Court rules in favor of LADWP over Inyo County in California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit

Register Staff
Staff Writer

A courtroom outcome on May 29 regarding Inyo County’s attempt to take possession of three landfills leased from Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was seen differently with LADWP claiming victory while the county calling it a “setback” resulting from the utility misleading the judge in the matter.
Inyo County intends to use eminent domain (condemnation) to acquire three properties that the county currently leases from LADWP and has used for decades as the sites of the Bishop, Independence and Lone Pine landfills. The county took this action due to the costly and unreasonable difficulties imposed by LADWP on the county’s efforts to provide essential solid waste services to its constituents.
One way LADWP challenged the county’s course of action was by filing this California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit, in which LADWP argued that Inyo County was required to study the environmental impacts from Inyo County simply taking ownership of the three landfills.
This is in spite of the state already regulating all landfills in a manner designed to protect the environment, according to the county.
However, LADWP stated Monday that the California Superior Court made a sweeping ruling against Inyo County’s attempted eminent domain takeover of Los Angeles’ land and water rights.
“The years-long pursuit by Inyo has effectively been sent back to the drawing board and will require not only a complete restart, but also comprehensive environmental review, in order for Inyo to proceed,” according to LADWP. “The litigation, which Los Angeles Department of Water and Power) officials had repeatedly sought to put on hold in an effort to find a peaceful resolution that would address Inyo’s waste management needs and LADWP’s environmental and water quality concerns, may now cost Inyo as much as $2 million in damages to Los Angeles.”
Judge Kenneth C. Twisselman II, who presided over the case in neutral Kern County, ruled May 29 that Inyo County and its board of supervisors violated state law when they attempted to forcibly take control of land and water rights from Los Angeles. He held that, contrary to their assertions, the county’s project was not exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). At trial, he explained, “Inyo has not conducted any environmental review in connection with the project.” Therefore, “importantly, neither the public nor the agency decision-makers were informed about possible significant environmental effects.”
Twisselman ordered the board of supervisors to rescind its actions, and ordered the county to pay LADWP’s costs of the lawsuit. His order not only resolved the CEQA case, but also paves the way for resolving the county’s three related eminent domain cases in LADWP’s favor.
However, the county asserts that LADWP convinced the trial court that the county was required to study the potential environmental impacts from any possible use of those landfills, instead of recognizing what the county actually intends to do: continue to use the landfills as they are currently being used. LADWP also convinced the judge to order the county to engage in the costly and unnecessary CEQA review process before determining if the county is legally permitted to take ownership of the three landfill sites via eminent domain. The county firmly believes that the judge was misled by LADWP, and is considering all options including appealing the decision. While this matter is ongoing, Inyo County is committed to continuing to provide efficient and essential solid waste services to our constituents while protecting the environment, and will continue to work toward resolving the unreasonable and costly demands imposed by LADWP on these county operations.
Martin Adams, LADWP General Manager and Chief Engineer, described the court’s decision as “the proper resolution to the County’s ill-advised attempt to circumvent state law.” He added, “This is an important victory not only for LADWP, but also for other water rights holders in California, including ranchers and other private citizens. Inyo sought to condemn city property and take water rights from a municipal water supplier without identifying any specific use for the water and without considering the environmental impacts. Left unchecked, Inyo’s actions could have set a terrible precedent with far-reaching consequences for property owners throughout the state of California.”
The case arose out of the Board of Supervisors’ approval of three resolutions on August 15, 2017, which authorized Inyo to attempt to take three parcels of land that it leases from LADWP for landfill purposes in the Owens Valley, as well as water rights associated with those properties. LADWP objected to Inyo’s proposed project before and at the supervisors’ hearing on the resolutions, in part, because Inyo did not conduct any environmental review or adequately consider alternatives, including LADWP’s offer to voluntarily sell the landfill properties without the water rights, but still allow the amount of water the landfills have historically used.
LADWP also expressed concerns about Inyo’s long history of environmental violations at the landfills, citing the thousands of violations from the county’s own Environmental Health Department and state regulators. Likewise, LADWP raised concerns over the impact of Inyo’s operations on water quality and the Owens Valley watershed. The board ofsSupervisors approved the project without considering LADWP’s objections or offers.
"Inyo County had an obligation to properly consider alternatives to the long-term operation of its unlined landfills before attempting to condemn Los Angeles’ land and water rights,” Adams stated. “We attempted to resolve this matter with the county, and even offered to sell the landfills both before and at the hearing where the supervisors voted to initiate condemnation proceedings. We also asked Inyo to agree to ‘toll,’ or extend, the legally allowed time for filing our lawsuit in order to give us more time to work together to reach a mutually beneficial outcome. Unfortunately, Inyo rejected our offers to avoid litigation, resulting in the accrual of significant costs that their residents will now have to bear.”
LADWP filed its suit in response to Inyo’s actions on February 9, 2018. The court rejected Inyo’s attempt to dismiss the city’s case in September 2018, and held a trial on February 7, 2020.
LADWP stated it intends to seek dismissal of the three eminent domain lawsuits that the county filed. If the court dismisses those cases, under California law, LADWP is also entitled to recover its costs and attorneys’ fees from Inyo associated with those lawsuits.