request by pointing out that it calculated its fees according to the Lodestar Method and despite its attempts to minimize legal fees, the district took a harsh stance, refusing to settle, which necessitated prolonged litigation. Christine Fitzgerald, member of the Alliance, explained that “It did litigate a traffic issue that really impacts the entire community. The total amount the district has spent is going to be pretty close to the amount of money we spent. A lot of attorney’s fees we spent were in response to things the district filed and we eventually won one. They took some pretty definitive positions on issues that caused us to respond.”

The Alliance and the school district will meet again on August 15, 2014 at the San Mateo County Superior Court, when the motion for attorneys’ fees will be heard.

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